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.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Another year has come and gone, and it’s time once again to present The Nobbies, the official book awards of The Nervous Breakdown.

Below you’ll find this year’s winners, our picks for the best books of 2011.

Congrats to the victors, and their publishers.

And thanks, as always, for reading.

-BL

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!



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.

”Jump in” my Dad said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world— as though I was an idiot for not just clambering up myself.

We were standing around the back of an industrial park, in front of a skip.

No doubt they’ll be some people who don’t know what a skip is, other than pleasant enough sounding word. Perhaps you’ve been known to walk with a skip in your step… maybe you’ve tried a Skip, a delicious prawn cocktail flavoured corn snack… quite possibly you’ve seen Skippy the Bush Kangaroo on TV and know sometimes she’s referred to as ‘Skip.’

None of those definitions match the skip I was standing in front of. If you were standing there you’d most likely refer to the skip as a dumpster.

Yes, my Dad wanted me to climb into a dumpster.

Not just any old dumperster, but a dumpster full of corrugated gold: cardboard boxes. We’re moving house, we need boxes. Where else would we go but a dumpster at the back of an electrical supply store?

It was a low point, but from each and every event there are infinite possibilities. One of those possibilities was that it would end up being a mildly amusing anecdote to lead into a TNB post about the infinite possibilities of existence.

Whilst in the skip rooting around for decent sized boxes I slipped and fell. I hit my head on the side of the skip. But it could have been better or worse. I could have stepped on a different piece of cardboard and avoided a pratfall altogether and merely have just found some boxes in a skip. At the other extreme I could have stood on a different piece of cardboard, fallen much harder and shuffled off the mortal coil in a fashion only marginally less embarrassing than David Carradine hanging himself in a cupboard and wanking into oblivion.

This is a world of infinite possibility. My actions in the skip could have led to events that eventually culminated in a world war. I mean, it’s highly unlikely, but at the same time World War One began because a guy in Sarajevo got a bit peckish before lunch.

On the morning of June 28th 1914 somebody decided they were going to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand as he paraded through the streets. That somebody wasn’t Gavrilo Princip, who is perhaps best known for that time he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing the outbreak of the first Great War which saw a failed Austrian painter called Adolf join the army, and later the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party who had taken a particularly strong objection to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which brought a formal conclusion to WWI. This in turn led to an eventual rise to power, the breaking of many of the terms of the Treaty and a deeply flawed attempt take over the world and exterminate the Jewish race, which ended with failure and numerous film adaptations. 

World War Two was driven by hunger for revenge and supremacy. World War One was driven by a hunger for a delicious mid-morning snack.

This wasn’t a total coincidence. Princip was already pretty bent on somebody using something to kill Franz Ferdinand, and was in on the whole ‘let’s try and kill him on his parade’ scheme which failed miserably when somebody fired something a touch too eagerly. The grenade intended for the Archduke exploded behind the car and only managed to kill a few pathetic pedestrians that weren’t worth starting a war over. The car sped off in case there were any more hecklers in the crowd.

After this incident Princip went off to a cafe to get himself a post-failed-assassination-commiseration snack, whilst he presumably cursed ACME for their unreliable weapons and vowed to concoct an even more elaborate scheme to murder Ferdinand at a later date.  

By pure chance the driver of the Archduke’s car took a wrong turn on a diverted route. He realised this and broke suddenly.

Right outside the cafe where Gavrilo Princip was spitting out a fresh mouthful of coffee in disbelief and quickly concocting a new assassination plan which essentially boiled down to pistol whipping someone out of the way, going up the car and shooting Franz Ferdinand/changing the course of history forever.

It’s a funny old world.

I’ve been thinking about life changing moments a lot recently, particularly since Brad Listi’s recent post on Why We Exist.

Okay, I’ve been thinking about my life changing moments a lot recently and about luck and fate and all the other things you need to succeed in life beside either talent, good looks, luck, or a willingness to give blowjobs to well connected guys who really want to help you become a star…

Writing is something I’ve done since I was quite young, and I’ve always been told I’m quite good at it. Alongside breathing, repelling girls and cooking potato wedges it’s one of the few things that I’m really, really good at.

However, I never saw how I’d make a living off it. I knew that somehow I’d have to get a degree, and then a job and all sorts of other boring responsibilities that make you wish you could be eight years old forever and just spend all day in your underpants eating cereal and watching cartoons.

When I was a teenager I was shopping with my Mum. That’s the cool kind of guy I am— shopping with Mum, scavenging in dumpsters with Dad. We can’t all go to Disneyland. Anyway, I was happily picking up the usual stuff I read. At that time it was mostly crime fiction, and not very good crime fiction at that. My Mum presented me with a book, a bright orange book where the title was scrawled and the cover was a cartoon. She had only one recollection of the book: that she’d read it. That was it. I looked at it and decided it might be pretty cool.

And through that book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was introduced to Hunter S. Thompson and the notion that writing wasn’t just a sad pathetic thing that boring people did in Victorian times. Writing could be fun and exhilarating and really quite cool.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Los Angeles there was a guy who had recently written hundreds of sentences, which when read in chronological order told a story as good as any novel.

In fact it was so good that it soon became one of the ‘any novels’ that excellent unpublished novels rated themselves against. The only problem the author had was in selling as many copies of his book as possible. Then there was also the fact that he’d recently heard about the ancient mythical Japanese ‘Page of Many Voices’* and wanted to create a real version of it— on the internet if at all possible. It was a dream that would have been almost impossible, were he not living in a world of infinite possibility.

After some period of time I was in my bedroom writing about things. Through a MySpace group dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson I’d come across a guy from Scotland living in Korea who was willing to publish something I’d written. I’d also responded to almost every classified ad asking for writers willing to write for free. Of all of these Kerb Magazine became the one I got the most out of/put the most into. I was writing, and I was writing a lot. As well as writing savage indictments of political figures I was also writing screenplays and started novels about Vegas based cops with dark pasts.

All of these were abandoned.

I got a message from a guy in America who’d just published his first novel and he was inviting me to join his literary community. And that guy was…

Jonathan Evison.

Why, who did you think I was talking about?

Well, to cut a short story shorter, I didn’t take up the invitation. I was a busy man writing doomed to fail novels. I didn’t have time for literary community nonsense.

And later when I got an invitation from another debut author inviting me to read his blog I took a quick glance at that day’s entry, replied and exchanged around three messages. I liked the guy. His profile picture was of his face, which was a pleasant and friendly looking face.

This led to first the Brad Listi MySpace blog, which was really quite popular. This in turn led to Brad’s blog which wasn’t on MySpace, and it was really quite popular. And it was here I was tricked. It seemed as though Brad had blogged again, but the link took me to a different site. It certainly looked similar, but it was clearly different. It looked a lot like the old version of this site, which is largely due to the fact that it was.

This could only have happened in the 21st century. And along the way there were infinite possibilities at every turn. As well as the many things that worked towards me getting here, there were an unlimited number of circumstances which could have taken me somewhere else, got me here a different way or ended with me being murdered by a talking bear in a clown costume. I embarked on a short and dismal career in stand up comedy at one point between getting here and becoming one of Brad’s many MySpace readers. Again, that could have ended in any number of ways.

I only got really into TNB commenting because I was alone and a bit depressed at university. Had things worked out better I wouldn’t have left so many comments and wonderful people like Gloria, Becky, Tawni, Ashley and Tammy wouldn’t have urged Brad to make me a contributor. And I only qualified because I’d been published— in Beatdom. I didn’t know at that time that David Wills was a TNB reader and he joined the site the day after I did.

And now, to get slightly sentimental, I think about how dull and empty my life might have been. Because more than the opportunity to not only write, but have wonderful intelligent people read it and then say nice things about it, it’s a wonderful place to be and to interact with people.

I think about infinite possibilities a lot. Also I think about the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, except behind each door is a complete alternate timeline instead of a boring romantic comedy. A world where Hitler got into art school and didn’t mind the Jews so much… a world where she said yes and not no… a world where scheduling conflicts with Magnum P.I didn’t prevent Tom Selleck from playing Indiana Jones… a world where I just ignored another first time author trying to make a name for himself…


Infinite possibilities… One guy might eat a sandwich and get indigestion… another might eat a sandwich and end up causing a global conflict…

And somewhere in a world of infinite possibility there is a version of this post with a much better ending…




*This isn’t real. Or is it?**

**No, it isn’t.