September 20, 2012
If there’s a more generous writer in America than Jonathan Evison, I haven’t heard of him. (Full disclosure: Evison was kind enough to blurb two of my novels. This ain’t about that.) This son of Washington, a New York Times bestseller for his sweeping epic West of Here has engendered good will the old-fashioned way: by working damn hard at what he does, being thankful for the opportunities, using his time and talent to promote other writers and being a beacon of optimism in a business that breaks hearts as a matter of course.
With his latest, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin), set to drop on Aug. 28, Evison unspooled for a wide-ranging, multi-day email interview about the new book, writing a smaller, more intimate story after the ambitious West of Here, working through the darkness, and what he might say to the 15-years-younger version of himself.
Your new book is titled The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Is this our signal, after All About Lulu and West of Here, that three-word titles are passè?
Yes, Craig. Very 2011. Where have you been?
You don’t want to know. OK, if ever a cover could sell a book, this is the one, with the concert-poster typography and what a mutual friend of ours called a “literary lion in full-throated roar” feel. What are readers in for with this book?
Broken hearts and moist panties, I hope. The novel is a departure from West of Here. The scope is much smaller. The narrative more linear. Structurally, it may be less ambitious, but I think it has a level of emotional sophistication that is beyond West of Here. And I think it’s funnier.
Broken Hearts and Moist Panties would have been a good more-than-three-words title, too. It seems to me that much of the criticism and praise for West of Here hinged on that ambitious narrative. Was this change of pace a conscious decision or just a matter of taking on the idea that was foremost in your mind at the time?
Nah, this was just the novel I needed to write. I started writing it before I was even finished with West of Here. Do I suspect it will be less divisive than West of Here because it doesn’t have four dozen limited points of view and cover a hundred and twenty years? Probably. And as for the cover, I’ve been very fortunate with covers, I think—and I’m very grateful on that count.
At the risk of falling back on book-promotional treacle, Revised Fundamentals is a big-hearted road story in many ways. What kind of experiences did you draw on in writing it?
Well, irredeemable loss, for starters. The freak accidental death of my sister. The unexpected dissolution of my first marriage. Five years of caregiving experience. A lot of sojourns along the American backroads. An early mid-life crisis. Years of playing on the same men’s softball team. In short, a lot of stuff. This novel probably has more of me and my own experience in it than anything else I’ve written.
The character at the center of the story, Benjamin Benjamin, has sunk about as low as one can sink — family gone, livelihood gone. How did the idea of this character come to you?
Exhibit A: my life ten years ago. I really hit bottom, and was in a blur for a couple of years. Thankfully, I had the foresight to all but quit drinking during that period, or I may not have come out my tailspin. I’m so grateful for the experience, though, truly. My life is so much richer and more fulfilling having pulled through.
What appeals to you in stories about redemption?
I can’t think of much else that really matters beyond redemption, aside from laughter. I have to believe that people can change.
We’ve talked before about your literary ambitions—the range you want to achieve as a novelist—and how a coming-of-age story like All About Lulu and a big, sprawling epic like West of Here figure into those. How do you go about managing your ideas and choosing where to go next? And how much of a role do people outside your own head, like your agent or your editor, play in those things?
I’ve sort got it mapped out a few books into the future. I’m usually composing one book, while I’m copy-editing the previous book, while taking notes on the next book. Three different skill sets. That way, if I just don’t have the wherewithal to compose—say, I’ve got a wicked hangover, or I know I’ll be tasked with writing a lot of exposition, and I’m not pumped up about it—I can always copy-edit the other book. Or do some research for the next. It allows me to manage my time well, which is essential because when I’m not chasing my kid around, I’m busy destroying hotel mini-bars and playing ping-pong.
As far as my agent and my editor, they both help me immensely with their amazing editorial insight. They never try to direct my work, they just help me make the novels I want to write better, because they’re both fantastic readers who won’t bullshit me, and really push me to do my best work. Sometimes I want to kill them both, because they create so much work for me!
You’ve talked a good bit about all the unpublished novels you wrote and the symbolic, cathartic act of digging a hole and burying them. For someone who aspires to be where you are, can you identify what it is that’s different about Jonathan Evison today versus 15 years ago? What’s the journey been like?
I’m bigger. I’m stronger. I’m faster. And I’m not nearly as much of a fuck-up as I was at 28. Dude, I was clueless. Rummaging around in my office recently, I happened upon an old “rejection letter” I got at 28, from at editor Houghton Mifflin. The damn letter was three pages long! Handwritten! Basically, the woman was asking me to focus the middle of the third book, then re-submit it. She even offered to work with me. Everything short of actually acquiring the damn book. How the hell I managed to view that as a rejection, I’m not sure. What a dumbass! But I gotta say, I’m glad everything worked out exactly as it has. I would’ve fucked it up fifteen years ago. As far as the journey? I’d gladly do it all over and make the exact mistakes. Maybe I wouldn’t eat so many Hot Pockets next time around, though. And possibly smoke less pot.
There’s a publishing movement today where people get stars in their eyes and think, man, if I can just get my book (or e-book) out there, I’ll sell jillions of copies and be a success! It’s great when it works out, but what about when it doesn’t? Isn’t there something to be said for having a broader definition of achievement?
Anyone with the wherewithal to finish a novel, even a bad one, is a success in my eyes. It takes stones to write a novel. Publishing is no measure of a writer’s success. Christ, Whitman had to harass people on street corners—the guy couldn’t give his books away! The marketplace has never been a meritocracy. Call me deluded, but I felt successful three novels before I ever published All About Lulu. I was doing exactly what I always wanted to do: I was writing novels. Was anyone publishing them? No. Was anyone even reading them? Not really. Not even my mom, come to think of it. But I learned a shitload about myself, and what I was made of, and what I wanted and didn’t want, and who I loved and why. I always come back to that great Spike Jonze quote from Adaptation: You are what you love, not what loves you.
What did you read as an up-and-coming writer that pushed you outside your comfort zone? What are you reading now that challenges you to think bigger?
Everything I could and can get my hands on! Sadly, though, most of what I read is American. I’m not sure how any of it informs my writing. Mostly when I read something really good, it makes me want to write.
Tell me about your process. Do you write at a certain time of day? Do you need certain environmental conditions? What does a Jonathan Evison workday look like?
If I’m on the road, and I often am the past couple of years, I get very little done in the way of composition. So, I’ve developed workbooks comprised mostly of narrative questions that need to be answered in whatever I’m working on, or whatever I’m researching. This keeps me grounded, keeps my mind on the work, and allows me to make good use of flight time and layovers. By the time I get home from, say, a tour leg, or a conference, or whatever, and I sit down to compose, I have a really good idea what I’m trying to accomplish, so the hours seem to yield more. In a perfect world, I wake up at 5 a.m. with a slight hangover (just enough to keep my mania in check), and work for about four or five hours. Then, before bed, I’ll put the red pen to the work one more time, and mark the hell out of the manuscript, so I have a solid starting point for the work the next morning at 5 a.m.
And if the work is going slow, or the words are coming out wrong?
I work on something else—research, line edit. If nothing else, I’ll blog about somebody else’s book, or just read somebody else’s book that’s on my pile. Occasionally I’ll find myself stuck, and it’s usually because I’ve left myself behind the eight-ball. If I don’t have the patience or time to figure it out right then, fuck if I’m gonna face a blank page for three hours. I haven’t got time for that. I’ll wait until some evening when Lauren and the baby are at grandmas for the night, buy a six-pack, light a campfire, and just sit and stare into the flames until the solution becomes clear. It nearly always does if I just let it breathe. Look, there is always something to be done, and if you think there’s not, you’re in trouble.
How do you feel about the revision process? I’ll admit that one of the things that surprised me when I turned my focus to writing fiction was that some of the best stuff happened, at least for me, in the second, third, fourth draft. In my original writing life, as a newspaper journalist, it was rip and go.
I love rewriting. I’m always discovering missed opportunities and the like. It’s so much easier than the act of composition itself, and it makes such a tremendous difference in the work. I don’t even move forward until I’ve written seven or eight drafts of a chapter, and invariably the whole thing will go through the ringer another seven or eight times before the narrative arc is complete. I do an awful lot of reverse-engineering, especially in something as unwieldy as West of Here. I’m too obsessive to rip and go, unless it’s blogging, in which case I just spit it right out just as if I were talking.
While you’re certainly a careful craftsman, I’ve never had the feeling that I was reading prose finely honed into nothingness. The best Evison work, to me, bobs along and moves me gracefully through story. Where’s the line between revision and losing sight of the story for all the sentence polishing?
I’m not a big sentence polisher—more of a paragraph polisher, or a page polisher, or a chapter polisher. I’m more concerned with pacing and rhythm and making the prose swing than I am of wowing anyone with shiver-thin coverlets of snow or whatever. The words start getting in the way if you work them too hard. I think of the words as the blood flowing through the story.
What do you make of the e-book revolution? We just got news here where I live that our downtown indie bookstore is closing up shop, its sales eroded as readers have shifted to digital devices.
Ah, man, do we have to? What a quagmire! And when we talk about the e-book killing indie stores, let’s be honest, who are we really talking about? We’re not talking about the e-book as medium, we’re talking about the e-book as practice—certain uncompromising and hyper-aggressive business models vying for world domination. The medium itself isn’t killing anything. I think the technology itself may be actually creating new readers, at least in rough proportion to how much it’s cannibalizing the paper book market. If Google and, say, Indiebound could actually mount any substantive defense against the, um, empire, selling e-books in brick-and-mortar outlets might be viable. Me, I just want to write the damn things.
The main thing is, we gotta’ keep the indie stores alive. My new motto: I want to spend a couple extra bucks! I want the inconvenience of walking or driving ten minutes! Otherwise, we’re all gonna live on one big boulevard with box stores on each side.
But what are the indie stores’ obligations in the effort of staying alive? The world history of disruptive technology is that nobody’s owed relevance, which is why you don’t see buggy whip factories or vacuum tube manufacturers or, hell, music stores in the mall. How do indie bookstores maintain an edge?
I guess the onus is on all of us—as writers, publishers, and booksellers to make ourselves indispensable to our communities. Probably the smartest way to go about this is by supporting said community. That’s what I see the really successful indie stores doing. Providing a venue for their community, bringing their expertise into classrooms, hosting good events, giving their customers something they’re not gonna get with a search engine. All of this is easier said than done in a business with such thin margins, and sometimes it fails in spite of all those efforts. But that’s the reality. Make yourself indispensable. For writers that means encouraging other writers, buying their books, going to their events, and most of all, writing kick-ass books which provide something vital intellectually or emotionally for readers. Bottom line: we (book people) gotta spend money on books. I get about ten free books a week in the mail—at least. Basically, I can get any book I want for free—all I have to do is e-mail a publicist or an editor or a writer, and they’re happy to send them. But guess what? I still make it a point to spend $100 to $150 a month at independent bookstore just as a matter of practice (it’s still barely more than my cell phone bill). Why? Because that money goes right back into the community. Because I value the institution of bookstores. Because there are thing more important than saving a buck, or saving ten minutes. Until somebody invents a medium that can do what the book does better, it will never be obsolete. And so far, that just ain’t happened, jack. Cinema, television, video games, phone apps, they’re all great, but they don’t do what the novel does better. Nothing offers the empathic window that fiction does.