A wonderful irony
The quietest of books makes the splashiest debut
David Guterson peers out at Miami's lapis Biscayne Bay as though straining to see something else-an island off Washington's dark Puget Sound, his home and the place of his haunting novel, Snow Falling on Cedars. "I'm not an urban person," he confesses in a crowded outdoor restaurant. "And I've been in cities endlessly for the past five or six weeks on this book tour. Cities produce in me melancholy or a tension I don't need."
Guterson, 39, received the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Snow Falling on Cedars. "It is such an incredible honor," he says, but what coaxes forth his first smile is the thought of returning home to his wife and four children. "What sustains me is to be with my family and to write."
Amid laughing people in tropical colors, the author wears an olive jacket. It brings out his pale green eyes which still search the water. This quiet passion extant in Guterson shines through in Cedars. Set in 1954 on Washington's remote San Piedro Island, the novel begins with the mysterious death of a local fisherman. It rouses the community's postwar distrust of their Japanese-American neighbors, and the island's Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of the fisherman's murder. The incident also awakens feelings within Ishmael Chamber, the town's newspaperman who has long loved Kabuo's wife, Hatsue. What results is a taut, many-angled story, both rich and satisfying.
Guterson looks to Anton Chekhov and Jane Austen as models of style and structure, and though he has set his story in the past, is not old fashioned. "My book is traditional. It runs counter to the post-modern spirit. A lot of writers are concerned with life in the '90s," he says, "I'm not. Post-modernism is dead because it didn't address human needs. The conventional story endures because it does. I'm interested in themes that endure from generation to generation. Fiction is socially meaningful. Every culture is sustained by certain central myths. At its heart, fiction's role is to see these roles and myths are sustained."
The author has also written the nonfiction book Family Matters: Why Home-Schooling Makes Sense and the short story collection The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind, being released in paper this spring (Vintage, $10, 0-679-76718-5). Guterson wrote the stories before his novel, and now when he looks at them, he feels "removed from them to the degree I feel removed from who I was in my twenties when I wrote them. The stories reflect my concerns at that time. Snow Falling on Cedars is the work of someone in his thirties."
It's true. Whereas Guterson's stories possess an emotional edge, his novel has a certain maturity, sweeping the reader away with its lush physical description. "The tide and the wind were pushing in hard now, and the current funneled through the mouth of the harbor; the green boughs and branches of the fallen trees lay scattered across the clean snow. It occurred to Ishmael for the first time in his life that such destruction could be beautiful."
Guterson's gift of evoking a sense of place comes from his love of it. The islands off Puget Sound bear an almost mythic weight for him. "Hemingway said the only way to write about a place is to leave it. There's a certain nostalgia and romance in a place you left. But I don't need to leave to write about it. I don't think anyone but a native could have written this book."
One could argue, then, that with its graceful, restrained images of Japanese-American life, no one but a Nissei could have written it. A former teacher, Guterson conducted extensive research and interviews with the area's Japanese-Americans and so writes with authority about the Miyamotos and the other Japanese-Americans who were herded into internment camps. "It was made real to me. It's part of the history of where I live."
But Snow Falling on Cedars goes beyond ethnicity. Guterson explores humanity, penetrating the core of the human heart. "My work comes from inner disturbances, from seeing injustices and accidents and how they affect people's lives in a tragic way."
Guterson agrees one can make almost anything political, including his book, but he hopes it transcends both politics and history. With its evocatively Japanese title and its elegant, restrained prose, Snow Falling on Cedars reveals Guterson's affinity for Asian philosophy. "The sense that this world is an illusion, that desire is the root of suffering, the awareness of cause and effect-I have a great respect for all that," he says.
He endows his character Hatsue with this sense of tranquillity. "Hatsue explained her emotional reserve . . . didn't mean her heart was shallow. Her silence, she said, would express something if he would learn to listen to it." The same might be said for the author himself. "I think of myself as a really happy person," says Guterson, allowing himself his second fleeting smile of the afternoon. "What some people interpret as brooding melancholy is serenity. I don't feel required to grasp all the time."
What he does feel, what he works toward, is a sort of stillness, the stillness he creates for Hatsue, the stillness he needs to write. Guterson would rise at five a.m. to work on his novel, facing the blank page when it was still dark and the day's intrusions were distant.
While he has enjoyed writing nonfiction and short stories, Guterson is at work another novel-the medium he feels best suited to in terms of temperament. He will still rise at five o'clock, but otherwise wants this new book to be nothing like his last one. "It must succeed in its own terms," he insists in the fading glow of afternoon. "It has to be just as powerful, though. It must have an impact on people."
It should resonate for readers the way the landscape of his home resonates for the author. "I grew up in Seattle, but I always knew I wanted to leave," says Guterson. "The greenness of the world, the play of light and living things, stretching endlessly and regenerating season after season-to have that in daily life is so much more satisfying than buildings and people."