Although he received critical praise for his collection of short stories and his nonfiction treatise on the value of home schooling, David Guterson's third book and first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was purchased by Harcourt Brace for only $15,000, after several other publishers rejected it. Snow Falling on Cedars went on to win the PEN/Faulkner award, among others, and provided Guterson with popular as well as critical success.
Childhood and Undergraduate Education. Guterson was born the third of five children on May 4, 1956, to Murray and Shirley Guterson, in Seattle, Washington. His father was a criminal lawyer and somewhat of a local celebrity. Guterson credits his father for teaching him two important tenets for life: "Find something you love to do — before you think about money — and do something that you feel has a positive impact on the world." Guterson spent his childhood outdoors, with fishing being one of his most popular pastimes. During his teenage years he committed what he called "minor acts of rebellion and delinquency," and led, overall, what he called an average existence.
When he enrolled in the University of Washington, Guterson first studied a variety of assorted courses, including anthropology and oceanography, but during his junior year, he enrolled in a short-story writing course, and "from day one I felt like this was it." Guterson had found his calling in life — to be a writer.
Guterson earned his B.A. in 1978, and married Robin Ann Radwick, January 1, 1979. They moved to Rhode Island when he enrolled in the graduate writing program at Brown University, but Guterson didn't care for it, claiming it was "too experimental." He attended only a semester, and soon after, the couple returned to the Northwest.
Graduate School and Family Life. Guterson returned to the University of Washington and studied with Charles Johnson, who would later win the National Book Award for Middle Passage. Johnson served as a mentor to Guterson, introducing him to the ideas of John Gardner. Gardner shared with Guterson his vision of the moral responsibility of writers. Guterson considers himself "a traditional storyteller" in the Gardner tradition.
In 1982, Guterson earned his Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) and began submitting stories for publication; he received many rejection slips. Eventually, literary magazines and journals accepted some of his stories. Six of the accepted stories, plus four new ones, became The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind (1989). This collection deals with such diverse themes as alienation, the failure to take on the responsibilities of love, and emotional sustenance. Though a well-reviewed fiction collection, the book didn't sell many copies. Years later, looking back on his early stories, Guterson referred to them as "flawed but interesting."
The strength of the collection's publication led to pieces being submitted to Sports Illustrated and Esquire; working as a freelance journalist, Guterson eventually impressed Harper's so much that he became a contributing editor for the magazine. Guterson tended to submit long and detailed pieces of nonfiction. One piece became his first nonfiction book, Family Matters: Why Home Schooling Makes Sense (1992). This expansion of his Harper's article about home schooling championed the way that Guterson and his wife were educating their own four children, Taylor, Henry, Travis, and Angelica.
Snow Falling on Cedars. Though his children were home-schooled, Guterson taught high school English for ten years. Often his students read Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird; both works share similar themes with Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson's first novel. Guterson also admits to copying the structure of To Kill a Mockingbird, where two separate stories become one, in his fiction debut. The description "a courtroom drama with racial conflict . . . as well as being a regional novel that portrays a particular time in U.S. history" could pertain to either Mockingbird or Cedars.
When asked about his writing, Guterson stated, "My work is rooted in the Northwest. It's all I know." The people and places of the Northwest dominate the pages of Snow Falling on Cedars, published in 1994. Stylistically, Snow Falling on Cedars is considered literary fiction, and critics praised Guterson's attention to detail. Winning the PEN/Faulkner Award (the largest annual juried prize for fiction in the United States) and receiving word-of-mouth recommendations led to an incredible paperback sales success.
This newfound success was nice, but Guterson's goal wasn't to publish popular fiction. "I'm not interested in writing merely to entertain. I want to explore philosophical concerns." One of these concerns is how our individual decisions affect not only our lives but also the lives of those with whom we come in contact. He views the universe as a troubling place and told the Washington Post, "for me — and this is why I wrote the book — it's about the fact that we human beings are required by the very nature of our existence to conduct ourselves carefully. It's about the fact that in an indifferent universe . . . the only thing we can control is our own behavior."
Careful not to preach, though, and wanting readers to reflect on a set of ideals, Guterson believes that "fiction writers shouldn't dictate to people what their morality should be," and "not enough writers are presenting moral questions for reflection." For Guterson, asking questions differs greatly and distinctively from giving answers.
Post-Snow Falling Activity. After the success of his first novel, Guterson continued to write essays for magazines as he researched and wrote his next book. Hollywood embraced his text, and a big-screen movie version of Snow Falling on Cedars was released in the winter of 1999. Guterson's second novel, East of the Mountains, released in April of 1999, also features a protagonist who survived World War II. Fans of Snow Falling on Cedars were not disappointed.