David Guterson’s honest reflection: “Snow Falling on Cedars” author visits Whatcom

DSC_0901by Ryan Tipper

David Guterson, the best-selling author of “Snow Falling on Cedars,” entertained the audience at Syre Auditorium for well over an hour and a half. Touching on pieces of his life unknown to many sitting in the large crowd, the listeners soon saw more than just a famous writer. They saw a man troubled by his own work.

Guterson reflected his distaste for his own book even after it had become a success.

“I was just far too done with it,” Guterson said with a sigh. “I had seen so many different versions and re-writes and edits of it, I just didn’t care.”

“Snow Falling on Cedars” is set on the fictional San Piedro Island in the northern Puget Sound in 1954. The plot revolves around a murder case in which Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese American, is accused of killing Carl Heine, a respected fisherman in the close-knit community. The book escalates from there while underlining the hardships that Japanese Americans went through while living in the U.S after World War II. The book has gained both negative and positive responses since its publication.

“I honestly had never read the book,” Guterson said. “It wasn’t until I knew I was going to be here talking to all of you tonight that I figured it was a good idea.”

The trials and tribulations of his past became evident as he gave his audience examples of his previous desires as well as what it was like writing a novel and having it be a large success.

“I had terrible ambitions and thought I could save the world with my writing.” Guterson said.

Born in 1956 in Seattle, Guterson was then the fourth generation of his family to call the city home. After high school, he attended and graduated from the University of Washington where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in English literature and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing.

After graduating, Guterson spent the next 12 years as a high school English teacher. It was during this time he began his professional writing career. He started to publish stories and essays in magazines and periodicals.

In 1989, his first book was published: “The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind,” a collection of short stories set mostly in the Pacific Northwest. His second book, “Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense,” was published in 1992 and contained essays on family and education.

Guterson said he was unaware that in the two years following 1992, he would finish writing a book that would sky-rocket him to success.

“I would have to wake up at 4 in the morning and work on ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ before going to class to teach,” Guterson said. “It was the only time I had to work on it and I still get up that early today.”

“Snow Falling on Cedars” was published on Sept. 1994, and became an immediate bestseller. In 1995, it won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, which is awarded to the year’s best works of fiction by living American citizens.

The book was adapted into a movie in 1999, and as a stage production in 2007.

“I actually got to be very involved in the whole process,” Guterson said “I was able to sit down with the director and help with the casting and show them some location settings that inspired me.”

To date, “Snow Falling on Cedars” has sold nearly four million copies and has been translated into several languages.

Guterson continued to reminisce about his past and explained what life was like for him almost 20 years ago. “I was the kind of kid that got caught up in my own romanticizing when I was growing up” he said.

“I honestly don’t remember much before and during ‘Snow Falling on Cedars,'” Guterson said. “I was at a low point when I moved to Bainbridge. I was living in my friend’s trailer at the time and became heavily influenced by the landscape.”

It was this landscape that is directly reflected in his setting for “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

Today, Guterson still resides in a bungalow on Bainbridge Island. He has been married to his current wife since he was 23-years-old and has four children.

Since the rapid success of his 1994 novel, Guterson has written five other books. For the past two years, he has been working on a book of short stories as well as a book of poems. He hopes to both finish and publish them some time next year.

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