Death gives birth to the first question—Why?—and seems to kill all the answers.
—James Woods, “Reflections,” The New Yorker, December 2013
One thing is true: we will all die—and answering what of it is the stuff of novels. Poets, memoirists, novelists, essayists, journalists—all types of writers, have wrestled with this first question: why? Why do people die, and since they die, why do they live?
In his recently-released memoir Young Widower, John W. Evans adds his reflections to those of other writers who have asked why. Young Widower began its life when The Missouri Review published the essay “Elegy and Narrative,” which became the first chapter of the book, titled “How Lives Go On.” Then, The Rumpus published “Erasing the Room” and “Rehearsals for Departure”; the former is dispersed throughout the memoir, while the latter appears almost exactly as it did in The Rumpus.
Young Widower is the story of Evans’s first wife’s violent death and his coming to terms with why. Katie Evans was mauled to death by a brown bear while hiking in Romania, and her husband witnessed her final moments on earth from a distance of ten feet. Evans revisits their complicated five-year marriage, reflecting on how the mundane everyday choices and negotiations they made, pronounced by the certainty of their twenty-something egos, now shapes how he navigates his way through grief.
Young Widower is both a love story and life story about letting go and living again after tragedy and loss. It is also a story of what it is to be a man in a culture with a Captain Ahab ethos of masculinity, and within that rhetoric, Young Widower is quiet and still but no less quintessentially American.
We take a cab to the outskirts of Bucharest to rent a car for the day. It is early spring, and my wife, Katie, will die in a few months, but this morning, I wonder how we might beat the weekend traffic.
I first read “Rehearsals for Departure” on The Rumpus a year ago. The poignancy of the first lines carried me through the piece because it captures so delicately the way we look back after an unexpected trauma and try to cobble together something of a memory, when we were not expecting anything that day to be memorable.
The Rumpus: You have two books coming out simultaneously—the memoir Young Widower and a collection of poetry, The Consolations. How did the writing happen?
John W. Evans: After Katie died I started writing a blog, mostly photos and favorite songs or movies. The idea was a place where people could collectively remember. Around two months in, I thought, I am going to try to say something and I want to write a poem called “There are no words.” People kept saying that to me over and over, and it made me angry. It was sparking something in me, so I sat down and wrote a complete draft in an hour and while I was sobbing, I was also amazed at the poem. I posted it and people liked it. Of course the only people reading the blog were friends and family. I had studied in a tradition where you were writing for a broader public, so this was new. The poem was really raw. I decided to write a poem a month. I wasn’t engaged with the world at that time so it seemed good.
Three years after Katie died, I didn’t feel I was saying anything new. All the things that felt new and raw were now things I was doing without even having something to say, and I thought, Oh no, this is the very worst-case scenario. I’m writing things that have no meaning, I should just stop writing. But that didn’t work, so I began to wonder, what is an elegy and what is a narrative poem and where are they different. I sat down and wrote an essay called “Elegy and Narrative,” which is almost verbatim the opening of Young Widower. I found myself writing about something very new, which was the witness of Katie’s death. I had always avoided it—there was something taboo about it. But I continued with the prose and stopped writing poems.
When I got my first full draft of Young Widower, I sat and wrote two long poems which are essential to Consolations. What I was able to do in memoir unwound a very tight knot of process and rhetoric. I had backed myself into a corner and somehow I got back to a place where I could write poems, and poems that I liked.
Rumpus: The epigraph from Augustine, “Confessions.” In a religious context confession asks for redemption, salvation, and in a secular context, it asks for understanding. In thinking of memoir as confession, what is it you are asking of a reader?
Evans: That’s difficult. I have this idea in my head that writing about this experience from my witness of it is confessional. I think when I tell the story of that night and that year, I don’t come off especially well. It is easier for me to make sense of that year than it is for me to make sense of that night. I don’t think there is actual reason to be found in the way Katie died, but I have a hard time letting go of the fact that there is not reason in how I behaved and the fact that I didn’t save her life and the fact that I was so scared.
The Augustine quote represents a formal gesture to understand the limit of my understanding—it seems important to make it into a story but there just isn’t one. Stephen Blaire said history is narrative but events are not, and so what kind of structure do you build around an event to make sense of it if you don’t build a narrative? If you don’t want to make it narrative, what do you make it into? There is something about looking at the marriage in retrospect that always seems to end with Katie’s death, and it never becomes a beautiful, lovely thing to look back on. I would have loved to find a way to make it lovely and beautiful and give it that arc, but that would have been somehow false. So how else as a writer do you make meaning of something if it isn’t through narrative?
Rumpus: Can we talk about your construction of Katie? This is very, very simplified: Helene Cixious, in The Laugh of the Medusa, argues language is logocentric and phallocentric; to write the essence of a woman—écriture féminine—you must write around language. If we accept that premise—and many don’t, but we will for this question—bringing Katie to life on the page, did you encounter any of these frustrations with language?
Evans: In early drafts I had almost no physical appearance of Katie, only that she had dark hair and wore sweatshirts. I had no physical except after she died when there was a body, which speaks to the analytical framework you just gave. It also speaks to that challenge of personal memory diverging from collective memory. When I went back and wanted to have more of a physical presence of her, I fixated on a memory of the day she locked herself out of the apartment and all she could do was to walk across the city and find me and then she just grabbed my keys. I heard the story later that night. Much of how I write Katie’s physical presence in the book is her arriving and disappearing, arriving and disappearing.
Rumpus: Perhaps what you were dancing around is the gaze—woman as seen through a male gaze.
Evans: Yes. I had a much less sophisticated moment: it just seemed so canned. You reach those moments in a memoir when there is a pause for a gaze. Memoirs I admired didn’t do that, yet somehow you recognize that the person is fully there on the page. Maybe it has something to do with the power of the image, maybe there just isn’t that author-subject-author negotiation: I am going sit with you reader, and I am going to stare at the thing we are reading about, and we will form a bond over how precisely I can make this persona appear.
Was that a reasonably engaged answer?
Rumpus: It’s a tough question. Cixious is not for sissies. Here’s another hard question: Kevin Barry, in his Rumpus interview with Sean Carman, says in fiction your soul is pinned onto the page in every sentence you write. He thinks you can hide in non fiction. He says: “You can put on facades, and so forth. I don’t think you can do that in fiction. I think everything about you, despite all your best efforts, will come out on the page.”
Evans: You know, what works for him is wonderful. I would say in writing my own memoir, there were very few places I could find to hide and very few gestures I could put on the page to hide behind. I don’t know why I would have wanted to—possibly you can unpack that through therapy or in analysis—but the basic awareness of how I write and why is, I wanted to use the professional mode to be as honest and direct and plainspoken as possible, and probably that is taking a page right out of Rousseau.
Rumpus: Did you ever conceive of Young Widower as fiction?
Evans: No. And I wouldn’t feel bound to genre traditions in a way…but no. Never. I would have had a hard time with this book as fiction, and I would have felt a certain reluctance and hostility. I would not want to fall back on the idea that I am writing an emotional or literal truth and the facts do not matter—that would seem really ethically wrong.
Rumpus: What do you think Barry means by “putting on a facade”? Can we hide behind facts?
Evans: Politicians do. But I don’t think of those as literary—I mean the construction of a sort of persona. The invention of material or facts in service to emotional truth is the realm of fiction, and the memoirist that plays fast and loose with the facts has got that turned around—to get the emotional truth I can manipulate the facts. I think what happens when a memoir paints these sleights of hand that Barry is talking about, [is] you quickly move into the realm of autobiographical fiction.
Rumpus: I thought he was talking about the ego and saying in fiction one can step away—get into the head and body of a character. For example, you could have imagined Katie’s gaze upon you.
Evans: I could have invented that. So that is the limit. But how do you ever get closer to the truth or hide revelation of it?
Rumpus: The chapter, “Young Americans.”
Evans: Are you going to ask me about American Exceptionalism?
Rumpus: Well yes, I am going to try. Joining the Peace Corps and spreading the American dream worldwide. The Peace Corps is, perhaps, a one way street—America helping the underdeveloped nations of the world. It was a deliberate attempt to quell any burbling post-war, anti-American sentiment. If they meet us, they will love us—right?
Evans: Sure, in the beginning of the program, volunteers were sometimes placed in countries where there were elections we hoped to swing.
Rumpus: So: the scene where Katie is dead lying in the room, and people are partying all around her and carrying on like it means nothing. I felt that right through to my bones as a moment when one realizes, this is about being American and this is what personal made political feels like.
Evans: It was “The Gift Outright”—”The land was ours before we were the land’s.” The poem Robert Frost read at Kennedy’s Inauguration. He looked down but the glare was so great and his eyes were bad, so he recited it from memory. It is a lovely first line that has aged brilliantly. Lovely words, but the idea is pretty offensive. It is that Kennedy ethos of, we will present the gift of ourselves to the world.
The Peace Corps was the most democratic experience I have had of my country and the people who inhabit it. We crossed economic class, education level, age; we were an intensive kind of motley crew. We all had that feeling of, What are we doing here? I tried to have thoughtful conversations, tried to be a good guest and do what I was supposed to do as a presence. For me it was liberating to not be so aggressively climbing. I learned how to be alone. But it is true: the people who went with the best of intentions about helping the world were the ones who quit in the first six months. They didn’t make it because there was nothing to sustain that.
There were moments, yes, that were rude awakenings to what being American is. However liberal our sensibilities to our politics we seem maybe not to learn. I think maybe when you are Peace Corps or a teacher or writer, you continue to see yourself as an exception, and suddenly you realize others aren’t seeing that exception.
Rumpus: Job. You bookend Young Widower first with a Job quote and end with a musing on its meaning.
Evans: I think there is a way to look at the Job passage, and look at what is the role of Job’s messenger—they only escape alone to tell the story. In the end, I don’t think it matters. But, in time, I think the role of writer is messenger—to say that there is this malevolent, unreasonable force that has no sense to it much in the way Job discovered, and to say that there is no sense to be made of things, and if there is we can’t possibly access it. But, there is a role in witness and there is a role in not turning it into a nugget of well-told story told again and again.
I was at a dinner party recently and someone told this elaborate story about being attacked by a bear in the Sierras. It was a story about how he opened the door and the bear was there and it swiped at him and he got stitches. He was telling it as a point of pride—he had survived the encounter, had stood down the animal. He had taken this incredibly complicated situation and made it into a story about his own valor. I think that those are the worst kinds of story to tell.
Evans: Because those stories give you the illusion that it all makes sense, and they are not really helpful to anyone after-the-fact. I think especially with things like the natural world, I want to say, be careful with the stories that sand off all the rough edges to make some kind of pronouncement about things. I think when you can say this is what happened—it is absolutely true and maybe someone reading it recognizes something…maybe that is the most we can ask.