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An Interview with David Wroblewski

Westminster writer David Wroblewski’s engaging, dramatic debut novel is poised to become one of the breakout books of the summer, with advance praise from Stephen King and Richard Russo and an extensive national tour. (My review for the Rocky Mountain News is here.) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle follows the life of a boy named Edgar, born mute (but not deaf) and raised on his parents’ dog breeding farm in Wisconsin. The family breed, known as “Sawtelle dogs,” is distinguished by its exemplary behavior. Trouble brews when a main character dies and another comes to usurp his place in the family. Until recently, Wroblewski worked as a software developer for Boulder’s Collective Intellect (“Making software,” he says, is “intensely creative, just a different kind of clay—and I intend to continue all my life.”) But for now he’s concentrating on promoting the novel, which he worked on for over a decade. I recently interviewed Wroblewski via email about his writing process, how living in Colorado helps him to write about Wisconsin, and Stephen King’s “generosity.” Wroblewski will read and discuss his book at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on June 10 (7:30 p.m.) and at the Boulder Book Store on June 12 (7:30 p.m.).

New West: How long have you lived in Colorado, and what brought you here?

David Wroblewski: I visited Boulder for the first time in 1990. On my first evening in town, I watched the moon rise over the plains from the NCAR parking lot. I resolved to move to Colorado that very night, and I’ve lived in or around Boulder since 1991.

NW: What does it feel like to complete a project that you’ve been focused on for so much of your career as a writer? And what is it like, after a decade of working on the book, to make the transition from the solitary act of writing to public act of promoting your book?

DW: A long project like Edgar comes to feel almost like a lifestyle: there is always a draft that needs fixing, there always will be a next draft. For years the book existed as an evolving stack of laser printed pages. In my mind, that is the “real” book; the beautifully bound version with the gorgeous cover art, though lovely, seems a little foreign. The irony is that the final product looks more real to my friends than it does to me.

The promotion schedule for Edgar is a great gift from my publisher, Ecco/HarperCollins — they have been astonishingly good to this book, lavish, from day one. Part of the work of the book tour is to talk about what inspired the book, because that’s fun to hear. Partly, it’s a chance to point out good books that also deserve to be read, and which inspired me. But an equally important part of the work is to listen to readers’ responses. This is a habit ingrained in me from thirty years of making software: you absolutely must watch how the thing you’ve created performs on the job. A novel is no different in that respect. I’ve said what I want to say about this story, and it’s all on the page. Now I watch and listen. If I can keep my wits together, I suspect I’ll learn a lot. And I’ll hear a ton of dog stories. I’m really looking forward to that.

NW: What inspired the mythology of the Sawtelle dogs, who are bred for outstanding qualities of intelligence and empathy rather than because they look a certain way?.

DW: I grew up around a lot of dogs. Probably the truest answer to this question is that the dogs themselves made me wonder, “How far could we go if we stopped breeding dogs for silly physical traits and concentrated instead on intelligence and imagination?” I knew that couldn’t be an unusual thought. Many dog owners must wonder the same thing. I often have the guilty thought that the one thing holding back my own dogs from achieving their full potential is me.

Over time, I ran into two books that were tremendously influential: the first was Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task, in which she dissects the moral, ethical, psychological and linguistic issues involved in animal training. The second was a long out-of-print book entitled Working Dogs written by Elliot Humphrey and Lucien Warner. That book was published in 1934. The breeding program it described went by the name “Fortunate Fields”, which readers will recognize from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle because I rather rudely invented a third author, Alvin Brooks, and made Brooks a correspondent and mentor of Edgar’s grandfather. The stated goal of that program was to produce “a strain of dogs which are peculiarly able to profit by instruction.” Well, I read that and my imagination ran wild. (We all know the results of that work, by the way: it resulted in the establishment of the Seeing Eye guide dog organization.) In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Edgar’s grandfather begins raising companion dogs the way Fortunate Fields program raised service dogs, and many generations of dogs have come and gone before Edgar is born.

However, the original question came before any of the research. By now I have bookshelves devoted to dog research. I’m a canine history and ethology junkie. Readers can learn more about other influential books on the Edgar Sawtelle website, and see some interesting links to current research on the “Tangents” page.

NW: I enjoyed the parts of the book in which Edgar is searching through the records, and comes across old letters to his grandfather. The voice in the letters was very distinctive. How did you create this period perspective? Was it based on research into philosophies of dog breeding?

DW: The letters from Fortunate Fields were immensely fun to write. The voice of Alvin Brooks was almost effortless for me—all I needed to do was imagine a man trying a little too hard to be scientifically detached. I always thought of Brooks as a man struggling to contain his inner artist, and the sparks that fly between Edgar’s grandfather and Brooks are in part due to Brooks’ consternation at his own envy.

NW: Did you decide to make Edgar unable to speak so that he would have an even stronger bond of communication with the dogs?

DW: The origins of Edgar’s muteness are fairly prosaic. I once had very minor surgery on my tongue. Nothing very serious was involved, but I was left with a few stitches that made it impossible to talk intelligibly for a week. I took it as a challenge to see how much of my life I could transact without talking. The answer was: a lot. As a side effect of my silence, I became distinctly more aware of my surroundings and the people I interacted with—an acute observer. A few years later, when I started on the book, I drew on that experience for Edgar, who is almost preternaturally observant as a result of being born mute.

And then there is the idea that the best kind of dog training entails jointly inventing a language in which to ask questions and receive answers. This was the point Vicki Hearne made so brilliantly in Adam’s Task. By making Edgar mute, I thought I could explore that idea more thoroughly.

NW: Why did you decide to make your plot parallel that of Hamlet? And Once you’d committed to paralleling Hamlet, did you feel you had to follow through with correspondences to all the major events in Hamlet, or did you still fell free carry your book in its own direction?

DW: I think of this novel is as a story haunted by another story—two stories in fact. The other being the Mowgli stories from Kipling. I certainly don’t consider Edgar a “retelling” of Hamlet — that implies a degree of adherence to plot structure and dramatis personae that I continually tried to subvert.

There were certain elements I knew I wanted, of course. For example, I knew from the beginning that Edgar’s story was told in five acts. A very formal structure for a novel. I understood that the Sawtelle dogs were Edgar’s Denmark. I also knew that I wanted to draw on some of Shakespeare’s other plays, snatching bits like the witches in MacBeth, or the blindness in Lear. In almost all other ways, however, I let the story wander without any requirement to ever coincide with Hamlet, and in fact mostly it doesn’t. The imperative was for Edgar’s present story to be compelling, everything else was a distant second.

Curiously, no one ever asks about the connection to Kipling’s The Jungle Book, even though it is explicitly referenced in the text. (Hamlet never is—with the single exception of the phrase “Remember me.”) If we could ask Edgar what story most closely parallels his life, he’d point to Mowgli in an instant.

NW: I loved the descriptions of the natural world in the section where Edgar is fleeing through the Chequamegon forest. What meaning does setting and place have for you in your writing?

DW: Well, I grew up in farm country, and there is the inevitable daily contact with the natural world at scale. But to return to Shakespeare for a moment, I also wanted this story to incorporate the elements – earth, air, fire, water — the way Shakespeare’s drama did. They should be present as enormous forces, with irresistible effects on the players.

NW: Your book received some enthusiastic praise from Stephen King and Richard Russo. Are either of these writers an influence on you? If so, what have you learned from them?

DW: Rick Russo was one of five teachers I worked closely with when I attended the creative writing program at Warren Wilson College. I also worked with Margot Livesey, Joan Silber, Ehud Havazelet, and Wilton Barnhardt — and here in Colorado with the writer Robert McBrearty. In other words, I was fantastically lucky. I studied with writers whose novels and stories I admired tremendously. Rick has a special place in Edgar’s history because he was so enthusiastically behind the project and the writing, and also because his novel The Risk Pool was a great inspiration to me. I’d wanted to write about the people I knew, small town folks, Midwesterners; when I read The Risk Pool I got so excited, thinking, “See, you can write about this stuff! The characters can be smart and funny and still come from where I come from.” Rick’s stories are set in upstate New York, mostly, but I, like many other readers, felt he was talking about my neighbors, my home town, my experience.

As for Stephen King, I’ve been a gotta-have-it fan from the night, back in 1978, when I read Firestarter from cover to cover during a quiet third shift at the hospital where I worked. One of the things I love about King’s stories is that they have such heart — surprising, when you consider that he’s scaring the juice out of you at the same time. And yet, when you think about it more, it makes perfect sense: the things that frighten us most are often right next door to the things we hold dearest. Though we had never met, Mr. King was kind enough to read an early galley of Edgar’s story, which speaks to me of his essential generosity. You have to understand what a commitment it is to read a beginning writer’s book, not to mention a complete stranger’s. You don’t know what you’re in for, and a writer has to be careful about what he reads. I couldn’t be more thrilled that he responded to Edgar’s story.

NW: Do you think you might write something set in Colorado some day?

DW: Anything’s possible, but my guess is that I won’t set any novels in Colorado while I live here. For some reason, a little distance helps me treat a place as a fictional setting. For example, whenever I went back home to Wisconsin for research trips, I got almost no writing done on the spot. But as soon as I was back in my office in Colorado, I could close my eyes and hear the voices and see the landscapes. That’s strange, I know, but that’s the way it worked for me. Other writers have talked about the same phenomenon.

NW: What are you working on now?

DW: I have a new novel brewing, but it’s early days, and until recently whenever I came into my office I had to fight the urge to begin revising some part of Edgar’s story, even though it was off to the printing presses. It was getting to be a real problem. I finally had to completely rearrange my office and that did the trick. I consider myself to be building the workshop in which I’ll make the next novel right now—hanging the tools on the wall, metaphorically speaking, and hauling in the lumber. All sorts of jiggered up little scenes and characters are sitting in the corners, and my pile of interesting facts grows daily. I know the story in the large scale. It’s a fun stage in the process—you allow yourself to play, pointlessly, for a while.

Wroblewski will read and discuss his book at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on June 10 (7:30 p.m.) and at the Boulder Book Store on June 12 (7:30 p.m.).

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  1. This is the most wonderful book I have ever read. I re-read the descriptions of nature for they are so beautiful. My daughters and I have talk about the book. I describe it as being written both horizontially and vertically. We all love Almondine, how does one pronounce the name? The description of Henry Lamb whose sin is being an ordinary person stays with you. The mental illness of the Trudy is so perfectly done. Most of all I tell everyone to read it slowly, to savor it, and warn that they will weep when it is over.

  2. I finished this book two days ago and at either a subconscious or conscious level am still thinking about it.
    Everything in Mr. Wroblewski’s style of writing is impeccable. The most powerful line in the book, and my favorite line, is on page 462, paragraph 2; ” They’d shaped each other…..” I can’t really explain the emotion in that line but it is powerful. I wept.

  3. I just finished reading this book and wanted desperately to tell Mr. Wroblewski how great it was. It is the best book I have read in years and I look forward to reading others from him soon!!
    It is a must read for book lovers.

  4. I was greatly impressed with this wonderful book until the ending. It didn’t need a happy ending to complete it. After all life isn’t like that. But I found it odd that the dogs, especially Essie didn’t react to impending danger and try to protect her master. Also I think it unrealistic that domestic dogs would simply herd up and run off. Have recommend this book to all my reading friends. Thanks

  5. Susan Phillips Denver Colorado

    12/13/08 I did not buy this book for a long time because the reviews I read said it had a bad ending, like the writer cheated. While we all like happy endings I did not agree with the reviewers as the one on the B &N;web site or the one above mine now. I like the the way the story slowly unfolded. I cried several times while reading the book and had to put it down and do something else for a few minutes. My dogs thought I was nuts. When was the last time that happened…when I read the sequel to Jurassic Park and the dinosaur had the bad man in her nest. The above reviewer got it wrong…the dogs made their choice and they knew Edgar had made his choice…to go back, to face them, to go back into the smoldering barn, not stopping. The fact that nothing survived of the kennel was sad as this was a special “kind” of dog. All that investigation and wonderful breeding LOST! But was it nature or nurture….now there is a discussion. Did they breed the dogs to be so smart or did they provide excellent training thus making the dogs appear exceptional? How about the bond that develops between man and his dog? I will be crushed when my dogs become infirm or die. If you do not own or care for a pet you may not “get” this book. I was dissappointed that Claude did not face the music, but the writer does leave you with the impression that Trudy may have realized Claude was not a good guy. She had a history of having lost all whom she cared about only to have it happen again as an adult, and that is why she sat there frozen with grief after Glen let go. I assume she parished too not wishing or wanting to get out of close proximity of the fire. I am choosing this book for my February book club meeting and I know I will get some grief about it. I am sick and tired about reading about women who have been done wrong by men, my fellow book club members so often choose. This book is a meal, not just desert. I wish the author could give me some critical points to discuss. I wish I could ask the author what he wanted me to know most about his book. I still choke up when I think about how loyal Almondine was. Thanks for the great read. Sue Phillips

  6. This was a wonderful story, of course! David wrobeewski is an excellent writer, of course! However, in spite of this (Or maybe because of it) I hated the ending.
    Why did Mr. Wrobeewski feel compelled to inflict blindness on Glen? Why was Trudy left twisting in the wind? Why was everything destroyed? The story didn’t need to have a happy ending but there seemed to be no balance, no sense of rightness or justice to it. It was a lose/lose situation most of the way around, from Dr. Papineau to everything the Sawtelles had ever worked for. Henry was the only winner. The ending pretty much ruined a good book for me.

  7. I also loved the book and read it in three days. Also dissapointed and shocked at the ending, it left me thinking there might be a sequeal for the next book. I wanted Trudy to know all Edger went threw. Edger seeing his father and the old man was so enlighting.I hope their will be a sequeal to bring that all about.

  8. Only one other book has affected me the way “Edgar Sawtell” has, and that is William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”; not just for the story, but for the language used in the telling of it. These are the only two books that, when I reached the end, I turned back to the beginning and began reading again.

  9. I finished this wonderful book last night and was still tearing up today.It is indeed one of the most beautiful books I have read and I loved David Wroblewski’s subtle way of dealing with death and unhappy endings. He obviously has a wonderful insight into the minds of dogs. All the dogs had their own voice which made it even more delightful.I am excited to read his next novel. I suggested this novel at our last book club meeting and so very happy I did…Thank you for such a wonderful and poignant novel

  10. Darlene G. Castle

    I could not put this book down. Wroblewski’s got story! You can write all the high-falutin’ descriptions you want, but if you don’t have story, you have nothing. You want to own a Sawtelle dog, you want to shout at Edgar, “watch out, it’s your uncle!” But Edgar has a deeper understanding with his observational skills, and his dogs are so sentient that you know they will help each other. I am in the process of reading the book again to discuss with my book club. I recommended it to them and hope they will be glad they read it. I have a tremendous affection for this book, and believe it is a new Great American Novel. Passages come floating back when I least expect it. It is a haunting and elegant story.

  11. I’ve just finished, and the tears are still clogging my heart, my throat. What a marvellous write, what a wonderful story.
    Whatever you were doing before Mr. Wroblewski, don’t think about doing any more. Just write!!! Thank you.

  12. I don’t remember ever being quite as enthused about a book as I was with Edgar Sawtelle, enthused and excited about the characters, the style, the story, the beauty of Edgar and the dogs. And then I finished it. I don’t remember ever being as angry at an author or the way he chose to end a novel as I was with David Wroblewski. I didn’t need a happy ending, but I did need some sort of completion, some kind of justice, an ending that allowed Edgar and the Sawtelle dogs to survive the fire and the uncle’s malignancy. I want the same book with a better ending.

  13. I really enjoyed the book right up until the barn burning and the deaths of both Edgar and Claude. What was the author’s point with this type of ending? Was it burn out, or did he just get tired and run out of imagination? Edgar’s mom deserved to learn the truth about her husbands death and Claude’s dark nature. Edgar, on the other hand, worked WAY to hard to end up dying without sharing his hard earned knowledge. Also, was Almondine struck by a car or did she die of a broken heart. This book had many great sections, but the unnecessary ending ruined it for me.

  14. I think this is one of the best if not the very best books I have ever read. But like one of the other commentators, I wish so bad that at the least, Edgar could have gotten home before Almondine dies. Even if just to hold her as she died. I cried several days after reading this book. If they make a movie out of this book, which I think they will, please make it end differently. The way it ended Trudy had lost everyone she loved from her parents she never knew, her baby that died, her husband her son and her precious Almondine. I don’t think I could watch the movie if it ended the way the book did. I would probably cry for years to come. When will you write another book? I can’t wait to read it.

  15. THis book was the biggest waste of my time, and I should have guessed as it was on OPrah’s list. It was hard to follow the authors overuse of pronouns, and the ending was horrible. I will never read this author again. Oprah’s list? this being the second book I have reda on her list, that list reamins the list of what NOT to read!

  16. Whew, I
    It was an amazing read, I agree. the best in a very long time.
    As a true dog lover, owner, I learned so much and have tried to be more silent in my communication with my “young soul”, Lille, a shelter dog, 3 years old. I savored each and every chapter, spreading out the read to make it last longer – only to reach the horrible ending. No no no…I did not need a Wizard of Oz ending, but saw NO POINT in the wretched over the top violent conclusion. Plus, David, you kind of lost the opportunity to continue this series.
    Did you get bored at the end of the writing? My heart aches for more Edgar and more dogs…

  17. I loved this book and was disappointed that Edgar did not survive but can not agree with those who question the wisdom or rightness of the ending. Itseemed to me that when Edgar continued to re-enter the burning barn, he chose to save the business records so that the Sawtelle Dog business might continue to evolve. He chose that action even over seeking revenge on Claude. Claude was incredibly evil and he did get his come-uppance though not at Edgar’s hands. It was enough for me that the evil ended. Trudy and Glen survive; both have pieces of the truth and will likely put it together over time. It seemed to me Trudy’s only way to recover and make right the tragedy may be to build the business back in memory of those lost to Claude’s evil ways. My book club is discussing this book tonight. I am eager to listen.

  18. Jo C-P (Zimbabwe)

    A wonderful read. Possibly a great book. I was reeled in from the beginning, then paused for a while after Gar’s death, (still trying to figure out why the section calld Three Griefs was so called – I wanted no more grief at that time) fearful to proceed, and once back could not put it down. The letters from Fortunate Fields were a stroke of genius. The ending tied up all the strands, the prophesies and promises of the book. The metaphorical river and the hints of a metaphysical next …. Claude and the warm wire, the river, and the choices made. I have been haunted by it for days, and keep going back to it. Well done DW, I look forward to your next book – when it reaches this land!

  19. I loved the book. The characters and setting were so real. However I hated the ending. Why did EVERYONE have to be devastated at the end? Disney is said to have some tragedy in all his works, but this was totally out of proportion. For her to lose her family, and know nothing about where the dogs might be. For Edgar to never be able to share his story and what he had learned about the dogs with her. Even Doc and his son have to be destroyed?? This writer has a dark side. It ruined the book for me and haunted me for days. Otherwise, it could have been the great American novel.

  20. Some of the book I enjoyed, some dragged on and on. I think DW was writing and paint the picture he wanted us to see to much, as a reader you should be allowed some creative thinking by the author. I was feeling really good about the book and then the ending…what a terrible ending, and I have been metaphysical in my day, but there seemed to be no reason to end this way. To cut your self off at the knees and kill your name sake of your book. Sad, I told my husband don’t brother it is terrible ending.

  21. As I was reading this book, I had difficulty describing it to my friends. I with held recommending it due to the disjointed story-telling approach, and my frustrated attempts to determine the author’s purpose for the individual ‘segments’ of the storyline. I was not really enjoying the reading of it, yet I became intrigued with the story and with the desire to know the author’s purpose in leading us down certain storylines I became determined to finish the book, assuming I would have answers at the end. I was surprised toward the end of the book, by the drama, suspense, and intense emotion provoked by the writer. At the coclusion, I became quite upset with the writer. As I continued to try to understand the his purpose of taking the reader on this emotional landslide, I can only conclude that he takes pleasure in evoking emotion just to watch the reaction. This is similar to the actions of the main character’s uncle, who sadistically took pleasure in ‘teasing’ animals under the guise of ‘training’ but actually for the pleasure of watching their reaction.

  22. Michelle 8/31/2011

    I loved this book. When will David Wroblewski’s next novel be completed?