Jonathan Evison: The Power of the Socially Networked Writer

He's standing up for big novels, one book (and status update) at a time.

With a wife and toddler at home on Bainbridge Island, Jonathan Evison knows how to seize precious opportunities to write. When given a spousal pass from parenting duties, he hops into his 1976 Dodge motor home, along with a laptop, books, and beer. It's a rolling research lab, a room of his own, and he can park it at any campground, as he says, to "write, take notes, do marathon two-day stints, and get away from e-mail." That was the m.o. he followed in writing his first published novel, 2008's All About Lulu, a family romance set mostly in L.A. (with detours to Seattle), which won the Washington State Book Award for fiction last year. But the road-trip routine was doubly important for his second novel, West of Here, which will be published by Algonquin Books in February. It's an ambitious chronicle of the Olympic Peninsula set in Port Bonita—a fictionalized analogue to Port Angeles. There are traces of Evison's own youth and family life in Lulu's first-person tale of first love in the late '80s. But, as Evison observes, West of Here offers "two timelines, 100 years apart, and 40 characters' perspectives." Events unfold in 1890 and 2006, and that required a lot of research—and a lot of time amid the orange shag carpeting and swivel chairs of his Dad's former motor home. Even so, West was done before Lulu was even published. And Evison's work habits mean that he's already completed and sold his third novel, to be published by Algonquin in 2012. "I'm always working on three things at once," he says. "I'm not in a hurry; I'm just a compulsive writer." He's a champion networker, too, which has helped give him a leg up in the struggling book world and made him a force for fanning literary conversation. "I built my career on MySpace," says Evison, who started a page called The Fiction Files in 2005, where he'd moderate discussion on literary topics. To recruit participants, including those from the book industry, he says he cold-clicked a couple thousand MySpace users—searching for those who had, say, James Joyce, listed among their favored authors. Eventually the threads reached critical mass and got picked up by search engines, and participants began to find him. That network was critical for Evison once he succeeded in getting Lulu published. (By that time, he recalls, he'd written seven previous novels, and had "physically burned three or four of them.") While Evison wasn't specifically hustling his own book, the circle of fiction enthusiasts he surrounded himself with online "helped me earn out my advance," he notes. "They got to know me. It's not self-promotion; it's just good will." As interest in MySpace declined, Evison's page also faded away (it lives on as a discussion board on goodreads.com). But Evison has continued to foment novelistic interest online. "Social-network people are my core audience," he says. He helps curate a book club for readers on the arts-and-culture site The Nervous Breakdown, where he's executive editor. "It's designed as a buzz-builder," he says of his efforts. He also contributes to threeguysonebook.com, where he recently wrote a manifesto to publishers, challenging them to stop churning out a million titles a year and to actually help a select few find their audience. He also took a swipe at fellow Seattle writer David Shields, whose latest book, Reality Hunger, portrayed traditional fiction as dated, irrelevant, and contrary to the current culture's cravings. "Maybe Reality Hunger is more like a 'Big Mac Attack,'" wrote Evison. "Maybe you shouldn't publish books that feed this hunger." Evison's ethos is the antithesis of Shields': "I'd like to see postmodernism take a snooze and get back to story," he says. And digitally oriented as he may be, he also still likes the bulky object, especially "in an age where we're force-fed info." With the novel, by contrast, "You're carrying around this thing on a bus for two weeks. You're invested in it." Born in California, Evison was raised on Bainbridge but left as soon as he could. He fondly admits to running with "all the alcoholic misfits in San Francisco...reliving an era that had been dead for 40 years. I went from punk rock backwards; I discovered the Beats"—including John Fante and William Saroyan. When he returned to Bainbridge in 1996, his old home had changed. "A lot of the old hippies have been taxed off the island," he recalls. "There were a lot more blue tarps on the roofs when I grew up." But while Bainbridge had gotten richer during his dozen-year absence, the Olympic Peninsula suffered economic decline, the spotted-owl wars, crystal meth, and closing timber mills. "Economically, it is Appalachia," says Evison. "But it's logging instead of mining. Driving through those towns made me think of telling those stories from all points of view"—namely, those of the mill and cannery workers of West of Here, Indians, businessmen, rebellious teenagers, barflies, tourists, outsiders, and petty criminals. This fall, Evison has a full schedule of regional trade shows, authors' breakfasts, booksellers' conventions, and other events to promote advance sales of West. He may love his quiet time in the motor home, but Evison is obviously well-adapted to the current ecology of publishing. "Making it in this business is all about hand-selling books," he says with enthusiasm. Originally slated for a September pub date, West was pushed back to February, and Evison couldn't be happier: It gives him more time to lay the groundwork, he says, and it gets him out of the way of the current Franzen tidal wave. Around here, Evison will read from West at an event celebrating a city faced with even more adversity than Port Bonita: New Orleans. He and other Seattle writers (plus chefs, designers, and musicians) are taking part in the "Bi Local" cultural-exchange program, a series of performances and collaborations with participants from both towns. It's a fund-raiser for the New Orleans investigative journalism startup The Lens (name-checked this past weekend on public radio's "On the Media"). After their night at Town Hall, Evison's group will reconvene in April to read in the Big Easy. "I spent a summer there when I was 19," says Evison, "and I haven't been there since. So I'm stoked." And will Evison take his 34-year-old Dodge on the road when he starts an extensive Northwest book tour next year? The garrulous writer pauses a minute to consider the cost of an engine rebuild. Finally he decides, "I might upgrade to an '80s model." bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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