On Writing: Jonathan Evison and Dan Chaon

Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here, and Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply, talk “TAGTLAY,” the writing life, music, and the lighter issues–like the role of the subconscious in creative endeavors and the nature of truth.


Dan: Okay, so it’s Sunday morning, mid-February, first non-freezing day in weeks, and two reviews of your novel show up with my morning coffee. First one is in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, second in Entertainment Weekly–my two Sunday-morning-coffee rags of choice. Which reminded me that we were supposed to do this email thing! And which also provided me with two quotes to start us off!
First from the PD: “In his teens, Evison was the founder and frontman of March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. You can feel that inheritance in the staccato chapters, which run about the length of a song.” Hmmmm. What do you think of that? I don’t actually notice much Pearl Jam or Soundgarden in your prose, but I’m curious to know about your relationship to music, and how (or whether) it influences you when you write. I’m personally very big on the connection between songs and stories–and when I’m working on stuff, I tend to have a playlist that goes along with it, with a tendency toward the dreamy and dirge-like (who would guess?)–Idaho, Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters, Sparklehorse,The Mountain Goats, Destroyer, etc. I have a new story collection coming out next year which I’ve described as sounding like Joni Mitchell’s Blue album if it were recorded by Tom Waits in his Frank’s Wild Years period.
So: Who, if anyone, do you listen to while writing? And if your novel were a record, what would it be?

Continuing with the multimedia focus of the reviews, Entertainment Weekly has this to say: “[West of Here has] a style that could be called cinematic–specifically, Altmanesque, a combination of McCabe & Mrs. Miller‘s frontier realism and Nashville’s interconnected vignettes.” I liked this comparison a lot, but I wondered what you thought. Are you influenced by film at all? If so, which ones? Also, what do you think about the Oscars? I just want to go on record that The King’s Speech is the boringest, most hammily acted movie I’ve seen in years. And Inception was robbed.

Jonathan: I’ll take Altmanesque, although I have to wonder why not Dickensian, or Irvingesque? And I suppose the answer is Entertainment Weekly. I do remember, upon watching McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the first time (my favorite Altman film), what a great job RA did capturing the muddiness of the Northwestern frontier. It was the first muddy western that I know of. I’d say films influence me relatively little, mostly because I’m trying to write novels that can do things which only novels can do. Even Altman couldn’t juggle three dozen limited points-of-view in a film. Only a novel really lets you get inside the skin of the characters. With film, you’re stuck for the most part in third person. I like that a novel is a bigger investment than a film, that it takes more work, that it’s more participatory on the user end.
As for music, it certainly informs my writing, particularly in terms of coloring my prose, which I always read aloud while composing and editing. I’m very aware of rhythm and cadence and such, and I want my prose to have the invisible pulse of music, unless the situation warrants something clunky. My musical tastes run very eclectic: from Bach to the Black Keys, from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to Neutral Milk Hotel. Count Basie and Louis Armstrong are idols of mine–I want my prose to swing like those dudes. That said, I can never listen to music while I write. It distracts me, and inhibits my ability to sink into the story, which is hard enough as it is, and brings me to a subject I’d like to bounce off of you. When I sit down to write, no matter the time of day, I often procrastinate in terms of really bearing down and inhabiting the story. I’ll gladly let e-mails distract me. I’ll futz around on Wikipedia, or read The Nervous Breakdown, or The Rumps. But it’s not laziness, I swear. It’s almost akin to fear–like once I’ve submerged, I’m kind of stuck down there in the story for awhile, and it can be painful, and frustrating, and exhausting, just as often as it can be exhilarating. Does this sound familiar to you?
Dan: I know what you mean about procrastination, but I can’t do blogs. They too closely resemble social interaction, and for me that procrastination period has to do with being alone. So I’ll tend to watch TV, or play video games, or work in the garden, or even do housework. I never do more housework than when there’s a deadline breathing on me. It probably does have to do with fear, at least in part. But I think it also has to do with the work that the subconscious is doing while you’re procrastinating. People always ask “How long did it take to write the book,” and it’s always hard to say. My guess is that it averages to be about a year of procrastination for every three months of solid work. I usually find that it goes a lot faster toward the end, with fewer periods of puttering. Maybe because by that time the world of the fiction is so “real” to you that it’s pretty easy to step inside it.
Speaking of the “how-long-did-it-take” question, have you started to develop a standard patter line for interviews? It always surprised me that so many of the same questions came up, all over the country. Have any of the questions you’ve gotten surprised you? And are there any that you hate?
Jonathan: I must’ve done five dozen interviews in the past six weeks, and while I get a lot of the same questions time and again, I relish the opportunity to repeat myself. (Just ask my wife.) When somebody asks me how long it takes to write a book, the short answer is two to three years. But the truth is, I’m always working on three different books at once, which sounds like it would make my head noisy, but there’s actually very little overlap, since I’m copy-editing one of them, composing another, and taking notes on the third–e.g., when I was writing West of Here, I was editing All About Lulu and taking notes on The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Three completely different skill sets. I like to compartmentalize. It actually allows me a certain freedom, because I can really take advantage of my frame of mind on a given day, or at a given hour, and maximize my productivity. Some days I just don’t have the strength or the courage to forge ahead into new territory, so I edit. Some days I feel like being in the mountains, so I pack up a notebook and some research materials (and a case of beer), and drive to the mountains.
So, since you brought up the subconscious, let’s talk about that. I’m a firm believer that my subconscious does some of my best work. Thoughts?

Dan: The subconscious! It’s a weird thing to talk about, since it often makes you sound like you’re schizophrenic. But yeah. It’s important to me–that sense of creating and then entering a “world” that is imaginary but then becomes more and more real as you spend time there, and it’s not possible to outline or plan out the world in advance. It just … develops. It’s like driving–after a while, your lizard brain takes over most of the actions, and you begin to feel like the car is just an extension of your body. For me, it’s the same way with fiction, though it’s also the one aspect of “Creative Writing” that I’m hesitant to teach, and that I wish I could find a way to talk about more. The best book about this that I’ve found is Lynda Barry’s graphic novel/long-form essay called What It Is, which kind of escorts you in through the back door of the process.
How about you? How much did you “plan” and how much “just appeared” as you went along? And also,while we’re at it, what are your feelings about “Creative Writing” as a subject of study? Full disclosure: I teach Creative Writing at the undergraduate level at Oberlin College  but I don’t have what is known as a “terminal degree” in the subject. I have an MA in English, and that’s it.
Jonathan: I find that once I set the story in motion, I’m following it as much as it’s following me. I sometimes start with an outline, but as soon as I get down to business and the characters start exercising their own agency, I invariably stumble upon more efficient and effective ways to accomplish what my outline set out to do. As far as the classroom, I’ve never thrived in the environment. While I have no doubt that there are benefits to a creative writing program, I wonder if there is not a certain disadvantage to being taught vs. discovering on your own. I feel like instruction can serve as a short-cut in terms of trial and error, and that there is a certain risk of developing inhibitions, and playing it safe, particularly in a workshop environment, when I think the real magic is in the danger. Does that make sense? I feel like a young writer is more likely to develop a unique voice if he or she is left to stumble and grope their way through the wilderness, rather than being guided through it. That said, I really have no experience to speak from, here. And if I were to have an instructor, Dan Chaon would be a damn fine one.
Let’s talk about the public side of being a writer. I remember some years back, watching a video of a speech you were giving at a conference, talking about your experience as a well-regarded short story writer, still working mostly in obscurity, and how things changed for you with the success of your novel, You Remind Me of Me. Your speech was highly entertaining and funny, but you did seem, at the time, genuinely uncomfortable with your rising profile. Where are you at now, with the even greater success of Await Your Reply? Obviously teaching is a very public enterprise. Talk to me about the balance between that most solitary undertaking of writing and the public demands of authordom.

Dan: I do have mixed feelings about the public side of things. I mean, on the one hand I’m really grateful that the books have done reasonably well, and I understand the need for the kind of “profile” that seems to be a big part of being a writer in the current media world. But it doesn’t come naturally to me because I’m kind of shy and socially inept, and also paranoid. I’m suspicious of compliments, and easily hurt by criticism. So for me, the comments sections of Amazon or GoodReads are just pure torture. When someone gives me a one-star ranking, it’s not that I disagree with them–I suspect that they are right–but I just feel humiliated and exposed. It’s like someone intercepted a private letter meant for someone else, and I wish I could break into their houses and steal my book back and somehow erase all memory from their brain of ever having read it. I also find literary blogs absolutely terrifying–there’s one in particular that’s full of really cool, smirky, hipster-type people, and reading it makes me feel like I’m back in high school. I think of that scene in Brian DePalma’s movie of “Carrie,”  where right before the prom the mother warns Carrie: “They’re all going to LAUGH at you!” (This is such a frequent thought for me that I’ve acronym-ed it to TAGTLAY.) And it’s funny, because none of those things occur to me when I’m actually writing–I usually have a pretty great time with it, even when the stuff is “depressing” or “dark” or whatever. It’s not until I actually send the book out into the world that it occurs to me to think: “My God! What have I done? Why did I think it was a good idea to show that stuff to strangers? TAGTLAY!”
But what about you? You seem to have gotten a handle on it–maybe because you were a performer in your early years? And you’re also part of the Three Guys One Book blog, so you’re working on both sides, in some ways–both cat and mouse. Anything you’ve learned as a part of the Media? Or is that a completely separate compartment from your “writer self?”

Jonathan: Now I wanna hug you. How sweet is it that one of the great writers of his generation takes his Goodreads reviews so personally? (And I DO think you’re that good of a writer.) I also have thin skin, though those 500 form rejections and a few really bad reviews have helped toughen me up a little. It’s a very personal thing to put the best you’ve got on the page and set it free in the world, which is not always kind to it–it’s a lot like being a parent. What I’m coming to realize is that it’s all about the conversation, that it really doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it, as long as they talk about it. That’s the real service we provide as writers. We start cultural conversations. I think I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’m the baby of five kids, and always been a bit of a performer. It comes in handy. Oddly, the public part of writing, and the writing part of writing, aren’t that different for me. It’s all a collaboration. It’s all a give and take. That said, the thing I value the most is the time I spend writing in my underwear, all by myself. The higher the profile gets, though, the more I long for that underwear time.
To totally switch gears, what are you working on right now? Can you talk about it? Because we’re all dying to know!

Dan: I like the idea of “cultural conversations,” and I feel like I should get on board with that more. But there’s also, for me, a kind of intimacy in the relationship between a book and a reader that’s hard to converse about. I love the feeling when a book seems to be sharing something private, a secret that appears to be only meant for you–that’s the kind of book I like to read, and the kind that I aspire to write. Sometimes I’m almost afraid to talk about books that I really love–like, for example, sharing a beloved story with students can be quite anxiety-filled–because in some ways it’s so difficult to expose this thing you feel a personal connection with. You remember back in the day when you’d make a mixtape on a cassette for a girl you liked, and it felt as if it was baring your soul? I feel like there’s the same investment when you really love a book. Which is why I admire what you do with the 3G1B blog, it seems like you go out there with your heart on your sleeve and it seems brave to me, and much more “risky” than talking about a movie or writing album reviews for Pitchfork, or whatever. Because actually I think there’s a difference between having a cultural conversation and talking about something that you genuinely love. For me, there are some things–mostly books and music,  but also art,  movies,  even TV–that I feel so strongly about that I don’t even want to know what other people think about them. I just want to protect them. This one friend of mine and I used to talk about the “aesthetic deal-breaker,” which is the moment when you have such a strong disagreement with someone about a book, song, movie, etc. that afterward you lose respect for them and actually like them less, or feel less close to them. Like, for example, if you said mean things about Alice Munro, I’d probably be less likely to confide in you.

Anyway, to answer your question, I have a short story collection coming out in 2012, which I’m excited about since I haven’t done a collection since 2001. And then there will be another novel, which I think is called Out-of-the-Body Travel, and which is about how our memories change over time; and it has some murders in it, too, but it’s still pretty sketchy at this point. You mentioned previously The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Is that a new novel? How far along are you with it?

Jonathan: I can totally relate to the intimacy between reader and writer you allude to. I always loved that Mark Bolan line from Spaceball Ricochet: “Book after book, I get hooked every time the writer talks to me like a friend.” It is a powerful thing to feel a work of art is talking directly to you, though sometimes it can result in a restraining order. Also, I’ve been on the wrong side of a few aesthetic deal-breakers, and I always felt bewildered afterward. I guess I love that tastes are so subjective, and I often admire those people most who hold different opinions or different aesthetics than me. It makes the world seem bigger. That said, I’ll never say anything mean about Alice Munro, because I’d hate to break any aesthetic deals with a writer I admire as much as you. As long as you promise not to say anything mean about Charles Dickens (the work, not the man). I can’t wait to see what you do with the malleable nature of memories idea!
My next novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is finished. It was by far the most emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever written. There were days when I didn’t have the strength to face it. It is my funniest novel, because it had to be. I’m deep into something new called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which has a bit of a thriller element, because that’s something I’ve never tried. It’s shaping up to be a sort of puzzle of a novel about the delicate nature of perception. It may drive me crazy. I hope so. Do you know what I mean?

Dan: Ha ha. Don’t worry, Dickens is completely cool with me, I’m a big fan. I could definitely get that vibe from your work, that he was one of the people you were talking to when you were writing. (I sometimes think that most of writing is talking to the ghosts of other writers. Does that make sense?) But anyways, that was one of the reasons I knew that I would like your book. I read somewhere–maybe on 3G1B??–that your dad used to read Dickens to you when you were a young child, like six or seven years old, and I thought that was very cool. I did not come from a family of readers, so I always romanticize that familial bookishness. I completely understand what you mean about enjoying people who have different opinions and aesthetics–which is why I’ve been struggling with this idea of books as public discourse vs. private discourse. They’re both, obviously … but I find that, while I like to talk about books in the public discourse sphere, I’m even more attached to the private discourse that some books provide me, and in those cases, I don’t really want to hear other opinions; I’d prefer to not talk or debate about those books at all, for fear that the private enjoyment will be ruined … which is probably just another sign of my neurotic insecurity, I realize. Now that I think about it, I think it actually goes back to that whole thing about not coming from a family of readers. I used to get teased a lot as a kid for being “bookish” so I’m still weirdly defensive.

Anyways, not to go into therapy mode … but isn’t it true that talking deeply about books and the writing process is super personal and, if you’re honest about it, incredibly revealing? Like even when you mention that The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving was “emotionally challenging.” Have you thought about how you will (and won’t) talk about this in a public forum? For me, this was less of an issue in Await Your Reply, which, even though it is incredibly personal, is somewhat disguised and distanced from me by the thriller apparatus–as opposed to You Remind Me of Me, which basically seemed to invite readers to ask prying personal questions; and the new book, which has a kind of similar quality that makes me nervous. Do you think about that stuff very much? I know you say (above) that you don’t mind the interview process, but are there some things that you won’t talk about?
And since we’re on that topic, could we return to West of Here? Could you talk a little about the personal roots in that book? Place and landscape, obviously … but what else? Or is it none of my damn business?
Jonathan: But once you publish a book, doesn’t it by definition become the realm of public discourse? Otherwise, wouldn’t we just write books and print them out ourselves, and give them to specific people we felt comfortable giving them to–like gifts? Isn’t publishing sort of a social contract? Isn’t the artist’s vulnerability a big part of what makes them so alluring? I guess it’s hard for me to separate the art from the artist. I’m full disclosure. I mean, I’m not gonna’ talk shit about my mother-in-law to anyone who asks, I’m not going to embarrass other people, but I’m very forthcoming about my own experience to just about any seemingly well-intentioned person who asks. In fact, I’ve been told (more than once, more than a dozen times) that I’m uncomfortably candid. I find it liberating. I want to feel vulnerable, and I want others to recognize their own vulnerability, you know? Put all the cards on the table. And maybe that’s not fair. But I wanna gleen as much from the human experience as I possibly can, and I want to do as little guessing as possible. Human relationships are already so potentially mystifying, it’s so easy to miss signals, why not just come right out with it? What’s really hard for me to resolve, is when I feel like the artist doesn’t live up to the art. Some of my favorite writers were, from most reports, unsavory personalities– take Dickens and Hamsun. Dickens was an asshole, and Hamsun was a Nazi sympathizer (and an asshole). I can find nothing in their work to support either truth. This bugs the shit out of me. Maybe I read too much Kierkegaard at an impressionable age, but I want the art to be the absolute truth of the artist, no holds barred. I want the artist to lay themselves bare. I don’t want constructions, I don’t want intellectual representations, I want the real deal. Once an artist has given me that, the public element just seems like a natural extension, or at any rate, a natural repetition. Ah, but I could go on all day on this subject.

Mr. Chaon, I want to thank you for having this conversation with me. You’re a prince, and a literary lion!

7 Comments On This Post:

March 18, 2011
11:22 am
David Abrams says...

You know, it’s things like this which keep me neglecting my own writing. I could sit here for hours (and, in fact, just spent 20 minutes of one) reading stellar conversations like this one between two literary lions (yes, Mr. Evison, you roar, too). This is so good, I need to go back and re-read it to memorize certain portions (maybe even type them on little index cards to be tacked on the wall above my desk). Ah, there go another 500 words of my own not-getting-written novel!

March 18, 2011
12:27 pm
patrick says...

thank you both for this- i could listen to you guys all day. this jumped out at me:

dc-“Sometimes I’m almost afraid to talk about books that I really love–like,…because in some ways it’s so difficult to expose this thing you feel a personal connection with.”

it struck me, that i don’t fear that exposure. quite the opposite actually. but,often my impulse to share, the need to share, simply overwhelms. and it’s hard to explain the emotional resonance certain works have for me. hence, i feel grossly inarticulate about the things i hold most dear.

your conversation left me with a bunch of questions for you both, but mostly i’m just anxious for your next books.

thanks again.

March 18, 2011
6:08 pm
Caroline Leavitt says...

God, two extraordinary writers and what a conversation! Loved this.

March 18, 2011
8:39 pm
Andrea says...

Dan, I am so with you when you talked about the public side of things as a writer. My husband has mentioned more than once that I am socially inept, which is really because I am pretty shy. And if a friend reads what I have written and loves it, I am suspicious. How could they love it? They must not know any better!

Enjoyed this interview between two great writers…Thanks for such honesty and insight!

All the best,

March 19, 2011
1:48 pm
Nick Belardes says...

This is the kind of conversation I want to fill an entire novel. Is that too much to ask? As long as it doesn’t end up bad like in Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Thanks for posting this on Facebutt, Jonathan.

June 16, 2011
9:03 am
Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » The Cruel Riddle of History: An Interview with Jonathan Evison says...

[…] Read a conversation between Jonathan Evison and Dan Chaon on the Algonquin Books blog. […]

July 1, 2011
1:56 pm
Jayne Calvin says...

I can relate so strongly to this book- the vulnerability of sharing not only my writing, but sharing the books I love most (which are often anything but mainstream.) Not to mention managing my time wisely, so that I can actually write something myself rather than immerse myself in others’ books all day. As a certified hypnotherapist, I also appreciate the reflections of the role of the subconcious on creativity and writing. Well done!

Post A Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *