Photo: Marion Etlinger
When a debut novel arrives with a rapturous blurb from Stephen King, as The Story of Edgar Sawtelle does, it’s hard not to, at least, well, give it a look — and that was before the book scored a glowing review in the Times. But David Wroblewski’s sweet, suspenseful (nearly 600-page) story, about a mute teenager and his faithful companion, his dog Almondine, begs for more than just buzz. Wroblewski spoke to Vulture from his Colorado home about his literary influences, reader preconceptions, and why authors feel compelled to write about their dogs.
The parallels between Edgar Sawtelle and Hamlet are very striking. Edgar’s mother is named Trudy (Gertrude), his uncle is Claude (for Claudius), and even Almondine, a dog, bears some resemblance to Ophelia. Was that a deliberate decision on your part?
It was a conscious decision for sure. Hamlet is one of my favorite plays — I saw the movie version starring Laurence Olivier many times in college, and I was also briefly a theater major, so that’s how my interest in it began. But one afternoon, maybe ten or twelve years ago, I was thinking about how to write this story idea I had in mind about dogs, and all of a sudden my brain started juxtaposing the Hamlet story with another about a remote farm near the wilderness.
Did having Hamlet as a road map make it easier to tell this story as a result?
Well, I never treated the play as a road map per se, more as a source to draw from. It didn’t interest me as much to follow things to the letter. I preferred to pick and choose the elements the served the main story of Edgar and Almondine. There are parts of the book that have no relation to Hamlet at all. Ida Paine [an enigmatic older woman] has no analogue in the play. Edgar being mute is the exact opposite of Hamlet’s hyperverbal nature.
Since so much is being made of the parallels, though, do you worry about readers picking up your novel with preconceived notions about how it’s going to unfold?
In a perfect world no one would know, but of course, it’s not a perfect world … I remember when I first read A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. I came to it late, a few years after it was published, and I wish I hadn’t known it was retelling King Lear. So it’s a fact of life that people will know Edgar Sawtelle’s background. What’s funny is that after I finished a draft of the book I showed it to a few people and told no one about the Hamlet connection. About half of the readers got it, but nobody figured it out until the ghost of Edgar’s father showed up. Then it was more or less obvious to them.
Why was it so important for you to tell a story about dogs?
My childhood was spent with dogs, and I work with dogs surrounding me. This relationship is hardly unique — man-and-dog stories date back to ancient history, up to 10,000 years ago — but it feels that way to me. I used to have a love-hate relationship with dog stories because some got the dynamic right but most were dead wrong. The older I got, the more I realized there were no stories that reflected a true understanding of how dogs think and act.
But now there are all these novels with dogs as protagonists or at the center of the story…
Now, yeah, but when I started writing Edgar Sawtelle, most of the books I knew about were nonfiction. Elizabeth Marshall wrote a great book about raising dogs. Vicki Herman, too. I was writing the book long before Marley & Me came out. There’s also that new novel The Art of Racing in the Rain that’s being published now.
Right. So why do you think there’s this dog-fiction explosion?
Why now? I have no idea. If I had to guess, I’d say that it probably comes out of the writer’s personal connection to dogs instead of some specific literary motive. That’s how it was for me. —Sarah Weinman