Interview: Jonathan Evison Hits the Road in ‘The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving’
There’s a current trend for naming novels as if they’re non-fiction books. Everything from An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England to How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe bears the subtitle ‘A Novel’ – a fact that’s not immediately obvious from their titles.
In the case of Jonathan Evison’s latest novel, however, the title pinpoints the book’s focus with uncanny accuracy – even if it sounds as if it should be a childcare manual. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving – a novel – is Evison’s third book, and in many ways it’s his most intimate and personal to date. It’s still laced with the wit and energy that have become his trademarks, of course – but along the way it takes an up-close look at tragedy, loss, guilt, and ultimately redemption.
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is the story of Benjamin Benjamin, a newly-trained professional caregiver whose own history is just as tragic as that of anyone he helps. Ben is separated from his wife, after the sudden death of their two children tore the marriage apart – a tragedy in which Ben himself played a large role. His first assignment as a professional caregiver is to attend to Trey, a nineteen-year old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who is nonetheless as fickle and obstructive as any teenager. As a bond forms between them – breaking one of the cardinal rules of caregiving – so Ben and Trey move towards reconciliation and self-understanding. It’s when they embark on an ill-advised road trip together that the outside world finally intervenes, and forces them both to face their pasts – and their futures.
If that sounds like one seriously heavy trip, then don’t worry. Evison has a reputation as one of Seattle’s most hilarious and engaging raconteurs, and his downbeat subject matter does nothing to dampen his natural literary exuberance. What’s even more remarkable, however, is The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving’s ability to drag you along with its characters, a cast of misfits who are as lovable as they are pitiable. More than either All About Lulu or West of Here, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving immerses you in the trials of its protagonists, turning itself into one of the year’s least likely – but most successful – pageturners.
We caught up with Johnny Evison just before the publication of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving to ask him a few questions about his writing habits, the allure of road trips, and his own personal connection to Benjamin Benjamin’s plight.
Dan Coxon: What’s immediately obvious about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is that its focus is much narrower, and much more personal, than West of Here. What made you choose such a different style from your last book? Which was easier to tackle?
Jonathan Evison: West of Here was such a huge technical challenge, and many would say I failed on any number of levels, but hey, I swung for the fences. And why not? With The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, I wanted to challenge myself emotionally rather than structurally or thematically. I wanted to write an intimate portrait of failure and loss – two things I’m an expert on. As a result, I had to do a lot of emotional dredging. It was really tough at times, but cathartic. As different as the two books are, they’re both character driven, and they both have the same theme – re-invention.
DC: I know that you mined a lot of your personal experience – of tragedy, and parenthood – for this book. Why did the time feel right for you to tackle these sensitive personal issues? How difficult was it?
JE: The timing was terrible in many ways. As a new father, it was tough to think about that sort of irredeemable loss. It was also tough re-visiting my sister’s accidental death. And the sudden and unexpected dissolution of my first marriage. Everything that informed this book was painful. Which is exactly why it had to be funny and redemptive. Or why write it, you know?
DC: Did that personal connection influence your decision to write in the first person? Or did the voice of Benjamin Benjamin just come to you?
JE: Both. Ben’s voice is essentially my own voice, so that part came naturally. The rest, as I said, was a little tougher. My hope is that some of the personal catharsis translates to readers.
DC: Did you intentionally make him so close to yourself? Was that an advantage or a disadvantage when it came to writing the novel?
JE: A big advantage. The sentences strung themselves together pretty effortlessly. After dealing with 40-odd voices in the last book, focusing on just one voice was a breeze, relatively speaking. But again, the existential element was tough. Some of the scenarios brought back grim chapters in my life, but ultimately left me feeling grateful. I’m glad I don’t have to write this book again.
DC: You go through multiple drafts of your novels, editing and re-editing until they’re right. Was there ever a point where this book wasn’t in the first person? Or where that voice wasn’t so close to your own?
JE: The voice was there right away. Truth be told, this book sort of wrote me. I was resistant to writing a road novel, but the characters forced me to. They just needed the road to deliver them, and I suppose I did, too. Of course, I wrote many drafts, but the novel didn’t require much in the way of major re-construction or anything. I cut some scenes, added some scenes, shuffled some sequences, caressed some details, worked some sentences, but the final draft was not all that far removed from earlier drafts.
DC: You’ve said that you didn’t want to write a road trip novel, but that the characters ‘led you to the road’. Why were you so resistant to writing a road trip novel? Have you change your mind about this (sub)genre now that you’ve visited it?
JE: It just seemed sort of easy, you know? The road novel is well-tread territory. My initial intent was to subvert the genre somehow, and in little ways I did. But I finally decided, screw it, I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel, here. I just wanted to give the reader some characters they could really care about. I wanted to achieve the widest emotional range I possibly could. It’s the emotional landscape that drives this novel, I think.
DC: Have you been on many road trips yourself?
JE: Ah man, I love the road. Since I was old enough to drive, I’ve been criss-crossing America’s backroads. I’ve taken some great road trips with my buddy who has MD. He’s the guy who inspired Trev’s character. We’ve gone to Glacier, Yellowstone, Crater Lake. When I was 18, I did seven states on about seven bucks with a couple of runaway girls. We got picked up in Vegas for loitering. I’ve done my share of touring the last few years, too. More than 80 cities, last I counted. When my boy was five weeks old, we did a car tour of the west – Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah. Basically, the same road trip Ben and Trev take in the book.
DC: What were your favorite/weirdest landmarks, attractions, etc? Or did you have to invent all the weird tourist stops for the book!
JE: I’ve seen my share of Sacred Miracle Caves and the like. I love that stuff. I’ll drive 100 miles out of my way to see a corn maze, a crop circle, or the worlds biggest petrified ham.
DC: I associate you strongly with Washington, though, and while this is a road trip novel it still feels firmly anchored in the Northwest. What ties you to this region? Why has it struck such a chord for you, particularly in your writing?
JE: The west strikes all kinds of chords with me. It’s a young landscape (geologically speaking), a grand landscape, and like all of my characters, it is a work in progress. I’m fascinated with how the land has shaped the people, and how the people have shaped the land. This relationship forever connects my characters to the landscape. And the west is still a bastion for rugged individualism (much of it of the non-partisan variety) and personal reinvention, two pet themes of mine. As the writer Kris Saknussemm once pointed out to me during a night of drinking in Missoula: Nobody runs east.
DC: Is there anywhere else that fascinates you as much as the Pacific Northwest? Anywhere you’d like to live, or at least set a novel? Or are your roots now planted too deep here?
JE: I’ve lived a lot of different places, but the northwest always calls me back. There’s a gazillion fascinating places I hope to visit, but the northwest will always be home. There’s no place I’d rather be than holed up in my cabin in the Olympic mountains, with my family and my books and my dogs and my beer.
DC: I know that you’re always working a book or two ahead of publication… so what can we expect to see from you next?
JE: I’m working on something called Harriet Chance, which will take me to Alaska for research in a few weeks. That’s all I’m saying. I’ve also finished a draft of a novel called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, a weird beast nobody really gets. Maybe I should stop smoking pot.
DC: You’re about to become a father again – congratulations! Will you be taking some time off from writing to look after the baby? Or are you hoping to fit in some writing around the diaper changes and sleepless nights?
JE: No rest for the weary, I’m afraid. After the tour, the baby will be coming, which means I may have to start my writing days at 3am to get anything done. Stoked about being a papa again, dirty diapers and all!
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is out on August 28th, and is available from all good bookstores priced $23.95.
Jonathan Evison will also be touring this Fall, appearing at the following events (you can find a full and updated tour schedule here):
Wednesday, August 29th—BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, WA—Eagle Harbor Books, 7:00pm
Thursday, August 30th—BELLINGHAM, WA—Village Books event hosted at the Chuckanut Brewery, 7:00pm **Will have a local band play a few songs at the beginning of the event. Wednesday, September 5th—PORTLAND, OR—Powell’s, 7:30pm **Joint event with musician/author Willy Valutin.
Thursday, September 6th—POULSBO, WA—Liberty Bay Books dinner at local restaurant, 6:30pm
Friday, September 7th—PORT TOWNSEND, WA—Jefferson County Historical Society, 7:00pm
Tuesday, September 11th—LOS ANGELES, CA—Skylight Books, 7:30pm
Wednesday, September 12th—MILWAUKEE, WI—Boswell Books, 7:00pm **Joint event with local author Mark Krieger.
Friday, September 14th—MINNEAPOLIS, MN—Magers & Quinn, 7:30pm **Joint event with author Benjamin Percy and a local brewery.
Saturday, September 15th—WINONA, MN—The Bookshelf Author Dinner Series, 6:30pm
Wednesday, September 19th—SEATTLE, WA—University Bookstore, 7:00pm **Joint event with author Maria Semple.
Monday, September 24th—DENVER, CO—Tattered Cover, 7:30pm
Friday, September 28-Sunday, September 30—BALTIMORE, MD—Baltimore Book Festival
Wednesday, October 3rd—LAKE FOREST PARK, WA—Third Place Books, 6:30pm
Thursday, October 4th—BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, WA—Eagle Harbor Books, 7:00pm **Joint event with author Lance Weller.
Friday, October 5th- Sunday, October 7th—MISSOULA, MT—Montana Book Festival
Tuesday, October 16th—SHELTON, WA—Sage Books Author Dinner, 7:00pm
Saturday, October 20—TAMPA, FL—Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading
Saturday, October 27-Sunday, October 28—AUSTIN, TX—Texas Book Festival
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