12:15 pm Aug. 28, 2012
Jonathan Evison has published three novels, but he’s written more—six more, to be exact. Three of these he buried underground. Not in a figurative sense, but with an actual shovel.
“I wiped the sweat off my brow, dug a hole, threw them in there, and said ‘See ya later,’” Evison said to me on the phone last week from Bainbridge, Wash., where he lives. “They weren’t completely worthless, but I knew before I was finished that they’d be failures and that I’d be burying them. It was cathartic.”
Considering his decades of struggle, which included more than 500 rejection letters, Evison sounded surprisingly cheerful and even a bit nostalgic about those early days.
“It’s important to realize it’s going to take a long time to get good, so it wasn’t even that bitter of a pill to swallow,” he said. “I’m such a loser at heart that I actually kind of miss it.”
Evison’s published works are so distinctive and quirky that it makes one wonder about those “lost” manuscripts. All About Lulu, his first published book, is about a weakly boy in a family of bodybuilders who falls for his stepsister. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and was placed on many “best of” lists, including L Magazine’s Best Books of the Decade. West of Here, Evison’s second novel, centers around a fictional town in Washington state. It employs a dual timeline and 42 points of view. Despite—or because of—its unique structure, it became a New York Times bestseller.
Evison freely admits that many aspects of his books are autobiographical—for example, per Lulu, Evison’s father was a competitive bodybuilder. But his newest work delves into an even deeper exploration of his past. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, out today, revolves around Ben, a man grieving the accidental deaths of his children and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. Depressed, jobless, and avoiding his wife’s divorce papers, Ben decides to take a night class in caregiving.
Soon after, he’s hired to care for Trev, a 19-year-old with advanced Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Wheelchair-bound, Trev has an incredibly sharp mind. Though the two bond over hotties on TV, their friendship grows haltingly through a complex and sometimes awkward symbiosis. They plot an imaginary road trip, though Trev rarely consents to leave the house. When Trev finally decides it’s time to take a trip despite the dangers, they embark on a journey that includes hitchhikers, fights, chases, and a live birth. Throughout their adventures, Ben and Trev struggle to accept the unacceptable cards they’ve been dealt.
Evison’s writing is comic and expansive, and his work has obviously been enriched by the variety of jobs he’s had in the past—though he may view this in less rosy terms. (“When you’re working at a 108-degree warehouse, sorting rotten tomatoes, it’s a welcome reminder that someday you might be able to write about this,” he said.)
One of those jobs was as a caregiver, a job Evison took on 10 years ago after “bottoming out” due to the dissolution of his first marriage. Grateful to friends and family for pulling him out of his depression, Evison decided he wanted to give something back, though he didn’t feel he had a whole lot to provide. He still remembers that job as something that helped him “inch [his] way back into humanity.”
One of Evison’s clients was Case, the man he dedicates Fundamentals to. Evison noted fondly that Case has “the same tyrannical streak” as Trev, and that they’ve also embarked on some epic road trips together. He dropped the book off to Case a few days ago, though Case probably won’t be physically able to read it until it comes out on the Kindle.
Evison still keeps in touch with all his clients, and misses his caregiving days. “I wish I could still do it,” he said. “I just can’t afford to! It pays so little money.”
In addition to Evison’s caregiving experiences, Fundamentals is based on a horrific event in his childhood: the sudden death of his older sister. In a moving and heartbreaking essay called “Filling Holes," Evison recalls how his sister went on a road trip at age 16 and was killed in a freak car accident:
The incident, the specifics of which have never been explained satisfactorily by anyone, all but exploded my family. My parents divorced after twenty-five years of marriage. I lost what amounted to my primary caregiver. My oldest brother was deeply depressed for two years afterward and was really never the same in some fundamental way. To this day, my family is still feeling the shockwaves.
While writing Fundamentals, Evison was also celebrating the birth of his first child. His decision to write about a father who accidentally causes his children’s deaths, along with the revisiting of his sister’s accident, was “incredibly painful.” But in the same vein as his caregiving, Evison wanted the pain to transform into something that would help others.
“My goal for this book was pushing myself emotionally,” he said. “ To really do some dredging and plumb some emotional depths and write about hope in the face of irredeemable loss—and hopefully that would make it a little easier for someone else out there.”
Evison’s purposeful connection with readers (which he recently wrote about for The Wall Street Journal) extends beyond the page. He’s known for his often grueling tour schedules; for West of Here, Evison visited about 80 cities.
“For me, a book is about starting a conversation, and going on the road allows me to continue that conversation with readers,” Evison said. “Plus, I get to destroy a lot of hotel minibars.”
His initial tour schedule is up, and will doubtless expand (in the past he's done readings in New York at WORD, BookCourt, the Strand, and KGB). For Fundamentals, he’s focusing on beer sponsorships, events at breweries, and reading with writer friends in the cities he’s visiting. He said his goal for the trip is to start a dialogue with his audiences—sometimes, he said, he doesn’t even read from the book at these events. He called New York a “tough market” but one that nonetheless allows him to see many writer friends.
Evison’s energy and enthusiasm also extends to his work schedule. Though he’s published three books in four years and says he usually works on three at a time (researching, writing and copyediting), he still calls himself a “plodder,” trying to knock out a solid page a day. As for coming up with ideas, that’s the easy part.
“I know what my next five novels are gonna be; that’s not the problem,” he said. “The other issue is just focusing and stay inside the thing I’m working on and not getting ahead of myself.”
Beyond his writing, Jonathan’s a co-founder of literary site Three Guys One Book and is the executive editor of The Nervous Breakdown. Perhaps some of his productivity can be linked to his sleeping habits: it’s lights out for only five hours a night.
“Yeah, well, I’m manic,” he said, though he thoughtfully added: “My output’s going to slow with each kid, I think. Eventually someday I wouldn’t mind slowing down a little bit.”