Evison on book tour for ‘Harriet’
This fall Jonathan Evison will be on a book tour for “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” with dozens of stops planned coast to coast, including Hart’s Fine Books in Sequim on Dec. 4. Hart’s already has starting taking pre-orders for the book. Call 683-8080.
by Mark St.J. Couhig
For the Sequim Gazette
Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. Harriet Chance is 78, widowed, and lives out in Carlsborg in a big house with a lovely view of the mountains. She and her late husband, Bernard, bought the place back in the 1980s after Bernard retired.
Like so many of our neighbors, the two wanted to get out of Seattle and enjoy the rainshadow sunshine.
You may have seen her around town. Harriet shops at Safeway and she never misses Sunday services at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
Harriet just found out that Bernard bought an Alaskan cruise for two just before his death. Harriet was surprised — it didn’t seem like the kind of thing Bernard would do. After all, he was just so stuck in his ways. Until the day he died, she will tell you, Bernard refused to use the new U.S. Highway 101 bypass around Sequim. “It ruined the town,” Bernard used to say. Despite her own misgivings, come this August Harriet is going to take that cruise.
Now here’s what you and I know that Harriet doesn’t: As she ventures up through the Inside Passage, accompanied by her daughter, Harriet will endure a series of very nasty shocks as her long-life story tragically unspools.
A life in review
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance,” the soon-to-be-released novel by Sequim’s own Jonathan Evison. (Well, sort of. Evison lives in Sequim five days a week; Bainbridge Island, two.)
If you haven’t heard of him, don’t fret. Yes, Evison has been a successful author for seven years, but he’s just hitting his stride.
An earlier novel, “West of Here,” made waves (and The New York Times’ best-seller list) with its retelling of the history of a fictionalized Port Angeles.
Another novel, “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” is now being turned into, as they say, a major Hollywood production. The stellar cast includes Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez.
While waiting for the upcoming release of “Harriet Chance,” Evison is doing the clean-up work on his sixth book, “Mike Munoz Saves the World,” which he calls “the great American landscaping novel.”
Hard work pays off
“I went to a few junior colleges in California,” he said, “but I never got a degree. I would take classes again if I liked them. Never took a writing course. I’ve taught more writing courses than I took. But I’m not into that either.”
His early career was … eclectic and included working at a car lot in Montana, sorting rotten tomatoes for United Grocers, landscaping and caring for the elderly and otherwise infirm.
“Pretty much every menial job,” he said, “but never full-time. Even before I was published I was so committed I never took a job more than 30 hours a week.”
Through those early years Evison churned out eight unpublished books, mostly novels, and enough short stories “to probably make a book.”
And then came “Lulu.” In 2008, Soft Skull Press, a publishing house “run out of a bedroom,” decided to take a chance on Evison’s “All About Lulu.” “Lulu” was a surprise hit, particularly for a first-time author from a publishing house with a tiny marketing budget.
That’s when the big boys came sniffing around, trying to buy up Evison’s services. In the end, Evison went with Algonquin Press, a mid-size publisher. He smiles at the memory of turning away the bigger money offered by the mega-publishers. He says he made the right decision.
“I made the money back on the back end. I’m a DYI guy. I grew up in punk bands. And Algonquin tours me like hell.”
“I knew I’d be a rock star there. If you’re going to fail, you want to have everyone working their hardest for you. Somewhere like Viking, Harper … there’s a risk you’re going to fall into the mid-titles. With Algonquin I’m always going to be a lead writer. I’m always going to have the benefit of being the first thing off their salesperson’s tongue. You can’t do better than that.”
“There are others with more muscle to launch a book, but I was never in it for money in the first place.”
The pairing resulted in “West of Here,” then “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” and soon, “Harriet.” This fall Evison will be touring like hell selling “Harriet,” with dozens of stops planned coast to coast. That includes one stop at Hart’s Fine Books in Sequim, though the date hasn’t been set.
Writing is rewriting
The first draft of “Harriet,” Evison admits, “was a mess. I had Harriet’s character, but I hadn’t had my ‘aha’ moment.”
The first meeting with his editor and agent was “eerily silent. It was stultifying.”
He says he was trying to get at Harriet “from the outside in – more of a scenic view.”
“So you had Harriet heading to the kitchen, putting the tea water on to boil, looking out the window as the water began to hiss. It was suffocating.”
By the third draft, his editor was a little more direct. “I just don’t like Harriet.”
“I told him, ‘You don’t like Miss Daisy either.’”
“My agent said, ‘That’s because of Jessica Tandy’s performance.’”
That was the key, Evison said: his performance as author. That’s when he came up with the “This Is Your Life” concept, adding a narrator who introduces each episode of Harriet’s story with a bright, if sometimes portentous tone.
The result is an effervescence the story lacked previously (the opening chapter is as dazzling a sketch as you will ever read). Add to that the comic stylings of Owensville, Kentucky’s Kurt Pickens, a 340-pound recently divorced good ole boy, and the whole sad story becomes a whole lot more fun.
For emotional oomph, look to center stage where Harriet’s toughness of spirit is each time revealed by the rising calamities.
Embodying the role
Taking on the personality of a 78-year-old woman is daunting for a 45-year-old man, but Evison said he was ready for it. In “West of Here” he took on 48 points of view, including a 6-year-old Indian kid and a black parole officer. He took on different historical eras, too.
“For me that’s what fiction is – an exercise in empathy. Shedding my skin and getting inside another person. I’m an empathic person. That’s probably my greatest strength as a writer.”
“I listen. I watch.”
Harriet also provided Evison with the opportunity to take on the dynamics of mothers and daughters.
“I had explored fathers and sons. But mothers and daughters … I’ve seen a lot of these relationships. I’ve had a lot of experience with the tension between the two. Not to generalize, but women are often pitted in a competition. You see a lot of these relationships where they just don’t realize how alike they are.”
That was part of the pleasure of writing “Harriet,” he said. “Every time I write a book I become a more expansive person. I just had the experience of becoming a 78-year-old lady for 18 months. I lived inside that character.”
In the end, Evison said, writing is all about getting into the soul of the characters. His recent financial success hasn’t changed that.
“I did this for free for 25 years and I would still be doing this if I didn’t get paid. Even if nobody ever published me — because this is something I have to do. I love it. I’m happy because of it. I was happy before I had two houses and a great lifestyle.”
“I was always happy because I had the work.”
Mark St.J. Couhig is a former reporter for the Sequim Gazette. His first novel, “The Face of His Brother,” was released June 1 by Arthur Hardy Enterprises.