The Nervous Breakdown

An Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Jonathan Evison

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Jonathan Evison is nothing if not a humble man with a heart (and brain) made for writing novels. He’s just won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for the second time, and has published three acclaimed novels: All About Lulu, West of Here, and most recently, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. He is also the Executive Editor of the online magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. His passion for indie bookstores and love for beer definitely make him a guy you should get to know.


The Austin Review: I’ve read over and over that before you published All About Lulu, you worked every odd job imaginable and wrote six novels that were never published. That must have required an intense degree of focus, determination, and self-clarity. What kept you writing? Have your writing practices changed since you acquired an eager audience?

Jonathan Evison: Yes, six novels, a faux memoir, and a collection's worth of stories, to be exact. The bottom line is, I was never writing with publication as the ultimate end. Of course, I wanted to share the work, but the truth is, I was compelled to write because the activity served a function in my life, namely, to give order to the bio-chemical chaos that is my mind, and to become a more expansive person through the empathic window that writing narratives offers. This is what allowed me to keep going in the face of constant rejection. I had to write, and I will continue to write, whether or not anybody sees fit to publish me, for the rest of my days. 

I'm a better person because of writing-- a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and generally a more sympathetic person.

My writing practices have changed, but not because I have an audience, rather because I've got kids, and 90 to 100 travel days a year. I've had to learn to be a lot more resourceful with my time management, and learn how to write in fits and starts, carrying a notebook with me everywhere I go, texting myself bits of inspiration, and yes, even writing in my sleep.

TAR: What led you to write your first novel?

JE: I was in love with novels from the age of eight or nine. I inhaled them. At nineteen, I had to try writing one. So, I sat down in earnest and wrote one, convinced with every ham-fisted metaphor and grandiose turn of phrase that I was a literary genius. Needless to say, I was not. I was a clown, a caricature, a complete parody of myself, unintentionally, of course. By the time I was finished, the fourth wall had crumbled completely, and I was writing a novel about a nineteen-year-old guy writing a novel. I physically buried the thing, fortunately, so no record of it exists.

TAR: And yet you kept on writing. What was the moment like when you first heard that one of your novels was selected for publication?

JE: I don't recall it as a moment, rather as an unfolding of correspondences over a period of weeks. I do recall the first time I held All About Lulu in the form of a bound book. I was down at my local indie bookstore, Eagle Harbor Book Co., and the buyer at the time, an old friend named Jan Healy, came running out onto the floor saying: "Look what arrived this morning!" Turns out, the booksellers had their hands on it before me. And speaking of independent booksellers: God love them. I owe a large degree of my success to their passion and enthusiasm for the word.

Booksellers do many things that search engines do not, and cannot.

TAR: How so?

JE: In myriad ways. Indie booksellers (and librarians) really start the conversation (and perpetuate the conversation) about our literature. They see it before anybody else, sometimes up to a year before it is released to the public. And for low wages, simply out of a love of literature, they champion the beleaguered authors of the world, and build the groundswell that becomes the bigger cultural conversation. They are mavens, tastemakers, and gatekeepers. We all saw how the music industry suffered when the little record stores started disappearing. We don't want that to happen in the book world. Hell, B&N is a tragic figure at this point.

Americans really need to start equating value with something other than savings, than money period.

TAR: The dissolution of the literary world would truly be a tragedy for our society.  As a respected voice in the literary community, do you feel an ethical responsibility to influence people's value systems for the better?

JE: Well, I certainly don't want to browbeat anybody. The soapbox isn't my thing. But if I can open some eyes using the benefit of my experience, sure, I'll run my mouth for what I feel to be the greater good. For instance, I think it's important that various sectors of the book world get on the same page in the name of preservation. But I have to say that I think ethically (or politically) influencing people overtly is not a function of the novel. The novel as political polemic is nothing but dogma. The novel, like any persuasive argument, should present both sides of any political or ethical story. This is a moral imperative, the way I see it.

The goal for me is not so much to educate, as to arouse curiosity in the reader, thus putting the onus on them to identify their own moral vision.

TAR: I’m also curious about your role as an editor. How did your involvement with The Nervous Breakdown come about?

JE: Truth be told, I do very little substantive editing at TNB, or anywhere else. Really, I'm more of a producer and connector. I do curate the national bookclub, but other than that, Brad Listi, and the many talented section editors do the heavy lifting. My association with TNB stems from my friendship with Brad, which started in the early days of social networking. Brad's podcast, Other People, is fantastic, by the way.

TAR: I have to admit, the name “The Nervous Breakdown” is pretty catchy. You’ve talked about how writing has helped serve a great purpose in your own brain functioning. What are your thoughts on the relationship between creativity and mental illness?

JE: Madness yearns for articulation, that much I know. Also, the chemically imbalanced mind seems to forge connections where the "normally" functioning brain does not see them. So, the urgency is there, and the potential to illuminate something totally unique is there, but I guess it all depends on the pathology. Mania like mine is pretty straightforward:

I live in a hopped up world of awareness where the world is spinning fast, and ideas are cycling fast, and I'm often talking and listening at the same time.

Writing (and beer) allow me to slow this world down, to plumb the depths of it, and most importantly, to focus with an intensity that my otherwise spinning mind does not allow.

TAR: That leads nicely to my final question. What is your beer of choice?

JE: I prefer malty to hoppy, so I drink a lot of Bass, Samuel Smith, and Guinness.