Evison reminds readers and writers that each page in a novel is an opportunity to connect.
Eleven years ago, Jonathan Evison penned the quintessential Northwest novel, West of Here, a bestseller in which he deftly ping-pongs between two epochs, 1890 and 2006. In doing so, he creates a winning portrait of frontier optimism and smalltown perseverance. Evison has written an equally ambitious work, Small World (2022) which tells an intergenerational saga of four intrepid families and their descendants making their way through the American wilds of 1850 and 2019. The work features iconographic American stories: a slave narrative; a gold-mining expedition gone awry; an urbanite biracial family’s move to the suburbs; an all-star ball player’s hustle to the top; a retiring train engineer’s ill-fated final ride and many more. I connected with Jonathan Evison to learn about the inner workings of this novel and how novelists can chart their course.
Shaun Anthony McMichael: In Small World, you write that “… the railroad, more than anything else, had delivered on the promise of America. The railroad had meant freedom and opportunity and mobility” (6). By placing the descendants of the pioneer families aboard the train, you further link their passage to America’s journey. The train ride becomes a cathartic way to talk about the sociopolitical trainwreck we’ve all been through these last several years. What were your intentions behind this premise?
Jonathan Evison: I wanted to write a novel that spoke to the present moment in America without writing a political polemic. The metaphor of a runaway train was apt for where we were: stuck in this thing together. The device is also a tie-in to the whole of America’s nation building.
SAM: Small World’s title forms a quadruple entendre that comes to represent how railroads expanded geographic accessibility; how confining reality can be for those who suffer; the coincidences that lead to connections, severances, and reunions; and finally, what a novel can be. Was the title part of the foundation of this book or did it emerge?
JE: I came up with the title first. “Small World” encapsulated this idea of the railroad connecting everything and making the world smaller overnight, plus the other layers you mentioned.
I always start with the title. Sometimes I know what it means, but sometimes it leads me like a signpost I have to follow.
I’ve only changed a title once and that was for my publisher. They let me get away with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), which sounds like a textbook; and This is Your Life Harriet Chance! (2015), with the exclamation point, which I guess is a big ‘no-no’ in the book business. But when I wanted my next book to be called, “Mike Muñoz Saves the World!” and they recommended Lawn Boy (2018), I said ‘Okay. Sounds like a Charles Bukowski novel. But, I can live with that.’
SAM: As in your other works, you put your characters on epic journeys. What draws you to the narrative vehicle of the journey?
JE: Nothing defines character like action. Since a character is defined by the decisions they make, the most effective way I know to explore a character is to set them in action on a journey that will challenge them at every juncture, that will test their mettle, that will force them to adapt, and show if they’re capable of catharsis. Storytelling requires this momentum.
Also, it’s easier for a reader to track the characters if each one is playing in a high stakes game. If the stakes are high, I can leave a scene on a cliffhanger and the reader won’t have any trouble coming back to them 70 pages later. This is especially important when a story has as many points of view as Small World.
Not all novels need a trainwreck or a runaway slave narrative, particularly if you only have one point of view. For instance, Michael Griffith’s Trophy (2011) is about a man reflecting on his life while being crushed by a taxidermied bear. But with multiple points of view, for the readers’ sake, the emotional stakes have to be high with dramatic vehicles like the journey.
SAM: Your characters seem compelled by the wilds. For instance, with Luyu Tully, who is Native American, you write that “Luyu knew beyond any doubt that her spirit was neither bland nor mortal, but lived forever in the wild things” (59). You’re a hiker and perhaps like Luyu in this way. Are your characters different facets of yourself, fully their own, inspired by history, or some combination?
JE: On some level, I have to have the capacity to contain those multitudes. With each character I’m trying to get to some universal core that speaks to all of us despite race, color, gender, or situation. Part of it is, I have an active imagination. But I also have to have the emotional faculties to let my imagination approximate how I would react in certain situations.
While my job as a writer is to accrue experience that feels lived, I write beyond the purview of my personal experience constantly. It’s kind of my MO. But when I’m writing as a combat veteran (Legends of the North Cascades (2021)), as a ninety-year-old woman (This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! (2015)) or as someone outside my race or gender as I do in this book, what’s required is a dependence upon personal resources: people I rely on to be, what I call, authenticity readers. Authenticity readers are people whose lives more closely mirror my characters’ experiences. They help me vet my characters to make sure that I don’t hit any false notes, so I won’t lose a reader.
SAM: There’s a convention in literary fiction that plot points be linked to characters’ moral flaws. Yet in places in your work, accidents shape the plot in important ways. Fortunes, careers, lives, and relationships can be made and lost in an instant. Tell me about how accidents are useful elements in fiction?
JE: We could go back to the dichotomy between Shakespeare and Dickens. For me, Dickens was a game changer in that he writes about small characters who are being exercised upon by the larger world. High stake situations force your characters to make decisions in a way that nothing else can. If we look at our own lives, nothing changes us like unforeseen tragedy. And sometimes accidents can get characters to react in a way that exposes their moral compass. Do they do the right thing or the wrong thing? Do they think solely of themselves, or do they think about the consequences of their actions on other people?
SAM: In this novel, as well as your other works, there’s a kind of day-and-night cycle of optimism and pessimism going on inside many of your characters. What do you find illuminating about telling the ups and downs in a character’s thought life?
JE: Part of that is for the readers’ sake. You want to reverse your emotional charges to create the rollercoaster ride we look for in great stories.
In an Amazon review I was reading yesterday, a reader said that they liked that I didn’t let the negative overcome the positive. I did this exactly through the kinds of pendulum swings that you’re talking about between hope and despair. To me, that’s what life is. Now, it doesn’t always work so mechanically. Sometimes we have to hit bottom before we can go up, but again, in a story with 20 points of view, I have to manage everybody’s character arc. As much as I try to frustrate Aristotelian dramatics, I’m still beholden to this three-act structure because this is how we Westerners metabolize stories. So, I still have to have rising action, a climax, a denouement, etc.…. And so, with my 20 characters, it becomes an orchestra piece where I manage everybody’s character arc. I can’t have everybody run on the same cycle or the novel would become predictable. This leads me to switch the order of characters here and there to reverse the emotional charge so that the novel can build and swell, again like an orchestra. Or, in the case of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), a power-pop ballad.
SAM: Your works are often described as “big-hearted.” Part of this reason I think is because your books feature doomed or dead-end relationships that fail in ways that are somehow both devastating and sweet. Though this is especially true in Small World, Krig, one of your characters in West of Here, remarks how “something about this breakup had a butterscotchy taste” (426). What’s in that butterscotch break-up recipe of yours?
JE: Life is bittersweet, you know? I go out there with my heart on my shirtsleeve and I’ve taken plenty of steel-toed Kodiak boots to the face because of it, but I don’t see myself as cynical and world-weary the way I did when I was as an 18-year-old poet. The older I get, the more I realize just how much beauty I’m surrounded by and how important it is to not give into cynicism.
If we look at the world, two-thirds of us are probably living below the poverty line. There is so much despair. Yet, it’s important to not give into it. I do like to read stuff that’s grim sometimes. For example, I’ll read Cormac McCarthy and think, “wow, man, this is amazing.” But that’s just not where I want to dwell as an artist and that’s not the message I want to bring.
Like with this novel… I know America’s in the shitter right now. But I don’t see the point of saying ‘yep, the American experiment failed.’ What choice do we have but to try to save it? I wanted to write a novel that can serve as a salve for our national identity. I wanted to take an unflinching look at institutions and philosophies like slavery and manifest destiny which have given us things like genocide and diaspora. But I also wanted to look at some of the beauty in our idealism.
For example, pluralism. It should be our strength, but it’s devolved into tribalism. Pluralism is a beautiful idea and along with it, this idea that America absorbs all these different cultures, not as a weakness, but as a strength. By putting all these different people on a train and trying to illustrate that, I’m trying to put some hope in the world.
It is always tempered by despair. I don’t write Hollywood endings. That’s not what hope looks like. Look at Krig. Out of all those 60 characters in West of Here, he’s probably the hero and all he does is quit smoking pot and move to the nearby town of Aberdeen. This isn’t earth shaking, but that’s what real hope looks like.
That’s kind of my purpose here. I’ve been writing since I was in 3rd grade. It’s what I was put here to do. And I don’t see any point in writing stuff that’s not going to uplift anybody. Because that’s what we all need, right? That’s what we’re looking for when we look for love. That’s what we’re looking for when we look for friendship. That’s what we look for when we’re looking for our dream job. That’s what we look for when we’re going on vacation. At every point, we’re looking to be uplifted. So why would I want my body of work to do anything but that?
I couldn’t write a novel like American Psycho. Don’t get me wrong, we need the whole continuum. I just know my place on it.
As different as all my books are, I deal with the same handful of themes, just re-dressing them with new characters, forms, and techniques. But I’m always going to try to buoy the reader because that’s why I’m writing the books, to connect. I want to connect with the reader at the other end and give them a glimmer of a hopeful feeling. Like the kind you get after seeing a random act of kindness.
SAM: Yet in Small World, some of the characters sustain significant losses. I experienced the mood as a kind of dismay over the tragedies and estrangements endured on the road to opportunity. That’s almost a direct inversion of the optimism and adventure in West of Here. You’ve stated that you wanted Small World to be an “antidote to the times.” I wonder what role grief plays in that antidote.
JE: Well, the question for me is, how does a character react to loss? How do they rise to the challenge of the grieving process? Do they wallow? Or do they pick themselves up? That’s basically what we’re all forced to do. I’ve known people that wallow in their grief. Some people kind of want to wallow there for whatever reason. Don’t get me wrong, there are irredeemable losses that will create holes in our lives that cannot begin to be fulfilled. I mean, that’s what The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012) is about. I have had tragedy in my own life. But somehow, we’ve got to soldier on in the face of those tragedies.
SAM: I ask this question knowing that your work features reluctant advice-givers. What’s your advice to writers like myself who are on the first leg of their journey?
JE: The first thing is, self-doubt is the enemy. Now, self-hatred, self-loathing? These are good. These are your friends. It’s good to be hard on yourself. But self-doubt? It’s bad. Telling a story is like wielding a chainsaw. You need to be confident when you’re handling it. Delude yourself into believing you’re William Faulkner if you have to. Whatever it takes. Just don’t sit there at the page thinking about how bad it is. Just get it down and be confident.
Just do the work of writing. I know that’s a cliche but, that’s where the magic happens. Though I’m famous for my outlining, there’s a limit to outlining. The value of outlining is usually in distilling things before you leap in. But at some point, you have to jump in and start writing because that’s where your characters surprise you. That’s when your subconscious will lead you to what the story’s about. And sometimes you have to finish the whole novel before you know, especially early on in your arc as a writer.
There’s a tendency for newer writers to just work the hell out of that first chapter because that’s what the agents want to see. But you’ve got to go beyond it. Because the truth is, in your first 50 pages you are feeling your way into what your novel is really about. Besides, when it’s all done, if you’re doing things right, you’re going to rewrite that first chapter anyway. Once you’ve gotten to the end and you hit that sustaining note you want, you go back to the beginning and reverse engineer everything, strengthening your tenor throughout the whole.
There’s this idea that writing is like putting one sentence after the other. I don’t view it that way. I love language; I love lyrical prose. But for me, the sentences are there to serve the story. I think the right focus for a young writer should be to get the fuck out of your own way. Remember what information you’re giving to the reader. Remember that the reader is the best tool you have in your tool belt, because they have to do everything you’re doing, only backwards and in heels.
We writers tend to be consumed by a character’s off-the-page motivation and their histories. But we forget what we put on the page. When we do that, we’re missing a big opportunity. Because when we let our awareness of the reader inform how we manage the information we’re revealing, we learn how to subvert the readers’ expectation. Telling a good story is like writing a joke. The end of the joke has to surprise in a way that seems somehow inevitable while also being true. That’s why it’s funny.
You have to always be aware of the reader and stop thinking about you “the writer” and how your sentences look. You’ll have plenty of time to reshape your sentences later. What are you trying to say and how are you trying to connect with the reader? Those should be a writer’s baseline questions as the pages pile up–literally!