Guterson talks about his new novel, 'Our Lady of the Forest'

David Guterson's new novel, "Our Lady of the Forest," has gotten the kind of advance reviews novelists pray for. The Bainbridge Island author of "Snow Falling on Cedars" and "East of the Mountains" believes the book, about an itinerant teenage mushroom picker who sees visions of the Virgin Mary in the Olympic rain forest, is his best book ever.

And yet, Guterson has the jitters; he feels "dread" and "apprehension," he said in a recent interview. "Even though I think this book is stronger than the last one, with 'East of the Mountains' I found out what could happen — that there could be nasty reviews. The truth is, they do hurt."

Guterson's worries are understandable but seem groundless — it seems likely that "Our Lady of the Forest" (Knopf, $25.95) will enjoy a long, successful run. It's shot through with humanity, spirituality, sorrow, humor and compassion for the lost souls of the Pacific Northwest. Publisher's Weekly says, "Guterson's evocative prose, pithy dialogue and piercing insights cut through the fog of sin and guilt that shadows these wounded characters like the overcast sky of the Pacific Northwest ... this ambitious and satisfying work builds vivid characters and trenchant storytelling into a serious and compassionate look at the moral quandaries of modern life." (The Seattle Times reviews "Our Lady of the Forest" in today's book section, K10).

Guterson's book is just one of several highly anticipated books being released this fall by prominent Northwest authors, including Jonathan Raban, Pete Dexter, Neal Stephenson and Ivan Doig.

The Times chatted with Guterson recently at a Bainbridge Island bakery, where he spoke of building the novel, fleshing out his characters, delving into the psychology of the Marianites (followers of the Virgin Mary) — and seeing himself as a writer at age 47. Here's an abbreviated version of that conversation.

Q: How do you feel about "Our Lady of the Forest," your third novel, now that it's about to come out?

A: Dread ... apprehension. With "Snow Falling on Cedars," I had no expectations — it (the book's success) just happened. There was no chance to have emotional apprehension of any kind.

There's no concrete reason for me to be apprehensive. The prepublication experience has been perfect. You're naturally private, and suddenly your life is very public.

Q: "Our Lady of the Forest" centers on Ann, a 16-year-old runaway and itinerant mushroom picker in the Olympic rain forest who has visitations from the Virgin Mary. Please talk a bit about the idea for the book.

A: I really wanted to grapple with faith, desperation and hope, and the relationship between them. I spent about a year before writing the book asking myself what I wanted to write about and slowly discovering those things.

The spirituality of the rain forest ... when you go out into the rain forest, you're moot. It's the perfect place to explore these things: the locus of desperation, this town (North Fork, a fictional depressed logging village) next to the cathedral of the rain forest. Then I asked the question: Who's in this campground? Who's in this town? From that I began to develop this cast of characters.

Q: How did you form the character of Ann?

A: At the same time I was going through this, I was reading, and I stumbled on an account of Bernadette at Lourdes, and some things about the Marianite movement. It was almost like picking up something at random: How could a Marianite potentially play a role?

Visionaries were historically young, poor, tangential — barefoot, uneducated people. I began to sense a pattern to their stories ... the church initially expresses doubt, then proclaims a miracle. Marian apparitions always unfold at times of duress. The church always sees these as dangerous — a grass-roots fanaticism they can't control. These things take off at incredible speed. In the 1860s, Lourdes unfolded in a few weeks.

I thought, what sort of person should this be in the contemporary Pacific Northwest? Ann is 16, a runaway, abused in various ways. Everyone would say she was just a burned-out mushroom hippie. The skepticism would be obvious. She is a bedraggled lost soul, with the hood pulled over her head. Her damp, sickly past, her pale face; they all seemed appropriate to the Marian seer.

You see this sort of person around — on the streets of Seattle, in small towns throughout Western Washington. Having taught high school for ten years, I've noticed — the one who's small, who's silent, who sits in the back, the one whose essays are strange and interesting and entirely ungrammatical.

Q: What was the genesis of Tom Cross, the out-of-work logger and prison guard who blames himself for the paralysis of his teenage son in a logging accident?

A: I spend a lot of time living in a very male world; I have a lot of male friends. I see the male hardness. I see marriage, how it affects their lives. I come away asking myself about their inner life and behavior. Issues of being a male, an American male, an American male of the West, are all issues I find myself contemplating.

When a man commits himself to a hard silence as a way of dealing with the world — he also has to accept the suffering that comes with it. Tom is sort of like the fishermen in "Snow Falling on Cedars." They can't speak it, they can't utter it — so they're stuck with it in this awful private place. It builds frustration. Tom is an avatar of that Western American male persona.

Most people who work in the resource-extraction economy feel a deeply entrenched resentment of the culture of the moment. They're anachronistic, and they're proud ... the good old days were better.

Q: The town of North Fork — its townspeople, its businesses, its bars — is almost a character itself. How much research did you do? Is it based on Forks, Wash.?

A: I didn't want to set the book in a real place — if I had named the town Forks I would have to depict the reality of Forks. People in Forks do work in two or three different prisons, including Clallam Bay and a short-term correctional camp. But North Fork is set near Tacoma.

I may have gone to a bar, twice, saying, I'm really going to pay attention and soak it up. I went (commercial) mushrooming a couple of times. I went out to Forks with a guy who knew a lot more about it than I did.

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I worked summers for the Forest Service out of Randall. At the bars there, the Big Bottom and the Tall Timbers, you got to know loggers, and you got to see what went on — the guys who were the most mythic were the guys who had done the craziest things. The violent rage these folks feel — it's inexplicable from the point of (view of) middle-class people. Those of us who live sober lives can't imagine the chaos and irrationality that inform their lives. ...

I wanted Tom to be in a position where there is no way out, to experience the karma that would result from that male psyche. The one thing that would answer was a miracle. His son did not want to embrace that male ethos. When his son refuses and says, no, I don't want to suffer, this is no way to live — that enrages him.

I tried to invent Tom in a way that you wound up feeling ambivalent. You would have a thousand reasons to loathe him, but you couldn't hate him. You could see his humanity.

Q: How did you come up with Father Collins, the neophyte who leads a church in North Fork, and Father Butler, sent to investigate the apparition?

A: These were difficult characters for me. Most people who choose an intensely spiritual path in life are almost impenetrable. It's really hard for the rest of us to grasp. We're driven by our career desires, our sexuality — how could someone choose that, to devote themselves to God?

Most priests in fiction and cinema are presented as stereotypes. When you actually meet them, they're not these solemn figures with their hands clasped. They're human beings. They're seething with their own frustrations, hopes and desires. They're not just saints or frauds — far from it. A lot of people will read about Collins and say, I think he acts like a person, not a priest.

Not wanting to do too much research ... I did what writers always do: put yourself in their position.

I had a lot of fun with the dialogue between the priests. It's comic relief in a world that many would regard as depressing. The two priests are very different — one is very old-fashioned, and one is modern. They acknowledge that they're different, and it comes out in their caustic, friendly banter.

When I finished the book I was concerned that I had got things really wrong, so I shared it with about six people, including a couple of priests. They didn't have any problem with it, the relationship between the priests.

Q: What is your own religious heritage?

A: I grew up in a reformed Jewish liberal setting. A layer of moderate Jewish culture, a conventional American secular humanist upbringing. My parents were agnostic; we celebrated the conventions without real belief. That was reinforced by my public school education; you go to public school and that's what you get, more secular humanism.

Q: The scenes of the pilgrims who show up by the thousands to worship Ann feel very authentic. Did you attend any pilgrimages?

A: No, though last summer, after I finished this book, I was attending a wedding in Montreal. I drove down to a shrine in Vermont. It was a chapel where crutches were hung on the walls. The place was full of testimonials — evidence or proof of miracles.

Q: How is "Our Lady of the Forest" a departure from your previous books?

A: I just felt I was having a really good time (writing this book). I now felt I had the proper context to let myself out. I had never presented characters who lived in the moment — I'd never had characters who could mention Tonya Harding or liposuction or Botox. I've been rereading it the last few days and I've laughed out loud. I never laughed with the other books.

Also, my world view has changed. ("Our Lady of the Forest") is similarly existential (to his previous books) — we're lost in the void. But in "Snow Falling on Cedars" there's moral redemption, if you choose a certain path. Here it's a more complex vision. The path is more mysterious.

In the past few years, I've judged several writing contests (PEN Faulkner, National Book Award, the O. Henry Short Story Prize). I had great conversations with other writers on the topic, what makes a great book? That was a great thing to do.

Plus, getting involved with Field's End (a Bainbridge Island writing institute which Guterson helped found) has been great. I have to wake up to the fact that this is my fifth book. I'm 47. It's time to start giving back.

Q: Do you do a lot of rewriting?

A: I'll rewrite the word "the" and then toss it off. I'm always rewriting. That's the first thing I do every morning.... I can't go on until the page in front of me is right.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

Author appearances

David Guterson will read from "Our Lady of the Forest" this week at these area locations:

• At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bainbridge High School on Bainbridge Island. (206-842-5332).

• At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's Town Hall. (206-624-6600).