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Bainbridge author defies odds, bringing home Washington State Book Award
Jonathan Evison wins the state's top literary prize, sets sights on a Strange Genius Award.
Leaving more than 20 years of grunt work and odd jobs behind as his debut novel is bestowed Washington state's top literary award for 2009, Bainbridge author Jonathan Evison's story is one full of feel-good luck and serendipity.
Although, it's not quite the fairy tale it may seem.
"It's been a long, grunting 20 years of suffering," the author said, thinking back on days spent digging ditches, shoveling roadkill and sorting rotten tomatoes among other obscure occupations. All along, he'd felt somehow inadequate that he hadn't had dental insurance like most of his “peers.”
By peers, he’s refering to the people he went to high school with some 20 years ago.
But next week, when Evison is officially presented the 2009 Washington State Book Award in Fiction Oct. 14 at the downtown Seattle library, he’ll be joining a whole new group of peers — a group comprised of some of the Northwest's most respected authors, including Sherman Alexie, Jonathon Raban and Raymond Carver, among others.
"I usually deal more in street cred," Evison said slyly of the award, adding that his eyes are now on The Stranger Genius Award. "But this is nice ... I've never been to one of these hoity-toity celebrations before."
Chances are Evison will wind up stealing the show with his hyperactive quirkiness, infectious confidence and rebellious charm.
Sitting with a copy of the manuscript for his "next, next novel" over Guinness and anchovy pizza at the Tree House Café in Lynwood Center, Evison looks sharp.
He's sporting a silk black fedora. He's early for the interview. He's just returned from a weekend-long writing excursion and beerfest on Marrowstone Island, capping off a near-month-long bender, he said, which began with the announcement of the state book award back in mid-September.
Aside from the occasional rub of the eyes and the continuous — almost contentious — flow of pint glasses to and from the table, you can hardly tell. But Evison’s excitement for the award and the success of “Lulu” — which he’s subtly and humbly trying to eschew — is immediately evident.
"I have to be cheap with myself," Evison says, recalling a recent road trip to Yellowstone. "I always have, because I'm a starving artist, but it was actually kind of nice to be able to stay in a motel every night without having to ask how much it was first."
That kind financial freedom — derrived from his commercially successful first novel along with a publishers' advance on the next — hasn't come easy for the college dropout-turned-critically acclaimed author. Nor did it come over night.
In hindsight, Evison's sudden success seems better attributed to self-sufficience and personal ambition than simple serendipity.
"I watched the trade journals, I watched careers ... and I pretty much figured out how everything worked," Evison said.
The last time we’d talked, in advance of “Lulu’s“ release last summer, Evison energetically described to me the orchestration of the novel’s premiere. He'd strategically planned almost every detail of his debut — from his choice of agent, to choice of publisher to the choice of what type of novel to start with.
He had those choices, because he’d put in the work ahead of time. It wasn't the first novel he'd written. He’d shopped the story to various editors and started accruing readers long before seeking an agent — which effectively made him a client in demand. He’d chosen the independent Soft Skull Press, because he knew that the publisher would put all of its resources behind his book. And he chose a coming-of-age, character-driven story for his debut because he wanted a narrator who could talk to the reader like a friend, keeping them engaged.
Now, Evison is in even higher demand, with another novel “West of Here” strategically sold to Algonquin, while Soft Skull had a banner year with “Lulu,” and the freakishly charming story has captivated both readers and Hollywood alike.
“Twenty years of failure taught me that,” Evison said of his bookselling strategy. “Did you know that it’s 14 times harder to make a living as a working fiction writer than it is to be a professional baseball player?”
He followed up with a batch of numbers to support that assertion, and added another less-than-advantageous stastic for authors, that most debut novels have a shelf-life of just over six weeks.
“Lulu” has been on the shelves since the summer of 2008, and is enjoying a renaissance with Evison’s latest award. The book also appeared on many “Best Of” lists at the end of 2008, including the Hudson Review, which landed copies of “Lulu” in airports across the nation.
The latter honor, Evison said, was a result of his own e-pestering of one of the Hudson Review higher-ups — who just happened to be from Los Angeles where the story is set — into reading the book.
“Now, that’s luck,” Evison said. “But it’s that Michael Jordan, I-spent-16-hours-a-day-shooting-free-throws kind of luck.”
The author gleaned such a devout dedication to his craft in part from the influence of his older brother, David, who’s been a low-key lounge singer for most of his life.
“I wish I could give him my voice, because he really doesn’t have a great voice, and I'm not using mine," Evison joked. "But he stuck to it. He stuck to his guns. He did his art and didn’t compromise.”
Evison approaches his art with the same tenacity.
And what’s more, most all of the accomplishments coming his way have come on his own ambition and against the odds. After barely graduating from Bainbridge High School, Evison was a college drop out, more interested in punk rock and parties than homework and lectures.
He was a founding member and lead singer of the late-80’s Seattle band March of Crimes (featuring members that would go on to play in Soundgarden and Pearl Jam), where he learned his guerilla promotion techniques and punk rock ethos.
Throughout those formative years and his more recent history of odd jobs, he’s been writing and reading voraciously.
“My dad read Dickens to me when I was a kid,” Evison said. “He gave me ‘Breakfast of Champions’ when I was 8.
“For one, I’m excited about the novel,” the author went on. “To me, the novel is more important than ever. Because it’s the only thing that does slow us down, that doesn’t rush us along, that invites us to stay and linger.”
JONATHAN EVISON will be presented the 2009 Washington State Book Award in Fiction for his debut novel "All About Lulu" at the official WSBA ceremony, 7 p.m. Oct. 14 at the downtown Seattle library. Info: www.jonathanevison.com, www.spl.org.