Saturday, August 15, 2015

Jonathan Evison talks about THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE, his obsession with football, how he gave up on one novel to find another, and so much more

 Jonathan Evison is one of the funniest--and most talented--writers around. Really. You've never met anyone so warm and welcoming, so gracious and generous. And such a hoot! He's the acclaimed author of Lulu, West of Here, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (soon to be showing on your local movie screens, guys,) and coming up--Mike Munoz Saves the World (the great landscaping novel.) But I think his most profound novel yet is, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance, about life, faith, a cruise, a widow--and so much more. Johnny, my blog is your blog. Thank you for doing this.

What I especially love about Harriet Chance is the voice. There’s an omniscient voice commenting to Harriet, as if it were life or fate or both, but there is also Harriet’s indelible voice.  How did you decide on this structure?

JE: Well, after a few terrible drafts, the structure imposed itself on the story, which was very linear in its early stages. You know, seven day cruise: day one, day two, day three (yawn) etc. I had to frustrate that linearity for a number of reasons. For starters, by peppering the narrative with critical events in Harriet’s evolution--at opportune moments, prompted by relevant triggers--I was able to make Harriet a more sympathetic character. Also, I was able to reveal the stakes in a rising manner, so that the reader could feel more invested in Harriet as the novel progressed. And most importantly, frustrating the timeline allowed me to bring the story to life off the page. It just wasn’t swinging the way it was. It was like a Leonard Cohen song with no lyrics.

You play with time in this novel in a way that’s exciting--and which is also sort of quantum physics--with the notion that there really is no time, that everything is happening all at once.  Can you talk about that?

JE: In my experience, memory and association are non-linear processes with triggers that are difficult to foresee or predict. Harriet’s cruise to Alaska’s “Inside Passage” (see what I did there? wink-wink) is full of unforeseeable and unpredictable triggers that will ultimately rewrite her entire history. Because so many of Harriet’s recollections of her past suddenly take on new shape and significance given the entirely unforeseen new context thrust upon them. I can’t be any more specific without spoilers. But there’s this passage near the end of the book that speaks to your question:
“While the days unfold, one after the other, and the numbers all move in one direction, our lives are not linear, Harriet. We are the sum of moments and reflections, actions and decisions, triumphs, failures, and yearnings, all of it held together inexplicably, miraculously, really, by memory and association. Yes, Harriet, our lives are more sinew than bone.”

Harriet is full of tragedy, but it’s also a novel that’s shimmering with hope. Is that your own life view?

JE: Sure, why not? I’ve always been a hopeful guy. The alternative is the slow, incremental death of your ideals, your faith, your hope, and ultimately your appetites. If you’d have met me when I was a 38-year-old landscaper with 8 unpublished novels no, they weren’t good), you probably would have walked away asking yourself: “Hmph. Wonder what he’s so happy about?”

I’m always fascinated by the way you talk about your process.  You threw out a whole novel, The Dreamlife of Hunting Sales, but then proceeded to crack its code, and may go back to it. I think I read on FB, where you had a different format for Harriet Chance, too. So how did Harriet Chance reveal itself to you?

JE: This harkens back to your first question. The new pinballing structure allowed me better opportunities to disseminate and organize certain information about Harriet’s life in a way that was evocative and revelatory, and at the same time felt organic in its placement, given the circumstances. The call-and-response between the two voices made the novel more of a dance. I’m not sure if anyone will pick up on it, but it’s in there: I conceived the second voice as an alternative Harriet, one whose life path diverged from Harriet’s own at an early stage of development. I think the second voice still works, even if people don’t get that, though I wonder where they think that voice is coming from? You mentioned fate, and I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

As far as The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, it was a titanic disaster. The center simply would not hold. The novel incorporated some very—ahem—diverse themes: schizophrenia, commercial logging, country music, global conspiracy. If that wasn’t enough of a clusterfuck, the story was told from sixteen separate limited points-of-view, each and every one of them unreliable. Are you starting to see the picture yet? I figured out finally how to re-invent the novel by stripping it down to two points-of-view, but by that time I never wanted to lay eyes on the thing again, so I started writing Mike Munoz Saves the World! It’s the great American landscaping novel. And when I talk about it, I don’t get a headache.

You’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to watch your novel, Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving turn into a movie. How weird was that? What surprised you about the story, and did seeing movie making make you think about story in a different way?

JE: Extraordinary is the right word. Film options are a total lottery. Actually, a scratch ticket might afford you better odds. I’ve done a half dozen film options previously, but none of them ever came to anything. It was kinda heartbreaking, because in each case there were points where things looked hopeful. But I’ve seen many of the pitfalls and obstacles firsthand. So, this time, I was determined not to get my hopes up until they started shooting the damn thing.

I talked to a few people who were interested in optioning it. Rob Burnett totally won me over. He was funny, and kind, and he earned my trust pretty quickly. At that point, I relinquished all expectations, along with any real sense of ownership with respect to whatever became of it. That worked out really well, as I was never seen as a threat. My participation has always been invited on some level, though since day one  of the option I’ve really seen the story as Rob’s baby. I wasn’t gonna be that author who whined that it wasn’t that way in the book, or whatever. I was gonna be the author that shut up, cashed his check, and bought a hot tub. Hell, the dictates for a 300 page novel and a two hour film are so radically different, how could one expect to do justice to any novel given the restraints? But the good adaptations manage to, and they usually do it by capturing the tone and the spirit of the thing, rather than adhering to any strict loyalty to the text. From what I saw on set in terms of the repartee between Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts, I’m very hopeful that they did that relationship justice. And I know it will be funny. Anyway, yeah, the whole experience has been fun.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

JE: Football, and I’m not proud of it. I know all the arguments against it, and they’re all convincing. But I’m obsessed with the strategic nuances of the game. For a sport that looks so blunt and overstated, it’s fascinating once you start breaking down the xs and os. I’m a baseball fan at heart, but man, I just haven’t got the time for 162 games a year, though I do my best. I need the experience of being a fan, an impassioned observer of events I cannot control, because it feels like I spend the rest of my life trying to manage and control things, whether it’s unwieldy novels, unruly kids, or the demands of my career. It feels good to care passionately without having to do anything but reach for pretzels and yell.

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