David Wroblewski had a lot on his mind: language acquisition, the nature of communication, his home state of Wisconsin, Hamlet, dogs. After 10 years of brewing and hundreds of pages of drafts, Wroblewski produced his best-selling debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
“For a novel writer, the purpose of a novel is to give you a way to think about something that you wanted to think about,” Wroblewski said. “It might be a dramatic question. You don’t necessarily know the answer to it, but you know if you write the novel your thoughts will take some tangible form. Even if you don’t decide that the answer is ‘A’ or ‘B,’ you’ll have a clearer understanding of why it’s hard to choose between ‘A’ and ‘B.’ ”
Drawing a hard line could be difficult for a book like Sawtelle, which Wroblewski called more a love story than a tale of revenge. The novel paints the portrait of a family of dog-breeders in rural Wisconsin, particularly the relationship between Edgar, a boy born mute, and his dog, Almondine.
In his first visit to Chautauqua, Wroblewski will present Sawtelle, one of Week Six’s two Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections, at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Wroblewski said the first seed of the story was its structure: the concept of a modern retelling of Hamlet, set on the farm where he grew up.
“I hadn’t assembled that into a single idea until a particular afternoon,” Wroblewski said. “I wasn’t doing anything special, but I remember exactly where I was standing. … The second thought that followed onto it was … ‘I am not a good enough writer to write this book.’ ”
Wroblewski earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science and worked as a software designer. It was the idea to write Sawtelle that pushed Wroblewski to enroll in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.
On his first day at Warren Wilson, he walked into class with a few chapters written; on the last day, he left with almost two-thirds of a first draft. In total, the book went through approximately 12 separate drafts.
“I’m a novel reader at heart,” Wroblewski said. “It’s just the art form that feels natural to me. But it’s like anything — when something feels natural to you and you start to study it, all of a sudden it looks completely unnatural and impossible.”
For Wroblewski, the physical book of Sawtelle sold in stores does not look like the Sawtelle he wrote. The novel exists in his mind as it did in the midst of its creation: piles of paper strewn across tables, spread onto the floor, sometimes covering entire rooms. He said it almost felt like he lived inside the manuscript as he wrote it.
“What you see in any published novel is the result of lots of experiments,” Wroblewski said, “and hopefully, only the experiments that succeeded. All the experiments that failed along the way were pruned, removed, patched over and replaced with something better.”
Wroblewski once aspired to be an actor but quickly discovered in college that theater was not for him. That being said, he still draws from that experience, as he believes all arts draw from one another. For example, he sees writing drafts of fiction as rehearsals performed alone at a desk.
He also applies to his writing the knowledge he gained from his work as a software engineer.
“[It’s] the same kind of structural thinking that goes into thinking about how to put together a novel,” Wroblewski said. “All the details are different, but the mode of thinking is exactly the same. If you know how to make something and seriously think about its construction, you know how to make anything, in some sense.”
As a software designer, Wroblewski collaborated with both psychologists and linguists. He developed an acute interest in sign language after working with a specialist — the hearing child of two deaf parents — who applied linguistics to sign language.
“I’m fascinated by the process of language acquisition among children, because it’s impossible — it’s phenomenal,” Wroblewski said, “and that ties into the other thing that I was very interested in when I began this book: How was it that dogs are such communicative beings without having what we would call ‘language?’ ”
For the book’s few short passages written from a dog’s point of view, Wroblewski took into account that dogs do not have the same linear logic as humans; human minds anchor so much experience to grammatical constructs that dogs simply cannot. Because of that, Wroblewski said, attempting to occupy a dog’s mind made perceiving events less linear and more associative.
“It was almost like being given permission to move into a more poetic sphere,” he said, “where the connections between things supersede chronology or logical connectivity.”
While Wroblewski may have had to imagine a subjective experience as a dog, he has plenty of real-life experience living with dogs. He never reveals the breed of his current dog, Lola, out of fear that readers will mistake that to be the breed of the Sawtelle dogs. He will disclose, however, that she is 12 years old and weighs 95 pounds; she’s brilliant, but a grouch.
For Wroblewski, the experience of writing the book cannot be distilled into a sound bite.
“It doesn’t add up to any capsule summary,” he said. “What it’s added up to, for me, has been an appreciation. When I see a person and a dog walking down the street and they’re obviously communicating, obviously working together, obviously sharing an experience — it’s a richer experience for me. Just to see them, to have written this book.”