Living Room: A Profile of Sam Savage

Kevin Larimer

Less than three hundred miles northwest of Madison, in Minneapolis, Chris Fischbach is talking about Giulio Einaudi Editore, an Italian publishing house with annual revenues of about !1.5 billion, which puts it roughly on the same shelf as Random House. “They made it big by force of publicity and will,” says the newly appointed publisher of Coffee House Press, referring to the publicity and promotion that accompanied Einaudi’s publication of Firmin in 2008, two years after Coffee House published it in the United States. “Imagine an article about a book on the front page of the New York Times—not the New York Times Book Review—the New York Times. That’s how they treated it in Italy.” The latest figures from Einaudi reflect sales of just under half a million copies. Add the figures from Germany, Spain, France, and the other countries in which Firmin has been published and you get close to a million copies. They’re even making a movie of it in Spain, although Fischbach doesn’t see how that’s possible: Animated or live action? A real rat?

How Sam Savage went from being a failed writer to an international best-selling novelist is undoubtedly a feel-good story—even he grudgingly admits it. “I know, it’s a good story: Don’t give up.” But in fact that’s exactly what he had to do. “I started writing again because I’d given up,” he says. “I didn’t expect anything from it. There were no stakes left.”

During their first two years in Madison, Savage spent the winters back down in McClellanville, where the weather was better, in the house they hadn’t yet sold, and he finally started writing again. One night he wrote a page and a half in the voice of what he thought was a failed writer, inspired by Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. The next morning he read what he had written and—ping—he thought, “‘Jesus, this is a rat!’ That seemed like the perfect outsider, the perfect metaphor for exclusion, because a rat is a part of human society. They live in our houses and yet they are the most despised. They became a metaphor for any kind of exclusion or invisibility,” he says. “So then the novel became this raging against this invisibility, this exclusion. There was this desire to become visible, to become human. The idea that art and literature could make him human, visible, that he could take his place among us. Art could save him. That’s something I got from my mother: that art can save you.”

After he had finished writing the novel, Savage sent it to a handful of independent publishers, including Coffee House Press, which had published Ed Sanders, whom he knew from the march to the Pentagon, and the late Gilbert Sorrentino, one of his favorite writers. Fischbach says Firmin was picked from the slush pile, which attracts about three thousand manuscripts annually, and it struck a chord with everyone who read it. “It’s a feat of genius to get a reader to fall in love and cry and laugh over a disgusting rat,” he says. In 2006 Coffee House published the novel with an illustration of that disgusting rat emblazoned on its cover. Savage had a hunch that a small indie press was the way to go, and he was right.

“I generally prefer things independent to things large and corporate,” he says. “That goes for pretty much everything. In publishing, I don’t like the dominance of marketing departments. I loathe the big-book mentality, the pushing of certain—often second-rate—books at the expense of other, better books, the failure to support books that don’t catch on in the first thirty days or so, and the tendency to talk (and think) of books as ‘products.’ I expected something else from a small independent press, and I have not been disappointed. At Coffee House, and I think at many other small presses, they put everything they have behind the books they publish, and they keep on doing it year after year. They bring the writer into the process, right from the beginning, even in questions of typography and cover design. Unless you have a lot of confidence that your book will be one of the chosen few on which the corporate publisher is going to lavish its money, I can’t understand why you would want to entrust them with your manuscript.”

As it turned out, Firmin was already on its way to a big publisher—many big publishers, actually. As typically happens, Coffee House sent Firmin to a Spanish sub-rights agent who shopped it around and eventually sold it to Seix Barral, in Barcelona, for a modest price. Shortly thereafter Seix Barral called back with an offer to buy world rights—for a hundred thousand dollars. “And we said yes!” Fischbach says with a chuckle. “It did well here for us—it’s one of our best front-list books—but nothing like that.” The only catch was that world rights included U.S. rights, so Coffee House had to pull its edition of Firmin from the market. Seix Barral then negotiated the sale of U.S. rights to Delta, an imprint of Random House.

While Savage has nothing nice to say about Random House—certainly not about the “cutesy” cover of the Delta edition—the novel remains as edited by Fischbach back in 2006. “If it had gone to a bigger house initially, they probably would have made him make all sorts of changes, and as a result it probably wouldn’t have been so successful,” the editor says. “It’s a real success story for artistic and editorial integrity.”

Emboldened by the fact that, after decades of trying, he could actually finish a novel, Savage took advantage of the artistic freedom afforded by the success of Firmin and continued writing, charging ahead with The Cry of the Sloth and Glass, as well as another novel he is currently writing, about a failed art collector, tentatively titled “The Way of the Dog,” which he says will be finished in a year. While his subsequent books haven’t enjoyed the level of success of Firmin, Coffee House—as well as many of his international publishers—remains dedicated to publishing just about anything Savage writes.

Firmin has given me a greater disregard for the possibility of a large readership, because I have it. I’ve done that,” he says. “I have lots of people reading my book in Italy. Not many will read Glass? Okay. There are three billion people in China—none of them will read it. It’s all relative; a hundred thousand copies is a drop on the planet. Firmin was a happy misunderstanding. I didn’t set out to write an Italian best-seller. I wouldn’t know how to do that if I had.”

None of the characters in his later novels are quite as endearing as the rat with an appetite for great literature, nor are the plots as precisely drawn. The Cry of the Sloth is an epistolary novel, and while writing Glass Savage made an enormous effort to avoid all salient plot markers so that every event in the novel is seemingly insignificant: A glass of water falls on the floor, a pet rat dies (yes, a rat dies in the new book), a window washer cleans a window. All that readers are left with is a voice so strong that Savage is able to derive significance from these events by sheer literary force.

“Slowly I think people will come to see that Firmin was a fluke,” Fischbach says, “that Sam is not this enormous international success but actually a very serious, dark, and darkly humorous writer who should be listed with some of the major writers we have in the United States.” Not that Savage himself is giving it much thought. He’s never set out to write for an audience and isn’t about to start now. “I think you have to ask yourself, ‘If I knew no one was going to publish anything of mine for twenty years, would I go on writing?’ And if you say no, then you should just quit. There has to be some other reward.”

Savage says that this morning he sat in front of the window in his living room and tried to describe how the lights from Camp Randall Stadium, across the lake, make the sky glow at night. “You put something down like a piece of clay and you just work it and you keep working it…and you have to get your nose right up against it,” he says about the writing process, his voice growing louder as he describes it. “You go back to it and keep hammering at it: ‘There must be more, there must be something else, there must be.’ I spent half the morning trying to capture this great glow, and I didn’t succeed. But that I like—that I enjoy.”

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers Magazine.