The Books Interview: David Guterson

Would it be accurate to describe your new novel, Ed King, as a retooling of the Oedipus myth?
Yes, although I think the terms of tragedy have changed. The specifically ancient Greek sense of tragedy, which involves the gods and destiny - I don't think we have that any more. So tragedy today functions in a different spiritual space.

Before writing this book, I had begun to take note of neurosis in human relationships, to notice people who were pathological liars, people who engage in abusiveness, bullying, aggression. As I looked into it, I realised that blindness was almost always part and parcel of it.

And in the novel, the spiritual space in which the tragedy unfolds is the American myth of self-reliance and self-invention?
I consciously set out to try to retell the Oedipus myth in contemporary American terms. Americans tend to function in a vacuum, and are very insular. It's a peculiar form of blindness. There's a powerful association between blindness and hubris, as there was in Oedipus.

Is it a kind of wilful blindness?
I think it takes an effort of will to sustain it. What happens is that, at times, either as an individual or as a culture, you are confronted with your blindness. Then it takes will to deny it. That happens in Sophocles's play when Tiresias shows up and says: "You're blind, you're the problem." And Oedipus just says, "No, I'm not, you're the problem."

American insularity can't last for ever, though, especially as the US loses its global pre-eminence.
There's a recognition in part of the population that some kind of awakening has to happen. But there is another significant political constituency here in the US who refuse to acknowledge that. We've been led to this horrible political paralysis as a result.

The novel is set in the Pacific north-west of the United States, where you live. How would you characterise the region's relationship to the rest of the country?
When I went to Brown University, I had never lived on the east coast before. It was an utter culture shock. It took me about six weeks to get a real kick out of the writing programme there because I had no idea where I was or what was going on.

It's 3,000 miles across the country. You may just as well be in a different universe. There are ridiculous caricatures about this part of the country. People come here with all kinds of assumptions and expectations about what they are going to find. But they don't find it; they just find human beings.

Has the area changed since the arrival of Microsoft and other hi-tech companies?
It's changed enormously. First of all, the history of European settlement here does not go back very far. Everything that has happened here in terms of modern history has happened very rapidly.

There were a few decades of resource extraction. Then we turned towards a manufacturing economy with Boeing, and then along came tech.

So, we've had these three economies, with their associated cultures. When I was growing up in the Seattle area in the Sixties and Seventies, it was a culture of lunch-pail engineers doing shifts at Boeing. That world has disappeared and has been replaced by the world of tech. It changed the cultural landscape of the city and the region entirely.

You recently described yourself as a “21st-century postmodernist". Did you have the metafictional elements of Ed King in mind when you said that?
There is a metafictional element in this novel, but that's not something I had done before. If I look back across the five novels I have written, there is a shift in approach and tone.

I needed this metafiction to function in lieu of the gods. Since we no longer think of the gods as agents of destiny, I had to bring myself into it. That dictated certain aspects of my approach to the story. When I started thinking about retelling the Oedipal myth in the absence of the gods, divine agency and a sense of destiny or fate, it occurred to me that, in a novel, the source of destiny and fate is the author.

What are you working on next?
I have an idea for a novel I'm excited about, but I'm torn about what to do next.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire

David Guterson's "Ed King" is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?