May 2011

Elizabeth Collins

features

The Endless Book Tour: On the Road with Jonathan Evison

You’re into books, and there’s a hot, still smells-like-new author rolling into town, hawking his latest novel. Maybe you’ll go to see him read. Maybe he will sign a copy of his new work, and that’d be sort of cool. But wait: this is Jonathan Evison (author of the new novel West of Here; the popular coming-of-age novel All About Lulu; plus the forthcoming novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, due out from Algonquin in the next year or two). And shut the front door!

He brings beer to the indie bookstores he likes to declaim from. He sometimes serves jello shots and pigs in a blanket. He has an author uniform sort of like Tom Wolfe (except much more casual) -- you know, the sort of outfit that lets you know exactly who you’re dealing with, and what a character he is. He might even play Big Foot recordings! He really likes to crack open a brew and shoot the breeze with his readers.

Why does he do all that? Is Evison (better known as Johnny) trying to sweeten the deal for his readers? Are his readings and bookstore events performance art, smart business, or just an act?

No. The super-charismatic Evison does that (acts like your new best friend, only more fun) because that’s just the sort of guy he is. It can be exhausting -- but Evison never seems to tire of talking to people, readers, especially if it means talking about books, and not only his own. These days, Evison is a body in motion, preternaturally busy spreading the word about West of Here.

Swimming through the hard currents of an almost-unheard-of-now 45-city book tour, Evison is at once hard to find and omnipresent. He’s been everywhere, it seems. “Twenty-six cities in twenty-seven days,” Evison explains when he is finally caught up and can dash off a late-night e-mail for one of countless interview requests. Certainly, this author is striking while the iron is hot, but what else should he do?

All the hard work is a joy, he says; books are Evison’s passion. “I just love books,” Evison says simply. “I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve been writing since I was in the third grade (he's now 42), and I love working at this.”

Working is the operative word. Evison’s latest novel, West of Here, is a sprawling, almost ridiculously ambitious, audacious historical epic with a bifurcated timeline (1890 and 2006, in semi-parallel storylines), and huge themes such as reinvention, national idealism, and personal destiny that Evison hopes will “start a cultural conversation.” No fewer than 42 different character voices are used in the novel.

Researching and writing West of Here took Evison four years, and he supported himself and his family at first with part-time ditch digging, and later with royalties and film option money from Lulu.  Eight novels in -- three of which Evison “physically buried… because they stunk of failure; I felt sorry for the paper, if you wanna know the truth,” and three of which remain unpublished as of yet) -- Evison is now a full-time writer.

From the reviews of Evison’s latest, some readers clearly love West of Here, while some find it overwhelming, but nearly everyone has to admit that the novel is an impressive piece of work. The bottom line is that the novel is selling well, and Evison himself is one of the reasons why.

He puts the time in to promote his work; he tours relentlessly, keeps a high profile, blogs or edits in several different venues (Three Guys, One Book; The Nervous Breakdown; and a literary blog called Knock), blurbs the work of other authors, and tries to pay it forward as a matter of course. Evison has also clinked countless cans or glasses (he says he really likes -- seriously likes, as in, it’s an honor -- to pick up bar tabs) with his reading audiences.

“I’ve been very fortunate so far,” Evison says, “so when I’ve been on the road for six weeks and I miss my family and I have bags under my eyes and I’ve lost my voice and I’ve gained ten pounds, I still thank my lucky stars that I have the opportunity to help myself.” Of course, at some point Evison has to admit that “the funnest part of all of this is drinking beer with the people who come to see me, and talking back and forth.”

Emily Pullen of Skylight Books in Los Angles says that Evison can be counted on for making his bookstore appearances “an all-around fun time. He’s generous with his time, and he’s generous with libations. The way he generates this feeling of goodwill is an immeasurable tool when it comes to independent bookstores. If I feel positively towards an author, I’m much more inclined to put his book in someone’s hands when they ask me for suggestions.”

Evison “is intimate with his audience, letting them like and enjoy him,” says Oregon bookseller Deon Stonehouse of Sun River Books. “Our customers have been dropping by the store to tell me how much they enjoyed his presentation, and to purchase more of his books.” Stonehouse adds, “Authors today really have to hoof it. The more presentations they give, the more often they are in front of readers, they better able they are to convey a sense of their writing and inspire new readers. Being physically in front of a crowd of readers and accessible to them is hugely important.”

“Authors need to be prepared to go that extra mile,” says Stesha Brandon, manager of Public Relations and Events for the University of Washington’s book store. “There are so many books being published each year; it makes a huge difference when the author gets out there and meets the people who are selling their books.” Gratitude and respect for the indie booksellers -- which Evison and other well-liked authors clearly have -- goes a long way.

“Writers who have started publishing books in the last five years or so have a different idea of ‘how much work’ should go into promoting their books,” says Pullen. “These authors really work their butts off, but they seem to do it as much after the writing is done as before. By touring, yes, but they also help by engaging with readers and booksellers online.”

It doesn’t take a household name to make a bestseller anymore, Pullen adds. “Interestingly, some of our more ‘dud’ events at Skylight have been for respected writers who are on novels four or five who seem to feel that they’re already done the work -- the writing -- and now they just need to show up. The landscape is different than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and that doesn’t work as well anymore. I think that Evison’s a rare breed, but a breed that we definitely seek out for events.”

It’s clear that Evison is onto something -- something that many authors either don’t have the capacity to do because they don’t have much publishing publicity and marketing money behind them, or because they just aren’t as enterprising or energetic. Even before Evison hit the big time, he still took the initiative to tour on his own dime and to push his work and talk to as many booksellers and readers as he could find.

“I have to make this work. I have no other skills,” Evison admits. “My books aren’t going to sell themselves, and I wasn’t making squat digging ditches, so I figure I may as well do everything I can to get my books into the hands of readers, or my days of picking up bar tabs are over.”

While Evison is promoting and touring and reading and signing, he is also writing and researching a new novel and copy-editing one in the pipeline. He has a personal mission: to do what he can to save the book publishing industry. “I adore book culture, and I refuse to decry its impending doom,” he says. “In fact, I’m on a crusade not to let it happen! I want to do anything in my power to help improve the general ecology of publishing.”

Helping others is part of this mission. “I can do a lot more for other people than I can for myself,” Evison says, “because second-party advocacy is the gold standard. So I connect people wherever it makes sense: writers to editors, readers to writers, booksellers to consumers, bloggers to publicists. I encourage writers wherever I can, get them fired up, give them pep talks. All of this stuff is rewarding in and of itself. It just feels good to engage in the culture I love, and I know that I’m contributing to it. And yeah, I feel the love coming right back at me, for sure. But I’m not giving to get; I’m getting from giving. It’s not a pyramid scheme; it’s sincere.”

Kurtis Lowe, a Northwestern regional sales rep for BookTravelers West, backs up Evison, one of his favorite authors. When asked what he thinks is the secret to Evison’s success, Lowe replies, “Well, he’s engaging, he’s passionate -- he’s everything that everyone else says. But he’s also genuine. Johnny isn’t faking his interest in people, in talking to people. He makes a good impression.”

“Johnny will do things other authors really don’t seem to want to do,” notes Lowe. “He will talk freely with his audiences about the process of writing. He will talk about the history behind his book. He’ll talk about what he’s planning next. But one of the most interesting things about Johnny is that he remembers people’s names when they come to see him. He remembers what they do for a living. Johnny constantly reminds people that we are all part of a bigger picture.”

The big picture seems to be what drives Evison, especially when it comes to the themes of West of Here, which isn’t, as Lowe points out, simply a novel about the Pacific Northwest (Evison’s home turf). “It’s not only about one specific place; it’s about the way place shapes us, the way that any place can shape us. West of Here is a novel that conveys how the grandeur and mystery of a place can inspire us to bend it to our will, and once we’ve done so, we might need to undo what we’ve done in order to live freely again,” Lowe explains.

Some critics have commented that complex issues in West of Here aren’t settled, and that the myriad characters aren’t seen to the end. Lowe says he sees that as exactly the point. “The metaphor of the dam on the Elwha River, for example: it’s important that the dam the 1890s characters build hasn’t come down yet in 2006. The modern characters are looking forward to the undoing of the dam, but the novel is about hope in all times, and it’s really about the expectation of change.”

One character who certainly doesn’t need changing is Evison himself. His editor, Chuck Adams, can also only rave about his author’s work ethic and personality, but notes that Johnny makes such a splash because, “He has a clear vision. He’s also a genius in that he can take a serious, even tragic topic (as in the forthcoming Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving) and make it humorous. I think Johnny is a great writer, but more important is the story, and he’s foremost an amazing storyteller.”

Adams adds, “I actually refer to Johnny as a rockstar author. He has groupies. But he’s incredibly relaxed, utterly approachable. He seems at ease when you are with him. Johnny just seems to invite you in.”

The ease and relaxation that Evison exudes belies the fact that he is laser-focused and extraordinarily serious about his work. In fact, he takes a major theme of West of Here -- reinvention -- and consistently applies it to his writing. That’s why West is such a departure from Lulu, and why his forthcoming novels are also a world apart.

“I wanna play in a high-stakes game,” says Evison. “I don’t want to feel like I’m just going through the motions. I want to get a little bit dangerous, and I like to kick in some mental barn doors, now and then, especially my own. I want to push myself into an uncomfortable place, artistically, so I’m forced to rise to the occasion.”

By his own accounts, West of Here was sometimes very difficult to write. Evison even took a gamble by including in his historical epic two fantastical parallel storylines of mentally-damaged youth (Thomas and Curtis) who somehow connect across time.

“I wanted to include something speculative, something that presented possibilities beyond the scope of what we consider ‘historical,’” he explains. “Also, I wanted to play with perception, which we so often take for granted, and illustrate what a delicate thing it can be.”

The image of Evison’s painstaking crafting of West of Here with its surreal complexities is daunting. “Craft goes a long way,” Evison says, acknowledging the hard work he put in, “but danger is the real heartbeat of the story.”

Evison’s “next next” novel, as his editor puts it, is halfway done (and Evison has reportedly begun writing its successor). He explains, “I really like the careers of some of those 1920s and 1930s Americans like Hemingroids [sic—a joke] and Faulkner. Dudes who busted out a book every two or three years over the long haul.”

Adams says, “Johnny wants to be remembered as a writer. He expects to write a book every two years. If he continues to produce at this level, he will. We bought one book at a time from Johnny, but it soon became clear that we had a tiger by the tail.”

The career that Evison now enjoys did not come easily, or too quickly. Through serious trial and error and years of practice (and neither college writing courses nor formal writing programs), Evison began to find his voice and develop his characters and stories. He says he could feel that Lulu would be a breakthrough for him, but “if I had always been writing with the intention of being published, I would have given up long ago.”

Why write, though, if not in the hopes of publication? Evison says he writes because, “Writing is a way of life for me. Without writing to articulate all the joy and the madness, all the furious spinning that goes on in my manic, super-charged, beer-addled brain, I'd choke on my own exuberance, or spin out of control. Truly. Still, there are days when I don't leap out of bed to write, when I don't have the energy or the courage, but I know if I force myself to stay on task, it will be rewarding. “

Evison acknowledges his own discipline and drive, but also gives a shout-out to old-fashioned luck. “So many writers don’t even expect to make a living from their books anymore,” says Adams, noting how difficult the current publishing climate can be. “Johnny does.”

Now he does. The living is assuredly there, as long as Evison just keeps moving forward, selling one novel while thinking two or three novels ahead in what will undoubtedly be a long and very interesting career -- fun for his readers, fun for the author himself.