In Evan James’s boisterous debut novel, Cheer Up, Mr. Widdecombe, the patriarch of the Widdecombe family, Frank, amuses himself by starting to write a book. Perturbed that his friend Channing has cancelled their annual trip to Auvergne, France, Frank sends Channing some pages from his absurd guide to living, “The Widdicombe Way.” Channing, in turn, sends the pages on to a publisher, causing Frank to worry about the seriousness of his endeavor. After all, he’d started writing just to amuse himself. As Frank explains to Channing, “Look, old buddy, this thing started out as a lark. And I intend fully—you mark my words!—I intend fully to preserve its essential lark-ness…”
For James, Cheer Up, Mr. Widdecombe may have also started as a lark, some ten years ago, when he was living in the Bay Area and beginning to experiment with writing fiction. With a draft of the novel’s opening section, James applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and, after earning his MFA there, went on to publish personal essays in Catapult, the Iowa Review, Oxford American, and the New York Times.
All the while the novel, with its colorful cast—Michelle, the Widdecombe family’s personal assistant; Bradford, a ne’er-do-well screenwriter; Gracie Sloane, a popular self-help author—simmered, a project he continually returned to with joy. Cheer Up, Mr. Widdecombe was released in March from Atria Books. Here, James talks about the idea of the “comic novel,” finding a setting in the Pacific Northwest, and channeling inspiration from self-help books.
The Rumpus: Before the novel, you’d published a number of personal essays. Do you feel like that was a good training ground for working on a novel? How did you make the shift from personal essay to fiction?
Evan James: I often think that journalism and all those internships and freelancing gigs were really good training for writing generally because of all the deadline work. The whole process takes place in such a condensed period of time, and I found that really stimulating. The fiction was always a more long-term project, so it was really helpful for me to have all these short-term nonfiction things.
Rumpus: I saw Gary Shteyngart read recently and he said when he was starting out he worked as a travel writer and that it was good training for having to observe every detail, that those skills really paid off.
James: Yeah, I really agree with that actually. That aspect of training your eye and noticing the environment. When I was in San Francisco I would try to cultivate this sort of openness so I could catch new ideas or come up with new pitches for pieces. I think doing it that way did inform my fiction writing process a lot—very open and improvisatory.
Rumpus: Where did the initial idea for the novel’s story come from?
James: I had been working in San Francisco doing all these different jobs, one of which was the San Francisco Ballet phone room, which I wrote a personal essay about.
Rumpus: Is that the ticket hotline?
James: Pretty much, subscriber services and patrons of the arts wrangling. They do seasonal layoffs during the summer, so I was laid off and collecting unemployment and I thought I’d always wanted to dig a little more deeply into fiction. I started reading a lot more literature than I had been before.
Rumpus: Were there books or stories that you found yourself gravitating toward?
James: I got into this anglophile kick with Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse and I hadn’t really realized before that there was such a rich vein of comedic literature. Don Quixote was a real surprise to me at the time. I bought this used copy and thought, I should read this because I’m reading serious literature now, it’s going to be a slog, and I’m girding my loins. It’s a long book and it’s not always pleasurable to slog through it, but at the beginning all this kind of wild humor—scatological, body, slapstick stuff—was really surprising to me. P. G. Wodehouse ended up being one of the major spurs. I just really admired the way all his novels were really tightly structured, and everything happened at the exact moment it was supposed to. Very delightful, perceptive narration, and I really wanted to imitate it. So the first thirty or fifty pages or so [of my novel] was me trying to figure out how to put a Wodehouse beginning in place so that other things later would pop off and click together.
Rumpus: In general do you like the label of “comic novel”?
James: I think there’s comedy as a genre and then comedy or humor as an aesthetic quality that’s a part of many different kinds of literary works that are not necessarily comedy. I think what’s exciting to me about comedy and humor is if it’s something that’s a discovery while you’re working, it feels like a fresh way of looking at something or representing it. I feel that way as a reader and a writer.
Rumpus: I think you’re totally right; the thing that elicits a laugh in a reader or a listener is that element of surprise. When you talk about approaching something in a fresh way, it’s often that there’s an expectation and then the expectation is not met, or gets subverted, or there’s some change that takes place. Something the reader hadn’t recognized but then does, and there’s some agreement there in that laugh.
James: Exactly. I think the best comedy has that quality of being creative in that way. If it’s about repetitive joke-making or formula or routine, it feels like schtick.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask about point of view—because you move so seamlessly from being in one character’s mind or perspective into another. I was curious how you came upon that as being the format.
James: When I started writing it, I knew I wanted to have a more omniscient narrator who was kind of like the narrator of the Blandings novels of Wodehouse. A few years into working on it, I started to run into these problems of feeling like this is a little too schtick, there’s a little too much of a comic routine that I’m getting trapped in. A teacher of mine, the novelist Michelle Huneven, encouraged me to take an approach that you might see a little bit more often in a place like the Writers’ Workshop where you get a really interior close third person access to characters’ inner life. Once I started writing a lot more about their inner lives, it opened up in a new way for me.
Rumpus: When the book starts we’re in a tennis scene with Bradford and when it ends we’re with Michelle. How did you settle on where you were going to start and end?
James: That was a long process actually. The ending was what I ended up rewriting the most. Even in one of the last drafts I made some pretty significant changes to character arcs in a way that meant I had to completely revise them. Somewhere along the line it started to become more clear that Michelle had a special role in the book because she was observing everybody and felt more separate from them. She’s kind of fascinated by them and felt affectionate toward them, similar to my own feelings about the characters. In earlier drafts there was more of Bradford at the end, but as I worked on it, it started to feel more right to have this situation where, in the middle of this farce, there’s a young love affair that goes wrong and gets kind of swept under the rug. That all kind of came about through the course of going through draft after draft. I work very intuitively, so if something feels wrong, I just have to go back and keep working.
Rumpus: A more organic kind of approach. There’s some freedom in that.
James: Sometimes I would make outlines early on and then I would work and everything would change just while I was writing. Every time I sat down to work through it I would be discovering new things. The way it turned out is a total surprise to me. [Laughs]
Rumpus: It seems like a number of the characters see writing as a form of salvation. I was wondering how much you were thinking of that salvation idea, like, “I know what I’m going to do; I’m going to write a book!”
James: I love that. There’s something about that that’s just inherently amusing to me. In some ways it’s a way of amusing myself, because over these ten years I’m trying to write and write and write. It is simultaneously a wildly impractical pursuit and it is deeply meaningful to me, and totally transformed my life. There’s a lot of stuff like that in the book where I’m poking fun, but poking fun at things that are actually really meaningful to me, and that I’ve experienced really deeply. For instance, The Artist’s Way and all that self-help stuff. I have gone through The Artist’s Way multiple times, I read self-help all the time, and I think there are a lot of really great practical books in that genre, and then there’s other stuff. And I really enjoy a lot of writers who work writing into their fiction in a kind of funny or unusual way.
Rumpus: Frank in particular takes such joy in his writing. Kind of regardless of anything else, he’s so excited by it.
James: My characters take a lot of joy in their excessive pursuits, even if they are sometimes taken in part as a reaction to other people. It’s like a big game in some way.
Rumpus: I was thinking about the note on which your book ends; it’s a comedic moment that’s hinging on language to some extent. How did you find what that end note was going to be?
James: I’m really drawn to comedic work in which there’s some attention or mindfulness to paradox, so things being simultaneously really absurd and truly deeply meaningful. I feel that way about life. [Laughs] Oscar Wilde, for instance, is another person who I really admire for that, his plays in particular seem to always be walking that line. He was someone I was thinking about when I started to get toward the end because he was such a genius with structure and repartee and witty summings-up of situations that have multiple layers of meaning.
Rumpus: I was curious about your choice of setting, and if it was a place you had some experience with.
James: I grew up on Bainbridge Island, so it’s definitely in my bones and in my way of seeing the world. There’s some interesting differences in that the milieu of the Widdecombes is an upper middle class milieu, which is a higher socioeconomic class than I grew up in. I often felt like Michelle in that I was an observer of that world because it is a very wealthy place for the most part, but like a lot of wealthy places there are other sides to it that don’t get a lot of attention. It’s a really beautiful place. The settings of those Wodehouse books that are on these country manners that are just sort of an atmosphere of sparkling delight, seemed to be kind of similar in some way.
Rumpus: And in some of Wilde’s work as well. Maybe these people who have more leisure time than some of us.
James: For sure. A lot of what happens depends on the fact that these characters are having a very leisurely kind of summer. And the landscape of the Pacific Northwest is really important to me. Having grown up there I was often pretty fascinated by some of the ideas that were more prominent around new age, self-help stuff, alternative medicine. The experience of that out there is really different than it is in a place like New York, for instance.
Rumpus: Now that your work is out in the world, do you feel some distance from it?
James: I think so. It’ll sound silly but right before it sold, I’d started teaching and I’d been trying to publish a book for a long time and I really had this moment where I sat down with myself and said it’s okay if I just teach from now on and keep writing in my private time. This sounds like something that would happen to my characters, but once I had that shift of attitude about it, like a week later somebody bought it. Ever since then, I’ve been in this place where I’m really excited. It all happened after I decided everything would be fine if nothing ever happened. The ten years of working on it was really soul-enriching for me and the fact that otherworldly things are taking place with it is just, like, I’m amazed at everything that pops up.
Photograph of Evan James by Beowulf Sheehan.