In June 2011, though it seems much further back, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin, to see the novelist Sam Savage, whose third book, Glass, was due out from Coffee House Press that fall. Five years earlier his debut, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, had made waves as one of those Cinderella stories that are irresistible to an editor like me. Having written poetry and fiction since he was a teen, Savage struggled for decades to find a publisher before quitting the writer’s life entirely at the age of fifty-five, only to start writing again five years later, after finding inspiration in the story of a rat—the protagonist of Firmin—who quotes Ford Madox Ford and James Joyce as he devours books, both literally and figuratively, in a Boston bookstore. Savage was sixty-five years old when his first book was finally published, and it sold more than a million copies worldwide. So of course I went to see him. At the time, he had been suffering from a genetic lung disease for thirty-five years, and I wanted to talk to him about that, but I also wanted to ask him what he had done during that five-year hiatus from writing, when the whole artistic enterprise had seemed pointless. What does such a gifted writer do, if not write?
“I decided I was going to sail around the world,” he told me. “Well, sail to Europe. I didn’t think I was going to make it around the world. I had a sailboat—not a big boat, about twenty-six feet, but it was seaworthy—so I decided I was going to sail. This was the big thing I was going to do. It took about two years of preparation, but I got sick fast, much sicker. By the time a couple of years had passed, it was a suicide mission. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t.” His dreams of sailing dashed, he returned to his first love, and within a few years he was a best-selling author.
Sam Savage died in his sleep on January 17, 2019, nine days after Coffee House published his fifth book, a collection of stories titled An Orphanage of Dreams. He was seventy-eight. He never sailed to Europe—he was confined to his home for years—but he did rekindle that creative fire, nearly extinguished, and lived a full life through his writing. “It lifts you beyond your mortal clay,” he said of art, his voice soft, just above a whisper. “It’s a form of salvation. It doesn’t give us eternal life, but it gives us an opening into something more.” I hope this issue provides a little inspiration, a bit of insight, and maybe even some companionship for what can feel like a long, lonely journey. Never give up.