BOOKS Backwoodsmen to the fore: strong, silent men, snow and the great outdoors are high fashion, as far as novels go. One story from the wilds of Washington State has been breaking publishing records on both sides of the Atlantic
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FORGET Michael Ridpath's Free to Trade; consign Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer to the dumpbin. Last year's most dazzling debut was Snow Falling on Cedars, a elegiac thriller by an unknown American in his late 30s - David Guterson, a teacher and sometime journalist, living one of the cold and beautiful islands on the West Coast near Canada. This month sees the publication of his short-story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind, but the novel is still selling strongly. Published last May by Bloomsbury, Snow Falling on Cedars quickly garnered rapturous press and sold 8,000 in hardback - "about three times more than you would expect for a first-time author," says Liz Calder, Bloomsbury's publishing director. A startled sales team elected to rush out the paperback edition a mere four months later.

"Normally it's a year before the paperback is published, but because he was a first-time author and because the buzz had really, really started we made the decision to go quickly," says a spokeswoman for Bloomsbury. "Sometimes you can shoot yourself in the foot doing that and kill the hardback sales, but people still wanted to buy it in hardback." These extra sales pushed the hardback figure to the 11,000 mark.

Meanwhile, the paperback shot to the top of the bestseller list; ever since it has bubbled, week after week, round about the 5 or 6 spot. "We just keep reprinting," says Calder. To date, Snow Falling on Cedars has sold 250,000 paperback copies here. And when the news of this British publishing phenomenon began to filter back to the States, sales began to escalate there too.

The marketing, plotline and title all helped to locate the book in the niche marked "Nordic thriller", alongside Peter Hoeg's 1993 best-seller Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, and last year's quietly successful Blackwater, by Kerstin Ekman, which sold 16,000 copies for Chatto despite little press attention. Whatever it is about the north-snow-crime combination that appeals, it seems the public knows how to sniff out what it wants. When Snow Falling took up residence on the paperback bestseller list, Miss Smilla was still hanging in there.

Another book with obvious similarities, and even more impressive literary credibility, was E Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, set in Newfoundland amid the boats and bad weather. But David Guterson has read neither the Proulx nor the Hoeg. "I never concern myself with anything anyone else is doing, or how it will impact on my work. We're all just telling the same stories for a new generation. Nobody has any new ideas," he said on the telephone from the island retreat in Puget Sound, the deep coastal inlet in the extreme north-west of Washington State, where he has lived for the last 12 years. This small community, like the fictional Amity Harbour in his novel, contains a heady cultural mix of Japanese, Scandinavian, native American and Filipino (Guterson himself is Jewish).

Liz Calder recalls being sent a copy of Snow Falling by agent Vivienne Green "in the normal way" just before the Frankfurt book fair in October 1994. "I didn't have time to read it before Frankfurt, but while I was there I met a German publisher friend who told me it was amazing, and that if I did nothing else, I should read it straight away. So I did, in one sitting on the train coming back, and was immediately determined to buy it as soon as I got back to London."

By this time the word had spread, and Calder wasn't the only one in pursuit of Guterson. Calder won't say how much her winning offer was ("quite a bit more than if I'd read it before Frankfurt") but indicates that to earn back the advance, it would have to sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies in paperback. This represents a considerable gamble on a newcomer, but Calder didn't have long to wait before it paid off. "In my experience of publishing literary fiction, this is absolutely the only time something has gone 'whoosh' like this. It's without parallel. He's selling in amounts I would expect from much more established authors, like John Irving, Joanna Trollope, Margaret Atwood."

But despite Guterson's arrival, Athena-style, fully formed and armed with a glossy style and satisfactory content, this is a story of canny marketing and skilful selling as well as of literary merit. "We put a lot of oomph behind it, a lot of marketing muscle," concedes Calder. "The main thing was, there was a buzz about it in the company, and that soon communicated itself to the bookshops, who really took it to their hearts. Once you've got the books on the shelves, it depends on the public to buy it."

Guterson himself is faintly indignant at the idea that a best-seller is something that can be manufactured by shrewd target marketing. False modesty is not one of his failings. "The publishers don't suddenly get excited about a book unless there's something inherent in the manuscript. It's not something you can bluff - the quality's got to be there. They recognised there was a confluence of literary and commercial elements that was attractive." For all that, he denies having had an eye on the bestseller lists when writing. "Every day I had to confront problems of craft and technique in terms of finding out a way of doing what I wanted to do. The last thing I was worried about at that stage was how it could be marketed if it ever got published."

Set in the Fifties in an isolated island community rather like the one in which Guterson now lives, the novel recounts the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, accused of murdering his old schoolfriend and fellow salmon-fisher Carl Heine. Blond giant Carl is of German stock, Miyamoto is Japanese-American. Carl has drowned in his own net, but above his ear is a wound sufficient to have stunned him. The prosecution team have put together a wildly circumstantial hypothesis - forced boarding at dead of night, a blow from a kendo stick - which shows every sign of sending Kabuo to the gallows once it is discovered that the two men were locked in a dispute over land.

Ishmael Chambers is the island's newspaperman, and a war veteran like Kabuo and Carl. His father was a crusading journalist, founder of the island's newspaper, but Ishmael lacks all his father's liberal certainties, and drifts in a fog of moral detachment. Kabuo married Ishmael's childhood sweetheart Hatsue; so has Ishmael the will to halt a potential miscarriage of justice?

"The book confronts its central character with this question - how to live?" says Guterson. "Ishmael is about the business of discovering who he is, and by the end he has begun to understand the shape of his heart. Finally he learns that he really has no choice but to do the right thing. But it's not didactic. I'm not forcing his conclusions on the reader."

For all the book's high moral tone and commitment to cultural relativity, it has its modish and saleable elements. There's a grisly description of an autopsy, albeit one written with uncommon grace, and a brace of over-earnest sex scenes involving the po-faced and stereotypically enigmatic Hatsue. Plus, of course, lots of fashionable research. Like The Shipping News, this makes you feel you too have spent half a lifetime in a isolated community, fishing and toiling and peering at the neighbours.

Just as we never suppose that Kabuo is anything but innocent - the racist attitudes racked against him are too deplorable - so we never really doubt that Ishmael will make good in the end. The trial turns out to be a McGuffin, the last-minute "new evidence" a bit of a come-down after defence attourney Nels Gudmundsson's climactic anti-racist speech. Still, the finale is a welcome flurry of excitement after more flashbacks than a Judith Kranz novel, and frequent bulletins about the state of the snow, the sea, the sky and the smell of the cedars.

If it is not quite in the first rank, it is still impressive, sensuous, carefully wrought and geared for maximum appeal. "I can't think of a single person I wouldn't give it to for a present," says Calder, "from 15-year- old boys to grandparents. It works for everyone. Its themes are universal." The novel has united critical opinion from She to the TLS, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian. Last year it was touted as a book to take to the beach, and also one to give your friends at Christmas.

For all the book's feel-good, humanist ruminations, its appeal is squarely located in the fashionable genre of masculine romance. Through his love for Hatsue, inadequately concealed under a thin veneer of toughness ("that fucking goddamn Jap bitch!"), Ishmael is as thwarted and bent out of shape as Heathcliff. Robert James Waller successfully tapped into this vein of maudlin male fidelity with The Bridges of Madison County; Cormac McCarthy is another American writer focusing on strong, silent men with powerful emotions. Kabuo, with his Japanese discipline and reticence, and Carl, with his stern Protestant work ethic, are men's men whom women worship.

Liz Calder cautiously agrees that there is a sort of "New Man's Fiction" which holds a powerful appeal for modern readers. "The sensibilities of his generation are different. You don't see the Philip Roth kind of attitude so much nowadays. But it's very difficult to describe without sounding twee. 'New man' in particular sounds dreadful."

For all his modernity, Guterson also cunningly invokes the greats of American literature: Ishmael reads Melville, naturally, Thoreau is somewhere lurking out in the woods, and Harper Lee is an acknowledged literary idol. "During the ten years I spent teaching, I must have read To Kill a Mocking Bird 20 times, and certainly my book shares some of the same themes and subject matter, although the style is very different."

Guterson has served a long apprenticeship to come up with his "overnight" bestseller, and is certainly not some untutored rustic genius toiling in a log cabin. Neither is his self-imposed isolation all it seems: he calls his island life "the best of both worlds", with the skyscrapers of fashionable Seattle a mere half-hour's ferry-ride away, and all the advantages of a crime-free, quiet, neighbourly community. It's the Washington State version of moving to the suburbs.

He started attending creative writing classes in 1978 and published his first short story in 1982 in the Seattle Review. "I devoted myself exclusively to the short story for seven to eight years until I felt I had gained a measure of self-confidence," he says with a hint of satisfaction. Snow Falling took seven years to write, and was rejected by his first choice of publisher, Harper & Row. Harcourt Brace had published his non-fiction book, Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (Guterson's four children were all taught at home), after they'd read an article he'd written on the subject. When they learned that this personable teacher-journalist had a rejected manuscript in his desk drawer, they took a look and immediately made him an offer. Despite their confidence, it wasn't until Snow Falling won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award in the autumn of last year that it began to sell in any quantity on the bookish East Coast of America.

Calder has optioned his next novel, a neo-Western set in the apple orchards of Washington state, though with his slow working methods she is prepared for a long wait. "I haven't been under any pressure from my editors. They've just advised me to enjoy the success of Snow Falling while it lasts," says Guterson. "No, the pressure's more from inside. I'm only happy when I'm writing. I don't want to get into this thing of being an author rather than a writer. So every day I sit down at around 6.30am and write until noon, with time out for breakfast. After lunch I do all the stuff that came with Snow Falling, answer faxes, talk to people on the phone. There's talk of a movie version: I still hold the rights, so I'd have to agree to any deal. The people with the best ideas don't seem to have the money and connections to get the movie made. Then in the evenings I go out for a walk. Finally I might do a bit more work, but basically I'm done around lunchtime. And even in the morning, I'm not necessarily writing new stuff. I revise, revise, revise."

Two earlier novels are not going to see the light of day: "I learned a great deal from writing them, but I don't think they're good enough to publish." For the moment, David Guterson's many fans will have to be content with his first publication, the short stories The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind. Wry tales of men and adolescents hunting, fishing and pondering about women, they seem rather slight fare after the sweeping drama of Snow Falling. But however long his follow-up takes, Liz Calder believes it will be worth the wait: "I shall be eternally grateful to my German friend."

! 'The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind' is published next week by Bloomsbury at pounds 5.99

'Snow Falling on Cedars' is a Bloomsbury paperback, price pounds 5.99