David Wroblewski didn't think his first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, would even sell to a publisher: "It's kind of an old-fashioned story, and I don't think we're into old-fashioned stories right now," he said recently by phone, taking time out from his tour to promote the paperback release of his novel.
Instead, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle became an old-fashioned success story. After toiling for a decade on the book, Wroblewski saw it finally published last year to rave reviews, best-seller status and, perhaps most significantly in today's market, an Oprah's Book Club pick.
In his novel, Wroblewski uses the framework of Shakespeare's Hamlet to tell the story of a mute farm boy seeking to prove his uncle killed his father. Set at a Wisconsin dog-breeding farm, the story touches on the powerful bond between dog and human, and the inevitability of fate.
Wroblewski has a history with North Carolina. He learned a great deal about how to develop the novel at an MFA program at Warren Wilson College in Black Mountain, N.C., in the late 1990s, when the book was still, so to speak, a pet project.
"I thought I understood the overall story, and was writing chapters somewhat out of order," he says. "There's a sort of intermediate level of structure that holds a novel together in the middle, and I asked every teacher I worked with how that worked. No one had an answer, but the great value of this program was being able to bounce it off teachers and other students until I found the answer for myself."
He calls Edgar Sawtelle "my first, second and third novel," referring to the many drafts it went through before publication. "It occupied my spare time and thoughts for so many years that it's almost embarrassing," he says. "A novel is such an obsessional device—because it's so long, it requires months, if not years, of work. It seems to me an almost chaotic process."
He didn't anticipate the book's success ("Who could?"), nor did he expect the Oprah pick. But, he adds, "The next day, my cat threw up on the rug, and I still had to do grocery shopping, and life went on pretty much as usual."
Many fans and critics have raved about the role of dogs in Edgar Sawtelle, and Wroblewski grows excited as he discusses why animals are so popular in books. "We're living in a sort of golden age right now, in which a lot of research done in the 1990s in academia overturned a kind of taboo around animal cognition from around the middle of the 20th century that said animals have no emotions or thought processes that humans do," he says.
"Any person who's ever lived with a dog or a cat knows from day one that dogs and cats dream, that they have human emotions. This experience we have with dogs is our oldest experience with animals outside of eating them—our relationship goes back thousands of years, and this living together has changed us, and it's changed them."
Wroblewski has begun a new novel, but he doesn't think it'll take him another 10 years to finish it. "I'm in the same place I was 10 years ago with Edgar, in many ways," he says.
Wroblewski is making not one but three stops in the Triangle area, with appearances at The Regulator Bookshop (Nov. 12, 7 p.m.); Quail Ridge Books & Music (Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m.); and McIntyre's Fine Books (Nov. 14, 11 a.m.)