Jonathan Evison, whose first novel, All About Lulu, was called “a stunner” by Publishers Weekly, “a viciously funny and deeply felt portrayal of a blended family,” has just published his second novel, West of Here. Rumpus family friend Joshua Mohr recently flung some Q’s at Evison, who was kind enough to respond with an equal number of A’s.
THE RUMPUS: We’ve all heard the sexy story of the 20-something know-it-all who gets an MFA from Colombia and—poof!—puts out a bestselling first novel. But most working writers follow less sexy routes to publication. Tell us about your apprenticeship. Why did you persevere when nobody gave a fuck?
JONATHAN EVISON: I wrote six unpublished novels, and too many unwanted short stories to count, before All About Lulu was published. I physically dug holes and buried three of my novels in the ground—salted the earth so nothing would ever grow there again. And I loved every minute of it!
I never bothered doubting the occupation, because nothing was going to deter me from doing the thing I loved more than anything else in this world (besides drink beer). Throughout my 20-year apprenticeship, I did virtually every conceivable menial job you can think of, from roadkill hacker-upper to “hot talk” radio jock (the former being infinitely more rewarding). And I’m still drawing from all of these experiences, which is more than I can say about the time I spent sitting in classrooms. Having my work rejected time and again was a minor annoyance, at most. I had the work. I just kept licking envelopes and collecting form rejections as a form of due diligence. If nobody ever published any of my work, and I died in complete obscurity, surrounded by feral cats, I’d be writing novels up until the end.
RUMPUS: That’s quite a visual: you, literally burying your own novels. I’d imagine there’s catharsis there, but also some grief. You’re ambitious on the page, and in such ambition, an artist has to be willing to chance conspicuous failure. Did you worry about that when writing West of Here, a book that meanders between the 19th and 21st centuries, with a sprawling cast of characters?
EVISON: Oh God, yeah. I knew that West of Here stood a great chance of being a stupendous failure. After all, the narrative lens of the novel was conceived as a goddamn kaleidoscope! But I had to go for it I love the challenge. If I’m not pushing myself, the entire process becomes dull—like playing in the fourth quarter of a blowout. What amazes me—and what I would’ve never believed, had you told me four years ago—is that more than one commercial publisher would view it as something with blockbuster potential. Holy cow!
But that’s what I mean by discovery. As I got deep into the book, I realized that it was the characters and the place that were making the novel work, in spite of any grandiose formal constructions I was employing to challenge myself. The story and the themes became so much easier to access when it’s flesh and blood.
RUMPUS: It’s the only honest way to put a story together. But that takes guts, right? Writers need guts. What else do aspiring writers need to crack into this surreal game?
EVISON: You need a shitload of stuff, above and beyond raw talent. You need audacity, faith, savvy, luck, but mostly discipline, to my way of thinking. A lot of sitting in a chair at uncomfortably early hours of the morning, and getting lost inside your imagination. Getting to that place consistently is nothing less than a discipline, not unlike yoga (as much as I abhor yoga). The road is riddled with distractions, self being a big one. It’s a difficult thing to forget yourself, to put your whole life on some back burner, to forget anything exists outside your imagination, and give yourself to your characters. But that’s what you’ve gotta do to get the job done convincingly. Or, at least, that’s what I have to do.
RUMPUS: I know you used to play lots of dirty rock and roll. How does music affect your writing? I tend to like my literature like the best kind of punk/indie—sloppy, vibrantly alive with its flaws, thrumming with the severities of life… Are you a rock-and-roll writer?
EVISON: I’m a rock-and-roll writer in the sense that I like to destroy a hotel mini-bar and fill the bathtub with ice. But as far as the actual rhythm and pulse of my writing, I’d say it varies. Lulu was a rock-and-roller. West of Here is more of a big, stringy orchestral piece. I would characterize The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving [Evison’s forthcoming third novel] as a soul ballad, maybe. The book I’m writing now is more of a country song. But most of all, I love green M&Ms and mini-bars and bathtubs that hold lots of ice.
RUMPUS: How much time do you devote to a manuscript once you have a rough draft completed? I tell my students that the hard part of writing a novel is the amount of work after draft one. Do you agree?
EVISON: I’m obsessive. My first draft is about a tenth draft. I reverse-engineer a lot, so I’ve re-invented the beginning and the middle by the time I get to the ending, making the whole concept of drafts rather liquid, from where I’m standing. The fucking things are just never finished! Either I have to bury them, or an editor has to pry the damn thing out of my hands in the twelfth hour, before I can bring myself to let them go. And once I finally let them go, I have no misgivings or regrets with them, because they’re like my kids by that point. I just hope the world will be kind to them.
RUMPUS: Last question. Let’s say a writer-friend of yours needs a pep talk. She’s struggling to see the quality of her writing. What would your speech be to help fire her back up?
EVISON: Well, first I’d say it’s probably a good sign that she’s being critical of her work. The best writers are often the ones who are toughest on themselves, and hold themselves to the highest standard, even if that standard is unrealistic. You gotta keep yourself honest! You gotta be humbled by the game, just like a ballplayer, who is gonna fail seventy-five percent of the time he steps to the plate.
Just about every time I go through one of my manuscripts with a red pen, I think it sucks, at least in large part. But when I’m done, it usually sucks less. That’s the goal, right there, and a damn noble one: to suck less. We can all do that, with a little elbow grease.