Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Jonathan Evison

In books, editors, fiction, literary journals, writing on March 5, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Jonathan Evison

Jonathan Evison. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here (Algonquin, 2011). Writer, reader, editor, and blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Evison is a friendly, witty, encouraging, and thoughtful presence in the online literary world. In person, he is all that plus a whole lot of fun. If you attend an Evison book event, you will be rewarded by candid answers and personal anecdotes. He might even play a recording of a Sasquatch whoop howl from his mobile phone. Yes, he believes in Bigfoot. Of everything Evison said, I went to sleep the night after meeting him still thinking about this: “Bigfoot is one last wild possibility that may or may not be out there. I believe because I want to believe.” He is a man with heart, willing to believe in what others might consider the impossible.

Quick Facts on Jonathan Evison (JE)

  • JE online: Author of West of Here, Blogger at Three Guys, One Book, Executive Editor of The Nervous Breakdown
    • Home: Bainbridge Island, Washington
    • Comfort food: pizza and beer
    • Favorite beer:  Anything by Samuel Smith. I like British ales.
    • Top reads: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, Ask the Dust by John Fante, The Call of the Wild by Jack London
    • Current reads: Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin

    What are you working on at the moment?

    I finished my next novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. I’m deep into something new called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which is kind of a return to the big Northwest. It’s not a period piece, but it does involve the life of one small town.

    I find that I sort of switch back and forth between first-person voice novels and bigger, multiple or limited point of view types of novels with larger scope. A book like West of Here is so exhausting. Voice novels come so much easier.

    Where did the idea for West of Here come from?

    Having grown up on a steady diet of London, Dickens, Steinbeck, Twain—all writers who really brought their settings to life on the page, I’ve always wanted to write that book. A book that really brought the Olympic Peninsula to the rest of the world, and brought it to life on the page.

    I also knew I wanted to write a novel about history. Not an historical novel—a mythical novel about history. I wanted to, in essence, create a living history. Instead of using one wide-angle lens, as we often do to historicize material, I imagined what was more of a kaleidoscope of all these clumping, overlapping, and spinning interconnected third-person-limited points of view. I wanted to tell the story that way so it would have a fabric. It was super ambitious and it almost drove me crazy at first. All these characters are sharing the stage and you don’t want anyone to leave the action for too long.

    What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

    For me, the function of any novel is always just to start a conversation. That’s why this novel was so ambiguous with the use of actual historical material and mythical material. I want people to seek it out themselves. I want people to look for their own answers.

    “The function of any novel

    is always just to start a conversation.”

    How many years did it take to write West of Here?

    Three and a half or four, if you include the research. It’s kind of hard to say, because I’m usually working on three books at once, researching one, copyediting one, and composing one. It sounds like it would make your head noisy, but it’s actually an advantage for me. I’m manic and I’m a multitasker. There are days when I wake up and I just don’t have the courage or the energy to compose; that’s really the most exhausting thing, so I’ll copyedit or research. Whatever I’m up to that day, I’ll do that.

    Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

    I’m looking for the same experience as a writer as I am as a reader. I want to inhabit the story, one way or another.  I’m my idealized reader; if I can please myself, I imagine I can probably please some other people.

    “It’s all about empathy.”

    Really, reading and writing are the same thing for me: letting go of the self. It’s all about empathy, experiencing the life in somebody else’s skin. That’s why it can be so painful sometimes. That’s why I often say I’m afraid to write today, or I don’t have the courage to write. It’s a tough thing to just put your own life, your own everything, out of your mind and give yourself to your characters. They’re often doing some unpleasant things to one another, and not in the most pleasant of circumstances.

    The book I just finished, there’s a lot of tragedy in it. It’s my funniest book, I know, because it had to be. But, boy, it was emotional. West of Here was a critical exercise; The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving was an emotional exercise. Every time, I’ve been trying to push myself somewhere new and uncomfortable.

    Where and when do you prefer to write?

    Well, much like my novel, my writing life is bifurcated into two epics, one before my child and one after. My preferred method of writing was always 5am every day. But now, I’ve been getting more efficient. I find myself carrying the manuscript around more often. I find that I can stay on task a little better because I have to.

    Where would you most want to live and write?

    I’m exactly where I want to be. I spend 60-100 days out on the peninsula that I write about in West of Here. That’s where I do a lot of my editing. I always compose in my office, but I’ll go out with a red pen and the manuscript. Whenever I need a break, it never fails me. I have this old ’76 Dodge motor home. I just pack a cooler up with beer, sometimes I pack up the family and the dogs, sometimes just by myself, and I head to the mountains or the ocean, and it always breaks for me. Just getting away from civilization and emails, I can think so clearly.

    Do you listen to music when you work?

    I can’t do it. I get distracted. Music informs my writing in lots of ways, especially rhythm and cadence. I read my stuff out loud. As sensitive as I am to the language, I really want the language to be invisible. I don’t want to wow the reader because I don’t want to break the spell.

    “I think of the language as the blood

    running through the veins of the story.”

    I think of the language as the blood running through the veins of the story. It’s the thing that keeps everything moving. Sometimes I want the language to stick out, but otherwise I just want it to be something that flows. I want it to serve the story.

    Do you have a philosophy for why you write?

    Discovery. I want to discover and empathize. Those are the things that keep me doing it. I want to report on the human experience. If I can really inhabit another character, put myself in that character’s shoes, I can feel like I’ve lived that character’s experiences. I feel like it makes me a bigger person when I come out the other end.

    What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

    Sit your ass down and write. Don’t think about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Just write and read, and write and read, and write and read.

    Writing is really a lot more like being an athlete than I ever hear anyone talk about. For me, it’s about discipline, about keeping my tools sharp. Running my laps when I don’t feel like it. Pushing myself. It is a discipline. The more disciplined you are, the easier it becomes.

    “The more disciplined you are,

    the easier it becomes.”

    What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

    When I was writing West of Here, I did so much research and I didn’t know when to stop. I was afraid to break ground on the novel until I had everything I needed. I asked a friend, David Liss, how do you know when you’re done researching? He said, “When it starts to get in the way of the story you’re trying to tell.” And that was awesome advice. It was exactly what I needed to hear right then. I knew what I wanted to do; I just needed someone to tell me to start writing.

    What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

    McTeague by Frank Norris, and one of my blogging partners actually sent me one.

    What do you find challenging about writing?

    The slog of it. The fact that it’s usually not fun. A lot of days it’s work and it’s hard. It’s emotionally draining. It’s really demanding in terms of the time and energy it takes, and sometimes it‘s not really fair to the people I live with. It’s kind of all-consuming.

    When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

    Camp, chase my kid around, drink beer.

    About Jonathan Evison

    Jonathan Evison is the author of All About Lulu, which won the Washington State Book Award, and West of Here. In 2009, he was awarded a Richard Buckley Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation.

    Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

    [Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Jonathan Evison.” Words With Writers (March 5, 2011),

    West of Here cover

    West of Here by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin, 2011).

    1. […] Bainbridge Island Review profile of the author Bellingham Herald profile of the author Deseret News profile of the author Evanston review interview with the author Largehearted Boy Book Notes piece by the author for his novel All About Lulu Morning Edition interview with the author Village Books Blog guest post by the author Words With Writers interview with the author […]

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: