An Interview with Jonathan Evison

Jonathan Evison is the author of All About Lulu, West of Here, and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which has just been made into a movie starring Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez. His new book This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! launches today, and will unquestionably sell several million copies. Evison is the rare author in recent years who has rejected cynicism and the cheap highs of irony for a more vulnerable and emotionally open style, which hearkens back to a certain Dickensonian bent, mixed with a healthy dose of Frank Norris. With the release of Harriet Chance, Evison’s already rapidly expanding career is about to go full-on nova.

We recently sat down directly in front of the Guinness tap at a sailor’s bar on the Seattle waterfront that is otherwise renown for its heavy pours, regular and pointless violence, and possibly the hippest soul-inflected jukebox this side of the Orleans Parish Prison.

SB: Every decade seems to anoint its own author to be widely reviled. A disdain forms for arguably legitimate reasons, but eventually it balloons out of control and becomes accepted as part of popular culture. People take it as an article of faith that A Certain Writer is an asshole, even if they haven’t ever read their work. I’m thinking of a line from Mailer to Bukowski to Roth to Brett Easton Ellis to Michele Houellebecq. And now Jonathan Franzen. What do you think of him donning the latest thorns?

JE: My impression is that he rather enjoys wearing the horns. You gotta hand it to him, he’s a great provocateur. I think deep down all of us are jealous of his sales track and his glasses (I know I am).

Social media has pounced. The claws are out, and they won’t let him go. It makes me want to invite Franzen over for dinner, and maybe go see some weepy Cate Blanchett movies together. Speaking of which: three greatest punk bands, three worst punk bands

That’s an impossible question and you know it. Like where does a band like Flipper fit in, or Mr. Epp? Both bands were simultaneously the best and the worst punk bands at the same time. For me, having grown up with the first wave of American hardcore in the early 80s, I still think Off is the best band going, because they sound like the Circle Jerks but better. You gotta hand it to Keith Morris: 36 years after Black Flag he’s still punk as fuck.

What would you think if I started wearing a Borsalino to every book event?

I’d say you best not wear shorts with it. Or jeans. These are two fatal mistakes well-intentioned people make with their haberdashery. Other than that, I’d say go for it. Me, you, and Alan Heathcock can start a club.

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A mutual friend of ours wrote an essay about the arrogance of men who write 1000 page novels, and how infrequently women tend to. So, West of Here.

West of Here could have easily been 1000 pages, and a lot of critics would have preferred that, I think. But a lot fewer people would have read it. I’ll tell you this: until my kids are back in school, there’s no way I’m writing another 500 page book with forty-odd points-of-view and century-spanning timeline. No sir. Fuck that. Too much juggling for this season in my life. I do look forward to writing another world-beater one of these days, but as you know, it’s just hard with young kids.

I’d bet three hundred bucks you’ve been a bartender somewhere, at some point in your life.

Yep. The Colorbox on 1st Avenue in Seattle back in the early 90s. It was club that hosted a very, ahem, eclectic range of music, from Grunttruck to Fear the Cow to The Snatch Bandits, to a guy named Luke Fictitious, who sounded like L. Cohen meets Bruce Lee. People were throwing beers at the guy. I had to smuggle him out the back. The house sound man, Paul, was legally deaf. I can’t tell you how many excruciating sound checks I was forced to endure at the beginning of my shift.

 

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Five authors, dead or alive, are coming to your cabin to drink beer and soak in the hot tub. You have to take into consideration their personalities and inclinations. So, even if you love Schopenhauer, he’s probably not going to be a lot of fun. Similarly, you’ll probably don’t want to be responsible for Gore Vidal and William Buckley sitting together in matching Speedos. Who do you pick and why?

Nobody before the twentieth century is getting in my hot tub, man. I keep that sucker scrupulously clean. I don’t need Chekov taking a bath in it. Or god forbid, dirty old Whitman. I could dig hanging out with Bohumil Hrabal, though. That’s one. I like to party with people who are slightly unhinged, so maybe I’d invite Fred Exley. That’s two. And Brautigan, too–but I’d probably make him take a shower first. Man, this is turning into a sausage party, so I better invite a woman. How about Shirley Jackson? I feel like she’d be darkly witty and insightful, and could easily hold her own with a hot tub full of unhinged dudes.

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When you sold the film option to The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, what did you think the odds were it would actually get made?

Pretty good, actually. Rob Burnett was determined. He told me he’d make the film no matter what. I believed him. What shocked me is how quickly he made it happen.

Have you ever tried to write a script?

I’ve written about five feature scripts, back in the mid-90s–none of them produced. I don’t really like writing scripts. Not much room for figurative language. And I start feeling enslaved by plot points.

Tell us a little about being on set as a writer. My sense is most directors would prefer you weren’t there. And by you, I mean specifically you.

Ha! Nah, everybody was very gracious. I was never viewed as a threat. I told Rob it was his baby from the get-go. I liked the decisions he made. And the omissions made sense, too. I’m just glad the book inspired him enough to make him want to bring it to life on the screen. The rest is out of my hands. Just grateful to go along with the ride, and hang out briefly with Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts. I haven’t even seen it yet. I’m excited about my big cameo: I eat a cheeseburger from about 150 feet away.

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! has been described as a real departure in style. Do you agree? If so, was it intentional?

Seems like somebody says that every time I write a new book. I mean, I don’t want to repeat myself. I wanna challenge myself. So, in a way, yeah, I guess it’s intentional. I wanna take risks. I wanna play in a high stakes game. I wanna risk falling flat on my face every time out. But it never feels like an act of iterary pretense or whatever.

Harriet spends most of the book on a cruise ship. Did you take a cruise as research? I have a hard time envisioning you mid-Samba on the Lido Deck.

Yep, I took my family on the same cruise Harriet takes in the book. We had a blast. You wouldn’t believe all the free hand sanitizer.

I was going to make a Norovirus joke there but figured I’d let it lie out of propriety’s sake, and then you just jumped into the gap like a pro. At any rate, You seem to be on a regular and unusually rapid publishing schedule. Is this because you’re just naturally prolific, or is it a specific strategy?

A book every two years feels natural to me. Frankly, my publisher would probably rather slow me down a year. But I’m always one book ahead, so any more than two years to publish a book you’ve already finished seems like an excruciating wait. Plus, I’m not trying to write historical fiction, here. I wanna stay somewhat topical.

You’re a working writer, a man who supports his family with sentences arranged for effect, which means you’re one of maybe 250 people in the United States who genuinely does so. How does it feel to hang out with Mitt Romney and be part of the 1%?

After five books, it still feels unreal. I’m grateful like twenty times every single day. I realize how incredibly fortunate I am that the stars have aligned, and that I’ve managed to find an audience, thanks to working with great people, and yes, getting lucky almost every step of the way. So grateful on so many levels. Grateful that I get to be with my family more, that I get more time and freedom to write, that I can do my job anywhere at any time. One of the reasons I bend over backwards for so many writers, and friends, is because I feel like I’ve gotta share the good fortune.

Payton/Kemp Sonics or Sherman/Lynch Seahawks?

As much as I loved the Supes in the Karl era, it has been an amazing and unique experience watching the Hawks change the culture of football. Profiling positions differently. Running the ball in an age of quarterbacks. All the little things they do differently to their advantage. To dominate a sport in an era when everything is designed for parity, is an amazing accomplishment.

Mean Streets or Apocalypse Now?

Office Space.

Bill Withers or Sam and Dave?

Joe Tex.

Rolling Rock or Hi Life?

Bass.

 

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About Sean Beaudoin

Sean Beaudoin (@seanbeaudoin) is the author of five novels, including The Infects and Wise Young Fool. His new short story collection, Welcome Thieves, is just out with Algonquin Books.
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