Ellen Kanner

The seven deadly ones get all the press, but it's the multitude of other, seemingly petty sins that Richard Ford writes about in his new short story collection. "All of those small acts we commit on a daily basis at ground level are how we fail," he says. "We fail by lacking patience, sincerity, passion, truthfulness, lacking all kinds of things — that's what A Multitude of Sins is." 

Ford, whose 1995 novel Independence Day won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, uses his new collection to pinpoint pivotal moments of failure in people's lives. Their sins aren't spectacular ones, just the sad accretion of betrayal and loss that's part of daily life.

"I don't think these people are doomed, desperate or on the edge more than anyone else," says Ford of characters like the husband and wife in "Charity," whose marriage of 20 years is in limbo after the husband has an affair. "They're socked into life pretty good. I don't think if you were to stand outside the lives of the people in these stories, in ‘Creche' and ‘Charity,' you would think they were anybody special. By looking at these lives, you're liable to see something as great as kings and heroes. In that fabric of otherwise under-noticeable lives is the stuff of real moral existence. It's meant to ennoble and make more poignant the lives you may not have noticed."

In the struggle of these ordinary characters, Ford creates a mirror, a way to view our own humanity. He's made infidelity a theme in his stories, and as he does with the title A Multitude of Sins, takes a term "we think we understand and have a working definition of, and lifts the lid on it."

Infidelity in Ford's lexicon means a betrayal of our true selves. His characters fumble, deceiving each other and deluding themselves. Many also commit the more common definition of infidelity — adultery. It's an intriguing theme from Ford, who married Kristina Hensley, his college sweetheart, in 1967 and has stayed good and married to her. That doesn't make him eager to be literature's patron saint of wedded bliss. "I think that nobody's marriage is alike," says Ford, who believes even in so-called solid marriages like his own, "you see all kinds of peculiarities, idiosyncrasies."

In Ford's case, he has a restless nature and doesn't like to stay put for long. Since publishing his first novel A Piece of My Heart in 1976, he's crisscrossed the country and lived abroad, as well — a man with no sense of home and no patience with the subject. "I don't think about it. It doesn't matter. I don't care. I'm a Mississippian. Was born in Mississippi. I don't want to live there. I did live there. I may live there again. I finally have given up. I'm an American."

Ford, 58, frequently tires of his home on New Orleans' Bourbon Street and lights out for his homes in Maine and Mississippi. His wife, a New Orleans city planner, doesn't have the same luxury. "We have not been living together very much," admits Ford. "But the overriding thing about Kristina and me is we really love each other and we know that and have seen it over and over again at every pass. What makes a solid marriage is not necessary kind of conduct or stewardship or guardianship. That seems to me to be missing the point. You have to love somebody."

His housing situation is soon to change. "We just bought a much more commodious house in the Garden District," says Ford. "I was never good at living in the French Quarter. It makes a great story, great letterhead, but it was kind of a drag. Like living in a theme park."

Aware of his own quirks, Ford never plays moral arbiter as a writer. In A Multitude of Sins, he serves as witness, sometimes speaking through the narrator by writing in first person, sometimes portraying scenes with a cinematic crispness by writing in third person.

"Third person is hard for me," he confesses. "I struggle with that. Sometimes I write in third person just to prove I can." Ford works to determine how much the omniscient narrator tells, how intimate the voice should be. "The bar I set for myself is a very high bar. It's the bar of Alice Munro. I'm never as successful at it as I want to be, whereas in first person I feel I'm as successful as I could be."

He selects point of view "by the way in which the first lines of the story occur to me. I don't think it's always right, but I've never changed the point of view once I have it under way."

As with the stories in his 1987 collection Rock Springs, the stories in A Multitude of Sins originally appeared in The New Yorker and Granta. Each story stands on its own, a searing indictment of how ethically lost and emotionally isolated we've become. In his story "Quality Time," Ford writes, "[S]omeone has to tell us what's important because we no longer know." Taken together in this collection, though, the nine stories read as though all of a piece.

"They were meant to," says Ford. "I realized when I was three stories into it. ‘Privacy,' ‘Creche' and ‘Quality Time' prefigured the rest of the book. It was a sort of a relief. Sometimes you write books of stories that come in from all quadrants, a rattle bag. But I'm a novelist principally and had this prefiguring idea. I could choose what I was thinking about, choose with a novelist's eyes, to make one story fit after another."

In order to ascertain that he'd created the effect he wanted with repetition of words and themes, Ford read each story aloud as he did with the 700-plus manuscript pages of Independence Day. "I'm dyslexic. I can't see those things," he says. "When you read it out loud, you catch everything."

He expects readers to enter into his work with the same seriousness and dedication. "The idea of authorship is that you authorize the reader's responses as much as you can. You don't want there to be a great discrepancy between what you write and what you know the reader will read. If there are great discrepancies, you're not running the story as much as you need to be. I feel it's a tincture of failure," says Ford.

"I know the reader will have his own history, preoccupations, priorities, obsessions, thoughts, I know that. And that just means everybody's different. But at the point of contact with my story, I want everybody to be mine."

 

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.

The seven deadly ones get all the press, but it's the multitude of other, seemingly petty sins that Richard Ford writes about in his new short story collection. "All of those small acts we commit on a daily basis at ground level are how we fail," he says. "We fail by lacking patience, sincerity, passion, […]

Donna Tartt knows people have been talking about her. She's used to it. They started talking in 1992 when the author, then 28, made her literary debut with the best-selling thriller The Secret History. Fans and critics have been discussing her ever since. For 10 years. Wondering what, if anything, the petite woman from Mississippi would do next. For all the speculation, though, Tartt herself has been mysteriously silent.

She is reluctant to do face-to-face or telephone interviews, and agrees only to answer a few e-mailed questions for BookPage. "I always enjoy meeting the people who've read my book," she writes, "It's the actual publicity part television, photographs, interviews with the tape recorder going that's miserable for me." Tartt will have to come to terms with a little publicity misery, though. Her publisher, Knopf, is releasing her second novel, The Little Friend, with a first printing of 300,000.

Departing from the edgy tone of The Secret History, The Little Friend has a prose style bespeaking Tartt's own fondness for 19th-century literature. The difference is deliberate. Even a decade after her first book's publication, Tartt, who's said she'd rather spend the rest of her life reading than write another book, felt the pressure of second novel syndrome. "I found the best way of coping with it was to write a completely different kind of novel, different use of language and diction, different narrative technique, different approaches to story," she writes. "Because I was asking myself a completely different set of questions, the technical aspect kept me constantly engaged; it was almost like writing another first novel."

What her two books have in common is murder. The Secret History features a student murdered at a small artsy New England college, not unlike Bennington, which Tartt attended. The first chapter of The Little Friend begins, "Twelve years after Robin Cleve's death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had on the day it happened." Tartt denies having a criminal mind. That distinction she reserves for "actual lawbreakers, i.e. Ted Bundy or Charles Manson or all those accounting crooks at Enron. But I've always loved Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I've been interested in accounts of true crime since I was small."

Set in Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend juxtaposes the evil of murder with the innocence of childhood. Robin was 9 when he was hanged, his baby sister Harriet only 1. She grows up in the shadow of his death and at the age of 11, decides to avenge it. Clearly, Harriet is not like most kids. Small for her age with her dark hair bobbed short, she's precocious, bright, fearless, willful, "a bit big for her britches," as her grandmother says. You could argue Harriet is Tartt's alter ego. Tartt, would argue the contrary.

"Harriet isn't so much me as a sort of temperamental strain that recurs from generation to generation in my mother's side of my family. My great-grandfather used to tell stories of his own tomboyish and no-nonsense grandmother." Tartt, the elder of two daughters, portrays childhood so well because it's still all too vivid to her. "There's almost nothing about childhood that I don't remember," she writes. "Running around playing after dark in the summertime, the horrific boredom of school, lying sick in bed with tonsillitis, the exact flavor of haughty outrage alone in one's room after one was punished, simmering hatred of specific schoolteachers, and passionate love of others, petty feuds I had with friends that seemed, in my mind, very grand and Napoleonic."

Childhood, as Tartt remembers it, and as she paints it in The Little Friend, is short of idyllic. Harriet is too often left to her own devices by her mother, Charlotte, in a relationship that's grown distant and disturbed since Robin's death. The only constant in Harriet's life is Ida, the family housekeeper. "Ida was the planet whose rounds marked the hours, and her bright old reliable course . . . ruled every aspect of Harriet's life." When Charlotte fires Ida, Harriet mourns her the way she could never, as a baby, mourn Robin.

Harriet's story reflects the difficulties of being young, and the challenges children face when it comes to accepting authority something Tartt herself did not welcome as a girl. "Children have no money, no rights, no control over their lives," she writes. "It's no fun being told what to do." Seeking justice for her brother's killer is Harriet's way of taking control. As Harriet learns, however, justice is a slippery commodity, and her own sense of right and wrong becomes tarnished in its pursuit.

Her eager sidekick, Hely Hull, isn't as brave or as bright as Harriet, but he's willing to be drawn deeper and deeper into her plans for the sake of adventure and friendship. This includes breaking and entering the apartment of the man Harriet thinks killed Robin, only to be confronted with snakes. "The snakes had patterns on their backs like copperheads, only sharper. On the audacious snake . . . [Hely] now made out the two-inch stack of rattle buttons on the tail. But it was the ones he couldn't see that made him nervous. There had been at least five or six snakes. . . . Where were they?"

"I became interested in the phenomenon of snake handling when I was doing research on Greek mystery cults for The Secret History," writes Tartt, who had the opportunity to do some snake research firsthand. They run amok on her farm in Virginia, where she stays when she's not living in her Upper East Side apartment.

So where is home? "I guess I feel more at home in New York City than anywhere else, because that's where I've lived most of my adult life, but I don't feel entirely at home anywhere," Tartt writes. "Certainly not the South, despite the fact that my family has lived there for a long, long time and still lives there. To be a writer in the South is to be a cultural exile, standing apart from the place of one's birth, never quite at home."

Being a writer in the South has its emotional baggage, too, but Tartt isn't carrying any of it. "Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature. He didn't win it for Southern Literature. It seems to me literature is just literature, wherever it comes from." As usual, Tartt gives people something to talk about.

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.

 

Donna Tartt knows people have been talking about her. She's used to it. They started talking in 1992 when the author, then 28, made her literary debut with the best-selling thriller The Secret History. Fans and critics have been discussing her ever since. For 10 years. Wondering what, if anything, the petite woman from Mississippi […]

One of fiction's cardinal rules is to write what you know, and from her rich depiction of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, the setting for her new novel Standing in the Rainbow, you'd bet Fannie Flagg was born in a small town where everyone knows each other, part of a boisterous middle-class family like that of her 10-year old character Bobby Smith. And you'd be wrong.

"I wanted to be in that town," says a wistful Flagg, speaking from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. The actress, comedienne and author of the 1987 beloved bestseller Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café "grew up in an apartment in Birmingham, which was a big city. I would have loved to have been raised in a small town," she says. "I'm an only child. I write about families because it's what I longed for. I'm trying to rewrite my childhood."

You could find reasons for her melancholy—an alcoholic father, the isolation that comes of being an only child—but Flagg wonders "if some children aren't born sort of sad. I was always that way. It doesn't matter why. What matters is talking your way out of it." Or in Flagg's case, writing your way out.

Standing in the Rainbow spans the 1940s through the 1980s and at no time is Elmwood Springs a hotbed for tabloid scandal. Instead, it's a cozy place with real, textured characters striving to live and love even when the going gets tough. There's poor Tot Whooten, the hapless hairdresser, Missouri's gladhanding Governor Hamm Sparks and his terminally shy wife Betty Ray, but the soul of Standing in the Rainbow is Bobby's mother, known to all of southern Missouri as Neighbor Dorothy.

Chatty Neighbor Dorothy hosts a local radio show in which she dispenses cookie recipes and crucial community news. "Well, everybody, I guess we can say summer is officially here. Bobby has just informed me that the pool is open. . . .Well, go on, but for heaven's sake, don't hit your head on the diving board!"

Neighbor Dorothy got her start back in Flagg's performing days. "I had a little television show in Birmingham in the early '60s, a local show with local news. It always made me laugh. I started reading these small-town newspapers around the South." Life had an easier rhythm then. Sometimes, it was downright slow. "One year was bad. We didn't have many people coming to town," she recalls. "We interviewed the cameraman's mother. Five times. I know about those local shows."

Fans will recognize Neighbor Dorothy from Flagg's previous novel Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! Although Dorothy was a minor character there, the author knew right away that she deserved more. "I fell in love with her," says Flagg. "I knew I was going to introduce her in that book and devote myself to her family in the next book, so it wasn't a sequel but a prequel. I do things backward."

She laughs, but she's only half-joking. A born storyteller, she struggles with severe dyslexia. "I had to work a little harder. I still do."

Shamed by her poor spelling, Flagg didn't show her writing to anyone for years. She began as a performer by acting out her own stories and starring in movies like Grease and Five Easy Pieces, but when at last she summoned the courage to go from actress to author, "It was like I walked into the right room. I walked in very late, didn't start writing my first novel until 1980. I was in my 30s, but it was such a pleasure to find it," says Flagg. "I was so lucky to have that second career I liked even better than my first."

Of her previous three novels, Flagg is best known for Fried Green Tomatoes. Not only did the story of Idgie and Ruth resonate with readers, but also Flagg found writing about them to be good for the soul. She had given up acting to write full-time and was in tough financial straits.

Writing Standing in the Rainbow, "I was in a better frame of mind," says Flagg. "The world is getting so crazy, I needed to remind myself and others that most of these people still exist. We shouldn't let go of that wonderful heritage we have—middle class America is the heroic class. They're not complaining. They carry the rest of the world on their back. They don't get written about much, and they never got much credit or appreciation. They're laughed at or thought of as sort of sappy."

Sappy is hardly an insult for the woman the Christian Science Monitor once called the most sentimental writer in America. "I thought, isn't that fabulous?" Flagg laughs. "And my friends said, ‘No, Fannie, that's not good.' But it is. The easiest thing in the world is to be smart-alecky and cynical and snide and jaded. It's hard to keep your heart open."

It's hard because it means being vulnerable, which Flagg thinks is imperative to writing. "To be a writer, you have to remain a child in some areas and not grow up. And keep your imagination open. A part of me has remained a child," says the author whose wild imagination is very close to Bobby's in Standing in the Rainbow. "I'm constantly surprised at things and don't seem to get tougher with age, which is a disadvantage."

It does, however, make her a beautiful writer.

In the morning, Flagg stumbles out of bed and goes right to her desk. "If a leaf falls, I'm lost. I can't have any noise. When I get sort of stuck, I go somewhere for four or five days with no phone, no fax and go on a binge. I get some of my best writing done on my binges."

Though she lives part-time in California, Flagg is always glad to return to the South. "Honestly that's where my characters come from. There's a real Southern culture, a way of thinking and looking at things. In the South, if you move into a neighborhood, all the neighbors will walk in the door and never call first. ‘We just dropped by for a visit,' " says Flagg, thickening her drawl. "People from the North are horrified."

She lets loose with another laugh, but the joy, the lightness that comes through when she talks and writes about small towns and big families stems from "a sadness." Part of her remains the little girl who would look through the windows of other families' homes and yearn to belong.

"People fascinate me. I don't understand them as well as I'd like. They surprise me all the time," says Flagg. "I grew up so alone."

 

 

Ellen Kanner is a freelance writer in Miami.

One of fiction's cardinal rules is to write what you know, and from her rich depiction of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, the setting for her new novel Standing in the Rainbow, you'd bet Fannie Flagg was born in a small town where everyone knows each other, part of a boisterous middle-class family like that of her […]

Only Maya Angelou can write about loss and make it uplifting. She proved it with the very first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1958), and she achieves it again with her sixth and last volume of memoirs, A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

In this new book, Dr. Angelou recalls bidding a painful goodbye to Ghana, the country she loved, and to a man she loved there, returning to a much-changed United States. "The year was 1964," Angelou writes. "The cry of burn, baby, burn' was loud in the land, and black people had gone from the earlier mode of sit-in' to set fire,' and from march-in' to break-in.'" No sooner did she land in San Francisco than her friend Malcolm X was shot and killed. The riots at Watts followed. So did the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Her hopes and idealism shattered, Angelou felt each loss like a blow to the heart. "I was blitheringly innocent until I was about 35," she said in a recent interview. "I seem to have had the scales pulled off my eyes, and I decided I didn't like that. What I have done, what most of us do, is contrive an innocence. I contrived an innocence that kept me and keeps me quite young. However just behind that facade there is a knowing. By the time Dr. King was killed, I came to understand a lot of things. I learned I could handle myself. I learned a lot about my own inner strength. I learned that I was greatly loved."

The love of family and friends like author James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time) sustained her. "Agape love, the power of it really was made clear to me. There's a statement Polonius makes in Hamlet when he's talking to his son, in that 'To thine own self be true' monologue. 'Those friends thou has and their adoption tried/Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.' I didn't know how important that was until those rigorous, vigorous challenging years. I learned, ah, that's what that means."

As she cast about deciding what to do with her life, Angelou put food on the table by singing in a Honolulu night club. Anyone familiar with the voice as warm and welcoming as a hearth fire can well imagine her as a singer, but Angelou decided it was too demanding a profession, requiring too much sacrifice. Why, then, did she decide to write?

"I love it, I love it, I love it," says Angelou, now a professor of American Studies at North Carolina's Wake Forest University. "I believe literature has the power, the ability to move men's and women's souls. The work is so tedious, but I love the feeling of putting together a few nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives and rolling them together; I just do."   A Song Flung Up to Heaven, the author credits James Baldwin and Random House editor Robert Loomis with giving her the courage to write her own story. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings launched Angelou, then 30, as an author and as a role model of strength, courage and dignity. It's been both a reward and a responsibility.

"It has its burden in that I'm careful about what I say. I don't go out a lot. I go to friends' houses and they come to mine, but I'm always a little edgy when people are too adoring," says the author. "I believe that quite often that person who is at your feet will change position. If the winds of fortune change, that person will be at the throat. So when someone says, you're the greatest, I say, ahhh, how kind, there's my taxi."

If Angelou is careful in choosing the words she speaks, she doesn't mince any in her writing. She thought of fictionalizing the part of her life she writes about in the second book of her autobiography, Gather Together in My Name. Ultimately, though, "I couldn't do it," she says. Angelou wasn't eager to let people know she had been a prostitute, but she wanted to tell the truth. "A lot of people say, I've never done anything wrong they have no skeletons in their closets, maybe even no closets. I want people to know me. I'm not going to draw any lines."

By baring all in her autobiographies, Angelou wants people to know, as she says, "You may encounter many defeats, but don't be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter some defeats it makes you who you are and [helps you] know what you can take." You couldn't exactly call Dr. Angelou defeated. Since 1964, she has been nominated for the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, a Tony and an Emmy. She has received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature, the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album and over 30 honorary degrees. She wrote the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" for the Clinton presidential inauguration in 1993 and "A Brave and Startling Truth" for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. But she wants A Song Flung Up to Heaven to be the last volume of her autobiography, mostly because what she has done for the past 34 years is write. The book ends in 1968 with Angelou beginning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

"I refuse to write about writing. I don't even know how to do that. I leave that to Marcel Proust," she says and laughs. "I will continue to write essays and of course poetry, but autobiography? This is a good place to end.

"By the time Dr. King was killed, I came to understand a lot of things. I learned I could handle myself. I learned a lot about my own inner strength."

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.

Only Maya Angelou can write about loss and make it uplifting. She proved it with the very first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1958), and she achieves it again with her sixth and last volume of memoirs, A Song Flung Up to Heaven. In this new book, Dr. Angelou […]

Freud posited that the keys to mental health are work and love, and if he was right then Robert Olen Butler is the sanest man on the planet. It doesn't always look that way. Sane isn't the first word that comes to mind when describing Butler's idea to write a short story online in real time webcam, mike and all. But Butler, who teaches creative writing at Florida State University, doesn't care about the looks of things. A prolific and protean writer, he goes beyond the safe and superficial in order to tap into what he calls dreamspace.

"Art does not come from the mind," he says, speaking from his 1840 plantation home in Tallahassee, Florida. "It comes from the space where you dream, the unconscious." This dreamspace has been the source of a dozen books including his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain and the latest, Fair Warning Its narrator Amy Dickerson, a glamorous Manhattan auctioneer, understands her affluent clients' need to possess. "I know about desire," she says. "It's my job to instill it blind, irrational desire in whole crowds of people."

Fair Warning, with its startling opening line, "Perhaps my fate was sealed when I sold my three-year old sister," began as a short story. It was originally published in Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine, and the dreamspace Amy came from was not Butler's alone, but also Coppola's. "Francis had seen Sharon Stone act as an auctioneer one night and was enchanted," says Butler. The director asked the author to develop that moment into a short story. "When the suggestion was made, it attached itself to some character in my unconsciousness," says Butler. "It struck a chord somehow or I couldn't have done it. I just loved Amy." Others did, too. The short story version of "Fair Warning" won the 2001 National Magazine Award for fiction.

The voice Butler creates for Amy is sensual, sly, funny and real. Even as she flirts with wealthy collectors, she's still trying to outrun her Texas cattleman past. "I love voices," says the author. "I'm very character-focused, very voice-focused. I feel often when I write as if I'm channeling more than creating." He often writes in first person, which allows him to create the voices he loves, voices as madly diverse as Amy, Tony Hatcher, a Eurasian boy torn between Saigon and New Jersey in The Deuce (1989), and 13 different Vietnamese voices in A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain.

A linguist for the Army during the Vietnam War, Butler spoke fluent Vietnamese, which led him to "encounter the Vietnamese people in very close and intimate ways." He learned the details of their lives and 20 years later, re-created that intimate and complex world in his book which won the Pulitzer.

To create the voice of Amy, Butler also drew from experience. "I've known a lot of women in my life," he says. "I've been married four times, though only recently for real," to novelist Elizabeth Dewberry. But for Butler, understanding other lives is the thin part of a writer's responsibility. The rest comes from deep within, from "the dreamspace, the unconscious, a place where you're neither male nor female, Muslim, Christian or Jew, black, white. The human truth that transcends these superficial differences, if you write from that level of authenticity, is not only possible, but is the profound duty of the artist."

He concedes that the sheer diversity of his work, as he nimbly goes from the stream-of-conscious sensuality of They Whisper (1994) to short stories drawn from real tabloid headlines in Tabloid Dreams (1996), can make people uncomfortable.

"We like our writers to be characterizable entities, and I'm not. I keep following the muse wherever it leads." That's what led him to Fair Warning and to write "Aeroplane," his online short story (check out the story and web archives at www.fsu.edu and click on Inside Creative Writing). Butler, who's taught creative writing for 17 years says, "You have to teach [writing students] to access the deeply nonrational parts of themselves. The best way is to let them sit with you and watch the process. Now for the first time, that process is accessible through the Internet. This is the next step, getting naked in front of your computer and letting people watch." Pretty risky stuff, but Butler, who channels other voices in his work, is absolutely at ease in his own skin. It was not always thus. When he began writing, he wrote what he thought people wanted to read. "I courted approval," he admits. "All that stuff was having a bad effect on my writing."

Butler has published 12 works. He has written 17. He laughs. "I wrote five of the worst novels you could ever read and never will, 40 truly dreadful short stories, a million words of dreck, before something clicked," he says. "The click was where I stopped writing from my head and started from my unconscious. I discovered there was something else in me the impulse to create works of art, which requires a total disregard for those other matters. Only after I learned to just write the books that are there and not think about anything else, that's when I started writing well and getting published. Then I won the Pultizer Prize and I don't have anything to prove to anybody anymore."

The professional sense of comfort came long before the personal. After three failed marriages, "I finally found a soul mate," says Butler, who after seven years still sounds moonstruck. "I found and married Elizabeth Dewberry, an amazing writer. I'm now the second best writer in my household." They read to each other from their work and encourage rather than compete with each other. "That has made a big difference. That sense of connection has shaped my work as well as my life," he says. "Home is with Betsy. Home is the unconscious, too, the dreamspace. You carry your dreamspace around with you."

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Butler believes accessing the dreamspace is more important than ever. "Art has always responded to the deepest travails of the human spirit," he says. "Mohammad Atta flew that jet into a building in search of a self. More than ever, we need artists to tell us what it means to be human, to live, to die, to seek a self, an identity. Artists must look into the cauldron of their own souls to find what is happening to our world."

Ellen Kanner is a freelance writer in Miami.

 

Freud posited that the keys to mental health are work and love, and if he was right then Robert Olen Butler is the sanest man on the planet. It doesn't always look that way. Sane isn't the first word that comes to mind when describing Butler's idea to write a short story online in real […]

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."

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 […]

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