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Guterson goes into the woods with “The Other”
Bainbridge-based bestselling author David Guterson writes what he knows.
That’s why all four of his novels thus far have been set in the Pacific Northwest, and more specifically Washington state. He was born and raised in Seattle, attended the University of Washington and subsequently relocated across the pond to Bainbridge Island where he and his wife, Robin, have raised a family for the past two decades.
It’s also part of the reason why his bestselling breakthrough novel “Snow Falling on Cedars” shoulders some overtones from the classic story “To Kill a Mockingbird.” During the years-long period he was penning that novel — which would eventually win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and be pegged the book of the year by the American Booksellers Association in 1996 — Guterson was a Bainbridge High School English teacher by day, reading the Harper Lee classic again and again, year after year.
“I wouldn’t say it was a great book,” he said. “It was just what was in my head.”
In his new novel — “The Other,” set to hit shelves June 3 — Guterson, 52, traveled back in time in his mind, to the yesteryears of innocence and idealism, following a transition into responsibility of adulthood. The story, he said, revolves around a lifetime friendship between two starkly contrasted Seattle kids who find a common bond in love of the outdoors, love of literature and an affection for mind alteration.
Both are very intense individuals, however, they end up taking very different paths in life.
“One of them ends up living a really conventional life ... while the other one eventually becomes a hermit who lives by himself in the woods,” Guterson sets the stage. “For each of them, the other one is ‘The Other.’ They are shadows of each other.”
Neil Countryman, the book’s narrator, is a working class teenager who becomes the first in his family to go to college while the other, John William Berry, is a trust-fund kid from two of the city’s most wealthy families, intensely obsessed with the hypocrisies of the world. While Countryman grows into a conventional adulthood of a job, a marriage and a family, Berry drops out of college and goes “Into the Wild”-style, living all alone in Hoh Forest, abandoning both convention and the world.
Despite the divergence, the two stay connected through Countryman’s promise to keep secret Berry’s whereabouts and also through his liferaft-esque visits to the “Hermit of Hoh.”
“Somewhere along the way in the book you can’t really separate the two,” Guterson noted.
SEPARATING AUTHOR FROM CHARACTER
In addition to that bond between Berry and Countryman which “The Other” is based on, there’s also a bit of interesting connectivity between the author and his characters.
“I think every character in every book is an amalgam of people in real life and your imagination and parts of yourself ... but there’s no one to one correspondence between real life and character,” Guterson noted.
With that said, you can never really get away from your shadow, he added. In a way, Guterson is almost examining his own shadow through the lives of these characters.
“It wasn’t hard for me at all to go back to my own high school years and get the feel of it again,” he said of his research for the book. “Actually, it was really fun to plant myself back into the way that I saw the world.”
Guterson and these two characters are each rooted in the Northwest — growing up and graduating from Seattle public schools, onto college with idealism and zest, all along enjoying and adventuring amongst the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges.
As the story goes on, we learn that Countryman graduates college into the profession of a high school English teacher with a family, similar to the career path of the author himself. And on the other hand, just as Berry relinquishes the hypocrisy of city life the only way he knows how — by venturing into the woods — Guterson too, left the hub for a more rustic and sincere destination — Bainbridge Island (in the early 80s).
“When I first came over here... Bainbridge was a lot different from what it is now,” Guterson said. “It seemed really, really romantic to me from growing up in the city ... I think that helped me a lot to get out of the city and come somewhere new.”
Bainbridge, Guterson said, was the place where he found himself.
And he’s been here ever since.
He’ll be presenting his newest book “The Other” at his hometown bookstore — 7:30 p.m. June 3 at Eagle Harbor Books, 157 Winslow Way E. on Bainbridge.