Jonathan Evison and I share a brilliant publisher, Algonquin, AND a brilliant editor, Chuck Adams. He's my go-to person when I have a question about writing, and also a great example on how to live the literary life, because he's so generous to every writer he encounters.
Lawn Boy is a masterwork, about a working glass guy, Mike Muñoz, struggling to find the American Dream. And oh yes, it already has 3 starred pre-pub reviews. Evison is also the author of West of Here, This is Your Life Harriet Chance, All About Lulu, and the Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, made into a great film which you can watch on Netflix!
I'm so happy to host him here. Thanks, Johnny!
You and I have talked about how every novel has a theme, a question that we are haunted by. In Lawn Boy, I believe it is how do we rise when everything and everyone is against us, economically and personally? How do we find our true selves in the midst of forces we cannot control?
JE: Yeah, sure, like how do we invent ourselves, how do we empower ourselves? How do we overcome our station in life, how do we carve out our niche in the world when we don’t see an opportunity? How do we believe in ourselves when nobody else does? That’s all part of the bigger question about what freedom is versus the idea we’re sold about what comprises freedom.
You have such an acclaimed career, that I am wondering if you feel that every new book builds on the last one? Or do you feel that each book is a brand new work with its own ideas?
JE: Hmm, do I have an acclaimed career? Who knew? I can never tell with acclaim. I like selling enough books to drink decent beer. I’m just trying to keep the lights on, you know? Trying not to drive everybody crazy with my damn mania. If I’m being honest, I’ve only got a few themes, so in a sense, I just keep reinventing them, and looking at them from different vantages with each book. When I think of my books, I mostly think about the characters who populate them, and what their problems are, and who they want to be, and what they struggle with or against. In Mike’s case it’s a big old mixed bag of economics, race, class, sexual identity, and self-confidence. And then there’s the whole quagmire of identity politics, and how they relate to Mike’s rural, working class environment. Wait, did I answer the question?
Mike Munoz is truly one of the greatest characters in literature. I just LOVED him. Not only does he surprise us—he surprises himself, and by the end of the novel, I was weeping. Did you always know this was the end?
JE: Oh man, assuming you’re not blowing smoke up my ass, that makes me very happy to have connected on such a level. That’s always the goal for me—make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, and aim to make them re-contextualize their own experience, if only a little, and maybe come out of the book a tiny bit more expansive. That’s the unique thing about literature; no other form asks so much of us. For me, the whole point is to inhabit some otherness during the course of a book, whether I’m writing it, or reading it, to accrue some understanding otherwise outside of my realm of experience. Empathy, period. That’s why I can hardly fathom the question of appropriation, or worry about the blowback when I write a chicano character, or a black character, or female character, or a child character, or an eighty-year-old character. I’m just trying to view the human condition from as many vantages as I can possibly attempt, and fiction offers me that opportunity.
I also want to say how charmed I was that Mike keeps talking about writing the Great Landscaping American Novel, and you, Johnny, have gone ahead and written it—with Mike in it. Think Mike would be happy and want to buy you a beer or six?
JE: So, actually, the whole novel started as a website called Mike Munoz Saves the World (.net). I was in the middle of my contract with the Gonk, and Huntington Sales was giving me fits, and I felt hemmed in by career expectations, so I wanted to write something just for fun, anonymously, with no thought of financial or critical gain. I’ll always be a starving artist and provocateur at heart. I live for my art (and my kids). And my mini-bike, and my beer, and my records. I wanted to write something totally free of my “brand” or whatever, so I started the website, which was like a working class soapbox and an episodic story at the same time. After a couple months of blogging it anonymously, I started realizing that I had stumbled upon the voice for the class novel I always knew I’d write.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
JE: I’m obsessed with the characters I’m inhabiting in the current novel, which takes place in the North Cascades over a period of roughly fourteen thousand years. Eating a lot of Wooly Mammoth. Huddling around a lot of fires. Making up a language.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
JE: Where can a guy get a decent taco on the Olympic Peninsula? The answer is: he can’t.