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David Guterson is a reader’s writer, welcoming his audience into a story from the first sentence. The rich landscapes of the Pacific Northwest are home to many of Guterson’s works of fiction, serving as emotional backdrops for deeply felt stories about the ways we deal with the most universal of questions.
Like many great writers before him, David Guterson draws on the rich local culture of the Pacific Northwest for inspiration in creating unforgettable characters and settings. Guterson credits many influences on his writing, beginning with his father, Murray Guterson, a distinguished criminal defense lawyer: His father's example taught him first and foremost to choose a career he would love, which also meant making positive contributions to the world.
Guterson was intrigued by the narrative of his father's cases. He often sat in on trials, but never felt the urge to become an attorney. When he started college, after one week in a creative writing class, he decided to become a writer. He eventually studied under Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage), developing his ideas about the moral function of literature, and concluded that it is the obligation of writers to present moral questions for reflection.
As Guterson honed his writing skills, he investigated a variety of jobs that would afford him the time to practice his craft. He finally chose to become an English teacher, mainly because he wanted to surround himself with great books and authors. He moved to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, teaching at the local high school, writing short stories, and freelancing as a journalist for Sports Illustrated and Harper's magazine.
During his years as a teacher, Guterson discovered another major influence in To Kill a Mockingbird. "No other book had such an enormous impact [on me]" he has said of Harper Lee's splendid Southern classic. "I read it 20 times in 10 years and it never got old, only richer, deeper and more interesting." He admits freely to borrowing many of the novel's structural and thematic elements for his own 1994 tour de force, Snow Falling on Cedars.
Although it was not his first book (he had previously published a collection of short stories and a treatise on home schooling), there is no denying that Snow Falling on Cedars -- ten years in the making and a true labor of love -- put Guterson on the literary map. Set in 1954 on an island off the coast of Washington State, the novel tells the intertwined stories of an interracial love affair and a murder trial that divides a community still haunted by its shameful wartime past. Critics responded ecstatically, calling it "haunting" (L.A. Times), "compelling...heartstopping" (The N.Y. Times Book Review), and "luminous" (Time magazine). The book went on to win the 1995 Pen/Faulkner Award; and the following year, Guterson was named to Granta's list of Best Young American Novelists.
Far from prolific, Guterson writes slowly and with great deliberation, averaging a book every four to five years. Blessed with almost preternatural descriptive skills, he is known as a writer's writer, polishing sentences to pristine perfection and creating stories of elegiac grace. He is disarmingly candid about the difficulties of his craft, claiming that each literary endeavor brings with it a paralyzing fear of failure that slows the process even further. "It doesn't matter who you are, how many awards you've won, how popular you are, or how much critical acclaim you've had," he has said. "When it comes time to sit down and write the next book, you're deathly afraid that you're not up to the task." Fortunately for his many fans, Guterson's misgivings seem totally unfounded!
Good To Know
When he won the 1995 Pen/Faulkner award for Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson quickly recognized the reclusive Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird for his success. He wrote to Lee asking her to come to the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., but being a highly private woman, she didn't attend.
Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted for a 1999 film of the same title, directed by Scott Hicks and starring Ethan Hawke. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for cinematography.