Sam Savage pulls volumes from a small bookcase in his Lakeland Avenue house. Hebrew. German. Dutch. Italian. French. Catalan. The books are all translations of his first book, "Firmin, Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife" (Coffee House Press, 2006), an allegory about a literate rat that has sold about a million copies around the world. A movie of the book is in pre-production in Spain.
At 70, Savage moves slowly, breathes slowly, the legacy of a lifelong struggle with alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic lung disease. Transplanted from South Carolina to Madison in the summer of 2002 to accommodate the needs of a disabled daughter, Savage is an international literary rock star for "Firmin." But his connection to Madison is fragile, almost non-existent, he admits, though his wife, Nora, works at a local elementary school.
Fame has come late in Savage's life — "Firmin" was released when he was 65 after a five-year hiatus from a life of writing. His third novel, "Glass," was released by Coffee House Press this month, and a fourth is scheduled for release next fall.
Q. You published your first book at age 65. What took so long?
A. Well, it took me that long. I've written all my life, not on that particular book, but I have a lot of incomplete manuscripts. It just took that long.
Q. When did you start it?
A. I started on that book in 2002. I was 62 when I started writing it. It was finished in 2004, but it takes a while to publish a book once you've finished it. "Glass" is my third published novel. Before those novels, I'd written a children's story for adults in verse. That's self published. My sister illustrated it. All my novels feature some sort of failed artist.
Q. You are a Madison author who is far better known outside of Madison.
A. Actually, I am better known outside the United States. My first novel, "Firmin," the most popular, is the story of a literate rat. That novel was published, like all my American novels, in Minneapolis by Coffee House Press. Shortly after it was published, the world rights were bought by a large Spanish publishing house, and they distributed it all over the world in translation. To everyone's surprise, it became a best seller in several countries — Italy and Spain, for example. In Italy they call it "Firmino"- it was a best seller up there with Stephen King. It was quite baffling, but anyway, now it's been translated into I don't know how many languages. Eighteen or something.
Q. What's "Firmin" about?
A. It's a story about a rat who learns by dint of eating books. He lives in a used bookstore in Boston in 1960, and he learned to read. So by reading, he became humanized, you might say. His longing is to be human, but he's a rat. So, the book is an allegory. A rat is a most despised creature. They are everywhere. They are among the most rejected of all the members of our society. And so, this conscious, thinking rat became a metaphor for the outcasts and rejected of any kind. The book is a kind of allegory of solitude and rejection. He can't stand the way he looks, for example. He looks in the mirror, and he's horrified by his own appearance.
Q. Did it do well here in the U.S.?
A. No. It did better than any book published by Coffee House, but it was not a best seller by any means. The paperback rights have now been sold back to Random House — they have it now. It's sold in a sort of mass market paperback.
Q. You were born in South Carolina?
A. My family left there the first time when I was 18 years old.
Q. What caused you to leave?
A. The South. That was 1958. It was very repressive, even if you weren't black. It was conservative, and the bright lights of New England were alluring. I went to Yale University in New Haven, and I graduated eight years later. I went to the University of Heidelberg and lived in France. I finally finished my dissertation in philosophy at Yale in 1978 or 1979. After that, I fixed bicycles. I did some carpentry. I did some commercial fishing. Then, I got sick.
Q. A Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale is very prestigious. Why didn't you follow a traditional academic career?
A. Two reasons. One, I was tired of philosophy, and I felt the questions it was asking weren't the questions I wanted to ask anymore. And I don't like universities. I don't like faculty life. I don't like careerism. Yale wasn't a happy place. I prefer bicycle mechanics. Anyway, I didn't want a career as a teacher.
Q. What prompted you to start writing?
A. I've written since I was a teenager. I wrote poetry for a long time. I don't think it was any good. Poetry is harder. Good poetry is harder. Bad poetry is really easy.
Q. What are the good parts of being an international rock star?
A. I'm far from being a rock star. The good part is that I don't have to worry about getting my next novel published. That's the really good part. The things I'm writing now — I think I might have a very difficult time getting them published if I had not written the first one. "Glass" would be hard to sell to an agent. It's a novel in which very little happens. An old woman thinks. She thinks about her life. She thinks about language. She tries to take care of the neighbors' plants. Solitude overwhelms her. She's trying to write a memoir of her dead husband, and she can't. She worries about typewriter ribbons, the condition of her grapes. It rambles, and it winds around. In a sense, this book is about insignificant events, trying to give meaning to very small events in someone's life. They are all monologues, my books.
Q. How do you feel about your literary success coming so late in your life?
A. I'm glad it happened. I didn't expect it to happen, but my problem was not literary success. My problem was not failure. My problem was the failure to complete. It wasn't as though I was lugging manuscripts around, and there was nobody publishing them. I wasn't lugging manuscripts around. That was the problem. There are people who send out wonderful books to 50 or 100 publishers. That's not me. I sent mine off to four, and it was published right away. In that sense, it was terribly easy. There was no heroic struggle to publish it. The hard part was just finishing it. For me, the real success came well before it was published. The real success came the moment I knew, "I'm going to finish this."