A Fiendish Conversation with Jonathan Evison
In The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu, local novelist Jonathan Evison displays a knack for deftly blending empathy, humor, and kernels of wisdom. His latest work, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! (which hit bookshelves yesterday), finds a 79-year-old widow setting sail on an Alaskan cruise only to discover that she has unknowingly been living most of her life under false pretenses. To mark the new novel's release, Evison will spend his week traveling to local bookstores for a series of readings: Third Place Books in Lake Forrest Park (Wednesday, September 9), Elliott Bay Book Company (Thursday, September 10), and Queen Anne Book Company (Saturday, September 12).
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Evison about the inspiration for Harriet Chance, his issues with being labeled "big-hearted," and hot tubs.
What led you to the idea that became This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!?
Usually I write about characters that are similar: somehow marginalized by the larger cultures in some way. And I got to thinking, who is more marginalized than an 80-year-old woman in our culture? They’re probably still the demo with the most disposable income, yet nobody markets towards them, nobody programs towards them. It seems like the only people paying attention to an 80-year-old woman now is the health care industry.
When I was 17 years old I went and cared for my grandmother. I was a live-in caregiver, she was 80-something and agoraphobic. I lived in a senior citizens only motor home court down in Sunnyvale, California. I was the only person under 65. The majority of these tenants in this motor court were elderly widows. Even at the age of 17, I was really struck at how these elderly people were reinventing themselves with this late season in their life. People joining community theatres, adopting new philosophies, trying different diets, and stuff. There were women who voted the way their husband had voted for five decades, but once he was dead, they sort of reinvented themselves politically. We have all these clichés in our culture about how you can't teach an old dog new tricks, and in fact that's why the advertisers made a conscious decision about 30 years ago to stop marketing towards those people because. They said they can't change. Their brand loyalties are so strong, that they're never going to switch, it's not worth the effort. But this book is kind of the antithesis of that. It's about how life sometimes forces you to reinvent yourself.
Your calling card as a writer has sort of become the emotional connection and honesty that your characters evoke. Is there anything specific that helped mold that style?
Fiction is this big empathetic window that I like to jump through, and my writing ritual is really just getting out of my own way. Yeah, I'm the guy writing the words, I'm the author, but I try to not to be that authorial. I want to get inside the character, like literally inhabiting them. And so what happens when you're really emphatic with your characters like that is you realize yeah we're hard on ourselves, but most of us kind of cut ourselves a break a lot. We are pretty sympathetic to our own plights. So I think the tenor of my writing sort of reflects that.
Everyone always call me big-hearted, and I am big-hearted for sure. But I think it's kind of different. The M.O. is to offer a genuine experience, I think that’s where it comes from. And just being able to joke about normally very serious material, because that’s who I am. I mean, if I didn't have laughter, I'd be a goner. It's the greatest coping mechanism in the world. Mixing tragedy and humor [makes sense] to me, the two things are just so synonymous in my worldview. And it's not all gallows humor; it's just about the futility of being human. The difference between our expectation and what awaits us out there, that's where comic gold lies.
Yeah, there is part of being labeled big-hearted that evokes a negative, Hallmark cliché connotation...
Exactly! And that kind of bugs me. People mean it in a good way, but then I just start thinking about The Notebook or something. I just think heartstrings; it's just a little too mockish for me. That's not really what I'm trying to do.
You’re not trying to manipulate the reader in order to get a certain emotional reaction.
Right. Like my characters, I don't really ennoble them. In fact, they usually start off as unlikable people. People don’t like Harriet at the beginning of the book. I think [All About Lulu’s] Will Miller is probably my only sort of immediately sympathetic character. What I try to do is like make my character earn their redemption and make them earn the reader's sympathy, whereas when I hear that word “heartfelt” or “big-hearted” I just feel like a shaggy dog, you know what I mean? Like a Disney movie or something.
I people are trying to be positive with those labels, they just struggle to come up with better words to express their feelings toward the writing.
Yeah, it’s like how reviewers don't like to write about humor. It's weird that people in literary circles don't acknowledge it. And film is the same way, they don't give away Academy Awards to comedies very often. It’s just amazing to me how many of my reviews don't say stuff about comedy. They don't acknowledge that the novel started with comedy and with Cervantes. And yet it's the hardest thing to do on the page, arguably. But it's still kind of like, a red-headed stepchild in literature somehow. I can't imagine writing something not funny. I mean I have an idea of a novel right now that's not funny, and part of me wants to do it, but a part of me is like why would I want to do that to myself? It won't be fun. I want to have fun. I want to fucking laugh while I writing,
How has Seattle influenced your writing?
I mean for starters, in bold letters, Hugo House is amazing, I feel like Seattle is lucky to have a place like Hugo House. The literary culture here is just so good. There are very few cities that have literary cultures this good, I can name them on one hand: New York, L.A., Seattle, Minneapolis. It's such a supportive environment, and it's really helped my career thrive you know. Because Seattle’s such a tuned in literary city, I sell a lot of books regionally. Having somebody like Stesha Brandon who is a former bookseller be the coordinator at Town Hall brings so much like international literary talent through here, it's just a great American venue. And you got just Third Place Books, Elliot Bay Books, and University Book Store. You've got three huge powerful taste-making great independent book sellers here, you know? Portland’s got Powell’s, but I mean we’ve got three.
I've yet to write a novel that's really set here. I think Lulu has some scenes in Seattle there in the early ‘90s, on the Northwest peninsula, but I haven't really written too much urban stuff about Seattle.
Is that just because the stories haven’t led you to Seattle, or have you had Seattle ideas that you’ve put on the proverbial back burner?
Well like let me put it this way: if I were a memoirist instead of a novelist, I would totally write about Seattle. Because I was part of the early ‘80s punk scene, my bandmates went on to Pearl Jam and Sound Garden and stuff. We had one of the greatest punk rock scenes anywhere. And I would write about the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, as it started to boom and Seattle was a destination for young people everywhere for the first time ever. What Portland is now, that’s how Seattle was in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. There'd be so much material for me there, but that's just not why I write. I don’t want to rehash what I've done. I try to write from new experiences.
It drives my agent crazy, because she'd love to see a memoir about that. There's a big market for it. I have so many great stories and so many great memories, but that's just not something I’ll ever. I write about 80-year-old ladies or 6-year-old Indian kids, trying to access whole new genuine experiences for myself is kind of my reason for writing.
Are there any up-and-coming local writers you think people should check out?
Yeah, I wanta give you a couple of names. Sean Beaudoin, who’s got short stories and novel coming from Algonquin. He formally was a YA writer, now he's writing adult fiction, where he belongs. Elissa Watushuta is a writer I really like. She has a book called My Body Has a Book of Rules. My friend, Jared Middleton is an up-and-comer, he has a novel that will eventually be coming out.
What’s the current status on the film adaptation of The Revised Fundamentals of Cargiving?
Well it’s done. It’s shot. I think they’re still tinkering with it and scoring it and things like that. It’ll be released sometime in 2016, my guess is later because the film festivals and stuff. This will probably be at Sundance or something. But I’m excited about it. I think Paul Rudd [as Ben] and Craig Roberts [as Trevor] are going to be great. Just watching them on set, they just got a really good report.
So what was your experience as the writer getting his work adapted?
I mean, I’m not going to get like the precious artist type. I’m not going to be like, “Ooooh, it’ wasn’t that way in the book!” I went with a director I trusted [Rob Burnett]. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Rob’s baby now. Of course there are going to be changes. How could there not be? It’s a two-hour film, not a 300-page novel. I didn’t write a screenplay. I made a bunch of money for doing nothing. I decided at this point I’m just excited to see it.
I was just like, “I’m going to buy a hot tub and build a deck.” I’m not going to be some cranky fucking writer. I mean, Ken Kesey didn’t like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Like what is wrong with you? It’s a great film. I get it, it doesn’t have the first person point of view, but what are they supposed to do? Put a hat brim on the camera lens? I mean, come on. He should have been really happy. But writers get so cranky and precious about this stuff. It’s just like a dream that it happened, you know what I mean? I’ve optioned all my things, and at every point there’s been hope, but when it happens—when it actually gets made—you realize the odds of it happening is just so rare. It’ll probably never happen to me again. I mean, I’m on a good track, I have more opportunities to have it happen, but it’s just such a long shot that I’m going to celebrate that it’s happening. And, you know, new people will find the book because of it. Hopefully hundreds of thousands find the book. [Laughs]
You got the one big paycheck, but you might as well get a little bit more.
Fuck, I’ve got the hot tub, now I want a swimming pool. [Laughs] I was just as happy as a marginally-employed 39-year-old landscaper, but if I have a little bit of money, I’m going to have fun with it.
Sept 8–12, Various venues, Free