Sam Savage grew up in a small town in South Carolina in the '40s and '50s. Then he went north, first to Boston and New York, and later to France and Germany. He studied at the University of Heidelberg and at Yale, eventually acquiring a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. He taught there, briefly and unhappily. It was a period when many had become convinced that there are no genuine philosophic problems, only genuine linguistic puzzles. This discovery did not leave any "career options" for Savage, since the only puzzle that interested him at that time was himself. In 1980 he went back south, to McClellanville, South Carolina (pop. 400), where he spent the next twenty-three years. He worked as a carpenter, a commercial fisherman, and a letterpress printer. He lived, however, mainly on a diminishing pile of inherited money and the labors of his wife, while he attempted to write, pretended to write, and often really did write. Most of the things he wrote have not survived. In 2003, he moved north again, this time to Madison, Wisconsin, where he now lives.
Savage has proved to be the most persistant and annoying of the Old Rat's fictions.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Savage:
"Two years before starting Firmin, I wrote a long story in a ragged verse form I like to call high doggerel. I persuaded my sister, the artist Virginia Beverley, to illustrate it, and we posted the whole thing on the web as The Criminal Life of Effie O. It is now available as a paperback book. Effie O was the first thing I wrote after I had learned not to give a damn. I wrote it for my sister, to whom I would read chapters over the phone as I finished them, and my wife, Nora, who I knew would like it, and for the joy of it."
"As for the inspiration for my writing, I don't plan a novel, don't start off with an idea or plot, such as 'a story about a literate rat in a Boston bookstore.' When I began writing Firmin I didn't even know Firmin was a rat, I didn't know he was in Boston, I didn't know it was a novel. If I am not working on a story, I sit at the typewriter (or now the computer) and just type without any leading idea, the writing equivalent I suppose of an aimless walk. Most of the time nothing comes of it, but not always. I rewrite a paragraph several times before I go on to next one. I try not to think about where it's all going, out of fear that of forcing the story in a preconceived direction rather than letting the direction emerge from the writing."
"As for jobs, I have probably had a greater variety than most people, but I have spent much more time sitting in armchairs doing what some have described unkindly as 'staring into space.' The riches this activity (and it was an activity) brought in, however, have not been convertible to cash. Among jobs I got paid for doing my favorite was working a crab boat along the coast of South Carolina, where I had returned after leaving the university. For six or seven hours a day I was alone in a boat in the marsh creeks, often not seeing another human from the time I left the dock to the time I returned. When I shut off the engine to cull my catch, the only sounds were birds, wind, and water. I thought, and still think, I was in those moments the luckiest person on earth."
"These days my pleasures are small and local. I walk by the lakes. I watch movies on video. I go out once or twice a week for lunch in some little restaurant. I read. My dislikes are large and universal. I have an aversion to jargon. Especially academic jargon. I dream that one morning all the cars in the city will fail to start. I anguish over war and famine. I read the news obsessively. I fume. I think I rant."
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In the winter of 2007, Sam Savage took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
So many books have had an impact that I couldn't begin to list them all. But I remember the book that made me want to be a writer. It was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I was 18 when I read it. It's the book that first made me aware of style. I remember reading the first page and being astonished.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Since I have a lot of favorite books, this list of ten, which includes a short story and a book of poems, has to be somewhat random:
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal -- A book about a lover of books in a world that no longer wants books.
Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino -- A master writer stoops to heartbreak.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- Almost everything we need to know about the soul.
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass -- The demolition of a delusion.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol -- A great work of absurdist black humor, expressive language, and vast whimsy.
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- Everything we need to know to know about the soul that isn't in The Brothers Karamazov.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka -- For its vision of otherness as exile.
The Dreamsongs by John Berryman -- If Chaplin had been a suicidal poet.
Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen -- An hallucinatory sea tale, a work of stark intense beauty.
Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti -- The destruction of a bookish life.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I like films with imaginative leaps and out-of-step characters.
The Burmese Harp
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Mostly classical and jazz. I never listen to music when I write.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Any of several novels by Graham Greene. Greene's concern with moral ambiguity make his books interesting to talk about, especially these days.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I often give biographies of people I think the recipients would like to have known, probably because it's easier to guess people's taste in people than their taste in books, and maybe also because biographies are things to keep, while works of fiction are often things to pass on.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
A computer. A cup of coffee or tea. I have to be completely alone to write. I can't imagine writing in a coffee shop.
What are you working on now?
A novel in letters. My ambition was to write something very different from Firmin, but it looks like I'll end up with another rat in a hole.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It took me all my writing life, about 45 years. I didn't publish my first book until I was 65. Before that I published a poem now and then. I didn't get many rejection slips because hardly ever sent anything off. I would either not finish it, or I would finish it and throw it away.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Sorry, but I can't help here. I know very little about new writing.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Well, my own experience would not be a good model for anyone. But if you have to wait that long, I would say that it's important to remember that what you do with your time, even if nothing is ever published, is not worse than golf. If you believe, as I finally did, that you will never have what most people think of as a writing career, and yet you still love doing it, then do it as well as you can and count yourself fortunate.
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