Jonathan Evison has become a bit of a darling in the book world, and it’s no wonder why. Indie booksellers love him because he’s an advocate for indie bookstores. His publisher, Algonquin Books, loves him because he’s charismatic and willing to get out there among booksellers and readers. And readers love him because, well, he knows how to write a book that’s worth reading.
His first book, All About Lulu, won the Washington State Book Award and his last book, West of Here, won the 2012 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for fiction. His latest, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, is bound for more acclaim. The novel follows Benjamin Benjamin, a man who turns to caregiving for a foul-mouthed teen in a wheelchair, when his own caregiving as a father takes a tragic turn. Evison could have just kept the story in the confines of a small town, but instead he sends the pair on a trip to see America’s roadside attractions. And with that small turn, he’s created a novel worthy of being picked up over and over again. He took some time away from his home on Bainbridge Island, WA to talk with Lindsey McGuirk from Village Books about writing tragedy with humor, hanging out with his characters, and how grown men will forever be 12-year-olds.
LM: Benjamin is a pretty broken character. As the story progresses, you slowly reveal the heart-wrenching tragedy in his life that has led him to this point. Is it difficult to write about a man who is slowly unraveling?
JE: It was extremely difficult at times. As a father, acting out a parent’s worst nightmare was excruciating. It made a helicopter parent out of me, I’ll say that much. Once you’ve seen how quickly this sort of tragedy can happen, you’ll never take any potentially dangerous situation for granted. Also, I was forced to revisit the freak accidental death of my own sister, and try to imagine what that must have been like for my parents—the blame and guilt and inexplicable terror of it all. This is why the book had to be funny in other respects. Not the event itself, but the unraveling.
LM: Did you have that in mind going into the book—making sure there was humor mixed in?
JE: I wanted a real sense of the madcap. When my life bottomed out about ten years ago, I went through a two year period I came to refer to as “the blur”. During this period, I consistently found myself winding up in ridiculous, almost unbelievable, comic situations. Of course, they weren’t always funny while they were happening. I really did practically stalk a trapeze artist, for instance.
LM: Oh, my goodness. Ok, we’re not going to get into that part of your life. Even though the story has tragic undertones, the book never feels heavy. How were you able to find that balance in the story?
JE: Again, necessity. If I was going to write about irredeemable loss, I didn’t want to suffocate anybody with a pervading sense of incomprehensible cruelty. I wanted to write about surviving unthinkable tragedy, I wanted to get past the wallowing stages to the healing stages, which is why the book starts two years after the tragedy.
LM: Your characters can be pretty outrageous at times. If they were real people, do you think you would like them?
JE: I think I would love them. For the most part, they’re doing the best they can with what they have to work with, and you can’t ask much more than that of a person. I know it sounds a little delusional, but they are real people. To me they are. I’ve crawled inside their skin and walked around, failed with them, suffered with them, healed with them.
LM: I recently read a great quote by Evelyn Waugh: “I don’t put people into my books, they take themselves out.” Does that resonate with you?
JE: Absolutely. For my money, Waugh was a comic genius. The guy wrote some of the most beautiful comically convoluted scenarios since Dickens.
LM: One of the ways Benjamin and Trevor pass the time is by mapping out roadside attractions around the United States. Is that a fascination of yours as well? Any particular attractions you’ve seen that stuck with you? Most importantly, have you ever been to Wall Drug?
JE: I’ve been to Walmart. And I’ve done a lot of drugs. But I don’t know what Wall Drug is. I’ve always had a thing for roadside attractions, though. Mystery houses, ghost towns, that kind of thing. I spent a lot of time in the Mojave desert as a kid, and up and down old Route 66, so I’ve seen a ton of them. Someday I want to open them. Now that all of my dreams have come true, I’m counting on some superfluous ones to carry me through.
LM: Wall Drug is in Wall, SD and you may have just come up with the perfect slogan for it: Like being at Walmart while high. There’s a fire-breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex, a scaled-down replica of Mount Rushmore, and a 6-foot rabbit, among many, many other glorious things. You should consider adding it to your superfluous wish list.
JE: Sounds right up my alley.
LM: All right, what is one book you’re an evangelist for?
JE: Well, I won’t shut up about Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I’ve hand-sold practically as many copies of that book as my own. Invariably, people ask me that question on the road, and I’m on the road an awful lot, and every night I see a few people walk out of bookstores with a copy of Fountain’s book based on my pitch, and I’m stoked. Even if it costs me a few sales of my own. Another book I enthusiastically pushed on readers was Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, which Dzanc published a couple of years back.
LM: Interesting. I interviewed Jess Walter a couple of months ago and he also highly recommended Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. What’s more interesting, though, is that in his book, Beautiful Ruins, there’s a hilarious name-calling exchange between two of the characters, which I was reminded of when I was reading your book and came to all the terms for hilariously inappropriate (or appropriate, depending on your preference) sex acts.
JE: I loved Beautiful Ruins, as I love all of Jess’s work. And yeah, I was struck by the two Italians exchanging their profanities, as well. It’s a universal guy thing. My best friend and I exchange lewd and inappropriate text messages about five times a day. Stuff like: “Your mom has a bush the size of a dinner plate.” I know, I know, it’s shameful and hopelessly immature, and many would say I’m on the fast track to hell, but they brighten up my day, and make me giggle like a mischievous kid. Adulthood is always bogging me down. Sometimes I need to feel 12 years old.
LM: At least you made it to 12. I always say I act like a 5-year-old. And finally, care to elaborate on what a German Knuckle Cake is?
JE: Um, maybe not. I’m gonna go ahead and put the onus on readers to do the research on that one. . .and by research, I mean googling, not um, well, you know, performing it, which is not something I’d recommend.
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving comes out today and kicks off with a launch event at Eagle Harbor Book Company. Look for Evison at an independent bookstore near you. Oh, and don’t forget to check out Evison’s new websites here and here!
Lindsey McGuirk is Village Books’ Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator. She also handles the store’s online marketing and works with authors to get their books published on the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.