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Jonathan Evison: Hard writing makes easy reading

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Author Jonathan “Johnny” Evison needed to address a thousand details when preparing for the launch of his new book, “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.” Overwhelmed, he turned to the team at Algonquin publishing for help.  

    “I would be absolutely lost without them,” Evison remarked during a recent telephone interview. “The book will have every chance to succeed because of their hard work.”
    Evison recently had an opportunity to test the open market, but decided to stay put.
    “I just signed with Algonquin for my next two books,” he noted. “I took less money to be with them in the first place because they do such a fantastic job. I just love them.”
    Evison, who lives with his wife and young son on Bainbridge Island, Washington, talked about his third book on a 30-minute ferry ride to Seattle where he was hosting a reading – although, like everything Evison does, it would not be conventional.
    “I try to avoid reading,” he says with a laugh. “I like involving the crowd. Not like they're being talked at. [I want them to be] part of the discourse. I like beer at my readings, too. They're called events. It doesn't feel like an event with four people sitting on their hands. It's fun. It's supposed to be fun.”
    Evison's two previously published books, “All About Lulu” (2008) and “West of Here” (2011) received critical acclaim. “Lulu” won the Washington State Book Award and was the only independent book to make the best of list for Hudson Booksellers. “West” won the 2012 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Booklist Editor's Choice Award. Both books received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly.
    Still, Evison is wary.
    “You just never know,” he said when asked I asked him if he was prepared for the wave of publicity he was about to receive with the new book's release. “I don't know what's about to happen. My goal is for it to do as good or better than the last book.”
    Evison is no stranger to fame. Before he began writing, he was a founding member of the Seattle punk band March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
    “It's pretty easy for me to remain down to earth,” he noted. “I had the advantage of watching all my friends become stars. That was educational. You see what it can do.”
    According to Wikipedia, Evison also worked as a laborer, caregiver, bartender, telemarketer, car salesman and syndicated radio host. He was born in San Jose, Calif., and has lived in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Missoula, Mont.
    When he was a small boy, his sister died in a tragic car accident. Here's his recollection:

    The weekend of my sister's sixteenth birthday, she took a road trip with some friends down to Lucerne Valley in the Mojave Desert. For two weeks prior, the trip was a source of debate around our dinner table. My old man reasoned that since she was a responsible kid, got good grades, fed her pets, and honored her curfew, she ought to be allowed to take the trip. My mother reasoned that it was a bad idea. She didn't trust the other kids. They were a scraggly bunch.
    My sister took the trip. She never came home. She was killed in a freak car accident the weekend she turned sixteen years old. The incident, the specifics of which have never been explained satisfactorily by anyone, all but exploded my family. My parents divorced after twenty-five years of marriage. I lost what amounted to my primary caregiver. My oldest brother was deeply depressed for two years afterward and was really never the same in some fundamental way. To this day, my family is still feeling the shockwaves. I'm still walking around with this sister-shaped hole in my heart. After a few beers, my brother will still lament the fact that he owed her seven bucks at the time of the accident. The seven bucks had been a point of contention involving the sale of a ten-speed bike. They argued fiercely about the money up until the day she left. At fifty-seven, my brother is still trying to pay that debt.
    There are holes in our lives that can never be filled – not really, not ever. And yet, we have no choice but to try to fill them. We must drive on in the face of debilitating loss, crippling guilt, overwhelming hopelessness. Because to give up is to be dead. I've lived with this idea since I was five years old.

    The loss of his sister is an ever-present part of his life.
    “We take so much for granted,” he notes. “I keep two hands on the wheel. I don't let my son out of my sight. I've seen how it could happen.”
    In the new book, Evison tells the story of Ben Benjamin, a man who has lost everything – his wife, his family – and his young charge Trey, a 19-year-old whose body is ravaged by Duchene's disease (a form of muscular dystrophy), but whose mind is razor-sharp and overloaded with testosterone. The two decide to take a road trip to visit Trey's absent father, who has been hurt in a car accident. As they travel, they encounter a cast of characters who enliven and enrich their journey. As they leave their home-town troubles behind, the sadness that surrounds them begins to lift, allowing them to see their way to the future more clearly.
    Evison says writing the story was not easy.
    “My goal with this book was to challenge myself emotionally. Push myself in some uncomfortable places emotionally and do some plumbing. Plumbing the depths that needed to be done. Do a little healing. Hopefully it would be cathartic for me, and hopefully some readers. I did a lot of crying,” he says. “That's why the book had to be funny.”
    Evison knew he was walking a thin line between maudlin and humor with this story, but he wanted to bring hope to the devastated wasteland that was Ben's life.”
    “I wanted to take a character that was completely leveled emotionally, who had nothing to live for and set him loose in a narrative landscape and make him find hope, because it's always there,” he said in a rare moment of seriousness. “Hope is always there. You just have to look for it. Hope can be a shape shifter.”
    The author said Ben had not evolved in his grief because “he's always looking back at what used to be his life, and it's no longer there.”
    Evison resisted taking the guys on the road, he says, because there are so many road trip books out there.
    “I was trying my hardest to never hit the road, but they made me,” he said with a laugh. “My characters are not my galley slaves. I follow them. Those characters needed the road to deliver them.”
    During the four years that Evison worked as a caregiver, he looked after a young man named Case. The book is dedicated to him and Trey's character is based on him.
    “We did take some epic road trips together,” he recalled. “I needed to write about the logistics of us traveling together. I felt like it was him and me in the van.”
    Evison has a no holds barred, leave nothing out, in your face approach to writing that might feel abrasive at first, but hang in there. With the grit comes the glory.
    What follows is one of the best written paragraphs I've read this year.

    Listen to me: everything you think you know, every relationship you've ever taken for granted, every plan or possibility you've ever hatched, every conceit or endeavor you've ever concocted, can be stripped from you in an instant. Sooner or later, it will happen. So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact: nothing is indestructible.

    When asked about the narrative, Evison said, “Some of my hardest writing days yield some of my best work. Hard writing makes easy reading.”
    As an author, Evison is sharp, incisive, brutally funny, kinetic and manic. On the phone, Evison is sharp, incisive, brutally funny, kinetic and manic – and totally loveable.
    “If I hadn't become a writer, I probably would have become an intravenous drug user or somebody who screamed at parking meters. Writing is how I articulate the existential and biochemical madness that is my brain. Beer is how I keep it in check. I am manic with a capital 'M.' I wear out my college-aged nephews. I run my three-year-old into the ground. I routinely sleep five hours a night. I can destroy a 12-pack and still play mad Ping Pong until 4 a.m. In fact, throw in a little face-time with the kiddo and the wife, three hours of writing time, a large pizza with thin crust, and that sounds like a perfect day to me.”
    He's the poster boy for Attention Deficit Disorder, but he's making it work and has given the reading public a brilliant, brutal look at two lives stripped bare.
    “I could have really tread onto some Hallmark territory if I just had Ben's story and a kid in a wheelchair,” he explained. “I had to start by showing them warts and all, acting like a couple of adolescent perverts in the mall. Disgusting. I didn't want the reader to feel sympathy for them right away. I wanted them to earn the reader's sympathy.”
    Evison and his wife are expecting their second child, a daughter, in December. For now, he'll be traveling a few days and then home for a few days.
    “The first time, it was too grueling,” he notes. “Last time, it was three weeks. That's too long.”
    He is grateful to his Algonquin family for organizing his pre-release life, with a special nod to Kelly Bowen and Lauren Moseley.
    “I would be lost without them. If I had to book six interviews in one day, it would drive me insane,” he said. “They had it all set up. Someone called my cell phone every half hour.”
    Then, he riffs on his new  phone, letting the genuine Jonathan Evison shine.  
    “They made me get a smart phone. I hate it. I absolutely abhor it. I just want my old phone back. It isn't easy to answer it. They made me get it because they couldn't replace the battery in my old one. Does the typing get easier? The spell check is driving me insane.”
    As our connection begins to break up, I thank Evison for his time and for giving us such a great story.
    “I'm the lucky one,” he said. “It's all I ever wanted to do. I get to connect with readers. I'm so grateful.”

For more information about “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” log on to http://www.revisedfundamentals.com/index.html
Evison will be in Austin
on Oct. 27 and 28 for the Texas Book Festival. Log on to
www.texasbookfestival.org/ for more information.




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