Jill Kronstadt writes about decision-making dogs and the highly allusive novel in her feature piece about David Wroblewski‘s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Following are some of Wroblewski’s thoughts on the matters at hand.
“I thought that ‘dog stories’ had been juvenilized over the course of the 20th century, and that was wrong. I’d grown up around a lot of dogs. I knew just how complex and profound the interaction between people and dogs could be. Fiction, I felt, had fallen far behind science in this regard. Tremendously exciting results were coming out of academia, results from philosophy, ethology, cognitive science, and linguistics, all converging, all shedding fascinating new light on what it meant to be conscious, what it meant to be a human being, or an animal. But every contemporary story or novel with a dog in it turned the dog into a puppet, a comic or narrative device. It was maddening. When it came to dogs, the only books worth reading were on the nonfiction shelves. —Interview with Peter Scowen, The Globe and Mail, 5/7/2009
“My best description I can come up with for what it’s like to write a novel is that it is like going into your garage and trying to build a one-of-a-kind, custom musical instrument out of the spare parts you find there, while simultaneously composing the best possible music to play on that instrument. . . as you are learning what this instrument is capable of doing, you change the kind of music you envision you can play on it. There are possibilities that come up that you never imagined. And at the same time, once you’ve played them, you have a different piece of music and you have different objectives for what that instrument should be…It’s a sort of feedback cycle, that if you’re paying attention to what the thing is and you’re trying to let it exert some kind of influence on what its final form will be, you will be a participant, but you’re not necessarily always in command.” –Q&A session at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, 9/26/2009 (transcribed by Jill Kronstadt)
“I’m no great shakes as a trainer. I’m much more interested in what the dogs choose to do.” –from Patricia Cowen’s, “The Dog Days of Summer Suit One Novelist Fine,” nytimes.com 7/9/2008
What was there to do with such an infant child but worry over him? Gar and Trudy worried that he would never have a voice. His doctors worried that he didn’t cough. And Almondine simply worried whenever the boy was out of her sight, thought he never was for long.
Quickly enough they discovered that no one understood a case like Edgar’s. Such children existed only in textbooks, and even those were different in a thousand particulars from this baby, whose lips worked when he wanted to nurse, whose hands paddled the air when his parents diapered him, who smelled faintly like fresh flour and tasted like the sea, who slept in their arms and work and compared in puzzlement their faces with the ether of some distant world, silent in contentment and silent in distress.
The doctors shone their lights into him and made their guesses. But who lived with him morning and evening? –from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
“There was another book that made a big impression on me, even before I started working on this novel, which was Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name by Vicki Hearne. Her thesis in the book is that the process of training is only superficially about obedience; what it’s really about is constructing a language in which you can have this conversation that will carry on for your entire life, a conversation about what matters and what doesn’t matter. Does it matter if you come when I call you, or does it not matter? Does it matter that you wake me up in the morning, or bark at the doorbell? Or does it not matter? So it seems to me—and this is true in my own life—that the training is a means to an end, and the end is not obedience. It’s just better understanding, better communication…Another thing Hearne says in her book is that you earn the right to give commands by being obedient yourself.” –“About the book: A Boy and His Dogs: Gil Adamson Interviews David Wroblewski”
Furthermore, what she’d said about his training skills was true. He was lazy and indulgent; what he liked was the attention of the pups, not the training. He was inconsistent. He worked them on skills they already knew and avoided more difficult things. Worst of all, he understood there was more he should be doing, but he had no idea what it was, and that made him feel ashamed.
“You need to realize that this is a business, like a grocery store or a gas station…You’ll have to think of this place as a business first and a playground with dogs second.”
You’re talking down to me, he signed. I know what we do.
“Do you? What do you think we sell?”
He must have looked at her like she were insane.
Dogs. Dogs, of course.
“Wrong. You see, Edgar? It’s not as obvious as you think.” –from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
The idea that Edgar would be mute was also a result of personal experience. Mr. Wroblewski had to have minor surgery on his tongue in the early 1990s, which made it difficult to speak.
“I just stopped talking for a while,” he said. “I became very observant.” He thought it would be interesting to have a character who couldn’t talk. Edgar, he said, “is hyper-observant in the way that Hamlet is hyper-verbal.” –from Patricia Cowen’s, “The Dog Days of Summer Suit One Novelist Fine”
“Moby Dick has always impressed me as not so much written as chopped from the Great Tree of Narrative with a rusty axe—but you don’t know what a novel can be until you’ve read this thing. I’ve opened it at random and sampled the prose countless times just to remind myself that the crazier the idea for a story, the more wholehearted you have to be about writing it.” –from “David Wroblewski’s Favorite Books,” www.oprah.com, 11/21/2008
Yet this was complicated beyond any ability he had to express it. He felt he could do nothing until he had the right words, but the ones that came to mind only captured what he had been thinking, trailing his real thoughts like the tail of a meteor. To say his mother was taking up with a man: that was an idea that had occurred to him days before, maybe weeks. But only just then had the words bubbled up inside him. As soon as he heard them in his mind he discarded them as fussy and stupid, a remnant of past thought. What he was thinking at that moment was something entirely else and he didn’t know if anyone had ever come up with words for those ideas. He stopped grooming Essay and tried to explain, and for a long time the dogs lay watching as his hands traced his thoughts in the air.
…His father had died from an aneurysm.
A weakness in some place called the Circle of Willis.
Except he didn’t believe that now. –from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Click here to read Jill Kronstadt’s feature piece on David Wroblewski.