I spoke with Jonathan Evison via phone when he was off island at his Sequim family retreat where he goes to get away from e-mail. He said he has this feeling of responsibility that compels him to answer carefully all the e-mails he gets—reportedly 100 a day—so being in a place with no Internet is the only way he can free himself to focus on his writing. He and his family spend about half their time there and half here at their home on Bainbridge.
Evison’s recent book The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving recently won the 2012 PNBA Book Award. This is the second year in a row that Evison has been bestowed with that honor. I asked Evison about the award. He said, “I couldn’t believe that. It was such a big year, the biggest year ever,” referring to his opinion that there were so many books that could have won it. He listed three examples that leapt to mind: Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. He added, “It was a really distinguished year for Northwest books—much more this year than last.”
Evison’s book also received a glowing review from The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, something that is not easy to achieve. I brought up that honor too and asked him what this all meant to him. “The biggest thing is just being able to have the work. It’s a blessing to be able to write full time. The writing makes me more expansive. It’s like my church. It helps me get more out of my life.” But he amended himself, saying, “I’d be doing this anyway. I wrote eight books before anyone published any of them.”
He also injected a little guilt into the scenario: “It’s not fair of me to have them both [both PNBA awards]. I feel guilty about things going so well.” He reflected on the fact that many writers have to teach in order to support their art. “I don’t like teaching,” he said. He clarified that, as far as teaching writers goes, he doesn’t “believe in it. I don’t believe I’m doing any one any favors. The best way to develop a unique voice is to work. MFA writers get indoctrinated a little bit.”
Evison’s latest book includes some settings that will be familiar to locals. I’m thinking in particular of the description of The Viking Herald, a newspaper mentioned in the novel. It’s described as being at “the ass end of a new business park on the edge of town.” I asked Evison if it is worrisome living in a small town and writing intimately about place. He answered by talking about his previous novel, the one that won the first PNBA award, West of Here: “I don’t know. When I wrote about Port Angeles I was worried they were going to tar and feather me.” But, instead, the City Council thanked him.
He said there was one person who maybe should have been upset by something he wrote, in All About Lulu. But, he said, the person didn’t recognize himself. Evison said that, regardless, “You can’t worry about that as a writer. I need a fictive lens anyway. Be careful or you’ll wind up in my next novel.”
I asked Evison, who is known for his love of good brews and whose website features a giant image of beers branded as his books, where his favorite local place is to get a beer. He said, “Mostly at home.”
He describes Bainbridge as “still sort of rural and liberal. It’s a strange thing. You get the best of both worlds with the city there.” He is especially effusive about the support he has received here for his writing. He said that his books are top sellers at Eagle Harbor Books. “It’s such a supportive community there. It gives me the home field advantage. Ninety-five percent of books go out of print. Just what I sell at Eagle Harbor Books—50 or 60 books a year—would keep me in print.”
His family moved to the Island in 1976, and he grew up here. He left for a while because he “wanted to get off the rock.” But he moved back in 1996. Plus, then he married a woman whose great grandparents homesteaded on the Island. The result, Evison says, is “I know everybody.”
I said, “Wait a minute. You met your wife on Bainbridge? I didn’t know it was possible for people to meet here.” Evison said that he had dated a lot of people and was struggling emotionally when he met her. His sister had been killed in a freak accident. He then “bottomed out” when his first wife left him “for a surfing Buddhist.” He said, “I didn’t see that one coming.”
But then he met his current wife. “I was at the tail end of my sad period.” He realized when they began dating that she was not someone you just dated and then moved on from. She was someone to keep.
Evison, who sees metaphoric connection in many places, said his son was born just two days after his grandfather died “freakishly” at age 59 from food poisoning. He said he “was calling in corrections to his obituary as Owen was crowning.” His second child, a girl, was born on the anniversary of his sister’s funeral. She bears as her middle name his sister’s name, Gale.
Our conversation turned from the specifics to the overall state of writing. I asked him what it means to be a Northwest writer. “I don’t know,” he said. “For me, it’s like Faulkner south. Haunted by its past, forced to deal with its crumbling institutions, like commercial logging.” He quoted Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He said it’s about “Coming to terms with our early mistakes.”
He added, “I very much feel the past here.” As an example, he brought up the Elwha Dam and referred to the Restoration Act of 1992, which authorized the U.S. Government to acquire the dam and recommission it for habitat restoration, calling it “environmental redemption but doing the same thing as when they built the dam,” failing by not hiring locally to revitalize the local economy.
He thought about it some more and said, “Rain—there are more people here that respond to humor than elsewhere. You need more humor to survive the weather.”
The American Novel
We moved on to the state of the American novel. I asked, “Is our literature relevant?” A true novelist, he took the conversation back to the specific: “There’s a lot fiction out there that’s arch and pessimistic. I like sympathetic characters. I want to be rooting for someone. I don’t think my characters are losers. I am only interested in characters that are at least trying to better themselves in some way. I also don’t have room for bitchy friends who are always complaining about their lives. It’s the same with fiction.”
Then he answered my question: “I think we need the novel worse than ever. People are hungry for what the novel offers. He pointed out that the really popular on screen shows are the ones that have a literary arc, like dramas on HBO. And even reality TV shows, he said, focus on the minutiae of people’s lives. “The novel does that better too.”
He finished with a love note to the novel: “You can read a novel in the time it takes to go to the theater. I can’t imagine a life without books. They offer the greatest empathic window that humans have ever created.”
I pointed out that Evison is very careful to put out a hipster image, presenting a consciously chosen style through his website and his promotional photos. He said, “I have two great publicists but it’s mostly me,” referring to his DIY mentality, which he ascribed to being in punk bands when you have to staple fliers to telephone poles. (Evison was in the band March of Crimes, which eventually generated a Soundgarden and a Pearl Jam member.) “I like it. It doesn’t feel like self-promotion. It helps me.” He started out in social media by blogging about other people’s books. He had 15,000 people in his forum on Myspace. He pointed out that he has 200 speaking engagements a year and said, “If I didn’t like it. . . .”
About his trademark hat, Evison said that it belonged to his grandfather who purchased it in 1962. He then explained that the whole trademark fashion thing “worked for Colonel Saunders,” and said, “People recognize me. It helps.”
We circled back to his books. I commented that his last novel, West of Here, was described as “sweeping” and his newest one seems to be more intimate, although it does include a road trip. He said, “It’s all about trying to challenge myself. On the surface they seem very different, but Revised is emotionally ambitious. My challenges were formal and structural in the last book. This one was a much harder book to write. It was very painful to write for me, dredging up emotions.”
Evison is well into his next novel in which he explores what it was like to be a woman in his grandmother’s generation. He explained that, when he was a teenager, he lived in a senior citizen motor park for a while where the majority of the 300 to 400 residents were widowed women. He was the only person under the age of 65. He said he had a lot of experience there hanging out with elderly women, “the single most marginalized group of people.” The new novel will be a “love letter to the women in my grandmother’s generation.”
Perhaps this will not be too difficult for Evison who said he was “born to be a little old lady.”
Springing off from a personal point of connection is what Evison did in Revised as well, which includes a character with Duchenne Muscular Dustrophy and involves the character’s caretakers. A good friend of Evison’s has the condition and, like the characters in his book, they have taken epic road trips together.
For a guy who has experienced sudden and surprising twists to his life, who went from literally digging ditches to living off book royalties, who met his wife just as he was hitting rock bottom, who is a fedora-wearing beer-drinking man with the soul of an 87-year-old woman, good fortune is just that: luck. And it can be taken away as quickly as it’s given. This must be why in Revised he writes, “So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact.”