Undergraduate Academic Affairs

November 1, 2011

An interview with Honors alum David Guterson

Kat Chow

Alumni e-News
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David Guterson in 1981

David Guterson in 1981 with one of his sons, showing that it’s never too early to start to learn to write.

Chatting with David Guterson in a U-District coffee shop, you wouldn’t know he was the best-selling author of multiple novels and a book on homeschooling. There was no sign that Snow Falling on Cedars, his second book, had won a PEN/Faulkner award and was later turned into an Academy Award-nominated feature film.

And there was certainly no trace of worry or stress over his new book, Ed King, which was released October 18.

Guterson’s most recent novel, Ed King, is in stores now. He’ll be reading from his book at the University Book Store Nov. 3 at 7 p.m.

David Guterson PhotoInstead, Guterson’s thoughts were focused on his oldest daughter, the fourth of five children, whom he was on his way to visit in Bellingham. She began her freshman year at Western Washington University this fall and, like many new college students, seemed to be experiencing the freshman blues—she wanted her dad’s advice. And Guterson, pictured at left, who has juggled various accomplishments throughout his life, seemed anxious.

UW years

Guterson remembers his first of many years at the UW. In the fall of 1974, he moved a few miles away from his parents’ Bryant-neighborhood home and into one near Northeast 22nd Street, at the bottom of the hill. At the time, he paid $75 a month for rent and $184 a quarter for tuition. He worked a forestry job every summer to pay for school.

“You know, I wasn’t a great student in high school,” Guterson admitted. “But when I started college, I remember telling myself I had a fresh opportunity as a student, so I decided to put some effort in.”

His effort—among other things—included enrolling in the University Honors Program. At the time, Guterson wasn’t even interested in writing. “It took me three years of college to just find the right thing for me,” he admitted. He credits Jack Brenner’s short-story writing class for getting him hooked.

Later, he took creative writing classes from other professors, including Charles Johnson, whose course partly inspired Guterson’s Honors Program project. For that, he worked with honors adviser Ran Hennes to analyze and critique the complete work of novelist John Gardner, who was actually Johnson’s former instructor.

“I’m not the kind of person who just trumpets and promotes something just to do it—if I didn’t like the U, I wouldn’t say this,” Guterson said. “It was a really meaningful experience to be a student at the University of Washington, and it really changed my life.”

And there were many opportunities for the UW to change his life.

After he graduated with college honors and a bachelor’s degree in English literature, Guterson wound up enrolling at the UW an additional three times. The first time was when he started the master’s program in creative writing, only to leave it a short time later for an experimental writing program at Brown University. The second time, he returned to the same creative writing program he had originally left—Brown’s program hadn’t been what he had expected.

“[Writing] wasn’t something I thought I could make a living doing—that was an unrealistic expectation,” Guterson said. So he enrolled one more time at the UW, earning his teaching certificate.

The discipline of writing

But maybe his realistic outlook helped him gear up for his writing career. His days would start early—Guterson claims he’s a morning person, something this student doesn’t doubt, based on our 8:30 a.m. meeting—and would consist of re-reading what he wrote the day before and then writing an additional 200 or 500 words.

It was a slow process, especially since his mornings would be cut short when he went to work teaching high school students to analyze books. But he was disciplined.

“I think that if a person finds that they can’t put the work in and they don’t have the discipline, then they probably are not meant to be writers,” Guterson said. “Kind of a sign, you know? It needs to come from the right place.…You wake up with something that’s almost an obsession—you just want it.”

And speaking of karmic signs, two of the books that Guterson taught his high school students became especially helpful as he set off to create his own work.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird was important in Guterson’s writing process for Snow Falling on Cedars, what some also consider to be a courtroom drama that champions morality.

Ed King, the new novel

Ed King, the new novelAnd in recent years, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex came in handy. When Guterson was planning Ed King, he was interested in the idea of blindness and one’s blindness to self.

From a psychological standpoint, nobody can truly see himself or herself, Guterson explained. And since Oedipus was famous for blindly following a tragic prophecy and eventually gouging his own eyes out, Oedipus seemed like the perfect prototype for Guterson’s theme—being blind in both the metaphorical and literal senses.

So Guterson wrote Ed King, which he calls a “contemporary re-telling of Oedipus Rex”: a married man has an affair with his children’s teenage baby sitter, who bears a child whom she abandons. This child becomes a Seattle-area Internet tycoon and, boom, he falls into Oedipus’ tragedy. Although it’s not clear if this tycoon gouges his eyes out like Oedipus—perhaps it’s a surprise—Guterson was excited about the complexity of the novel.

“This question about blindness to self isn’t just a personal question,” he said; it can also be political. “It’s a large question for society….As Americans, we’re blind to ourselves.”

A writer in the community

Guterson certainly doesn’t appear to be blind, either to himself or his surroundings. When not writing, he’s proved to be an active community member in all facets of his life—a true renaissance man.

In addition to teaching at a public school for years, Guterson homeschooled his three sons—who all went to the UW—and published a book on homeschooling. On top of that, he helped establish Bainbridge Island’s homeschooling resource center.

He even helps others write. In 2002, Guterson co-created Field’s End, a writing organization that’s based on Bainbridge Island. He currently mentors high school-aged writers and works with a UW graduate student every summer as part of a fellowship he established.

And to add another twist to the plot that is Guterson’s life: a few years ago, Guterson and his wife adopted their fifth child—a daughter from Ethiopia—and became involved in Seattle’s Ethiopian community.

Kat Chow is a senior in the University Honors Program, studying journalism and ethnic studies. She’s also a freelance writer for the Seattle Weekly and other local publications, and is currently in the journalism program’s News Lab.