Guterson emerges from blizzard

Books: Author had no time to worry about being snowed under by first novel's success.

April 20, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

David Guterson cannot remember now the size of the first printing for "Snow Falling on Cedars." Ten thousand? Fifteen thousand?

"That sounds about right."

Published in 1994, "Snow" came into the world with the same modest expectations of any first novel. There was no advertising budget, nothing planned beyond the usual author tour. The book was considered a tough sell: Guterson had drawn on his research, including oral histories of Japanese-Americans interred during World War II, to create the story of a racially charged murder trial on a fictitious island off the coast of Washington state. But it wasn't written to be a legal thriller, or a page-turner. It is a slow, thoughtful book, set against the backdrop of a blizzard.

But "Snow" proved to be destined for a charmed exist- ence. The book won an important prize, the PEN/Faulkner, and went on to sell an estimated 80,000 copies in hardcover. Published in paperback in 1995, it became a blockbuster, selling millions of copies and transforming the former school teacher into something of a celebrity. He was even on People magazine's list of the 50 Most Beautiful People.

Since "Snow" appeared, other first-time novelists -- Charles Frazier, Arundhati Roy -- have been subjected to the same dizzying combination of critical adulation and commercial success. Guterson, meanwhile, has managed to publish a second novel, "East of the Mountains" (Harcourt Brace, $25.) It is the story of an elderly surgeon, Ben Givens, who decides to commit suicide rather than live with colon cancer, but finds his plans repeatedly altered by fate and circumstance.

For Guterson, the challenge this time was to write a very lean, contained work. But everything else about "East" is much fatter -- an announced first printing of 500,000, an advertising budget of $500,000. The novel even has a strict national "laydown" date, which embargoed sales until today.

Guterson will speak at the Enoch Pratt Central Library at 6: 30 p.m. tomorrow. The event, to be held in Wheeler Auditorium, is free and open to the public. Guterson spoke by telephone from his home in Washington state about the role of fact in fiction and what it's like to follow one's own phenomenal debut.

The Sun: Was "East of the Mountains" under way when "Snow" became a hit?

Was it difficult to find time to write, given the demands being made on your time?

Guterson: It was difficult. But when I was writing "Snow Falling on Cedars," I was a public school teacher and I had piles of student papers to read, and I was busier then with that sort of thing than I was for all these interviews with "Snow Falling on Cedars." Teaching is all-consuming.

The Sun: Did your success make writing a second book seem formidable?

Do you have any fears about following yourself?

Guterson: Did I have any fears about writing a second novel? Let's say I have fears about publishing the second novel.

About writing the next book, no. I had enough just to think about to write a novel, whether I had written one before or not, or whether it had been successful or not. Writing a novel is so hard, it's counterproductive to think about anything external.

What I've had to learn to do is just tell myself is that an experience like [what happened with "Snow"] is once-in-a-lifetime and if it doesn't happen again, it's fine.

The Sun: Did you ever worry you might not write another novel? That you might become a modern-day Harper Lee, known for one book?

Guterson: Harper Lee isn't a good example because she didn't get drawn into a publicity machine. I don't think it churned her up and spit her out. I think she wrote the book she had to write.

But it could happen, it could happen easily. You could become enamored of your own success. You can only blame yourself. It's been a learning process for me. It's been a little over five years and in that time I've come to see what I'm comfortable doing and what I'm not comfortable doing. I've come to have regrets about certain things -- too much travel, too many distractions.

The Sun: Do you regret agreeing to be one of People's "most beautiful"?

Guterson: Well, I did have some regrets about that. At the time, I agreed to have my photograph taken because if it would help bring people to the book, it was a good thing. Now I think if it brought people to the book for the wrong reason, maybe it wasn't a good thing. Maybe it was a mistake.

The Sun: You have said that "To Kill a Mockingbird" was a model for "Snow Falling on Cedars." Did you have another classic work in mind while working on "East of the Mountains"?

Guterson: No, but what I did have is the entire genre of mythic journey stories. You know, it goes back to the Odyssey, or "Moby Dick," or the Arthurian cycle. The list goes on and on, of stories that are journeys.

There's some speculation that the earliest human stories [were told by those] who left and returned maybe months or weeks later. The good "writers" would embellish the story of the journey in order to make it entertainment.

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