Savage was born in South Carolina, studied at Yale and now lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His books are published by Coffee House Press, a small publisher-and a fine one-based in Minneapolis. The quality of Savage's work makes a strong case for a boutique publisher like Coffee House.
Savage's novels are tragicomic, funny, outrageous, unlikely, fantastic (as in fantasy) and eminently readable.The title character in Firmin iis a rat who finds himself captive in a Boston bookstore about to be town down. Paper is edible to a rat, so we know he won't starve. What we didn't know was Firmin would become wonderfully self-educated, and if you ate James Joyce, Austen and Dostoevsky all day, you'd be pretty smart, too.
I spoke with Mr. Savage from his home in Wisconsin.
CP: One of your characters is a rat and others are reclusive and unhappy. Yet all of your characters have a great deal of dignity.
SS: Dignity? I suppose they do. They have a certain self-regard. I don't know if I'd call it dignity. They're willing to be clowns. Both the rat and the others are willing to become ridiculous.
CP: does Andrew Whittaker in The Cry of the Sloth know he's ridiculous?
SS: I think he does.I think he's performing. You're welcome to your interpretation. I'm always impressed by the many different interpretations readers give my books, and of course you're as good a reader as I am. If you see dignity, then dignity is there.
CP: Where do these ideas come from? What is your process?
SS: They all have a similar process. I begin with the first line of the book...usually I hear a voice. Not a physical voice, but a manner of talking. And this voice carries a character with it. I listen to that voice. In most of the books, I've known the last line. I don't know anything else but I know the last line. I know the kind of things they're going to say, and then I know where it ends. I have to get from the beginning point to the ending point! I follow the voice. I take a lot of wrong paths. I back up. I waste a lot of paper. I know I should outline and that sort of thing, but I can't. I go ahead and run down blind alleys and back up and go down another one and eventually I do reach that ending.
CP: When you say a voice-do you hear a tone, or an accent, or a type of diction?
SS: A type of diction. It'd sort of a set of rules of speaking, or things they will say, or can say. I don't
know what they are going to say but I have a feeling of the box in which it is going to be said. That's what I guess we call character. Everything they say has to be in character. That's completely a gut feeling. I can't tell you what those characters are like. It's not like in creative writing classes where they say, "Give your characters three traits". I think of them as having souls. They speak out of their depths. That's a very vague thing conceptually, but the feeling of it is definitive. I reach a blind alley and say "Whittaker wouldn't say that. It's out of character. Now back up!"
CP: Your characters live amidst hoarding or clutter or clutter. Are they hoarders? Are they trying to hang on to something?
SS: I don't know if I'd call them hoarders. They fortify themselves. They are withdrawing . This clutter around them is not a hoarding of objects, its a building of barriers,
CP: Its a hoarding of themselves, maybe
SS: It's a hoarding of themselves, a withdrawal like the squirrel who gets all these nuts. He gets in there and now he's safe. He has all that stuff around him, and of course they become overwhelmed by this stuff, because often this stuff represents their past lives . They are all overwhelmed by their past.
CP: But a squirrel saves nuts to eat, so he can live. I don't find that your characters have given up. Andrew Whittaker keeps writing letters. He won't stop. That's not somebody whose given up.
SS: No he has not given up. But he's overwhelmed by his possessions, by his boxes of stuff. He feels burdened by his past. This is also true of Harold Nivenson (in The Way of the Dog) and even of Edna in Glass. There's too much stuff, and its symbolic of the past.. There's too much life, too much that
has gone before. And they can't get out form under that.Each one tries first to understand what it all meant, but also to achieve a kind of opening with which they can be free.
CP: What do you think these gentlemen would have done if they had woken up one morning in a beautiful, clean house?
SS: (laughs) They would have moved into a dingy old hovel!
CP: I'm an a Bostonian and here you are writing Firmin, set in a Boston bookstore about to be torn down. There's a lot of debris. Discarded books. The one creature who appreciates these books is a rat, named Firmin. Where did this rat come from?
SS: I'm a semi-Bostonian. I lived there for a number of years, and I actually knew the old Scollay Square, where the bookstores were.
CP: Scollay Square doesn't exit any more.
|Scollay Sq., Boston circa 1950|
SS: There was a famous bookstore back then,the Square was a sailor's hang -out. They'd come over form the Charlestown naval base . Sails in uniform with bell bottom pants . But there were a lot of used bookstores in the area, too.
I wrote the first couple of pages not knowing he was a rat! I was trying to tell his life and failing, and couldn't right that first sentence, . I wrote these pages and then I went to bed! The next morning I realized the speaker was a rat. It just came to me. It was he perfect metaphor because the rat is the ultimate outcast. They're member's of our society. They're everywhere. I have one in my back yard now, .Yet they're the most rejected, despised. The rat became a metaphor for exclusion. He wants to be human and to belong. He wants to be human. The metaphor for humanization is of course, reading. He becomes human, in spite of his person.
CP: The rat starts reading for food and immediately becomes well educated. I was convinced that all of this could happen. I know better. But Firmin is very, very convincing.
SS: That's the wonder of the imagination. All of my books depend a great deal...they leave a lot out, my books. They require a level of engagement. You begin to tell the story yourself. Imagination is important.
CP: Is it fair to say there's thread of the life of the outcast in your work?
CP: I've read all of your books. They're marvelous reads. They are not depressing ! They are so rich you can read several times..
SS: Thank you so much. I'm glad you are reading them and you value them. Thank you.