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Interview: David Guterson

We speak to a leading novelist whose work has shown no connection with his Jewishness - until now.

    Stare way: the Snow Falling on Cedars author has moved from the great outdoors to confront metropolitan life
    Stare way: the Snow Falling on Cedars author has moved from the great outdoors to confront metropolitan life

    Until now, David Guterson's novels have been filled with mountains and trees. His hit debut, Snow Falling on Cedars, traced the repercussions of a Japanese-American's murder in a close-knit fishing community, and he has since explored a woodland apparition of the Virgin Mary, a hunting trip, and the lives of former high-school jocks with a passion for the great outdoors. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Guterson is Jewish.

    "There hasn't been much in my earlier novels and stories to suggest it," he admits, adding that the idea of a Jew in Seattle is almost a contradiction in terms, never mind one who likes to hike. The soft-spoken 55-year-old is both, yet his latest novel, Ed King, represents a departure of sorts. It's his first to unfold against a predominantly urban backdrop, and has given him the opportunity to draw on his early years as the middle child of five raised in a liberal Jewish home.

    "Jewishness was taken very casually", he says. "The temple that we went to growing up was called Temple di Hirsch, and it was so liberal that the more conservative Jews called it Temple di Church. We're just liberal, secular Americans with a little matzah on the side."

    His new book's eponymous hero is Jewish by adoption. The illegitimate son of a scheming British nanny and a philandering statistician, Ed is abandoned at birth and shortly afterwards adopted by Dan and Alice King.

    Jews adopt less frequently than other groups, Guterson believes and, in Dan and Alice's case, their decision is preceded by careful weighing of their lefty-secular values against an inherited sense of their being the Chosen People. They end up sending Ed to Hebrew school and having him barmitzvah-ed along with their birth son, Simon.

    In his own life, in addition to four biological children, Guterson and his wife have a 12-year-old daughter adopted from Ethiopia. Adoption raised fascinating issues for the author, but it was elsewhere that the novel's inspiration lay.

    "This story started with some questions that I had about blindness - not literal lack of vision but blindness to self, our human inability to see ourselves clearly.

    "I was reminded that Sophocles' Oedipus Rex worked very much with this motif, and that's when it occurred to me that maybe there was a way to tell this story in contemporary terms."

    As nature and nurture conspire to catapult Ed to the giddy zeniths of a tech tycoon, Greek mythology's preoccupation with fate rubs flint-like against the Judaic doctrine of chosenness.

    "I felt I could mine my own experience and address elements of latent hubris that are potentially there when you promote this sense of being among the elect," Guterson says, recalling that, in his upbringing, that specialness was illustrated by the likes of Irving Berlin and Sigmund Freud.

    Speaking of Freud, the novel does not shy away from the more murderous and salacious aspects of Sophocles' story, either. Without issuing a spoiler alert, let's just say that Ed has a wild adolescence and develops a taste for older women.

    Though Guterson still chats with a teacher's patience decades after quitting the classroom, his unease about being identified as a Jewish-American author is insistent. "The question opens the door to a lot of complex issues about how writers are identified and for what purpose. In my case, I've never very strongly identified as a Jewish-American."

    Be that as it may, the one character he found himself having almost too much fun with was Alice King's "Pop", whose old-timer wisdom is laden with pungent Yiddishisms. "I had to rein myself in," Guterson laughs. It's just possible he is more of a Jewish-American novelist than he realises.

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