BEFORE THEY WED 17 YEARS AGO, DAVID Guterson let his fiancée know what she was in for. "He said, 'If you marry me, you will never have money,' " remembers Robin Guterson—who wasn't dissuaded. The couple settled in a rented house on Bainbridge Island, a serene haven in Washington State's Puget Sound. They had four kids, tended their garden, wore flannel shirts (sometimes three at once, for warmth) and scraped by on David's salary as a high school English teacher. "I never dreamed it would be otherwise," says Robin, 40.

It didn't look as if it would be—until now. More than a year after it came out in hardback, Guterson's first novel, a haunting murder mystery-cum-morality play called Snow Falling on Cedars, is a paperback bestseller. Buoyed by word of mouth, the book has become Vintage Books' fastest-selling title ever, and Universal Pictures has optioned the movie rights for a reported $1 million plus. All of which puts the novel's 39-year-old author at least in a position to repaint his kitchen. ("It made a world of difference," he says of the paint job.) "The money will let me go on writing, that's all," says Guterson, who quit teaching in 1994. "I'm not interested in writing merely to entertain. I want to explore philosophical concerns."

Cedars, the story of a Japanese-American charged with murdering a fellow fisherman on an island not unlike Bainbridge, manages to combine issues of prejudice and personal accountability with a crackling courtroom drama. Set in the 1950s, the narrative also shows off Guterson's vast knowledge of, among other things, salmon fishing and America's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He researched his material thoroughly, but the book's rhapsodic descriptions of the island's beauty came from the heart. "I had a very Northwest childhood," he says. "Much of it was spent outdoors."

Raised in Seattle, the son of a defense attorney and a housewife, Guterson was something of a troublemaker as a kid. "Just petty delinquencies, just flirting with danger," he says. "It came, in part, out of a critique of mainstream life in the '60s." By the time he entered the University of Washington and became, he says, "obsessed with writing," he had forsworn his wild ways, if not his yen for mildly alternative living. After he and Robin, whom he met in high school, married in 1979, they spent a year in a cabin on a Rhode Island tree farm, while Robin worked as a speech therapist and David, who had dropped out of Brown University's creative writing program ("too experimental," he says), crafted stories. They moved back to Seattle and then to Bainbridge after David earned his master's in writing from the University of Washington in 1982, and rejection slips began pouring in.

"I have boxes filled with noes from magazines like Harper's," Guterson says. But there was no time to brood. Son Taylor, now 14, had come along in 1981, followed by Travis, 12. Henry. 10, and Angelica, 3. Concerned that Taylor was not ready for school and sure that "parents are natural teachers," Guterson says, he and Robin elected to educate their kids at home. David rose at 4:30 a.m. each day to write, leaving for his teaching job 2½ hours later. In 1989 his first collection of stories, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind, was published but sold modestly (it will be reissued in softcover in May); Family Matters: Why Home-schooling Makes Sense reached stores three years later.

Nothing, though, prepared him for the response to Cedars. "I didn't think anyone would be very interested," Guterson says. He tries not to focus on his success, concentrating instead on his next novel and on his constant philosophical preoccupation: "How to live, given the type of world we find ourselves in."

He has been forced to make some progress himself on that score. "I used to hate parties," he says. "But I've learned that you comb your hair, shave, put on a suit and have conversations with people. Sometimes, now, I actually enjoy it."

KIM HUBBARD
LISA KAY GREISSINGER on Bainbridge Island

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Kay Greissinger.