About the Author:
Sam Savage is the author of the best-selling, critically acclaimed novels Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife and The Cry of the Sloth. His third novel, Glass, is forthcoming from Coffee House in September 2011. A native of South Carolina, Savage holds a PhD in philosophy from Yale University. He was also a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the PEN L.L. Winship Award, and the Society of Midland Authors Award. Savage resides in Madison, Wisconsin.
On Glass and Figuring Out Edna: Sam Savage in Conversation with His Editor, Chris Fischbach
CF: Your new novel continues to explore themes from your previous novels: the failure of art, travails of solitude, language. Can you tell me more about why you return to these ideas?
SS: I don’t begin a novel with a plan. I write more or less randomly, “pretending” to be various characters. Usually nothing comes of it, but sometimes a voice “catches,” I can almost hear that person speaking, and from then on the writing consists mainly in getting out of the way, not forcing it down preconceived channels, until I have the first draft. I try not to think too much about why I do things, for fear of rationalizing the process, closing off avenues I am not aware of yet. What I am saying is, I don’t choose the themes, they reappear because I can’t escape them. Or maybe it is because, in some sense my writing is always about itself, about the solitude of the endeavor and my awareness of its continual failure.
CF: Edna is writing a preface to a reissue of her husband’s novel. Is Edna a writer?
SS: She scrupulously avoids calling herself that. She always refers to her writing as “typing.” This is because for her a “writer” is someone like her husband Clarence, a “professional” writer, as she calls him, who produces “work.” But a “work” is by nature a public object subject to all the corruptions of the public world. Edna’s “writing” is pure process, which in her view makes it “pure” writing, but it is also for that reason ineffectual. With her “typing” she pushes “art for art’s sake” to its radical conclusion, which one might, I suppose, call “art for my sake.”
CF: There is very little plot, in the traditional sense, in Glass. What would you say to someone who would identify that as a problem? What constitutes an event that is worthy of being a plot element?
SS: I am not hung-up on the idea of plot. Did you know that the French don’t even have a word for that? Where we sat “plot,” they just say “histoire” or “story.” I don’t give much thought to “plot,” but I give a lot of thought to “story.” I give a lot of thought to character, which to me is the most important element in a story. Overt events, which I think are what people mean by plot, are important to the extent that they have a bearing on character. I like first-person narration because in that case language, how people talk, how they think, their choice of words, the way they construct a sentence, is the primary vehicle for revealing who they are. Above all a story needs development. Things should not be the same at the end as they were at the beginning. The development of character, the disclosure and evolution of character, is the heart of the sort of story I am interested in writing, and in that kind of story what my narrators think and feel is at least as important as what they undergo or do. A “plot” of the kind people mean when they accuse you of not having one would just get in the way. It would be a distraction. This might not be to everybody’s taste, but if some people have a problem with it, well, that’s their problem.
CF: What is Potopotawoc?
SS: Edna’s descriptions tend to be “slanted.” They are filtered through her character, refracted by it, saying at least as much about her as they do about the things she describes. Potopotawoc is a prime example. Possibly it is some sort of writer’s colony. Possibly a “rest home” or “sanitarium” of some kind. What you think it is will depend on who you think Edna is. “Figuring out Edna” is, I hope, one of the things that some people will enjoy in the novel. People in “real life” intrigue me. I would like Edna, and the novel itself, to be an intrigue in that sense.
CF: Gilbert Sorrentino once said to me, “I just write the same book over and over. I don’t really have very much material.” Given the similarities between Glass and your previous novel, Cry of the Sloth (the setting of each being a writer sitting at a typewriter in front of a window), would you say the same about yourself?
SS: I suppose that might be one of the reasons I like Sorrentino, that he keeps digging at the same vein. But I have to confess that I never noticed the similarities among his books, I just thought each time I opened one that here was another “vintage Sorrentino,” which was exactly what I wanted. Now that you bring it up, I suppose I would say the same thing about myself. Or maybe I write the same book over because I didn’t get it right the first time.