Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner 15th November, 2008.
The Other Opens with a race. It’s 1972. Neil Countryman and John William Barry are running neck to neck, until John William pulls away to win. Teenagers from differing backgrounds the boys form a fraught yet intimate friendship.
The boys were born in the same year as their creator, the award winning writer David Guterson. Neil attended the same school on the island off Seattle; like Guterson he became a teacher, and had a drawer full of unpublished novels.
“A lot of the biographical details correlate,” says Guterson, when we meet in Brooke’s Hotel in Dublin. “Like me, Neil married young and had children relatively young. Like me he has spent all his life in the place where he was born.
“He shares the ambivalence of my teen years. He shares my reckless adventurism, my romantic view towards nature; the hiking trips; the getting lost and the stupid mountaineering. It was fun,” he says. “My first three books were in the third person, and it was fun to go to the first person voice of someone whose sensibility is at least close to my own.”
In the novel, the boys remain friends, but increasingly go their separate ways. Whilst Neil follows convention, marries, and has children, John William breaks from his prosperous background, becoming increasingly eccentric, until he retreats from the world as a hermit, living in the wilderness. Neil becomes his only link with the world.
“The novel is partly about the deep passion of teenage friendship,” says Guterson. “And the way you can loath a friend, and be jealous of them, and yet love them. All those passions can be embodied in the same individual, in a way that you never feel as an adult.
“But it is more about the duality within the self. John Williams’ rejection of the world is some kind of shadow. It stems from this recognition of an alter ego; a shadow figure in myself.
“I have an ongoing monologue with myself. I participate in the world I am in. I’m in this hotel drinking my tea and I’ve had breakfast here with a warm croissant, but there is a part of me saying, ‘this is wrong. The world is not fair. The only reason there is all this comfort is that someone else is suffering.’ I walk around with that critique playing as a voice in my head.
“How do you come to terms with that? Let’s say one voice took precedence? If you let that shadow emerge you would end up in neurosis. You would end up psychotic; you would end up like John William. Or you could live like Neil, with a sense of compromise, but ordinary happiness at the same time.”
Guterson is happy. He loves family life, yet he can imagine being a hermit.
“A writer stands in a paradoxical relation to society,” he says. “He sits in a room with the door shut in isolation, but there is a duality. If you don’t know people; if you don’t know the issues that inform your times, you can’t write.”
Guterson looks younger than his 52 years. He’s trim, good looking and full of conviviality. When I first met him, back in 2003, he talked about his four children. His third son, a History Graduate aged 23, is with him in Dublin. But he’s since adopted Yerusalem; a seven year old from Ethiopia. And it’s all to do with his restlessness on reaching 50.
“The kids get older, they move out. We hit 50, life was moving was on, and we wondered were we really, psychologically, ready for that next stage of life. And we thought, ‘not really. So why don’t we put it off for a while and adopt. And have another ten years of this lifestyle with kids around the house.’ So we adopted, and staved off the empty nest thing.”
Guterson’s first novel, the hugely successful Snow Falling On Cedars, wasn’t published until he was forty. Yet he feels, strongly, that he was born a writer.
“I think a natural feel for language has to be something you are born with, in the same way that some people are born with a feel for maths. You either get language or you don’t. Beyond that, you learn as you refine yourself, and learn what life’s meaning is about.
“I wrote two novels that were never published and I started a third. They weren’t very good, and I never sent them to a publisher. I wrote for 20 years before Snow Falling on Cedars, and I didn’t stop because I enjoyed it. It was fun. After a certain amount of pages I’d realise this isn’t very good, but I will keep struggling with it anyway. I will push it to the end.’”
In The Other, John William makes Neil a wealthy man. Neil gives up teaching, but doesn’t let his wealth change him. And this mirrors Guterson’s attitude to the money that first book, and the film it spawned, brought in.
“I was making a lot of money all of a sudden, but what did that mean? It’s not like I’d been unhappy living as I had been living. But we were renting, and we did buy a house and that was nice.”
The Gutersons have a kind of play farm, with an orchard and ¼ acre of lavender. But their tastes remain simple.
“Happiness, to me, is an ordinary day at home. I get up at 4.30 am. I have tea; start a fire and do my writing. Then the girls get up. They have breakfast and go to school, then I go back to work.
“When I finish writing I will go outside for some fresh air. The girls will join me there after school. Then we’ll have dinner, and I’ll read a book. To me, that is blissful.”
Guterson is not a prolific writer. He doesn’t like pressure, so he goes for one book contracts.
“In between books I don’t know what the next book is going to be at all. Different ideas come to me, but they don’t excite me at all. I have to be patient. They come and they go. Then something sticks.
“After each novel I say ‘I will step away from the novel and write some short stories or criticism.’ But I don’t. I go to the next novel. I am 300 manuscript pages into my next one now.”
Guterson does write poetry though. And he reads it. He loves the poems of Seamus Heaney.
“His poems are straightforward. Mine would be too. My poems are about moments. They try to get at feelings.”
Guterson experienced just such a moment last week; when he was walking on the Dingle Peninsular with his son.
“We were at 4,000 feet, and looking at this sweep of a view. There were sheep, rocks, walls, water and cliffs. I am thinking, ‘this is so beautiful that I never want to die.’
“But I have to die. The beauty of the world aches. I have happiness, but it is poignant.”
The Other by David Guterson is published by Bloomsbury at 16.99 euro.
© Sue leonard. 2008.