Interview with Jonathan Evison

January, 2011
Jonathan Evison American writer Jonathan Evison imbues his writing with a specific sense of time and place. His debut novel, All About Lulu, vividly described Venice's Muscle Beach in the 1970s and '80s through the eyes of a 98-pound weakling in a family of bodybuilders. His new book, West of Here, is a vast frontier tale set in the impenetrable wilderness of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, the last mountain range to be explored in the lower 48 states. Life in a scrappy modern town is told alongside its bootstrap history through the varied perspectives of dozens of characters, including an intrepid explorer in 1889 and a pot-smoking Bigfoot tracker in 2006. Evison chatted with Goodreads about manifest destiny and the Great American Novel.

Goodreads: You live on an island in western Washington and spend a lot of time exploring the wilderness right at your doorstep. What do you love about the Olympic Mountains?

Jonathan Evison: It's like the jaws of a trap, this bulwark of ridges all crowded together around Mount Olympus. It was the last North American mountain range explored. It's just really precipitous; it gets vertical really fast. The mountains aren't very high, 7,000 or 8,000 feet, which isn't huge, but they start at sea level and go straight up. It's a very dynamic landscape. You have glacial stuff but also amazing alpine valleys brimming with wildflowers, and you have rain forests and more arid areas. It's so beautiful.

I have an old '76 Dodge motor home, and I spend close to 100 days a year out on the peninsula. It's where I do a lot of my writing and researching and beer drinking. I do a lot of backwoods camping, car camping, day treks. I've been through the High Divide and the Low Divide, and I know the country.

GR: Goodreads member Jean-Paul writes of West of Here: "Exploring the unknown, conquering the wilderness, exploiting natural resources, expanding business in the middle of nowhere, and following your dreams: the quintessence of being American." Reviewers love to throw around the "Great American Novel" label. What does that label mean to you?

JE: I'm proud of it. I love it. Foreign publishers keep telling me the novel is too big and too American. I'm like, "Yes!" That's what I wanted to write—a big American novel. I think [the concept] goes back to the Transcendentalists: Whitman and Emerson. America was started as a great big experiment. We leveled the classes. It was the first place to open up the land and to say the son of a cobbler has every opportunity the son of a prince has. Anyone could go out and homestead 140 acres. I was raised here, so of course I'm concerned with American themes. It's not that I don't have a global mind-set, too, it's just that this is very fascinating to me. It goes back to Whitman and Emerson and the idea of manifest destiny, and then flash forward—What an impact that had and how we pick up the pieces.

GR: West of Here is set in Port Bonita, an upstart town on the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula that hoped to rival Seattle as a regional hub. What was your inspiration for this fictional place?

JE: It's really based on Port Angeles, but certain things have been changed. I didn't set out to write a historical novel; I set out to write a novel about history. Once I decided to call it Port Benita instead of Port Angeles, it really freed me. But a lot of the history [remains]: The Mather expedition is very closely based on the Press Expedition of 1889, and there really was a Commonwealth colony. Port Angeleans will look at it as a pretty accurate history of their town in many ways.

GR: How did you choose your two time periods, the late 1880s and then modern-day Port Benita in 2006?

JE: I was thinking of this Emersonian 19th-century America and I wanted to write a big book, but I didn't want to do it linearly. I wanted some sort of unique architecture, so I came up with the idea of two separate epics in conversation—to push myself. It was a huge risk and could have potentially been a total disaster. The connections are not always that direct, it's not genealogical, the causal connections are not necessarily that cut and dry, there are generations in-between. It helped to put things into perspective—to interrupt all that history in-between and show the bookends. This is how we started, this is our past, and this is our future.

GR: Goodreads member Chris Swann writes, "All About Lulu was an intimate first-person narrative about Will Miller and his long-suffering love for Lulu. West of Here is a very, very different novel in terms of narration, scope, plot, and just about everything else except for clear, well-written prose. What made you want to write such an epic novel with two separate yet echoing narratives, so vastly different from Lulu?"

JE: First and foremost, before I even conceived of what my next book would be, I knew that I wanted to do something super-ambitious and push myself. I'd written a coming-of-age boys' novel, which is a good entrée for an author—audiences like to read coming-of-age boys' novels from first-time novelists. I really wanted to ramp it up from there and play with points of view, which is my favorite tool.

So I started to conceive an idea, and what I thought I was going to do was this really obscure literary experiment that wasn't going to be very accessible. Instead of using a wide-angle lens to historicize the material, as history so often does, I wanted to use a kaleidoscope. All these mishmashing, overlapping points of view—limited third-person points of view. I counted at one point, and there were 42 points of view, but I don't know if that's still true because I've gone through a number of drafts. Now I just say "dozens." I'll be honest—I'm as surprised as anybody that the book ended up being so accessible. I think I built the novel with so much connective tissue that the characters and points of view were much easier to track than I thought they'd be. Strangely, I haven't heard from any readers that they couldn't follow the characters.

GR: Among these dozens of characters, who was the most fun to write?

JE: I had fun with every single one. The James Mather expedition was pretty fun, because I got to live that adventure—albeit warm in my office—but my imagination was really up there with them. That was thrilling. I just love them all. They're all flawed characters, but it's all about empathy for me—really getting inside the shoes of my characters and walking with them. So it's hard for me to say I have favorites or that I enjoyed writing one more than the other. But for sheer adventure, the Mather expedition.

GR: Goodreads Author Patrick Kilgallon asks, "Which comes first, philosophy or story in your works? Or is that a chicken-or-egg kind of question?"

JE: Neither. For me, it's always character. For me, the character is the story. All of human drama lies between "this is how life is" and "this is how the person idealizes their life, this is how they want their life to be." The story lies in-between. It's the one thing that ties my books together. They're all very different, but generally speaking they're always character driven.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing.

JE: This used to be such a beautiful thing. I have an 18-month-old now, so my old regimen is gone. I used to get up at 5 a.m, my preferred time to work because I can focus better. The world is quiet. There are fewer distractions. And also when you're up at that time [I think], I better get some work done, otherwise I'm nuts to be up at this hour. I try to write every day I possibly can, it's just become a lot more challenging with an infant. Which has been a joy, and I'm already a book and a half ahead of my publishers, so I don't have to hurry, but I see that this is going to be tougher until my kid is in kindergarten. Sometimes that now means I have to write until 4 in the morning, and sometimes it means I have to get up at 4 in the morning.

GR: Do you have any unusual writing habits?

JE: One of the unique things is my motor home. It really is my gateway. I do all my composing in the office, but for something like West of Here, I was writing on walls, color coding the manuscript, breaking it into pieces, drawing maps, charts—everything I could to keep the reins on all this material. I don't know where I'd be without my motor home, because once I take this thing out on the peninsula into the mountains, I always get the answer I'm looking for. Everything becomes very, very clear to me. It's a huge part of the process; I may not be actually composing, but I might come home with 30 to 40 pages of notes. It's like a dam breaking. Everything becomes clear to me.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

JE: I was raised on Charles Dickens, Steinbeck, Mark Twain. All writers who a) are humanist and b) really bring their settings to life and try to create a world. With West of Here I wanted to bring my beloved northwest to life in the way Steinbeck did to Central California and Dickens did to London and Twain did to Mississippi. Probably Jack London, too. Adventure stories, just great adventure stories.

GR: Do you have any favorite books?

JE: I'm excited about Patrick deWitt's novel, which comes out in May and is called The Sisters Brothers. I think he's written a classic. I'm always talking about Stewart O'Nan. I admire him and feel that he's underrated. He's a great American novelist. He's got a book coming out in April called Emily, Alone.

There are a lot of young writers who excite me because they're writing stuff that's nothing like what I would write. People like Joshua Mohr, who's being published by Two Dollar Radio, and Richard Nash's new joint Red Lemonade [the publishing imprint]. Richard is my editor for All About Lulu. I just read his first debut by a writer from Portland named Vanessa Vaselka, and the book's called Zazen. She's got a ton of voice.

GR: What are you reading now?

JE: Right now I'm reading a book, Among the Wonderful, by a fellow northwesterner, Stacy Carlson. I just cracked it. It takes place in New York in the 19th century. I'm also reading Sharpshooter Blues and Carolyn Leavitt's Pictures of You.

GR: You mentioned you're a book and a half ahead of your publishers. What's next?

JE: My next book is called The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and will probably come out in 2013. It's a novel of the heart, about middle age, about a male nurse in crisis. It's another first-person-voice novel, and it's probably the most emotionally evocative novel I've ever written. If West of Here was a huge technical challenge, this was a very big emotional challenge. It really put me through the wringer. Now I'm deep into something called The Dream Life of Huntington Sales, which is a return to a big cast. It also takes place in a fictional, mythical northwestern town. It's got a little more of a thriller-mystery angle, just because I've never done that.

GR: The challenge is to reinvent with each novel.

JE: I get bored otherwise. I'm doing this to discover myself, so I always want to try to use every tool in my belt and a few I don't have so that I can develop new tools. When I stop challenging myself, that's probably when I stop writing. It's all about discovery. Nabokov is always talking about his characters as his galley slaves, and it just seems so planned out. It's like writing with an outline. It would drive me nuts. I have a rough outline of where I'm going, but it's always changing. If I were to try to write something that stuck to an outline, the whole thing would be a foregone conclusion. I think I'd rather dig ditches.


Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Sumner (new)

Sumner Wilson Sounds like a great book. Will check it out.

Thanks,
Sumner Wilson
sumner_wilson@yahoo.com


message 2: by Kerry (new)

Kerry I've read it and it is a fantastic book! Thanks for the great author interview!

Side note: there is a typo in the transcript above. It should be the Press Exhibition of 1889, not 1989.
:)


message 3: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Thanks, Kerry! Got it!


message 4: by Jason (last edited Feb 16, 2011 05:46PM) (new)

Jason I'd marked West of Here to read -- and then gave it the X when I saw that Evison had given it five stars. There is nothing -- or very little, anyway, in the GoodReads world -- tackier than a novelist rating his own work. It sounds like a good book, but I have a real hang-up about novelists tooting their own horns.


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