"Up till about four, five years ago, I was a high-school English teacher with four kids and nothing - I mean just nothing. To me all of this is sort of a lark: the tea and the cookies and the drawing room. It's all kind of like Alice in Wonderland," he said, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "People ask me 'Don't you get irritated? Isn't it stressful?' No! I'm sitting here drinking tea in a drawing room in London, talking about books. What could be easier?"
In publicity photographs Guterson comes across either as the lean, granite- faced neo-cowboy or the "My Little Author" literary pretty-boy. Of course in the flesh he's neither. He's just a nice guy: a mellow, West Coast liberal with an easy smile and a downbeat charm which somehow squashes scepticism while you're with him. He makes you feel warm and comfortable and pleasantly dozy - a bit like his books. It was only later, listening to the more eccentric parts of the tape for the second time, that I realised quite how seductive the nice-guy routine had been.
The interview started off in a reasonably normal fashion; we talked about "second novel syndrome" and the expectations attached to an author who stormed the publishing world with 1995's best-selling courtroom drama Snow Falling on Cedars. "I didn't really understand the pressure," he said. It's only recently, because the question keeps coming up, that I have become aware of it ... I operated in the same kind of naive vacuum I've always operated in. I just said to myself, well look - I'm just going to have to write the next book. I can't do anything about whatever else is going on out there."
Guterson began East of the Mountains in the year between completing his first novel and its publication. "There weren't any distractions," he said. "This time around, ever since Snow Falling on Cedars came out, it's just been one big circus." So much so that Guterson is, for the first time since he began writing in his 20s, not working. "That's the funny thing - I have no idea what I'm going to do next. I'm just going to have to draw a blank for a while and be confused. Eventually something will happen."
If the early reviews of East of the Mountains are anything to go by, the distractions of success may be about to ease off. Although Guterson talks a great deal about structure and pacing and "page-turning", his new novel is a spare and elegiac meditation on mortality and nature. In Guterson's words, it is a Jungian "mythic journey". But traditionally the hero is young and journeys through a fantastical landscape to achieve adult identity. Here he is an elderly, terminally ill doctor who sets off on a final hunting trip in order to stage his suicide as an accident, and - like Guterson's earlier novel, and his collection of short stories - East of the Mountains is set in Washington State, where he has lived all his life.
Though Guterson grew up in Seattle in a "very progressive, libertarian, left-wing atmosphere" and lives on a dormitory island only half an hour from downtown Latte-land, his latest work is set in the rougher landscape of agricultural East Washington. He describes the area as "right-wing" and makes several sideswipes at the farming community's use of pesticides in his novel. The novel is scattered with references to all sorts of liberal bugbears; the use of marijuana to relieve the suffering of cancer patients, the treatment of migrant workers in America, euthanasia ... Marijuana figures as a plot device on three occasions and I asked, but no, he's not a "pot- head", to use his terminology. But just as you start to pigeon-hole him as a soft sophisticate who only plays at being the outdoors boy, he reveals his true addiction - shooting small birds for fun.
So what is this? Some kind of neo- cowboy, Iron John, pioneer spirit, back-to-the-land thing? "Not that many hunters think that deeply about it," he said, starting to look a bit defensive. "See, here's the thing: I go out. I have this dog that gets quail up in the air and I shoot one. The dog brings it back. It's still warm. It was alive a minute ago. I always pause. I always look at it." But not before pulling the trigger? "No," he said. "Not before. After I pick up this little dead bird, I look at it and I think about it. There's a moment of doubt. Then I put it in my vest and do it again. It's an addiction, see? I'm not trying to justify what I'm doing! I'm confessing to something that, you know, just happens ... Yeah, I eat them."
Guterson has this habit of meandering off into philosophical territory, which is oddly fascinating as he seems to treat spirituality as a metaphysical car boot sale from which he's happy to pick the odd thing out. He is Jewish by birth but says that "it isn't really part of my inner life." Instead he has alighted on a customised type of Buddhism - not exactly the religion of choice for a hunter.
Less engagingly, he's prone to the kind of sweeping, middle-class liberal hand-wringing about human nature that uses lots of long words, cites all manner of unrelated tragedies, but simply amounts to "Isn't it terrible?" Were Kevin the Teenager to make it to university, you can imagine this is exactly the kind of current-events whinge he'd really enjoy. "I'm disillusioned sort of permanently about humanity," Guterson said. "Violence and bloodshed and hatred. Irrational behaviour. That's buried in the human psyche and just keeps manifesting itself."
There was much, much more in this vein and then - seasoned professional that he has become - he pulled it sharply back to East of the Mountains. "This is one of the things about my new book; even though it's a short book, I wanted to take the sum total of things. On the one hand I've used truth: like suffering, illness, ageing, death, violence, bestiality. But on the other side there's the beauty of the world: there's love, there's meaningful work. So I can say I'm disillusioned, but I also believe in the other stuff too. In both books you can see the author presents a view of the world that's pretty naturalistic - that just says Hey! The universe is completely indifferent. Chance and accident and suffering are there, but I don't leave you just with that. I do try to point out that until we see that clearly - which is probably what Buddhism is about, by the way - we can't ask ourselves how to live in the face of it. I try to do both in my books; look at it clearly and ponder how to go forward - which is, I think, existential."
But isn't existentialism in direct contradiction to Buddhism? "Yeah, but when I was talking about Buddhism earlier I didn't think that one out. I don't relate to all of it. I go bird-hunting. I'm not sure about reincarnation, karma..."
There was a fleeting clip of Guterson on The Late Review a fortnight ago. He was walking through the sage-brush landscape of his novel with his gun-dog, looking kind of cool and ascetic and rugged. The voice over was his patient reading of one of the many detailed descriptions of Washington State's bleak beauty. "Pastoral machismo" was one critic's summary of the novel. Guterson first laughed at this, then bridled and returned to the subject several times, clearly feeling misunderstood. "Bad reviews sting but I can get over it," he said. But he is bemused and slightly touchy about the attempts to put his writing into a genre. He hates the term moral fiction and regards it as "fascistic". Much has also been made of the neo-Western novel. "It's me and one other - Cormac McCarthy - just a couple of writers! Are two people a genre?"
I suppose this bafflement is a side-effect of Guterson's aforementioned "naive vacuum". It's fair enough not to want to be put in a box, but books are products - the products that have paid for our tea and cookies and our smart surroundings - and products have to be packaged and marketed. "I don't want to get involved or immersed in the politics of publishing," he groaned. "You have enough trouble, enough problems, just writing the book." But he still enjoys writing? "Definitely. I read interviews with other writers where they talk about how much pain it caused them but I don't think any of us would continue doing it if we didn't also enjoy it. I feel incredibly lucky."
Towards the end of the interview all talk of books, however tangential, went out of the triple-glazed window. Suddenly it was philosophical free- fall: Guterson, the photographer and the publicist covered Jamie Bulger, Columbine High School, Kosovo, and Lewinsky in a matter of five minutes. I found myself smiling encouragingly at him in a very sixth-former way and nodding like a toy dog even as my brain was crying out "Oh no!" We were all beaming at him in that crazed cereal advertisement manner, like the Waltons on acid, the Osmond Family on Ecstasy. We were talking about ethnic cleansing ... in a posh hotel. "I was just starting to enjoy myself," he said, as we wrapped up.
"You will go away from this interview with an idea of me and I will have an idea of you," he had said earlier. "We won't know the true complexity." Nonetheless I was charmed. I left feeling guilty that I hadn't been half as engaged by his novel - or indeed any of his work - as by meeting a Jewish, Buddhist, Existentialist hunter of small animals.
'East of the Mountains' is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 16.99Reuse content