It may be time to reconsider those romantic freshman-year fantasies about writing the Great American Novel. Here’s what the reality looks like: You rise at dawn to let the dog out for a run through the woods. It’s probably raining, as usual here on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle, so the mind quickly spins inward to the latest burning obsessions: grizzlies, mountain cats, and other forest predators. It’s time to race back home, a shingle-style bungalow you’ve shared for years with your wife and four kids, one that rents for less than $500 a month. Success doesn’t mean you can slack. A magazine editor in New York is desperate for your 10,000-word opus on Washington State apple orchards, and there’s work to be done around the house, too, and none of it very glamorous — chopping and splitting firewood, keeping the stove going, changing the oil in your car, tearing up the washing machine to figure out what’s wrong with it, and now the dog has to go out again, too.
It’s always interesting to see how success transforms people’s lives. With novelist David Guterson, what’s more fascinating is how he has resisted change. Never mind that Guterson published one of this decade’s most compelling popular novels, 1994’s Snow Falling on Cedars, which has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, was translated into 26 languages and has been adapted into a Universal movie starring Ethan Hawke.
The fact is, the 42-year-old author still lives very much like he did when he eked out a living at Bainbridge High School, where he taught Shakespeare and Hemingway for 15 years. He still wears tattered sweatshirts and grungy layers of plaid flannel. He still does the dishes every Sunday and Monday night (his wife, Robin, 43, a former speech therapist, and four kids split duty the rest of the week). And while Guterson’s not planning to stay in his small house forever, he’s not exactly Mr. Self-Indulgence, either. ”Let’s put it this way,” says Guterson, who stands to make more than $1 million from the movie rights alone and received a hefty advance from Harcourt Brace for his long-awaited new novel, East of the Mountains. ”Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in the world who got the amount of money I got [for Snow] would have spent much more than I did. I’m just happy I can spend $10 on lunch without worrying.” As Jonathan Harr, an admirer of Guterson’s work and the author of A Civil Action, whose publishing success also did not occur until he was in his 40s, puts it: ”When success comes at a later point in life, you tend to appreciate it more and view success more cautiously.”
East of the Mountains is Guterson’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to Snow, his first novel about a 1950s Japanese American charged with murdering a fellow fisherman. With an advance printing of 500,000 copies, the expectations for Mountains are high, a fact not lost on Guterson while he was writing it. ”I was very well aware there’s something called a second-book syndrome,” he says. ”People put a lot of stock in the follow-up effort. It tells the world whether you’re a real writer or just a one-hit wonder.”