Jonathan Evison: When Do You Step Away from the Canvas?
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
This is it. Episode 1 of Otherppl is here. Jonathan Evison, bestselling author of All About Lulu (Soft Skull) and West of Here (Algonquin), is the first guest.
Brad Listi: All right, everybody. Here we go. This is it. I’m Brad Listi. This is Otherppl, the new podcast in which I talk to other people. Other writer people in particular. People who write stuff. People who write books. People who sit there all day long, staring at a flashing cursor. People who write, even though they’re deep in poverty. People who continue to try to write books, even though the books they’re trying to write are eluding them. People who quietly endure the monumental frustration of trying to put the words in the right order.
Those are the people that I’m gonna be talking with. And the reason I’m doing the show is because I find these people interesting. I work with them on a daily basis. I have for years now. I, in addition to being a writer, run an online literary community and culture magazine called The Nervous Breakdown, where this podcast can be found. It can also be found at otherpplpod.com, it’s own little website. But I run this website called The Nervous Breakdown. It started five years ago.
We had like 20 writers when we got going, and now we have over 700, I believe? Something like that. So, it’s this community that has grown beyond my wildest imagination, beyond my wildest dreams when I initially started it up. And over the years I’ve gotten to know writers, and I feel like there’s a hole out there in the media world, and I feel like there is an effort being made here with this podcast to fill it. And by that I mean I think that authors are interesting, and I feel like they don’t often get a chance to sit there and talk about themselves.
Maybe by choice. But, I think that this is something readers, people interested in books, people who might be considering an interest in books would benefit from. Hearing from authors, hearing about their lives in particular, rather than the minutiae of their writing work and the minutiae of literature with a capital L, as it is often discussed in the realm of academia. What am I saying? I think what I’m saying is that this show is going to be about the authors.
About them. About them as people. And it’ll also be about their work, but mostly it’s about them as people. I want to know who they are, what their childhoods were like, what’s going on, what happened yesterday, why they’re wearing what they’re wearing. Things like that. I want to know what they eat. I want to know what makes them enraged. And I think that if we get to know them as people better, we’ll know better whether or not we want to read their stuff. I think that this show is about perpetuating book culture… by letting people know who these writers are, by having intimate conversations in which they reveal stuff. That’s the idea. I want candor. Don’t you want candor? I want candor. So, that’s the show. If you have any questions about it or thoughts about it, if you want to critique it or lambaste me or offer gushing praise, you can email at email@example.com.
Follow us @otherpplpod. Visit at otherpplpod.com, which is the official website, where all new shows and all news regarding the show will be located. You can also go to thenervousbreakdown.com, which is the beast. The show will be broadcast there in our little podcast section. As for the show itself, the sound of the show itself, I want to issue, you know, fair warning that the early rounds of shows, the sound quality is not going to be as utterly ideal as I would hope it would be.
And that’s my fault. That’s me learning how to do this stuff, so they’re perfectly listenable. You won’t have any trouble hearing, and it won’t be that annoying, but it’s not gonna sound radio quality like this, what you’re hearing right now, but that’s coming. So, bear with me. I’m an idiot. I’m learning this tech stuff as I go, minute by minute, and, you know, it’s a bit of an ordeal, to be honest with you, but I’m getting there.
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Brad Listi: You’re…uh…you’re..uh…sequestered in your mobile home?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, are we rolling or something?
Brad Listi: Yeah, I’ve got Jonathan Evison on the line.
Jonathan Evison: Let me put some…let me put some pants on.
Brad Listi: Yeah, author of All About Lulu, winner of the…is it the Washington State Book Award? And the best-selling West of Here, now out from Algonquin. He is also not wearing pants currently. Are you there?
Jonathan Evison: I’m wear–yeah, I’m wearing sweats now. Hey, yeah my mother-in-law just left. The chaos left, so this is good timing on the call.
Brad Listi: Nice.
Jonathan Evison: [sigh] Jesus, dude, what a struggle! You know? I get up at the crack of dawn these days to get any writing done, and by like…you’re a dad. You’re a parent. You know. You try to work at home.
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: By 8:30 it’s just pure…just pure chaos.
Brad Listi: Yeah, it’s hard…
Jonathan Evison: Three dogs scratching at the door. Dog barking. Kid right upstairs just hammering on the floor. My wife asking me…it’s hard to get any work done. I mean, I love being a family man. Don’t get me wrong, but I mean I’m going to just have to just stop sleeping.
Brad Listi: Well yeah, and then what’s this deal with vertigo? Don’t you have vertigo too?
Jonathan Evison: I did! It’s all gone. Geez, dude, I panicked for like a week. I was just like really looking at my mortality. They did all this blood work. They couldn’t figure out what it was. I mean, I was like really dizzy. I mean, I’d just stand up, and the whole world was pitching, and I thought, “Oh god, all my partying has finally caught up to me, all my sleep deprivation,” you know. Maybe the reason I’m so prolific, and I work so fast, is ‘cause I’ve got one of those big brain tumors, the angel Michael, John Travolta..
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: And so all this was going through my head. It was worse than the time I had blood in my semen. But, as it turns out, I think it was just like some kind of inner ear infection that they couldn’t see in the canal, ‘cause I’m better now. And I stopped partying for like four days.
Brad Listi: Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. I gotta stop you. Like, blood in your semen?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, that’s a different story. That happened once. It’s a real buzzkill too. [phone breaks up] You know. You can imagine. Having to check if there’s blood in your semen is not a fun exercise. That was just…I had…my prostate was irritated. Another virus kind of thing.
Brad Listi: Gotcha. Gotcha.
Jonathan Evison: I’m getting old, Brad. They call me [phone breaks up].
Brad Listi: Yeah, yeah, well your phone’s breaking up a little bit. Are you on a cellphone?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I’m sorry. I’ll…okay, how’s that?
Brad Listi: Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better, man. I was like getting you know these kind of cryptic Facebook updates on my wall about how…
Jonathan Evison: Well, that was the plan. You know, just in case.
Brad Listi: Just in case you went down. It’s weird…
Jonathan Evison: [laughs] To make sure I was still interesting.
Brad Listi: No, you know what’s weird is that I…
Jonathan Evison: To see if anybody cared.
Brad Listi: You go to the doctors…
Jonathan Evison: Just desperate.
Brad Listi: You go to the doctor if something happens, and it’s, you know, even the slightest thing…like I remember I went to get a physical, and the doctor was like, “We think you have a slight heart murmur.” And for the next week, all I could…I could feel it. I was like, “Oh my god.” I can feel my heart. You know, something’s gonna go, and I started noticing things that I didn’t notice previously. I felt fine prior to that, and then suddenly I could feel like tightness in my chest, you know. It gets in my head.
Jonathan Evison: And all of a sudden you’re like holding the cheeseburger going, “I can’t eat this,” and you’re like, “I gotta lay off the beer. I gotta…” I actually passed out in the doctor’s office when they took my blood. I guess it’s not that rare. I think guys do it all the time ‘cause they forget to breathe.
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: I’ve never been good with giving blood, but I already had vertigo, and they said I just like pitched over and started snorin’, and they couldn’t wake me up…
Brad Listi: Fascinating.
Jonathan Evison: …for like 10 minutes, and I was white as a sheet. It scared the lifestyle right out of me for about a week, you know? I was just like drinking milk thistle and eating vegetables. Now that I know it was just a virus, and my blood pressure is fine, and all the blood work came up fine, and I got a clean bill of health, I’m [verbal shrug] back to my old ways.
Brad Listi: Back to your old ways. So, did they give you medication for an ear infection? Is that what happened?
Jonathan Evison: No, they didn’t give me…they gave me that meclizine or whatever. You know, the stuff they give you for seasickness or whatever. Didn’t do anything.
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: I mean, dude, the room was just spinning, which normally is like a good thing. You know? I mean, normally I build for hours just to get to that point…
Brad Listi: [laughs]
JE:…and like this, uh, it’s just not good.
Brad Listi: Wow.
Jonathan Evison: It lasted about—I don’t know—about eight, 10 days.
Brad Listi: So…
Jonathan Evison: Impossible to write.
Brad Listi: Impossible. I was gonna say you weren’t getting any work done.
Jonathan Evison: No. I mean, I would in the moments that I could, you know. I mean, if I’m not dizzy, I sit down and write. You know, so…
Brad Listi: So what’s…I mean, give us a sense, ‘cause I don’t know if everybody understands the force of nature, you know, that is Jonathan Evison. The amount of work you do. Your work schedule, like you’re up at five? Is that what you do? Like, what happens with you?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I cheated ‘til like 5:15 this morning. These days, at least, I’m trying to get to bed earlier. See what happens is I mean I was touring for like basically like, you know, pretty much five months, you know. Just on the road a lot and, you know, coming home to see my family whenever I could, and then I went through a period of intense just really family time, like where we went out of town and camped and like…just really good quality family time. And then, now I’m back still getting all that quality family time, but in order to really get to work, I need to get done and catch up. I just really gotta get up early. So, there was a few months there when I was touring at least I didn’t have to get up at 5:00 AM, but I was going to bed at 5:00 AM, you know?
Brad Listi: Right, well that’s the thing. It’s like, I find that most writers…it’s gotta be either first thing in the morning or late at night. It’s hard to work during work hours because the phone’s ringing and the internet’s, you know, happening, and it’s hard to kind of tune everything out.
Jonathan Evison: Oh yeah, my neighbor drops his…and my neighbor is a long ways away ‘cause you know I live way out in the woods. My neighbor is, you know, 200 yards away through the trees. He drops his barbecue lid, and all three of my dogs they just howl.
Brad Listi: So wait, you’re on what? Bainbridge Island? Is that correct? Out in Washington?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah.
Brad Listi: Just middle of no—that’s just very…it’s very bucolic. I’ve never been up there. What is it? What’s the setting?
Jonathan Evison: Well, you know, it’s become sort of a bedroom community. It’s a lot bigger than it was in the ‘70s when I grew up there, but like you know my place is still way out in the woods. There’s like 140 acres of woods right behind my…abutting my house on all sides, and it’s still…you know, it’s one of the last really big green belts on the island. It’s become a little more suburban on the outskirts. I mean suburban by my standards.
Brad Listi: So now what…
Jonathan Evison: I’m always complaining about the traffic. I’m looking at a less populated island for some kind of weekend cabin sort of situation, if I can make it happen. ‘Cause, I mean, I’m just getting crotchety and old, and it’s just like, you know, I must walk my kid about four miles a day in a stroller ‘cause that’s my thinking time. That’s how I make up for the time where I can’t be sitting at the typewriter. I just push him in the stroller, and my gears will be spinning.
Brad Listi: Sure.
Jonathan Evison: There’s too much traffic now. Damn school buses.
Brad Listi: So what are you talking…
Jonathan Evison: UPS guys.
Brad Listi: So you’re strollering along the road, or are you on some sort of like nature trail?
Jonathan Evison: Sometimes trails, but usually just a road. It’s like a really beautiful, wooded road, but it doesn’t have huge bike lanes. And it’s not like traffic like the kind of traffic you’re used to, but like even like one car a minute is just annoying because you gotta cross lanes and you know…
Brad Listi: Right, yeah. Ruins it.
Jonathan Evison: These are just the little vagaries in my life no one probably cares about, Brad. Maybe you ‘cause you’re a father.
Brad Listi: Well, no, I’ve had…I like the idea of getting a visual read on your situation, like I always did picture you living on some sort of, you know, nature preserve or some…in a wooded enclave, if that’s actually a term. You know what I’m saying? I like to get a visual read on people’s situations…
Jonathan Evison: Yeah.
Brad Listi: …like where are you in space?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah. Out in the woods!
Brad Listi: So now do you wake up in the morning with an alarm, or do you just pop out of bed?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I do.
Brad Listi: You do. Okay.
Jonathan Evison: I wake up in the morning with an alarm. Some mornings it doesn’t go off though, and I beat it up. You know what I mean? Because your body gets trained after a while.
Brad Listi: Sure.
Jonathan Evison: It’s all about discipline for me and keeping on a schedule. You know, that’s because each day I stay to my schedule, I just become more and more productive. It’s just more like conditioning yourself, like an athlete or something. I mean if I get up at five in the morning the first morning, I may not really get cooking until 6:45, but like, by the seventh or eighth morning of doing that? I’m like really…I can get there quicker. You know what I mean?
Brad Listi: Right. It’s like a boxer training. You know, you just gotta get yourself hammered into that routine.
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, and I do try to get hammered the night before and get a little punch drunk. I like to work like a knuckleballer, to use more tired sports analogies.
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: I like my arm to be tired. I like to throw on my off days. I like to slow the mania down a little bit, you know?
Brad Listi: Sure, sure. I mean…
Jonathan Evison: Focus. In the summer I am…the better that works.
Brad Listi: Well, I mean we’re talking about mania and like energy. You obviously have a high level of energy. I’ve heard you use the word mania when it comes to your energy levels and your work habits and whatnot. Like, do you feel…I mean you have an abnormal amount of mental and physical energy? Do you feel that?
Jonathan Evison: I don’t know. Maybe it’s…I wouldn’t…I’d call it electrical energy maybe. It’s kind of frenetic. It’s like…I saw a therapist a while back, you know, a couple years ago, and he was like, “Dude, you’re off the charts.” He’s like, you know, “You got a tiger by the tail,” I mean, which is what it feels like, which is awesome. I’m glad that tiger’s there. If that tiger wasn’t there, dude, I’d be like an IV drug user, like talking to parking meters. I would just totally spin out of control.
Brad Listi: [laughs] Well that’s the thing….
Jonathan Evison: I’m serious. I’m convinced, I mean really, without writing? I mean without that one…without that focus…
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: I mean who knows? What would I do with it? Probably a lot of no good.
Brad Listi: Well, sure, yeah, it’s like an organizing principle.
Jonathan Evison: Serial masturbating…
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: You know, just…
Brad Listi: All the normal stuff. Yeah, you know, I think about that with regard to a lot of different things, whether it’s this, you know, high-energy mania, a way to channel it, focus it or whether it’s a writer who has some sort of central issue: a grief issue, a relationship thing, something to do with their family or their parents, and they work it out through their writing, and I think sometimes that if you didn’t have that, if a writer doesn’t have writing to go to as a way to work through all that stuff, it would be a much worse situation. It’s therapeutic, I guess is what I’m trying to say. You know, it’s a matter of self-care.
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, no, I totally agree, and just a matter of, you know, we are our patterns, basically, you know, at the end of the day. So, it’s reflective time, like when you’re always going as fast as I go, and, like, talking as fast, and moving as fast, it’s like writing, you know, is the one thing that really slows me down. I mean, I kind of hate the way I talk out loud, like ‘cause I don’t think. My mouth is just already moving, you know, in unison with my thoughts, whereas when I sit down to write, I actually get to edit myself. [laughs] You know what I mean?
Brad Listi: Sure. Rein it in.
Jonathan Evison: So it’s just like better for everybody.
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: So, it like works good.
Brad Listi: So now what…speaking of motivation, like obviously you’ve got this thing. You love to do it. I mean, is that really the motivation? You just love to write. You love to write fiction. That’s what gets you up in the morning, or is there something deeper that drives you that you’re trying to say or do, you know, in your work?
Jonathan Evison: Well, I mean, a little of both. I mean, I really, I do, obviously it’s really because at the end of the day, I love to do it, because otherwise, you know, like I wrote like six unpublished novels, you know, and I had my share of rejections.
I was trying, but, you know, more as a matter of due diligence. It didn’t really matter to me that they weren’t. I would have quit a long time ago, you know, if that were the case, but, you know, at the same time, I’m ambitious. I mean, I want to push myself, and now that I have any kind of…you know, have managed to, you know, cobble together any kind of readership, you know, I want to, you know, make the best of that situation. It’s a different dynamic. I mean, I wasn’t writing in a vacuum before.
I was writing to a reader, and that reader was me, you know. Because I really get the same thing out of writing as I do out of reading, which is empathy. I get to get outside of myself to experience wider perimeters of the human experience through other characters, and things like that.
Brad Listi: Sure.
Jonathan Evison: So, I get that [phone breaks up] in an even more intense way [phone breaks up].
Brad Listi: You’re breaking up a little bit. What did you just say?
Jonathan Evison: So, I guess what I’m getting at is I wasn’t writing in a va—I mean… To write without thinking about publication is still not to write in a vacuum. You know what I mean?
Brad Listi: Sure.
Jonathan Evison: I mean, I’ve heard the argument, “Well, like if you’re just writing for yourself, why do you bother? Of course you want to be published.” You know, that’s just a different issue than why I do it. You know what I mean?
Brad Listi: So, do you think that, like…obviously you’ve gotten a bit of a foothold. You’re making something of a living from your written work. Is that correct?
Jonathan Evison: Something of a living is about the perfect way to put it.
Brad Listi: Yeah, it’s so tough.
Jonathan Evison: Something of a living [laughs], which is what every writer but, like, you know, James Patterson’s making. Some of us teach. Some of us have day jobs. Some of us don’t. I’m lucky enough not to. For now. You know what I mean? But, we’ll see. Something of a living is perfect.
Brad Listi: Well, okay, so here’s a question for you ‘cause now that I have a kid, I’m going through this. This is like a big issue for me right now. Like once you have a family, you have a wife, and then you have this writing thing, it’s almost something of an addiction almost. How do you deal with the idea of, you know, “I’m going to continue to do this. Hopefully it works. Maybe it’ll work,” and also manage the part of you that wants to be responsible, you know, to the family and to the wife and kid and make a living and whatnot?
Do you know what I’m saying?
Jonathan Evison: Oh, yeah, that’s just really tough—you know, I mean I’ve been blessed in terms of the timing. I mean, some might say I was cursed by the timing ‘cause it took me 20 years to get in the room as far as publication and all those varied works, but the timing of when it happened concurrent with the birth of my first child, and the way the money lined up, and, you know, just the way it all worked out was perfect, so I haven’t had to deal with that as much, as I know a lot of writers have to, or if this had happened to me earlier, I certainly would have. I still have the anxiety of being…the provider anxiety, you know?
Brad Listi: Yeah.
Jonathan Evison: The normal logistics of getting paid as a writer…as you know, you get paid twice a year, and then when you sell a book, you get an advance, or if you…you know what I mean? The money usually only comes to you twice a year. And if anybody has ever gotten paid like that…realizes it’s really…it’s kind of a…it’s a blessing, but it’s kind of difficult too ‘cause like on a daily basis like all you see is your money going one way: down. You know what I mean?
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: So you’re always sort of anxious to, like…I want to keep doing this. I want to keep doing this, and I have to…you know. I’m willing to do anything to support my family, but the point is, like, this point…fortunately, this is the thing I can do that is worth the most because otherwise I’m pretty much your laborer. You know, I’m gonna be out digging ditches, you know, working in gardens. You know, I can’t even swing a hammer. You know? So I have limited possibilities.
[Phone begins to ring.] So I guess the short answer is I make it work. I mean, when you ask how do you deal with that, I just say, you know, “I make it work.” I do everything I possibly can.
Brad Listi: Sure, sure, now what about…you know, hang on a second. I’ve got this damn phone ringing, but when you talk about…
Jonathan Evison: Don’t you just hate that person right now?
Brad Listi: Oh, just hate them. Loathe them. But, listening to you talk about, you know, how you make it all work and the schedule and whatnot, you know, what goes through my head is, like, what is your idea of publication schedule? You know, like, how many books do you feel like you need to be publishing? Like one a year? One every two years? Do you have anything like that in your head, or is it just kind of like…
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I mean, I like the two-year cycle. It takes me about two years to write a book, and I already had kind of a head start when I started, so I think it takes me usually about two—you know, a book like West of Here took a little longer, but a book like The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which is a voice novel, didn’t take quite as long.
I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s really hard to keep your profile up in this business. I mean, if I’ve learned anything like looking at it, you know, it’s just really hard, you know, and, you know, either you’re gonna be that guy that writes a novel every ten years like Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides, in which case they better just be blockbusters…
Brad Listi: Is that how you pronounce it? Is it you-gen-ides? Is it you-gen-ides?
Jonathan Evison: …or you’re gonna be one of the…I don’t know. You-gen-edes. You-gen-ides.
Brad Listi: I call it you-gen-i-dis. I don’t even know. I don’t know how to pronounce his name.
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I think it’s one of the ones I said. I don’t know. I feel bad.
Brad Listi: But he does a book every 10 years, and then he gets these grants. Like, how does that work? I mean…
Jonathan Evison: Well, he also teaches. You know, I don’t know. I’m not gonna speculate too much, but I know he probably teaches and stuff like that, so for me, on a practical level—and please, I hope no one thinks I’m hurrying—it’s just that, you know, when you write 50 to 60 hours a week, you’re gonna be…you know…productive—I mean, you’re going to… you know, it’s not like I’m tossing off genre novels. I mean, there’s guys that write faster than me for sure, but I just think that if I really apply myself, I should be able to write a book every two—you know, Hemingway did it. Steinbeck did it. Faulkner did it.
All those, I mean, all the big American writers of the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s that I, you know, grew up on. Those guys were publishing a book every couple years.
Brad Listi: Sure. Well and then, you know, I was reading this New York Times piece recently about—I think her name’s Amanda Hocking—that girl who self-published and created that vampire series, or whatever it is, and sold all these books on her own, and then got this seven-figure deal from St. Martin’s. You know, it’s this big publishing success story that’s very of the moment because she started out without a deal and she then got a deal and went from being the indie author who was selling all these e-books on Kindle, and suddenly she’s got this giant New York publishing deal, and she’s big stuff in that world.
But she’s saying in this interview, or this profile, that she writes a book in 10 days. She thinks it through. She goes over it in her head, and then winds up cranking out one of these novels in 10 days, or something like that. Two weeks. And I’m thinking to myself, “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I mean, screenplay maybe.
Brad Listi: Maybe.
Jonathan Evison: You know, 120 pages of mostly dialogue and a little stage direction. Well-thought-out. Well-plotted outline. Yeah, you could bang that out in 10 days. I could. Maybe. You know, but I still wouldn’t release it to the world. I’d spend the next six months pouring over it, you know.
Brad Listi: Right. It’s just amazing.
Jonathan Evison: I mean, I rewrite hard. I don’t really write fast. I mean, through all the hours I put in every day…like I said, I get in about three-and-a-half hours every morning before the household just becomes too big of a distraction, and then I usually do a couple hours before, at night, so, you know, I’m getting a good solid five-and-a-half hours just on writing. And…I mean, I’m happy if I get a page. A page is a good day. You know what I mean? So it’s not really…I’m not accumulating that fast.
Brad Listi: And then, like, when you rewrite—you finish a draft—let’s say you finish your first draft, like how radically different are subsequent drafts? Are you doing complete wrecking-ball stuff on the book, or does it come out pretty whole? I mean, you know, how does it go for you?
Jonathan Evison: No…I’d say…well you know it’s usually pretty well developed as it goes along. I don’t really move on quickly. I’m not somebody who likes to write a draft, then write another draft and gut it. I like the thing to develop organically ‘cause what I find is no matter what I think the book’s gonna be about when I start, through the process I find more efficient ways to do the things I’m setting out to do.
I discover things that I hadn’t thought of before that are worthy of exploration or better than what I planned, and like there’s this constant process of reverse-engineering as I discover the story, as I discover the experience. You know, every day when I reenter the narrative landscape, I see it anew, and I see it a little bit better. You know, at first, there’s times where you’re just pretty blind in the process. It’s really hard to get those first drafts out sometimes.
I think writers that write really fast are really good. They just kind of bang up sentences sort of stream of consciousness, and I do that sometimes, more when I’m writing in voice, but otherwise it’s about information and making decisions, and I don’t like to make decisions that quickly always. You know?
Brad Listi: Well, yeah…
Jonathan Evison: It really is about decision-making. A writer brings you into a room—a hundred writers bring you into a room—there’s potentially a million different rooms, or, you know, a hundred different rooms, to describe there. You have to, you know… So, I don’t know. I just can’t just like let it come straight out of my head fully formed. I imagine there’s people out there with that skill set.
Brad Listi: Well, yeah, but the thing too, like there’s two sides of it. Like I get what you’re saying, and I think it’s right, and I think that generally it makes more sense to check yourself, to sit there with it, to refine it, but I think there’s also maybe the danger of making it overwrought. You know, how do you balance that? Like, how do you get to the point where you’re not over-tweaking it?
You know, how do you know when to step away from the canvas, essentially?
Jonathan Evison: For me, it’s about language. I mean, I’ll often…you know…sometimes I’ll turn a phrase that’s really poetic, and then I’ll go back and say, “You know what?” I just…I avoid purplish prose when I can, for one. I mean, when something’s overwrought, I usually feel like it’s the language. If the idea is overwrought, it’s pretty easy to fix. It’s usually just a matter of cutting, but when the sentences become strangled with the verbiage, and they cease to communicate, you know, I don’t look at the words.
I mean, of course, obviously the words are the tools that I use, but I use them more like bricks, I think [laughs], as blunt as that sounds. I mean, it’s like maybe a better analogy is I feel like the blood is…the words are the blood running through the story, and it’s not always gonna…sometimes that means short, choppy sentences. Sometimes that means…sometimes it does means more poetic, flighty language. You know, I think stuff that’s overwrought it usually feels very even and that every sentence feels like it’s over-caressed or over…I just don’t pay…I pay attention to the sentence insomuch as it attaches to the next sentence.
To me, it’s all about the…it’s a…what’s the word I’m looking for? I don’t know. It’s just a continuum. I mean like when I read aloud, I go back like six sentences before and read ‘til the sentence I just wrote.
Brad Listi: So is it kind of musical? Is that it? Is it the sound of it?
Jonathan Evison: Totally! Totally! Like it has to have a rhythm and a pulse. It has to swing. It has to be really readable. I mean and not everybody’s gonna write like that, and I’m glad. You know what I mean?
I don’t want to read every book that sounds like me. Some people are more formal with their language, but, you know for me, I don’t even want to think about the fact that I’m reading words. You know what I mean? It’s just words in this case are the medium. I want to serve the story first. Sorry, you know, I’m going on and on. I guess I could have just answered the whole question as I’m there to serve the story before the language.
Brad Listi: Sure, sure. Well, talk a little bit about how you got into it. I’m curious. You know, you’ve done so many different things, and you had this long road, you know, to the top, or whatever, but where did this all start? Have you always wanted to do it? Have you been doing it since you were a kid, or is this something you came to later in life? What’s the backstory?
Jonathan Evison: Well, since third grade. I don’t know. My dad relocated us up here, and, you know, my sister died a few years earlier, and our family was just kind of a mess. We had a big family. My dad sort of moved us all up here, and then he took off and moved back down. I had ended up…because I was in this sort of accelerated class…I had this…when I was in second grade, I had an accelerated, you know, class or whatever.
So I was basically getting a third-grade curriculum. So when I came, I was already the youngest person in my class. And I came, and they wanted to skip me ahead a grade? Kind of thing? Because I’d already had the curriculum for the third-grade class, but my mom was worried about social issues ‘cause I was already the youngest, and I was kind of shrimpy, and she was just worried I’d be, you know, just a wreck. I’m glad she made the decision she did. It always gave me an advantage in Little League Baseball.
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: I mean, I was still the youngest in my class, but some of the guys were like a grade younger than me. But anyway, when I came up here, I was suddenly like in this class where I’d already had the curriculum, so I really started—plus all this other stuff going on in my family life—I really started to become kind of a behavioral problem, a distraction in the classroom. I mean, my high energy really started to take hold. It makes me think about that whole trauma theory you were talking about earlier.
Brad Listi: Well, let me ask you, I mean, if you don’t mind, just like what happened with your sister? Was she…she was…I think I remember you telling me she was hit by a car? Is that correct?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, well, it’s really weird. Nobody really…the way the whole thing went down is a little shady. I mean the story always was they were pushing a car up the hill, but like stopped in front of the light that…you know…I mean…I don’t think we all really know the story. Like I don’t know if they’d been drinking up there or whatever. It happened out in Lucerne Valley on my sister’s 16th birthday, and, you know, she was kind of my primary caregiver at that time, and I don’t know, it just…
You know, anybody who has ever lost a sibling knows that it’s just like a handgrenade in the middle of your family. You know? I mean, it just blows you up, and then, you know, more than half the time, the marriages don’t survive, and so forth. And then there was just some turbulence.
Brad Listi: Sure.
Jonathan Evison: You know, it was American suburban stuff basically. I mean it’s not like I was raised as a ward of the state. I mean, it was nothing too traumatizing, but, like, you know…it’s who I am. I mean, you know…
Brad Listi: It had a big impact. It was formative.
Jonathan Evison: When is my hour up, Brad? [laughs]
Brad Listi: [laughs] Yeah, right?
Jonathan Evison: You’re my therapist now.
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: But that’s what happened. Third grade. I had this teacher, and she said, “Well, why don’t you just write?” ‘Cause I’d already had an interest in writing and decided I wanted to try to write and give voice to all this stuff, and so she let me just kind of sit in the corner and write, you know, and I still was a behavioral problem, but I was less disruptive in the classroom, and then in fourth grade I published a children’s story, which was an auspicious beginning. And then for, you know, what? 30 years, 31 years, you know, about 30 years I didn’t publish anything else.
Brad Listi: Well, you know, but I think it’s all interesting because I feel like, you know, I lost a buddy when I was in college to suicide, which was definitely the genesis of my novel, and I think that a lot of times writers…I mean I guess you’re sort of born this way. You have it, or you don’t. You have the bug, or you don’t. And, at the same time, I feel like sometimes it’s these big, difficult situations or events in our lives that trigger it?
Or that serve as the fodder for the writing. I mean, I know a lot of writers that work from grief or a lot of writers who at least are set on their course by that sort of thing, or they’re set on their course by a family relationship or by some sort of crazy couple of years they had or…does that make sense? I mean, it seems like those kinds of things are often central.
Jonathan Evison: Well, totally! I mean, yeah! Completely it makes sense. I mean, I feel like people that don’t have that are kind of at a disadvantage to mine the world for material.
I mean, I think as an individual, in order to even be able to sort of channel these different characters and these different points of view and these different experiences and perspectives, you need to have experienced the widest possible dynamic yourself. So, if you’re somebody who has not experienced much grief or much adversity or accrued much experience, I mean, you know, you’re writing out of the void. And it could be intellectually stimulating, but I think you’re gonna have a hard time really, you know, reaching some level of emotional resonance maybe, ‘cause it has to feel lived.
Brad Listi: Well, it’s funny ‘cause, like you know have, I’m sure…I don’t know if you’ve had this, but I’ve had this experience where, you know, in my younger years I sort of felt jealous of these guys who got to go off to war, or got like…some terrible thing happened to them, or they went through some huge cataclysm, like Vonnegut being in Dresden when they fire-bombed it, and he’s in a POW camp. I’m like, “Well, shit. You know, like, lucky guy.” You know, as absurd as that sounds. [laughs] The more insane someone’s life is, the more fodder they often have, especially when it comes to memoir.
You know, you read somebody’s memoir, and you’re like, “Jesus!” You know, by comparison I had the easiest childhood ever, and, you know, this sort of happy life essentially. That’s how I feel.
Jonathan Evison: Can we just dispense with the memoir? I mean, please. It’s fiction, and we all know it. I mean, it’s one degree less fiction, but, I mean, in this day and age, it’s…I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just think memoir’s boring.
Brad Listi: Well, no…
Jonathan Evison: If somebody tells me about this great thing they write a memoir about, I’m just thinking, “You know, man, great experience, should have written a novel.” ‘Cause, you know, memoir…life…I don’t know. Life doesn’t deliver truth as conveniently as fiction, I don’t think.
Brad Listi: Well, this is the thing. I mean, I just went through this sort of. I was working on…I’ve been working on this…like I call it an experimental memoir, and it is basically an assemblage of outtakes from letters that I wrote in my 20s. I wrote a shitload of letters in my 20s. Like 3,000-plus pages, and of course saved them all, with some sort of like, you know, hallucinatory idea that they might be worth something someday. Just like, you know…
Jonathan Evison: Well, here you are trying to make [laughs] them worth something. So maybe that was prophetic.
Brad Listi: I don’t know what it is. It’s an act of self-archeology. I don’t know if this book is worth a shit, but I assembled it, and I’m putting it together, and there’s a very conscious part of me that’s like, “This is bullshit,” like even though it’s letters, which I feel like…I think part of the reason why the letters were attractive to me was because, or is because, there was the least amount of filter, the least amount of me noodling and making it into bullshit.
Jonathan Evison: Totally, and to me, that’s what makes fiction so…personally, that’s what makes fiction so interesting: is the noodling, is the decisions, is the decision to tell, what to tell and not to tell, whereas the colloquial or the letter-writing…I don’t know. Sorry. I just called your book boring.
Brad Listi: [laughs] No, it’s fine. It might be. It could be.
Jonathan Evison: [laughs] I haven’t even read the letters, but even if they’re…I’m just imagining the letters I wrote when I was 20. Oh god.
Brad Listi: They’re horrendous.
Jonathan Evison: That must have been really hard for you to look at them.
Brad Listi: Well, no, it’s kind of like…have you ever heard of Mortified? That show where people read from their old diaries, and it’s like hysterical? That’s kind of what the book is. It’s extended, active, you know, self-mortification, or whatever you want to call it. But, you know…
Jonathan Evison: That’s a courageous act, Bradley. That is courageous.
Brad Listi: Or stupid. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it, but…
Jonathan Evison: That is courageous no matter what.
Brad Listi: I get what you’re saying about it being…the memoir…it’s impossible, even if you’re trying as hard as you can to stick to the facts, it’s impossible to have a memoir be called nonfiction. It’s just…memory is too unreliable, unless you have total recall or some crazy thing like that.
But, my memory is terrible. I can’t remember anything, you know. I can remember very few things. It’s very spotty. And so, I just…you know, having gone through that, even with letters, I feel like there’s always an act of performance involved. When you say dispense with the memoir, it sort of hits me because it’s like…in a good way because I think that, you know, to some extent, it’s all fiction. It’s really difficult you know when you’re writing…
Jonathan Evison: It is. Our memories are so subjective. I mean, you know… Even documentary film has proven itself a lot in recent years to not be very subjective, or objective rather. Memory is just so subjective. I mean like every narrator that writes a memoir is an unreliable narrator. You know? I mean it’s like…
Brad Listi: Exactly.
Jonathan Evison: So, I just don’t…I guess I have a personal distaste for it because I could never write it. I would just feel so trapped. I would just feel like I already lived it, so then where’s the sense of discovering to me? It becomes an act of recollection, and not an act of discovery. I need to discover. I’m writing to discover, and if I were just sitting down and trying to write an honest memoir as close as skin, I feel like I’d just be rehashing stuff.
Brad Listi: So, when you work on your fiction, you’re consciously choosing to write about characters who are far away from your experience as a way of trying…
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I want them….I want to get lost in the novel, too. I want to be at a point where I don’t feel like I’m in total control.
I mean, I need there to be…you know, the craft goes so far, but really the danger…it’s the danger that’s the heartbeat of the story. I gotta throw myself out there with my set of tools as an artist and like put myself in the most uncomfortable situations, the ones where my footing feels the least sound, and I have to make my way through it. You know, I mean, ‘cause the stakes are high. You know what I mean? Again, look at it as like an athletic thing. I don’t want to play in the fourth quarter of a blowout.
I mean, I want to be tested. And so, I want to get lost. And so, if I was writing a memoir, I mean, the test would be, “How good is my memory?” You know…I just…seems dull. I like your idea of the letters better because, I agree, there’s less of a filter there, but it just seems like it could be so potentially unreadable.
Brad Listi: It might be.
Jonathan Evison: Even you because, I mean you’re a brilliant writer, but come on, 20 years old…
Brad Listi: It’s tough.
Jonathan Evison: I can just imagine.
Brad Listi: There’s like…it felt at times…you know, often times, almost every time, reading these things back, it was like they were hot. I had to put ‘em down. I would get, like, physically embarrassed to the point where I couldn’t even keep…I could not keep reading. I had to put the things down.
Jonathan Evison: That’s why…that’s exactly why I bury ‘em. I mean, that’s why I buried books.
Brad Listi: Well…
Jonathan Evison: Because I knew. I knew.
Brad Listi: I need to shred these things. I need to get rid of ‘em. I need to…I need to…
Jonathan Evison: That or publish ‘em! Maybe you’re onto something. Who am I to say?
Brad Listi: Christ, I don’t know. It’s gonna be interesting.
Jonathan Evison: A 900-page memoir of Listi’s letters in his 20s.
Brad Listi: [laughs] Just clips, you know. I try to cut it out.
Jonathan Evison: It sounds commercial.
Brad Listi: Yeah, it sounds frightening. It’s a horror novel. That’s what I’m going to publish it as. It’s gonna be a horror novel.
Jonathan Evison: [laughs]
Brad Listi: So, let me ask you this question. Who’s a novelist? Who’s a writer whose career you would love to have? Who’s somebody you would look at, and you’re like, “That’s what I want”? Like how does this play out in a way that…you know…suits your dreams or…you know, not in an idealistic way, but in I’d really like for this to happen? Who’s got that…
Jonathan Evison: Well, you know, I love…I love the way I’m always talking about…I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t want to…I can’t really…there’s not that many good working examples in this day and age. I mean, I want to be a literary novelist that writes a novel every couple of years, has a lot of people read it, makes a living, keeps pushing himself as an artist…
Brad Listi: What’s a lot of people? What’s a lot of people? Like what’s a readership that you think would be like, you know, sustainable, great?
Jonathan Evison: Oh, I don’t want to say that. I don’t know. I can’t say ‘cause it can vary. You know what I mean? I started with a smaller readership than I have now, but it was such an intimate readership. You know what I mean? There’s a quality over quantity too. There’s a certain baseline number of books I think a fellow’s gotta sell, or, you know, a writer’s gotta sell, before they’re able to like actually pay the bills. And I don’t know what that number would be. I mean, I think that every novel would have to…you know…I don’t know, man. You have to…It just depends on what your advances are, whether you earn ‘em out. It’s all a big quagmire.
Brad Listi: Well, plus I’m asking a writer to do math.
Jonathan Evison: I mean, I’m just trying to keep what I’ve got going on and maybe…what’s that?
Brad Listi: I said I’m also asking a writer to do math, and things get sticky when you get into that. I can’t figure this out.
Jonathan Evison: [laughs] Ask my accountant.
Brad Listi: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, it’s like…I think, too, there’s an issue where the more books you publish, if you can build up a list, and then you start to get readers to access your work through whatever book they pick up, if they like it, you know, if they’re anything like me, you read somebody, you like their book, you wind up wanting to read other stuff, and hopefully that, over time…
Jonathan Evison: It’s the hope. Right, you create a little cottage industry by, you know, getting people interested. You keep trying to grow your audience into the future, and then, you know, in doing so, you renew the interest in your old sweethearts, your old babies. You know, I mean, I’ve seen…Lulu has reached a whole new audience, which has been wonderful. You know, but my core readers are always my core readers, and there’s not very many of them. You know? I mean, that’s a fact. I mean, you know, I’ve been really fortunate, but it’s just…when you do the math, man. It’s just not that many readers compared to like you know like what a Hollywood director’s looking at.
Brad Listi: Yeah, it’s crazy. And I feel like it’s dwindling, or there’s something happening, and I can’t really define it. I think that’s sort of what everyone’s sort of, you know, grasping at. People are either spending time thinking about it, or they’re denying it, or they’re just exhausted from the conversation, and they don’t even want to think about it, and they just want to focus on whatever little thing they like, but for people who want to make a living, you look to the future, and I sometimes have it in my head that form is gonna change, and, you know, some sort of midrange form between a short story and a novella is gonna wind up being really popular because it’s digestible on an iPhone.
You know, I hate to reduce it like that, but it’s like…it seems like people’s attention spans increasingly are geared towards a shorter form, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction…
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, well, okay, well here’s where we part because I’m actually—some would call this optimistic—but it’s just counterintuitive, like everything else that has ever worked for me. I believe it. It’s counterintuitive, but I believe the big novel is poised for a comeback, and I believe that people really do long for that longer form narrative.
If you look at the sort of TV that they like to watch…I mean the good stuff, and let’s be honest, HBO’s producing stuff today that’s better than anything that’s ever been on television. You know what I mean? They’re telling great stories.
Brad Listi: Sure.
Jonathan Evison: Not all of them, but like some of them are, and these are very long-form stories, and these are a big investment. You know? Granted, it’s one hour once a week, six months a year, or whatever, but it is a big investment, and people are proving they’re willing to make it. I think the key is to…you know…I don’t know how you target the audience for that, but I know there’s a big…I know there’s a hunger for it.
Brad Listi: Well, yeah, it’s out there, if the story’s good, you know…look at…you know, I don’t know if this is the right example, but Harry Potter with little kids reading 700-page books. It can happen. I just wonder, or I would love to see some sort of quantification of the market. Like how many people out there are really, really interested in reading serious literary fiction, and…how many…you know, I would love to just know the number. And if let’s say there’s two-and-a-half million…
Jonathan Evison: Okay, I think I read somewhere, there’s a kind of an index for this, where it’s like to define…first you gotta have like a number…like a defined number…like let’s call it a serious reader of literary fiction, a consumer who buys six new literary fiction titles a year? You know what I mean? That many, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but even at that level, I’m guessing that number can’t be over 10,000 people.
Brad Listi: God, [sigh] that’s…you know?
Jonathan Evison: You know what I mean? I mean, I’m pulling these numbers out of my ass, where I pull most stuff from…
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: But honestly, I don’t think that that’s too far off. I’ve looked at so many like sales numbers and book scans. You know what I mean? And you do start to see a pattern form with like, you know, how much a literary title can sell, and at what point it becomes a breakout, and…you know what I mean?
Brad Listi: So how many did Franzen sell of Freedom? Like that was about as big of a push as a work of literary fiction can get. Have you seen sales numbers on that? Do we have any idea?
Jonathan Evison: I know it’s over 250,000. I mean, I know that…I mean there were 250,000 in print, I think, like really early on in hardback. I don’t know. You know, I mean, it’s not hard for me to believe it sold close to a million copies.
Brad Listi: So, there’s at least a million people who would buy it if it’s on, you know, the cover of Time magazine.
Jonathan Evison: Right, but are those million people going to buy five other sort of timely or topical literary fiction titles this year? No. You know what I mean? The overwhelming majority of those people are not going to.
Brad Listi: Well, and…
Jonathan Evison: Because…
Brad Listi: Well, and here’s a question though. And it feels like, too, time is such an issue, and I just wonder back in the day, I mean, life was clearly moving at a slower pace, and people had less options for entertainment, but I think about my own life, like having the time to sit down, especially now with a kid, to sit down and read a big book, it’s tough.
It’s tough, even if you love books, and it’s a big deal. Like, I know you make the time, you know, if it’s truly important to you, but I think a lot of people out there would love to have more time to read, but it’s a luxury that they can’t afford, it seems like.
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I think they can afford it. That’s the thing. You just have to make the effort, and most people aren’t going to be willing to do that. I mean, most Americans aren’t really…you know…I mean, go to Texas. Nobody even wants stairs in their house ‘cause they don’t want to, you know, climb up ‘em.
Brad Listi: [laughs] Is that true?
Jonathan Evison: I’m serious. I’m serious.
Brad Listi: Really? Jesus.
Jonathan Evison: Well, my wife watches these HDTV shows, and like all the Texas homebuyers are goin’, “We don’t want any stairs…” I don’t want to…you know, I mean, I know a lot of great people in Texas. Don’t get me wrong. But truly, the housing market is a bigger market for one story.
Brad Listi: Is it because people are just out of shape and overweight and stuff, or…
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, they’re…I think Texas is maybe among the fattest states.
Brad Listi: Christ.
Jonathan Evison: And they always have big kitchens too. Dude, I’m only reporting what I see on HDTV.
Brad Listi: Yeah, well I…
Jonathan Evison: …which brings me…you know…people have time. My wife is a busy mom. You know what I mean? She’s a busy mom, but she still manages to bang out at least a literary fiction title a week. She reads like pretty close to a book a week.
I mean it really does take an effort. But, the thing is is it’s so rewarding. I think that people, if people fall in love with a book. They don’t really think, “Oh, I’ve gotta make time for this.” They just make time. You know what I mean? They’ll sneak into the bathroom at work. They’ll just read it on their lunch hour and go to a place where they know they’re not gonna run into anybody. People need to remind themselves how good it is.
Brad Listi: Well, no, I wrote something about this a while back, an essay on The Nervous Breakdown about how the toilet was the last bastion of serious reading, you know, in America. Even the iPad is sort of infringing on that now. I feel like a lot of people are taking the iPad into the bathroom, but it seemed like it was the one place where you could get peace and have no distractions and focus on a book.
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I just do my Facebook check-ins from there.
Brad Listi: Is that what you do? With a laptop?
Jonathan Evison: Oh yeah, on the toilet, or I tweet it. “On the toilet dot dot dot again.”
Brad Listi: [laughs] Is this with a laptop?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah.
Brad Listi: Or with an iPad?
Jonathan Evison: No.
Brad Listi: It’s an iPad or a phone, or what is it?
Jonathan Evison: No, I have a giant laptop.
Brad Listi: And you put that on your lap.
Jonathan Evison: It’s cheap. Yeah.
Brad Listi: Wow, that’s ambitious man. That’s…
Jonathan Evison: I can’t do it in a hotel. I can’t do it in hotel bathrooms because, I think I’ve discussed with you, I have an issue there.
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: I don’t know. I think it’s because hotel toilets…I mean, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels. Either the water…well, I think it’s a combination of things. The toilets tend to be squat, and the water level seems to be high, and so, you know, my boys are usually…like…in danger of submersion.
Brad Listi: They really hang that low?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I have to wear some kind of reacharound most times in a hotel toilet…
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: …just for hygienic reasons, so I couldn’t possibly…you know…I can text with one hand.
Brad Listi: You’re not bringing a computer into that environment. It just wouldn’t be sanitary. It’d be difficult.
Jonathan Evison: Yeah.
Brad Listi: You should get an iPad. You know, that would solve your problem. You could have a…it’s a lighter contraption.
Jonathan Evison: No. I’d rather spend the money on beer. I’m not a big buy stuff technology. I know I’m kind of a dinosaur. But dude, I’m talking to you from a ‘75 Dodge motorhome. I don’t even want a new motorhome.
Brad Listi: Talk about this thing.
Jonathan Evison: I just keep putting money into this thing.
Brad Listi: What is that? I mean, you’ve got a ‘75 Dodge motorhome. You venture out, like so this thing is, you know, it’s a mobile home. You drive it out into the woods on a fairly regular basis, correct?
Jonathan Evison: Oh, probably 100 days a year. I mean, it’s parked in the woods right now. As far as most of America’s concerned, I’m camping. I mean, but I take it out a lot. And it’s not huge. I don’t want you to picture…I mean, it’s like 23 feet long. It’s got a sleeper above the cabin.
It’s got a little kitchen. It’s got a refrigerator, and it’s got a bathroom and a sleeping berth and a little fold-out table and some orange swivel chairs and three dog beds. But it’s not huge. I mean, parallel parked it in Downtown Portland right in front of Powell’s before.
Brad Listi: Nice. Now, do you bring the family, or is this something that you get away in as like a writer’s retreat, or both I guess?
Jonathan Evison: It’s about 50-50. Sometimes when I say when it’s hard for me to be getting work done, I just I’ll…Lauren will take the baby to Grandma’s for two days, and I will just go out to the woods, and I’ll just work my ass off for 16 hours a day, and then, you know, during the week, I just don’t have to worry about getting as much done. But, like last week we all went up to Sol Duc Hot Springs, and we brought the whole family. I mean, we brought all the dogs. We brought the baby, brought my two nephews, and they all stayed…my nephews stayed in the motorhome. And we stayed…we got a little cabin, and then, you know, we just did a fire by the river at night, and that was nice.
Brad Listi: Damn.
Jonathan Evison: I’m really busy ‘cause I’m like the den mother. Like when I do that, it’s not really relaxing for me because I’ve gotta cook for five people and make sure all the dogs have gone to the bathroom, so it’s kind of…but it’s a good kind of busy, you know?
Brad Listi: You’ve got a bathroom on that thing?
Jonathan Evison: What’s that? There is, but you know, once you’ve emptied a motorhome bathroom, you just don’t even want to use it anymore.
Brad Listi: No, it’s disgusting.
Jonathan Evison: You know, it’s a job of emptying, you know, urine and feces out of a plastic tank. You know, I just use it for storage. I’ve got half a mind to just take the plumbing out, and you know…
Brad Listi: Yeah, no, I did a motorhome trip in college. You know, I had like a year and a half where I was a hippie, and we did some sort of…
Jonathan Evison: I’ve seen the photos, Bradley.
Brad Listi: Yeah, no, it wasn’t pretty. I was a…
Jonathan Evison: They’re golden…
Brad Listi: …disaster.
Jonathan Evison: …no they’re beautiful.
Brad Listi: I was a disaster with long hair, but I had long hair and the whole thing. I remember we were in this camper, and people were using the bathroom. It was just gross. There’s no way to make that work, I don’t think, unless you get something…
Jonathan Evison: No, and you know, you start to smell it anyway. I don’t like the idea, like, come to a quick stop, and there’s 30 pounds of shit like you know agitated. I just, you know, I use the woods, or I use…you know…I’m usually at a national park or a state park or something. They have facilities.
Brad Listi: That’s what I was gonna say. That’s what I was gonna say. You’re parked in the woods. You park this thing near a camp. It’s got like a fire pit and whatnot, and then you just walk out into the woods and squat, or there’s usually like some sort of facility that you have to drive to? Or you can walk to?
Jonathan Evison: Just walk to.
Brad Listi: Okay.
Jonathan Evison: This is the Johnny Evison TMI interview.
Brad Listi: Well, hey, you know, this is what this show’s about.
Jonathan Evison: Everything you didn’t need to know about my bathroom habits.
Brad Listi: [laughs] This is what people want to hear.
Jonathan Evison: My bleeding prostate and you know…I mean come on.
Brad Listi: [laughs] We have touched a lot of bases, haven’t we?
Jonathan Evison: Yes.
Brad Listi: Well, but, you know, it’s all fascinating, and I guess I’m curious like you…
Jonathan Evison: Are you sure about that? Are you sure about that?
Brad Listi: No, it is! It is to me. I love this kind of stuff.
Jonathan Evison: Okay. I think for guys it is, anyway. I don’t know if women will find it fascinating.
Brad Listi: No, women will.
Jonathan Evison: Guys find it more fascinating.
Brad Listi: No, people…but yeah I think guys are more prone to think this sort of stuff is funny, but I think everybody likes to know little details about people’s lives to get a sense of who they are, and funny stuff is funny stuff.
This show, you know, as I’ve conceived it so far anyway, is about this stuff, as opposed to about a really nuanced literary discussion—like lit crit talk, which I would be terrible at anyway, so I love the idea of talking to authors and finding out about their lives because a) I think it’s interesting and then b) I think that authors are better conversationalists than they get credit for. You know, are usually funnier and, you know, have more interesting lives than they sometimes reveal, or have a chance to reveal, so this is exactly right for the show.
And I guess like you know, what I’d want to know next is you’ve got The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which is your next novel, correct?
Jonathan Evison: Yep.
Brad Listi: And that’s in the can. That’s done.
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I think that comes out probably next fall.
Brad Listi: Okay, and it’s from Algonquin as well?
Jonathan Evison: Yep.
Brad Listi: And then you’ve got another book or two, or what’s the deal? How many books ahead of you?
Jonathan Evison: There’s one. I’m about…I’m not even there yet. I’m about 60 thousand—I’m two-thirds of the way through it. As of today, I’m almost exactly two-thirds of the way there. I hit 60K this morning, and it’s really starting to come together and coalesce, and I’m really excited about it. Still a lot of grunt work to be done though.
Brad Listi: We got a title?
Jonathan Evison: I imagine it will be done in three, four, five months.
Brad Listi: What’s it called? You got a name, or is it classified?
Jonathan Evison: It’s called The Dream Life of Huntington Sales.
Brad Listi: The Dream Li—okay, and so that’s a lock. You know…
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, someday marketing is probably gonna try to talk me out of that. You know?
Brad Listi: Why?
Jonathan Evison: But that’s what it’s called. I don’t know.
Brad Listi: It’s got the word “dream” in the title.
Jonathan Evison: Oh, that’s true.
Brad Listi: It’s got the words “sales” in the title.
Jonathan Evison: I just need to put the word “marriage” in the title now.
Brad Listi: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] The Love Life of Good Sales. Change his name to Good. Or Great. You know, then you’ll be good. Your marketing people will love that. So, 60,000 words, two-thirds of the way done, so this is a fairly big book. I mean, you’re gonna get into the…
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, it’s about the size of Lulu or The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Right around 300 pages is a real comfortable length for me generally. West of Here was much bigger in scope. I think it’s probably not the last bigger book I undertake, but like I think generally speaking, you know, 300 pages feels really…pretty good to me intuitively, and like I’ve got my next book…I’ve got tons of notes on my next book, and I already know, you know, the voice, and I’m really excited to see where it takes me, but, you know, I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. It’s nice to have that kind of stewing on the backburner though.
Brad Listi: Yeah, it’s gotta be, it’s kind of a comfort. I think that’s a smart way to go, where you get ahead of yourself with a book, just because it takes so long anyway, and you want to feel like there’s something next to serve up, you know, without the pressure of having to create it from thin air. You know?
Jonathan Evison: Yeah, I feel like a batter who’s got a couple hits in his bag, instead of…I mean…it’s a really tough position to be in where, like, you don’t know where…you know. I don’t [phone breaks up] to start pressing. Like you know what I mean?
Brad Listi: Mm hm.
Jonathan Evison: Like, it can just spiral. It can just like destroy a writer’s self-confidence, and you know? An athlete’s and anybody else. I mean it’s like, uh, scary.
Brad Listi: Yeah.
Jonathan Evison: I met an unnamed writer in San Francisco who had had some success, maybe…you know…quite a deal of success. A debut novel five or six years before I met them, and had not gotten anywhere writing their next novel yet, and this person was just kind of a wreck.
Brad Listi: Christ.
Jonathan Evison: I talked to this person. I’m being so sly about not telling the sex here.
Brad Listi: Yeah, you’re going gender-neutral on me. Give me at least the sex.
Jonathan Evison: Him. Okay, after you hear what this guy did to me, you’re gonna wonder why I’m protecting him.
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: So, I’m just trying to give this guy a pep talk at the bar like, “Dude, no pressure, all right.” I mean like…this person…the guy was really pressing, and like he was just getting really hammered, and at the end of the night, the guy tried to steal my bag [laughs]. And he totally knew it was mine! He knew. We were talking. I was talking about the notes I had in there, and things…I mean, this guy literally waited ‘til I wasn’t looking, put my bag on his shoulder, and somebody goes, “Dude, is that your bag?” Somebody happened to see it, and like I caught him out front stealing my bag.
Brad Listi: You gotta be shitting me.
Jonathan Evison: It was just really…No! It was really weird. But this is just giving you an idea of how much this guy was struggling.
Brad Listi: Christ.
Jonathan Evison: I don’t know if his plan was to steal my notes and get some inspiration, or if it was just to spite me because, you know, I already had my next book done, but this guy was pretty fucked up. That scared the shit out of me. Like I never want to be there.
Brad Listi: Was he hammered? Was he hammered?
Jonathan Evison: He was hammered by the time he stole the bag, yeah.
Brad Listi: Well that’s it. Maybe he’s just a problem drunk.
Jonathan Evison: But, I mean, still…he didn’t bring a bag. He didn’t bring a bag, dude. I mean this guy…it was really uncomfortable when I caught him too.
Brad Listi: Well, let me ask you this, like how coherent was he?
Jonathan Evison: He knew that I caught him, and then I killed him with kindness. I sat him back down at the bar, bought him another beer, and talked to him, but secretly I wanted to just punch his lights out…
Brad Listi: [laughs]
Jonathan Evison: …‘cause he tried to steal my bag, but it was so much work. You know what I mean? That somebody would do that? You know, my notes…like notes come in these flashes of inspiration where if I don’t…if you don’t scribble ‘em down, you may never remember ‘em kind of thing?
Brad Listi: Sure.
Jonathan Evison: It’s a terrible thing to lose, and to think somebody actually went out of their way to try to steal them is just weird.
Brad Listi: Now, was this guy coherent? I’m picturing a sloppy drunk. That’s the only way I can make sense of this. Was he coherent?
Jonathan Evison: Pretty sloppy, but the thing was the guy was a sloppy drunk because he’d just been pressing for five years after the success of one novel to like reinvent himself.
You know what I’m saying? I just…whenever I’ve met writers who are under any kind of deadline or the pressure to…you know…I just feel bad for ‘em ‘cause I think about being a hitter that needs a hit, like you’re 0 for 23. Dude, I’ve been on my softball team. Until last night, I swear I couldn’t buy a hit. And this is like fat men’s league softball. You know, and I’m dropping my shoulder, pulling my head off the ball, you know, lunging, doing everything wrong in men’s softball, and last night I finally got a couple of hits, and it’s like, “Oh, I hope it’s over,” but the way I felt in the batter’s box, I didn’t believe I could get a hit.
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: You know what I mean?
Brad Listi: Right.
Jonathan Evison: It’s the worst place to be dealing from as a performer, an artist, or a writ—you know.
Brad Listi: Did you steal somebody else’s bat? Were you thinking of doing something like that?
Jonathan Evison: [laughs] I mean, I could borrow it and still give it back. Nothing was working, Bradley. Last night I just stayed back, and it felt so good. I just hammered a ball up the midline. It was like [sigh]. Whole dugout, collective sigh of relief.
Brad Listi: Well, I’m glad to hear it, and, you know, you’ve definitely been a great inspiration to a lot of people, a lot of writers, with all of your energy and good work, and, you know, I think everybody’s sort of predicting big things for you, or more big things, so thanks for spending some time chatting. Thanks for all your help with TNB and the book club and everything else, and, you know, we’ll talk again some point down the road.
Jonathan Evison: Always a pleasure, Bradley. Thanks so much for having me. I just enjoyed the conversation.
Brad Listi: Excellent. We’ll talk to you soon.
Jonathan Evison: See ya, Bubs.
Brad Listi: Later, man.
* * *
Brad Listi: All right, everybody. There you have it. Jonathan Evison, author of All About Lulu and West of Here. The guy…he’s got an incredible level of energy, an almost legendary level of manic energy than anybody who’s ever been around him can attest to. He’s the kind of guy who gets stuff done quickly, and who wakes up at the crack of dawn without an alarm clock, writes for eight hours, then goes out and walks six miles, and thinks about writing, and then comes home and finally eats something.
That’s the kind of guy he is. We go way back. Jonathan and I met on Myspace, of all places. We used to be Myspace buddies, back when people were Myspace buddies. And from there, a relationship flowered. We’ve met in person several times. He’s the executive editor of The Nervous Breakdown, which makes him a logical place for us to start with this show. He’s also a fine writer. Go get his books. That does it. Thanks for listening. It’s gonna get better and better as we go.
This show is free. It’s twice a week. That’s what we’re gunning for. Sunday and Wednesday you can listen to it, unless something crazy happens, and there’s not enough time, but that’s the plan at this point: two shows a week, two authors a week, hour-long interviews. You can listen. It’s free. Subscribe. If you like it, give us a good rating on the iTunes, and then other people will find out about it, and then maybe they’ll subscribe, and then it’ll snowball. Back in a couple of days, folks. Signing off. I’m going to go get something to eat, I think. I’m a little bit hungry. Thanks for listening. Goodbye.
To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of Otherppl with Brad Listi, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.
Jonathan Evison is the author of four previous novels, including All About Lulu, West of Here, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! He lives with his wife and family in Washington State.