Book City: How ‘Cloud Atlas’ inspired author Jonathan Evison

Writer Jonathan Evison. Credit: Photo: Keith Brofsky

Novelist Jonathan Evison won his second Pacific Northwest Book Award last week for “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”, set here in the Northwest. A former punk rocker, comedy show writer, and caregiver himself, Evison lives and writes on Bainbridge island.

Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Jonathan Evison: “Big Ray” by Michael Kinball and “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” by Paul Fussell. The Kinball book is about a guy dealing with the death of his father, and it’s a real shelf-talker, a gorgeous object of a book. The Fussell book is because I’m gestating a big novel about class divisions in America.

Have you read any truly great books lately?

“Mr. Peanut” by Adam Ross, and “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter.

What makes them so recommendable?

These two writers have so much voice… The timbre and tone of their voices is so good. The books are more than just great stories, although they’re that too.

Congratulations on winning a 2013 Pacific Northwest Book Award for “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” What’s next?

Well, I recently finished a novel called “The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales,” which is kind of a beast, structurally and thematically. I'm letting this one sit for a year or so, before I take a final run at it. Now I'm working on a novel called “Harriet Chance,” which is about an eighty-seven year old widow who takes an Alaskan cruise with her dead husband. I'm really having fun writing this book, and I can't wait to get it in the hands of my readers.

“The Revised Fundamentals” is a such a guy’s book…..

It appeals to women though, because the theme is masculinity and crisis and every woman is an expert on that….

Your eighty-seven year old widow In “Harriet Chance” —  what was more of a challenge? Writing a female main character, or one that’s twice as old as you are?

One isn’t harder than the other if I’m doing my job. Once I climb inside of a character, it’s all empathy and imagination. That’s why I do this….it’s an empathetic window for me.

Which of the books you’ve written is closest to your heart? Why?

I did an awful lot of emotional dredging for “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” — so much that the act of writing the book was cathartic. I don't like talking about some of the stuff, which is why I wrote the novel. The fictive lens gives me a little distance to work with. I wrote an essay for the paperback, which killed me to write.

(The essay is called “Filling Holes”, and you can find it on Jonathan’s web page.)

Can you talk a bit about how your reading informs your writing? Have any of your books been sparked by something you’ve read?

Well, David Mitchell's “Cloud Atlas” was an inspiration to me when I undertook “West of Here.” I love it when writers swing for the fences. Mitchell's big ambitions were contagious. After I read the book, I knew I wanted to write a world-beater.

You mention local locations and scenes in “Revised Fundamentals.” Does living on Bainbridge Island influence your work, do you think?

One thing I love about living on the island is that I grew up here, so my roots run deep in this place and I know virtually everybody. The Bainbridge community has been so incredibly supportive of me throughout my career as a writer, that I feel like I've got a homefield advantage that none of my writer friends in Brooklyn enjoy. Eagle Harbor Book Company is family for me.

You wrote, produced and hosted the comedy show "Shaken, Not Stirred," and your work has been lauded for its offbeat humor. Do you have favorite comic writers or read humorous titles?

Well, I love Charles Portis for his charming comedic touch. Terry Southern is great. Evelyn Waugh and Charles Dickens are two of the greatest comic writers who ever lived.

You sang in the Seattle punk band March of Crimes…could you share a couple of your favorite music titles?

I've read a couple great rock and roll novels in the past year. One of them was Tyler McMahon's “How the Mistakes Were Made” and the other is coming out in March from Other Voices Books — Rob Roberge's “The Cost of Living.”

Can you tell us your role in the online culture magazine The Nervous Breakdown?

Founder Brad Listi and the section editors — Gina Frangello, Greg Olear and others — do all the heavy lifting. I'm the Executive Editor. I just walk around with a title. I curate our national book club, which is great fun, because I get to champion books I'm excited about; sometimes books that really need a champion. It's really tough out there to get traction.

What books have you chosen lately for the book club?

We’ll read “Fight Song” by Joshua Mohr and Ron Currie Jr.’s, “Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles,” both about to be published.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

"David Copperfield” and “Breakfast of Champions.” I read them both when I was eight or nine, and while much of the material went right over my head, I recognized in Dickens the characters who populated my own world — my family is, in a word, Dickensian. And I recognized in Vonnegut the importance of humor as a mechanism to deal with the crueler elements of the universe.

Can you recall a specific book or author that inspired you to become an author yourself?

Well, the two aforementioned, and also John Fante, whom I discovered in my teens, and who pretty much sealed my fate as a hopelessly young alcoholic misfit wannabe writer.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

The last paragraph of Joyce's “The Dead” is a doozy.

Is there a book that you’ve re-read over the years?

Jack London's “Call of the Wild” is a book I re-read every couple of years (most recently aloud to my son) just to keep in touch with the wilderness of my spirit. Also, I love revisiting “A Fan's Notes” by Fred Exley, for the sheer joy of the language and humor and madness.

When and where do you settle down to read? To write?

The last six novels have all been written in my office on Bainbridge Island. When I'm feeling a little stuck, or I I've got structural or tactical stuff to figure out, I head out to the cabin in the Olympics. I never compose out there, but I take mad notes, and have great story breaks.

What book do you plan to read next?

I've been wanting to read Lauren Groff's “Arcadia” for months, and it's finally on the top of my TBR pile!

What Val is reading this week: “A Favourite of the Gods” and its sequel “A Compass Error ” by Sybille Bedford, a more worldly and caustic Jane Austen. I guess her fiction could be described as 20th century comedies of manners; they pierce your heart.

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