David Guterson Talks Fact and Fiction in ‘The Final Case,’ His First Novel in a Decade – Orange County Register


In David Guterson’s new novel, “The Final Case,” a white fundamentalist couple from outside Seattle are accused of abusing and murdering the daughter they adopted from Ethiopia. An aging lawyer named Royal agrees to defend the mother even though he finds everything about her distasteful.

At first glance, it might seem like Guterson’s debut novel from 1994, the award-winning bestseller “Snow Falling on Cedars.” But this book was a tense drama structured around the crime and the case. Guterson’s latest novel, his sixth, is more haunting and elegiac. The case often seems secondary as the lawyer and his son – who now has to drive his father to work every day, and who tells the story – take stock of their lives.

“I wanted it to be thoughtful without wallowing, and that’s a fine line to walk,” Guterson said in a recent phone interview. “The word ‘maudlin’ appears two or three times just to show that the narrator is aware that he is on the brink.”

The narrator is definitely aware of our presence as Guterson deliberately blurs the lines between fiction and reality. The narrator is a novelist who has not written fiction for years. This is Guterson’s first novel in a decade. And the attorney is clearly modeled after Guterson’s father, a prominent criminal defense attorney, whose view of life and real-life cases is shared by his fictional counterpart.

The book opens with a disclaimer explaining that there was a real trial “but – to be clear – this book is a work of fiction”.

But then, at the start of the first chapter, the narrator says, “Writing fiction was completely behind me… If that makes you wonder about this book – wondering if I’m kidding, or playing a game, or whether I have wandered into the margins of metafiction or the rough terrain of autofiction, everything here is real.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. On the surface, this book is centered around a crime and a trial, which was also true of “Snow Falling On Cedars.” But it was a very focused drama and this one is not. Were you aware of the connection and the differences and the reaction of the readers?

I was aware that assuming a plot centered around a courtroom drama would have suspense built around a verdict and there would be an expectation that might be what holds this novel together and gives it narrative propulsion. But I wanted to undermine that expectation, so I changed it so the trial was part of what I see as a larger story arc. I understand how a reader feels like the story arc is buried, but I decided to write a novel that had a plot.

The reality of life is inconsistent with fictional conventions, with plot points and a finished story. Life meanders. But I did not try to stroll. It’s just that the plot of the novel might take a bit of work to figure out because it’s not necessarily on the surface.

I wanted to tell the story of the relationship between professional work – what we do for a living – and the idea of ​​striving for a meaningful life. The narrator has arrived at a time when he is confused and lost about it. This is the plot. The forward movement of the novel is that it examines this relationship and the trial takes place within the context of this larger story.

The trial is one more example of the relationship between work and a meaningful life and how it unfolds for the narrator’s father. We see that since the beginning of his career, he has seen every instance, every opportunity to find meaning in his work. This is the latest example of that in a career dedicated to it. This is the buried arch.

Q. What attracted you to the real-life trial?

About 15 years ago we adopted a girl from Ethiopia and the actual case in 2011 involved another adoption which happened around the same time and people used the same agency as us and live in the same part of the country. Our daughter and the daughter they adopted appear on the same DVD [that the agency sent to prospective parents]. So when I learned that the girl they had adopted had died in these horrific circumstances, it touched me a lot. It could very well have been our adopted daughter, she just missed being in that position. So I paid attention to the case and when the trial started in 2013, I attended it every day; After the trial ended, I went to Ethiopia and found the family of this girl.

Q. Did you know you were going to write a novel about it? And did you know at the time that you modeled the lawyer on your father?

I knew I wanted to write something. I was so full of feelings about it all – it was inside me in a deep way – but I didn’t know what, just that sooner or later the words were going to come. The other piece is that the summer of my father’s trial was in decline. He passed away this fall. These two things are emotionally connected and you can see how that manifests in the novel.

Q. How did you decide what to keep fact-based and what to fictionalize? For example, the current family had adopted two children from Ethiopia but in the book they only have the daughter.

I struggled and stopped and started in the writing trying to figure out how to approach the material. I have had access to every word of the trial transcript, but there is no word for word, and the novel contains no actual testimony.

At first, I tried to have two adopted children because that was the reality. After a while, I realized that the emotional energy of the story was scattered between two people, so I had to eliminate one to focus on the other.

Q. You preface the book with a disclaimer saying it’s fiction, and then your narrator almost immediately contradicts that, saying it’s all real. Why do you say, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” even as you draw the curtain?

I legally needed the warning and wouldn’t have put it if I didn’t have to. I don’t think that really helps me try to convince the reader that he’s reading something real and probably causes some confusion. If a writer did it on purpose, then maybe the reasoning would be that you can confuse the reader about what’s real…and some readers might appreciate that. But I didn’t think of that.

There is a blurring of the line between author and narrator as is often the case in first-person fiction and there are ways the narrator is me. Any fiction writer who works in the realist mode strives to achieve some kind of verisimilitude, to convince the reader that everything is true and real. So any tool that helps make the reader believe they should believe is a tool worth considering – starting with the idea that I don’t write fiction anymore is a tool because it subverts the reader’s natural inclination not to believe, not to think, “If he’s not a fiction writer anymore, I have to read non-fiction.”


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