An interview with David Wroblewski, whose first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, was published by Ecco.
PW: The general wisdom about writing is “write what you know.” What part of Edgar Sawtelle was from your own life experience and what part was fabricated?
DW: The setting is taken from life; it’s my parents farm where I grew up, in central Wisconsin, transported four hours due north to the north woods. The other element taken from life is that my folks really did have a dog kennel for about five years when I was a kid. Everything else is fictionalized; my life was much less interesting than the Sawtelles’ life—and that’s a good thing. [My childhood] was the genesis for my lifelong interest in dogs. In fact I’ve often summarized this book by saying it’s a boy and his dog story for grownups.
PW: Your novel has received ecstatic reviews, including a glowing letter from Stephen King. What’s your reaction to all this praise?
DW: Well, I’m floored by it. Probably the thing that scares me most in engaging in hubris. Because I have this distinct sense that the karmic lightning bolt follows close behind. My goal in writing this book was just to learn how to write a novel. And if it was publishable, that would be great, but everybody’s got to, you know, pay their dues—so just get in there and write one. So the fact that it was published at all—well, it was sort of what I was hoping for. The fact that it’s getting good reviews and selling great, it’s sort of gone off the scale for me. I don’t have many words that express my reaction, except pure gratitude—I’m a really lucky man. About the only thing that I can reasonably do right now is let the reviews accumulate and more or less set them aside no matter what they say. And then later this year when the tour is over read them—not just the good ones, but also the bad ones, or the harder parts of even the positive reviews.
PW: It’s difficult to get a first novel published. How did the process for Edgar Sawtelle happen?
DW: My agent is Eleanor Jackson; she’s with Queen Literary . In November and December of 2006 an editor expressed interest—we’d been submitting it and had been turned down on the order of four to six places. I had sort of concluded that we would submit to some more places, but that it wasn’t going to get accepted. I was so sure of that that I actually took a new job at the end of November of that year, and that was going to eat up all my time. While I was in my two-week notice period in my old job we got interest from one publisher, then the next day it was two, then the next day another one and ultimately four publishers were interested and there was an auction. It sold around December 15 of 2006. It was a very difficult decision, because all the editors were fabulous; I would’ve been really fortunate to work with any of them. Ecco editorial director Lee [Boudreaux] is such a dynamo; she bowls me over with pure energy. I thought, if I can keep up with this woman, I’m going to learn a lot.
PW: Having made such a splash with your debut, are you worried about novel #2, and have you started work on it?
DW: I’m not worried about the second novel because one of the things I know is that you just have to sit down and do the work. So it’s not like I’m wringing my hands in any way over it. I have a basic story in mind; I have a character that I’m crazy about and I have a set of moments that are perfectly clear to me about what’s going to happen. But it’s in its very early days; it won’t be for a couple of weeks before I get going. But I’m sort of pawing at the ground and I know that you have to get a first draft done before you know what you’ve got. My sense is that I need to be quiet and eat my Wheaties and do the work—and it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. Basically I’ve no anxiety about living up in any sense to Edgar: it’s going to be a different story and it’ll have its strengths and weaknesses. I think it’s the only way to do it; otherwise you just tie yourself up in knots. I’m 48 years old and I’ve been making software for 30 years in my other career. I know that to get stuff done you sit down and it’s work. I think that’s one of the advantages to having an experience like this a little later in life than when you’re 20.