JEvison-108

The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Jonathan Evison

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Jonathan Evison is a damn good guy. He raises rabbits. He has an almost supernatural enthusiasm for beer. Editors from rockstar Richard Nash, to up-and-comers like Bryan Tomasovich of Emergency Press, to old stalwarts of the industry like Chuck Adams, speak of him with both reverence for his talent and with an almost familial affection (he and Adams even publicly call each other “son” and “Pop”). Back when I first started writing for The Nervous Breakdown, Johnny, an editor at the site and already a rising star for his surprise smash hit, Soft Skull’s All About Lulu, twice reached out to me for…well, it seemed for no apparent reason (we had never met), with offers to champion my then-unsold manuscript to editors he knew, and on both occasions he came through. Though neither directly resulted in publication at the time, I soon learned that this kind of thing—just randomly going out of his way to help other writers he’d noticed—was completely typical of Johnny, and when my collection finally did make it into print, and I was in Seattle for my tour, he—in what I by then realized was simply vintage Evison style—toted from Bainbridge Island on the ferry to come to a reading and offer support. All this while he was simultaneously cranking out two new novels and serving as an actively childrearing dad…

Literary acclaim and accolades do not always go hand-in-hand with being immensely “deserving,” nor, of course, should they have to. But when a guy like Johnny Evison, who steadfastly kept churning out manuscripts through years of rejection and obscurity, really makes it, I have to believe that everyone who knows him—his work ethic, his generous character, his sense of fun, and his truly impressive prowess as a writer—does a bit of cheering. In this brave new age of a global literary “community” through online forums, Johnny has been a community-builder and a positive force since the get-go. I recently had the pleasure of reading his third book, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which I’d looked forward to for a year-and-a-half, since publishing an excerpt in TriQuarterly Online and—no surprise—not only was it luminously moving and very funny, but Johnny was also game to answer some questions for The Sunday Rumpus.

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The Rumpus: With The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, you’ve followed up what’s commonly referred to as a “big” novel—your bestseller, West of Here—with a much more interior, intimate novel about grief and the fragile construction of hope. Can you talk a bit about that—about the balance between work that takes on a vast canvas and work that…well, to say the canvas is “small” would be inaccurate, because sometimes the most intimate novels are the ones that cover the widest emotional ground…but about how you experience the inspiration and process of writing fiction with a sweeping scope versus work that lives deeply in the interior of one character?

Jonathan Evison: “The fragile construction of hope”—I really like that! No wonder you’re such a good writer, Gina. Where West of Here was a formal challenge, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving was an emotional challenge. They both have the same theme: reinvention. And they both have the same goal: to offer readers not just a story, but a genuine experience which will require their considerable investment. As far as the experience of writing them, West of Here took more psychic and intellectual energy, while Revised simply broke my heart and kicked it halfway across the country. Both experiences made me feel like a more expansive person in the end.

Rumpus: The promotional material for Revised Fundamentals talks about the sudden loss of your sister in an accident when she was a teenager. You recently mentioned to me, too, in an e-mail, that you were “raised by” your sisters. As you’ve become a dad—and are now embracing fatherhood for a second time; congrats!—did it feel more important for you to work through, on the page, some of those losses from your own childhood and explore what enables people to continue to love and hope after devastating grief?

Evison: It killed me to write this book as a father. Thank goodness I’m not superstitious. You won’t find me naming my girl Piper, though. I wanted this novel to be a gift to parents, a reminder of how precious every little annoying, gas-inducing, nerve-wracking moment of parenthood truly is. We take so much for granted in this life. It’s important that we always keep our eyes open, and that we’re grateful for what little we might have, because as the novel says, nothing is indestructible.

Rumpus: Revised Fundamentals has so many complex layers of relationships. I really appreciated the fact that Ben’s healing, such as it is, isn’t achieved through conventional means such as beginning a new relationship with a woman or having a new baby. In fact, his bond with Trevor, while hilarious and often uplifting, is…well, “doomed,” too, in that Trevor doesn’t have that much longer to live. As a surrogate son, Trevor wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a safe bet. So on the surface, Ben’s deep investment in Trevor would only appear to be headed towards more heartbreak. But it’s like what you just said actually—nothing is indestructible. Piper and Jodi can’t be “replaced” by something safer, because nothing is safer. It’s the journey—in this case, really quite literally—that counts, more than the outcome. I mean, is that how you see it? For Ben, and in life in general? That it’s the ability to be awake and appreciative and…fully alive…moment to moment, that gives life meaning, more so than being reliant on some kind of positive outcome?

Evison: As far as I’m concerned, without hope, Jack, you’re dead. It isn’t always easy to find it. At the time the story begins, Ben has been living without hope for two years, looking for it in what used to be his life, not finding it. But hope can reinvent itself in endless ways, it’s a shapeshifter. You gotta look for it really hard sometimes. It is always there. All of this, is easy to forget. We forget it every day of our lives. In the novel, the road delivers Ben back to humanity. He finds hope in new places.

Rumpus: I have a bit of an obsession with novels that are structured in a circular, eye-of-the-storm kind of way—from writers like Faulkner to Morrison to Arundhati Roy, I’m a huge sucker for a novel that circles a central trauma without taking us directly to that moment, or at least withholding it for some time, circling and building a kind of emotional truth and dread before we plunge into the vortex. In Revised Fundamentals, you reveal very, very little about the specifics of The Disaster on the page, and what little you do reveal comes pretty late in the game. I think it was such a successful technique—it completely eliminates any sense of tragedy for shock value, or that sense of manipulation in terms of writing a heart-wrenching or grisly scene in order to “hook” a reader. But what made you decide to write the story this way?

Evison: The form of the book was pretty organic. I always pictured this book as an artichoke, where you peel back the layers of armor to get to the heart of the thing. I think I did a little reorganizing, but not much.

Rumpus: Okay, this is maybe an annoying question, but why does Dot quit smoking near the end of the novel? I mean, the novel is so brutally honest about life and relationships and self-destruction and sadness and anger…and that felt like the one, maybe “easy” moment, the kind of moment where something happens because it should, because the reader would want it to, because it will make the reader feel better. But then I thought…well, Dot has to be fundamentally changed by her relationship with Trevor. The novel doesn’t permit, since Ben narrates, a full exploration of the nuances of that change, of course—Dot’s not the kind of girl who goes around explaining herself and her motivations to people. Can you walk me through, I guess, why she throws her cigarette away?

Evison: Let us not forget that Ben starts smoking at the end of the novel, which is also supposed to make the reader feel better. Dot was only smoking to be rebellious in the first place. I think she realizes that she hasn’t been disappointing people as much as she thought. Nobody was impressed by her smoking. She got sick of the taste in her mouth. Heck, she’d been smoking all of ten months, anyway. Maybe she chooses that moment to make her statement, because she thinks it will make Ben feel better. It’s just sort of a pregnant moment in their relationship and somebody felt the need to do something definitive, put an exclamation point on it.

Rumpus: Revised Fundamentals never gets on a soapbox, but there are a lot of organic moments of gender reversal that appealed to me. Ben wasn’t only the primary caregiver of his kids, but he also continues his caregiving into his work with Trev. Janet, while not a “bad” mother in any way, had a more distanced relationship with her children almost like the old-fashioned dad, in part due to her demanding work schedule but in part just due to who she seems as a person. Although she grieves The Disaster intensely, she is able to move on much sooner than Ben is. Dot also has a father who…goes to some fairly extraordinary lengths to parent, failing to live up to society’s (or Dot’s) expectations of a divorced dad. This is less of a question, just an observation of one of the book’s many natural strengths—it doesn’t buy into conventional wisdoms, and writes its own wisdom. As a parent, and a writer, are the gender roles usually expected by society anything you’ve had to wrestle with or consciously bend, and if so, can you talk about that?

Evison: Hmm. Well, one thing I’ll say for sure is that masculinity in crisis is one of my favorite themes. All About Lulu also deals with it, as does West of Here, to some degree. I mean, geez, I was raised by bodybuilders. Talk about men in crisis. I was also something of a kept man in my first marriage—that is to say, I was not (by a longshot) the main breadwinner, and I did all the cooking, and a lot of the domestic stuff, while I was writing unpublished novel after unpublished novel. Also, I myself have always been a nurturer—something I probably owe to the fact that I was mostly influenced by the women in my family—my mom, my sisters, my grandma. At the same time, I’m a total dude. I love talking shit with my buddies, going to ballgames, rough-housing, and the like.

Rumpus: And yet, maybe contrary to what I just asked, probably the major bonding point for Ben and Trev, initially, is lusting after women and talking about who they’d bang. Likewise, Forrest is constantly trying to get Ben to get out there and date, and get laid. I just had an interesting thought about the ways in which sexuality is…I guess connected to hope, especially for the men in the novel. The way it manifests among men in conversation has a certain coarseness, but each of these men—Ben, Trev, and even Forrest, through his own indiscretion with Big Gina—is far more vulnerable than male culture would seem to collectively endorse. They put out a sexual bravado, but what women and sex actually represent to them seems so, so much deeper and—yeah—connected, almost, with why we go on living in a world that can be brutal, yes?

Evison: Oh yeah, the braggadocio element is paper thin. That’s why I think it’s hilarious that Jennifer Weiner (I said “Weiner”—huhuhuh, huhuhuh) decided to harp on it when she reviewed the book for NPR. I mean, the women readers I’ve talked to understand implicitly that the flippant brand of misogyny practiced by Trev and Ben is just pure little boy vulnerability—how did she not get that? Duh. I guess that’s why she writes chick lit and not real literary gold like me—ouch! Just joking. I’m looking for a good old-fashioned feud here. I wanna head-butt Jennifer Weiner on national TV, Norman Mailer-style—better yet, on public radio.

Rumpus: That’s actually kind of hilarious. I didn’t know about the Jennifer Weiner NPR review. I’m going to go look it up so I can link it here if possible! But I guess you know you’ve made it when Jennifer Weiner is trying to take you down! You’re in Franzen company then, Johnny…

Seriously, though…if you had a chance to talk on public radio about…well, feigned misogyny to cover up male vulnerability, not to mention, uh, chick lit and literary fiction…what would you say?

Evison: Hell yes! I don’t like being called out as some sort chauvinist pig when the finger-pointer is totally missing the point. Bring on the Weiner, anytime, anyplace. First, I’ll talk circles around her, then I’ll give her a Skagit Valley Potato Chip. But seriously, I loved her NPR review. It was great coverage.

Rumpus: You spent many years unpublished, as you just pointed out. So your rise after All About Lulu was a lot less meteoric than it may have looked from the outside. You have, however, had an extremely rare and exciting success story since you were, let’s say discovered, by Richard Nash in his Soft Skull days, and now have hooked up with (our mutual editor!) Chuck Adams at Algonquin. Will you talk a bit about the roles of editors (and publicists) in a writer’s career?

Evison: I’ve been blessed to work with two of very best editors out there, in Chuck and Richard. My gratitude to them is boundless. They’ve both made me a better writer, and the affection I feel for both of them verges on familial. Any writer lucky enough to work with a good publicist—and again, I’ve worked with two of the best, in Kelly Bowen and Michael Taekens—ought to be very grateful. These people, editors and publicists, are the best advocates an artist has. They connect your work with readers, which is sort of the point, right? What I love about all the people I’ve worked with, is that they embrace me as myself; they’re not trying to spin me this way or that. They’re helping me help myself, as it were.

Rumpus: You were something of a pioneer in terms of what’s now known as “platform building” in terms of the online community. You’re known—and I really do mean known—as a guy who is friends with everyone and goes out of his way to help a lot of writers. How, living on an island with rabbits and after spending many years unpublished and not really front and center in the literary community, did you come to be such a well-connected guy who has done so much for so many writers, and can you talk about your basic philosophy of generosity and putting yourself out for others, and “out there” in general as a networker?

Evison: Look, for twenty years my life as a writer was completely insular. My mom wasn’t even reading my stuff. None of my friends were writers. Hell, most of them stopped reading in college. Social networking allowed me find my tribe—that is, other book people, writers, readers. What began online has become a real life network for me. About twenty of my closest friends I met in an online literary forum I created called The Fiction Files, about seven years ago. Now, we have a big real life party every year, and people come from all over the world. I love social networking. I like people. Something like Facebook is neither a distraction or a burden to me. It’s fun. As far as helping other writers and such, it’s a pleasure and an honor. I’ve never liked people who get to the top of the mountain and then pull up the ladder. Not that I’m at the top of any mountains, but I’m fortunate enough to have a healthy profile. I’m determined to use my growing sphere of influence to help improve the overall ecology of independent publishing. I wanna make the whole environment around me a better place, and the way to do that is helping other people get up the mountain.


Gina Frangello is the Sunday Editor of The Rumpus. She is also the Fiction Editor of The Nervous Breakdown and the co-founder and Executive Editor of Other Voices Books, an imprint of Dzanc Books. Her third book of fiction, A Life in Men, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in February 2014. She is also the author Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She lives in Chicago and can be found at www.ginafrangello.com. More from this author →