Jonathan_Evison_This_Is_Your_Life_Harriet_Chance

Listen to this interview with Jonathan Evison, whose new novel, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, is now available from Algonquin Books. It was the official August pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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Drew Perry’s new novel, Kids These Days, is hilarious. I don’t say that about too many books. As Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Good comedy, above all, takes great pathos, along with a high degree of vulnerability, brutal honesty, a capacity for ventriloquism, and a uniquely skewed world view.  If you don’t possess all of the above, you won’t be able to pull off the sort outlandish set pieces Drew Perry pulls off.

Earlier this week, the NW Book Lovers website published an essay by bestselling novelist Jonathan Evison arguing in favor of old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. It’s the first in a series of six essays by this year’s PNBA Award winners, and it’s as charming as you’d expect from a writer of Evison’s calibre. It makes a case clearly and succinctly for “actual books”, praising their feel, their smell, and even their use as an aphrodisiac. It has been greeted with a chorus of approval from book lovers.

Unfortunately, it is also misguided and wrong.

 

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.

 

It’s spring again and you’re feeling it, aren’t you? The return of the sexy. Just this morning you caught the Sun staring unabashedly at those long, lean recently loofahed legs and, although you may not want to admit it, you know he expects something in return. Go ahead and drop that strap.

A little lower.

That’s it.

That’s right, sexy came early this year and you feel it. Your skin is softening, your muscles are tenderizing and your fingers have made no less than five attempts this week to hijack your insightful political essay for HuffPo into a filthy, bodice-ripping anime for YouTube. Come back to the light, serious writer. Neither Gingrich nor Romney is among the sexy.

Unless one of them is wearing chaps and an Arnold mask. Oh, yeah.

This.  Right here.  What I’m saying now.  Everything I will say.  People have said it.  People have asked the questions I’m asking and answered them, but here I am.  Pursuit of new answers is nothing but bargaining with old answers.

 

It became desperate, for me, when I was reading Jonathan Evison’s West of Here.  I enjoyed it immensely at first.  Then I had to stop reading.  I’d already read it before.  There was nothing wrong with the book.

I’ve read almost nothing since.

 

Crabwalk,” I said. “By Gunter Grass.  This is Crabwalk.”

“You think every book is Crabwalk,” said a friend whose own manuscript I had compared to Crabwalk.

“No, just the ones that are, but there are a lot of them.”

 

Crabwalk is about Nazis, kind of, old and new, not that it matters.

 

Scuttling backwards to move forward.

 

Crabwalk is also, in turn, other books and stories and movies and poems.

 

West of Here is Crabwalk and Crabwalk is the “Garden of Forking Paths” (this, too, involves Germans), and that reminds me of Yeats.

 

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

Which reminds me.

 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

 

All roads lead to Eliot.

 

 

Did he say make it new, too?

 

DA DA DA...

 

Nothing is anything but a reference to something else.  And that’s whether we mean or know it to be or not.  That, too, is Eliot.

I can’t have a thought.  Not one.  Not of my own.

Either can you.

 

Trying.  Even trying.  Look at what you’re up against.  LOOK AT THEM.

 

I bought Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind because the description on the back reminded me vaguely of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and J.L. Borges’ “The Library of Babel”.

The fucking Library of Babel.

It’s almost too terrible to talk about.

 

I couldn’t finish The Shadow of the Wind.

 

 

I have a recurring dream about sitting in a study in Buenos Aires watching J.L. Borges write.

 

In the dream he can’t see me.  He keeps daguerreotypes and tiny dishes of loose change.  It is just like the study Eliot uses in my dreams, but Borges’ study is dusty and baroque.  The curtains are brocade. I leave fingerprints on everything.

Eliot’s curtains are linen, rocking in a maritime breeze, and the furniture is immaculate–dark wood and  indifferent ivory.  Surfaces are smooth and cool to the touch.  There are no shadows, no clutter.  He licks his pen.  He watches me watch him.

 

I used to believe in an embarrassing way that I was communing with them, that in the dreams, these men were the men, but they say everyone in your dreams is you.  So I return to these places to be alone with myself, I guess.  Nothing ever changes.

 

Ideas have archetypes.

Containers within which a finite number of related human thoughts rattle and stick.  Stick together, shake apart, rattle, stick again elsewhere.  Then it’s new.  But not really new.  And eventually all partnerships are exhausted.

Like matter, archetypes of ideation can’t be created or destroyed.

This very idea comes from a box labeled “Jung, et al”.

And then again, the archetypes themselves are items in other, larger containers.  Nesting dolls of human awareness.

The largest of which is…what?

 

God?

 

Temporal provincialism is intractable.


Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

 

On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.

 

Oh God.

 

 

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden; shall we follow?

 

…respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

 

 

 

 

I

We mad fly; we
Dream dry; we
Scribble drunk; we
Fake the funk; we
Keeps it real; we
Sly conceal; we
Royal hall; we
Southern drawl; we
Bleed tears; we
Clink cheers; we
Fling curves; we
Gnaw nerves; we
Break it down; we
Class clown; we
Write raw; we
Down by law.

Frankly, I’ve received an unfair amount of credit and attention for my affiliation with TNB over the years, particularly lately. Yes, I’ve brought some great writers on board, and I’ve done my share of recruiting, and spreading the word, but Executive Editor? Really? I’m thrilled and honored to have this title, but I always feel a little guilty wearing it, because what I do for TNB is so easy, and such a pleasure, that my title hardly feels earned.

Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen is destined to be an auspicious debut. When my former editor, Richard Nash, asked me to read Zazen in manuscript and told me it would be his first debut at Red Lemonade, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew it would be good. I quickly devoured it, and this is what I had to say (I love quoting myself!): “At turns hilarious, unsettling, and improbably sweet, Veselka’s debut is, above all, a highly engaging, and totally unique experience, which will have you re-reading passages and dog-earing pages. But best of all, in the end, Zazen is that rare novel which dares to be hopeful in the face of despair, and succeeds.”

Attention, NYC-area peeps:

Jonathan Evison, executive editor of this fine literary magazine and New York Times best selling author, brings his book tour to the Big Apple next week.

Sunday evening, March 6, he joins the great Caroline Leavitt — both of Algonquin, the TNB Book Club, and the aforementioned Times best seller list — at KGB’s famed Sunday Night Reading Series.

And on Monday, March 7, Evison holds court with two of my favorite writers in all the land, James P. Othmer and Marcy Dermansky, at Book Court in Brooklyn.

After that, the tour goes, um, west of here (eventually).


[photo by Kerry McCombs]

*This is a transcript of the conversation we had with Caroline Leavitt, author of The TNB Book Club‘s January selection, Pictures of You.  It happened on Sunday, January 30, 2011.

 

 

BRAD LISTI (BL): Alright, everybody. We’re back. Welcome. Really pleased to have Caroline Leavitt here with us this month. Her latest novel, Pictures of You, is receiving all kinds of praise and good ink. Its story focuses on the aftermath of a car crash that leaves one woman dead — a survivor’s tale that hits on a variety of compelling themes, including grief, guilt, secrets, and the limits of human forgiveness. Please feel free to offer up questions for Caroline throughout. As always, I’ll be moderating as we go.

Welcome, Caroline!

CAROLINE LEAVITT (CL): Thanks for coming everyone, and thank you, Brad.  Remember: no question is too embarrassing to ask me.


2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, which means it’s also the Year of JONATHAN EVISON.  What can top 2009, when he won the Washington State Book Award and a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship?  TNB’s executive editor follows up his debut novel All About Lulu with the highly anticipated epic West of Here, is what.


And yet JE (as he’s known over at Three [sic] Guys One Book) remains a somewhat elusive figure — even though he was the subject of a short documentary film.  What do we know about Johnny?


He likes to talk.  That much we know.  He’s talked to Ron Currie, Jr.  He’s talked to Warren Etheredge.  He’s talked to publishers (who may or may not listen) and the other guys at 3G1B.  He’s even talked to himself.


His family is weirder than your family.  No, really.  His grandparents were fascinating.  Speaking of his family, he’s an unabashed mama’s boy.


Like Melville, he’s been to the Galapagos; unlike Melville, he has not dined upon turtle.


He likes Daffy Duck.  And beer.  And rabbits.


And his book is the Book Club selection for this month.  So when we get him in the chat room, we can ask away!



JE: I was stoked to get my hands on a copy of  The Wilding from Graywolf’s Marisa Atkinson when I was in Denver for the Mountains and Plains Indie Booksellers show a few weeks back. A lot of people are talking about this book -people I listen to. Some of them are comparing The Wilding to James Dickey’s spare and creepy masterpiece, Deliverance.

Percy’s muse is central Oregon, an area I’m quite familiar with, having spent a lot of time down there (between Bend and the high desert in Christmas Valley to the south). Like Dickey’s fictional Cahulawassee River Valley, Percy’s setting for The Wilding, Echo Canyon, is a rugged wilderness slated for destruction. Because I hate writing exposition, here’s a short synopsis of The Wilding from PW’s starred review of the book:

The plot concerns a hunting trip taken by Justin Caves and his sixth-grade son, Graham, with Justin’s bullying father, Paul, a passionate outdoorsman in failing health who’s determined to spend one last weekend in the Echo Canyon before real estate developer Bobby Fremont turns the sublime pocket of wilderness into a golfing resort. Justin, a high school English teacher, has hit an almost terminally rough patch in his marriage to Karen, who, while the boys camp, contemplates an affair with Bobby, though she may have bigger problems with wounded Iraq war vet Brian, a case study in creepy stalker. The men, meanwhile, are being tracked by a beast and must contend with a vengeful roughneck roaming the woods.

Maybe what I like most about The Wilding is this: something actually happens! Some might even argue too much happens. This novel is full of adventure, suspense, and horror. Sometimes when writers juggle points-of-view it serves mostly to divert the reader from an otherwise static narrative. It’s a little trick we use in a pinch. But Percy, like Dickey, like Jack London, knows how to move a story. The Wilding is a page-turner in the best sense. There were moments when I was tempted to skip ahead. Nothing wrong with that kind of narrative momentum. But also I wanted to linger, because Percy writes well, in language that is crisp and nuanced, but not overwrought or self-congratulatory, and because Percy’s characters beg me to understand them, to follow them into their dark places. Though he overplays his hand at times with the club and fang theme, and the action is owing to a convenient wealth of wildlife at nearly every juncture (rattlesnakes underfoot, bucks moseying by, owls all over the place, vultures loitering, grizzly bears, and rednecks stalking them), it is Percy’s well-drawn self-conscious characters, and his tremendous writing which shine through. The Wilding is a highly compelling read, by a writer who is going to be around a long time.

threeguysonebook.com

This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.

Dear Corporate Publisher,

Since last year was the worst year in publishing history—that is, the worst year since the year before—I’ve got a few questions for you (along with some unsolicited advice):

Are you publishing all of your authors, or are you just printing most of them? Because if you’re just printing most of them, why bother? Why not re-allocate all those printing and shipping costs into marketing the books you’re actually publishing? Just a thought.

Does the reading public really need a million titles per year? Wouldn’t it be a little easier to sort out the growing demand for a hundred thousand? Don’t get me wrong, I like eclectic, I like many voices, but it seems to me a hundred thousand is a lot of voices. You only published fifty thousand in 1990, and as I recall, the industry was in better shape.

Instead of acquiring books at the budget deadline (books which you have no real intention of marketing beyond a little co-op for 90 days to fill table space at the chains—where your titles are gathering dust in a warehouse, as the demand stacks up at independents), why not re-structure?

Why not give all your titles the benefit of marketing support, publicity budgets, tour budgets? Do you think they might sell more than a thousand copies? Do you think you might have less returns?

Why not make your sales reps lives easier by cutting your catalog in half? Maybe that would allow your reps to push your backlist—after all, you’ve already printed the books, already paid the advances? Hey, and that’s another way to fill those invaluable brick-and-mortar stores without publishing a million titles per year. Maybe if you marketed your books, instead of letting them sit heavy in the chains, you wouldn’t have to pay all that postage on all those returns? Just a thought.

Why not teach your publicists to take bloggers seriously? Have you noticed that newspapers are dying out? Have you noticed that a lot of book blogs are generating serious traffic in the maven market—the one market most helpful in creating advance buzz? Oh wait, and it doesn’t cost you anything! The bloggers come to you, offering to promote your books (because they already know about them because their ear is more to the ground than your publicist), and yet, often as not, you don’t even reply to their e-mails, or interview requests. Maybe you should be aggressively profiling these people and offering them swag? Maybe you should be pitching them. Just a thought.

Why not hire better graphic designers? Most cover designs suck. I’m sorry, but if I have to look at the sweaty withers of another horse running into the sunset, another vintage lampshade, another goddamn dog, I’m gonna’ shoot myself!

Why not boldly target new audiences, instead of mourning the loss of the ones you’ve already alienated? The reason I ask is this: I wrote a book, it sold modestly well due to the forces of luck and a lot of sweat, but I must’ve heard a thousand times: I gave your book to my niece so-and-so, and she loved it—and she /never/ reads. I’m serious, I hear it all the time.

Maybe we could make books cool again. There’s a lot of cool books being written, but nobody’s making them cool (see sweaty horse withers, and publicist with no faith in blogs).

Maybe “Reality Hunger” is more like a “Big Mac Attack.” Maybe you shouldn’t publish books that feed this hunger. Maybe you should just stick to your guns and believe in the tried-and-true novel—put your best foot forward, so to speak, and quit pandering.

Maybe you should start dictating markets again.

I know, I know, you’ve got answers for all these questions, corporate publisher. You’ve got your best practices, you’ve got your market research, but you haven’t got any balls.

XOXO,

je

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