When Jonathan Evison’s latest novel, Small World, came out last winter it garnered significant praise for the scope of its vision and its careful eye for the many shortcomings of the American Dream. It was named an editor’s pick by The New York Times as well as one of The Christian Science Monitor’s and Bookreporter’s “Best Books of 2022.” Reading it for the first time, I was moved by Evison’s vision of community as he showed characters attempting to care for each other in the face of lost jobs, fractured homes, and dwindling prospects. It was a book that swept me up right away and that I subsequently recommended, with excitement, to everyone I knew. It felt like a dramatic return to the openhearted humanism of Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck.
Small World begins on a train journey across the Pacific northwest and widens its focus to capture scenes from the California Gold Rush and the expansion Western frontier, never shying away from the brutal violence, usually racialized, lurking at every turn. The story moves between these two timelines, showing how the present-day characters’ lives echo the inherited legacies of their ancestors. Small World is a story of endurance and care, capturing nothing less than the vast, tidal movements of history.
Evison and I spoke over the phone this summer and talked about his perspective on class, his approach to craft, and the value of community and caregiving. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
John Melendez: Money plays such a big role in all of your books, sort of across the board. They’re often really drawing attention to the—
Jonathan Evison: Class divide.
Yeah. A lot of daily pressures. There’s a scene that felt relatable where Mike goes to a convenience store and he wants to buy a tall boy and he’s like, do I have just enough money to pay for this?
And then it’s the fucking tax that screws him. It’s just so typical. I mean, I grew up in poverty and then lived willingly in poverty for another twenty years after my adolescence was over, trying to be a novelist. So all of that stuff is very familiar to me, even now that I have some money and own a home, I’m still really bad at handling my money. I spoil the shit out of my kids. I mean, they’re appreciative so they’re not spoiled brats. . . . But I’m the dad that buys the fucking eighteen-dollar bottle of polished rocks in every gift store. My wife and I will argue about it and she’ll say they’re just going to get lost in the car. And I’m trying to explain to her that it’s really not about the rocks. It’s about the possibility.
When I was a kid, going into a gift shop may as well have been a fucking museum. You know, look, don’t touch. There’s no earthly way I’m going to buy something. I wanted my kids to get a little taste of the possibilities that, yeah, you can have things. That’s the whole difference. That’s what people that grow up in upper middle-class families understand already. That was in All About Lulu, the whole thing about Troy and his family and how Will is just taught how the world is made of meat. The rich kids are taught, you should charge Mr. Watson more for mowing his lawn, whereas the poor family is like you better go lower so somebody doesn’t take your job.
That mentality, that class divide is just so prevalent in America and nobody really talks about it. It’s just the story of capitalism and the haves and the have nots. That and caregiving are the two things that are probably in one guise or another in all my books. This relationship between caring for somebody and caring for yourself, and then not having money.
In a way it seems like those things are directly related to each other. The way that people end up in these relationships of necessity. One of the moments I found really affecting in This is Your Life Harriet Chance! is the part towards the end with her daughter where she’s come on this trip, for these maybe not so charitable reasons, to get this thing from her mother. But it ultimately ends up kind of healing their relationship. There are a lot of these sorts of relationships in the books.
That passage is the heartbeat of the book. That’s actually the thesis of the book. The part where she’s looking across the table and you feel the butter melting in your mouth and see the lines of your daughter’s face changing and all that. That passage you’re talking about was really the heartbeat of the novel.
Every novel has a passage, that’s what I learned. When the novels don’t work and the center doesn’t hold, it’s because there isn’t a thesis anywhere in it. I was struggling with The Dream Life of Huntington Sales, which I reinvented like three times until it just became a sausage-making operation. I reinvented it as a noir. Before that it was a weird speculative thing and it started as this big, literary, David Foster Wallace mash of craziness. I went back and did all the narrative archaeology on all my books that did work and in every one I found an exact passage that was like that, that permeates the whole book.
That passage you just mentioned was the one for Harriet. In West of Here, it was Lord Jim’s little soliloquy on his deathbed. Each book had a thesis, just like a persuasive argument would. I located it in each book, and there just wasn’t one in Dream Life of Huntington Sales. It was a learning experience. I learned more failing on that book than I probably learned succeeding on ten others.
Speaking of that thesis idea, reading Small World last summer, it felt like there are these core ideas that allow you tie all these people together, across all sorts of divides, in a way that would be hard otherwise. It’s sort of a magic act.
That’s one of my favorite things about storytelling because we’re all sort of holding to Aristotelian three to five act dramatics. You just have to frustrate them and subvert them in as many ways as possible. Otherwise you’re just stuck with a Hollywood cookie cutter, because like it or not, that’s how we metabolize stories as Westerners. When I get to spread out with all those points of view and create a larger tapestry, it becomes, instead of a pop song, a big orchestral piece where not every character necessarily has a fully developed traditional Aristotelian arc, but the themes have to usurp the place.
In West of Here, place basically usurps the traditional role of the protagonist. What really holds it all together is Port Bonita, the place, the Olympic Mountains. Then all those ancillary characters become kind of analogous to the decisions the protagonist makes. That’s what complicates any drama, right? Your protagonist makes decisions, which complicate their journey to get to their ideal. And so then the characters sort of became the decisions made. It’s funny because even when they’re really complex like that, they still have that simple idea at the core, but it’s so easy, you can disguise it and do fun things with it.
I think, interestingly, the real companion novel to Small World is probably Lawn Boy, thematically. They ask the exact same question: Has America made good on its promises? They’re both kind of a State of the Union on the American dream and the American myth. Otherwise, they have almost nothing else in common. One is a first-person, irreverent, talk-to-you-like-a-friend-narrator and the other one is this big sweeping epic. But those are the two books that are connected.
We always associate the two epics together because of all the points of view, which makes sense because they both have so many characters and tell so many stories. And they do have that history theme tying them together too, that Faulkner, the-past-is-not-the-past-idea. But most of Small World was, ok, so let’s check up on the American Dream of the people that aren’t just the island and tackle destiny. What about the people that were here before us or the people we brought here against their will? How’re those great American promises treating them?
Something that Small World does really well, and I think this fits with the checking-in-on-the-American-dream element, is capture the way that people are swept up in the tide of these historical moments. You see into some some of these past tragedies. And you end up watching a terrible thing two or three generations back that set them back in the present.
Generational trauma is real, man. All of history is a dialect, you know. That thing that Lord Jim says in West of Here about how we’re all born haunted. You know, how it’s all connected. How we’re still haunted by the dying embers of the first fire anybody made. There’s nobody alive that ever invented a language.
A book I was really curious to ask you about was Legends of North Cascades. It seemed like it didn’t quite fit into the type of work people associate with you. It wasn’t a more intimate, first-person novel and it also wasn’t a generational epic. It seemed somewhere between those two things.
It’s kind of a strange book. There’s a few things that separate it. I love that book. I love Cave Dave. That’s a book I feel like a lot of people just don’t understand. Usually, I feel like readers understand what I’m trying to do. But like Harriet [referring to the novel], people are confused. . . . I don’t want to say they misread because they can read however they want. But I don’t like when people say that Harriet’s depressing or “I don’t get it” or Legends of the North Cascades is depressing or that Dave is a terrible dad. That’s the one that hurts me. Because Dave is a good dad. Dave is just traumatized. I wrote that from experience as a parent, not the trauma, but just his relationship.
Sometimes you put something out there and then I think a lot of people were just thrown for a loop by that 12,000-year-old caveman thing. I purposely wanted that story to read sort of modern because of this idea that culture has certainly evolved and changed in 12,000 years, but the human brain hasn’t. And the heart and the mind really haven’t. So I really wanted that to read like more of a modern daughter-son relationship.
Caregiving hasn’t changed really, right? It’s the desire to protect each other. I’m surprised to hear that people thought he was a bad father because it seems like the impulse that he has is a good one, even if, from the perspective of a state employee or his extended family, what he’s doing is sort of questionable. I think as the reader you’re sort of asked to consider whether the world that he’s pulling her out of is really sustainable for her, or anyone else.
But he clearly can’t see that. He’s using bad judgment, but he’s a good dad.
He’s pulling her out of this thing and he maybe actually perceives it more accurately than other people. Even if his decisions in the long run put them in danger in the moment. It doesn’t seem like he’s way off.
Except what happens to her when she’s a grown woman. She has no playmates or companions. But the isolation is the only way Dave can manage, so he doesn’t have a choice.
See, this is what I love about writing. Dave is alive in me and this is all off the page stuff, but he’s still alive in me. If Dave’s wife had not died then Dave, I think, would have just left his daughter and lived off the grid, right? I mean, he’s kind of forced to do that. He has no choice but to do that. And he makes some bad and questionable decisions, but you can’t question his loyalty or his motive. But this is what trauma does and this is what the outside forces of the world do. That’s what protagonists do. They make bad decisions.
And that’s what keeps us reading. This next question is a two-parter. Talking about the craft stuff before, some of what you’ve posted on Facebook is the way that you think about composition when you’re working and, specifically, the way that you lay out everything on a poster board.
Something else I’d love to hear more about, because it goes against the grain of a lot of what I see and read, is your idea about pushing back on the model of sentences being the be-all and end-all. And I guess those two things are related, the storyboarding kind of poster, looking at them, looking at characters, laying everything out. And then also the idea that sentences are important, beautiful writing is important. But if you make it the most important thing, the sentence will override the story and the characters.
You’re getting into the realm of poetics there. I love good language. I think people want to make it an either-or thing. I say that and they think I don’t care about language or I don’t work on my sentences or whatever. For me, the language is just the blood running through the story. Ultimately, of course, I want it to be good. I want it to be in perfect balance and perfect equilibrium with the story.
So just like a different character is going to have a different voice, a different story is going to have different tonal qualities. I’m writing a book now, which is like two books ahead, called The Heart of Winter. It’s a very quiet elderly people story about cancer, but it’s really about a lifetime marriage. It’s a very small, quiet book on the surface, but that’s not all it is, because there’s so much going on. But this book calls for more careful sentence writing at times. It’s a little less brisk, probably a little more luxurious just because that fits characters that have more time on their hands, to describe and reflect on things, compared to a twenty-two-year-old guy that’s working sixty hours a week.
My point is the language is always going to serve the story for me. It’s super important to me. I mean, I listen to so much music. I just want my prose to swing, ultimately. I want it to bounce. I want it to carry the reader along. I want it to punch them in the gut. I want it to get them up off the chair. I want it to sing. But I don’t try to make it sing when someone’s turning on a lamp. What’s the purpose? If you’re holding your dying father on the continental divide at sunset, well, maybe it’s time to get a little poetic and hyperbolic. Maybe it’s time to pump up the language there. But if a guy is just walking across the parking lot eating an apple, I really don’t need to know about the smoky chiaroscuro of his thoughts.
Sure. There’s that passage in Lawn Boy that I really enjoyed, where he’s reading the library books . . .
That’s just basically what I was just paraphrasing. Yeah, that’s pretty much Mike’s words. I came at this as an outsider and I probably alienated people by outwardly discouraging them from going out and paying $60,000 for an MFA. Which doesn’t make me popular in those circles. But, I mean, jeez, I kind of like the twentieth century and nineteenth century models: Go out and drive an ambulance in somebody else’s war like Hemingway, or go out to sea like Conrad, go accrue experiences outside the classroom instead of getting yourself $60,000 in debt so you can write free content for Salon for the next ten years. I totally see the value in learning the craft and things like that. And I think the fellowship must be wonderful, but I’m kind of an outsider in that way.
Well, also, it’s an insular world. The reason I was leading off asking you about some of the financial concerns is I feel like what I’ve started to notice more and more is that these concerns are absent from this ecosystem, basically. Money is not a thing that the characters are thinking about.
That’s what entitlement and privilege look like because when you don’t have to think about a problem it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I’ve heard from so many well-to-do, sort of upper-middle-class, suburban readers that were like, wow, this was a real eye opener for me. I’m really kind of recognizing how I think about some of the decisions that people who live in poverty make. And that’s what I was hoping for.
But I was actually surprised to find that there are people that it was so foreign to. It was exotic. It’s just like when Mike goes to the country club. You know, he’s an exotic. These people are like, wow, I never knew it was so bad. . . . Oh, so that’s why they smoke even though they can’t afford it. . . . What’s sad on the other side of the page is the people that I really want to read Lawn Boy and recognize themselves besides, you know, LGBTQ+ younger readers. I mean, really, I want guys that are hanging drywall and working on landscaping crews to read that book and recognize themselves and feel empowered by it, but that’s not the reading demo. So I exist in this weird place where some books I’m writing to an audience that isn’t going to buy the book and I’m sure Steinbeck, and Frank Norris, dealt with the same thing.
Yeah, trying to share an image of something and then not having it always reach or comfort the people that you want it to.
Yeah. Instead, it kind of raised awareness. Which is awesome. I don’t want to sound like an old man, but nobody reads anymore. Most people don’t even read one book a year. I feel like we lose something when we lose that. There’s just so much more nuance and time to spend with a book.
The novel does it better than anything, as far as empathy, as far as really getting in there because, ultimately, you’re not making the decisions of what you see in a cinematic experience. You have your impressions. But it’s not as much of an act of the imagination as reading a novel. You may think that the author is describing everything to you, but the truth is you’re collaborating with them and you’re filling in all these blanks and it’s a dance. I still think the novel is the greatest empathic form we’ve ever created and it’s just a shame that more people don’t read anymore.
And yet, at the same time, books remain so relevant. We’re not having this censorship debate about movies. It’s about books. We intuitively understand how important and how powerful books are. It’s amazing we have as much cultural currency as we do when you consider how small the market is these days for book sales, or that the New York Times devotes as much time to books as they do. We still understand that books are important, but it’s harder to reach people and there’s a bunch of reasons for that, obviously there’s all the digital technology and stuff like that competing for people’s time. But there’s also the change that populist fiction has kind of gone by the wayside too, as writing has become more specialized.
I know what you mean about the focus shifting towards other things. Whether it’s about voice or stuff about sentences. It’s moved away from these other concerns that feel present in your books.
It starts with Dickens for me, Dickens and then Twain and then Norris and Steinbeck, just the sort of humanist thing. It’s not exactly politicizing the novel and it’s not like the Red and the Black or something like that. But this idea about writing about the working class and real people’s problems and the larger question of humanity rather than something more specialized. There’s just a lot of novels out where the main conceit is the seating arrangements at a wedding in Cape Cod or something. And it may be really interesting and well written, but it’s just so far removed from like the actual sinew of this country.
I think there’s a lot of great working-class fiction that’s being written now. It’s being written by writers of color and I’m glad it’s out there. Maybe that will help bring it back because populist is kind of a bad word now. People associate it with Trumpism, but when I use it I just mean the larger body of us.
It really is striking to see how far removed a lot of contemporary fiction is from the real desperation that shows up in the work of the writers you mentioned. Books like The Octopus or Bleak House feel so outside the mainstream.
Well, it’s interesting because it’s surrounding us more than it has in a long time. We’re really dealing with it. So maybe the idea is they don’t want to read about it. They want to escape it. Kind of like when the depression came around crooners went out of style, right? Nobody wanted to hear these doleful, lamenting crooners. That’s when swing started. So maybe that’s it. Maybe that we’re surrounded by it, maybe it’s too real. I don’t know, man, it’s a fucking quagmire.
I’d really love to hear about the new book.
Sure. It’s called Again and Again. It comes out November 7 and, I don’t know, in a weird way of all my books this one may be the most rewarding for readers in the sense that I really, really wanted this to be an experience. Not just a story. I wanted it to have all those things I love about being a reader. I was very aware of wanting to involve the reader and subvert their expectations.
The whole book is sort of a puzzle. It’s really accessible. It sounds like an experiment. But that’s actually the key to it. That’s where the real craft comes in, taking something that’s conceptually ambitious, but making it relatable and easily understandable. I don’t want to say easily, but I also don’t want to make it sound like a Thomas Pynchon book. In its conception it just reads like old-fashioned storytelling and I’m excited to get this one out and see. I think it has a really broad appeal. I wasn’t really trying for that, but I think because it does all these things that readers like that I like. Ultimately, I’m just trying to please myself and if I can do that, then I can reach other people.
I’ll be really excited to read this one. Going back, I wonder if you could touch on the community thing again. Small World is full of is these attempts, however minor, to bridge these empathy gaps. But it feels like this is an idea that has basically fallen out of fashion, both in fiction and also in a broader, political context.
It just gets uglier and uglier and that’s how capitalism wants it, really. I mean the divisiveness is for a reason. I live in a rural mountain town, and there’s a lot of libertarianism out here and a lot of Trump people too. Having known small towns and having grown up in a small town, I can understand how they got to the way that they are, hating liberals. They’re framing it all wrong.
Liberals are constantly attacking the things that are really central to their culture, like church. And yes, we know it’s full of hypocrisy and everything like that. But what they fail to understand, for instance, is that church to these people in rural areas is more than just the doctrine. They’re not even protecting the church for the doctrine. Most of them don’t know their way around the Bible as well as me. That’s not it. The church is where you go to get marriage counseling. It’s where you go to your NA meeting. It is literally the center of these communities. Sequim is a town of 8,000 people and there’s probably two hundred churches. It’s insane. I don’t know if everybody goes to three churches or what. But it is the center of their community. It’s the greatest resource of the community. It is their social services.
Why are these people complaining about social programs when they’re the ones that use them or need them? A lot of these people are too proud to use them and the church is there, the church is their social programs. They already have their community, so they don’t want the government programs. You know most of what we’re talking about, where we’re talking about the church, really happens in the basement. It’s not what happens during the service. And that’s why they’re defensive. I kind of understand where they’re coming from, but obviously my sympathies are progressive.
The community thing feels resonant because it feels like in all these books, it’s part of caregiving. Ultimately, you need other people.
That’s the ultimate question about being human. You can’t isolate yourself, like the whole no man is an island thing. I mean, that’s what Mike learns. He’s beholden, we’re all beholden to our community whether or not we admit it.
It’s just such a quagmire again, because the people that understand this intuitively in their lifestyle in many ways are the bootstrappers, and their bootstrapping is in complete opposition to this other belief they have. People are just so complex dude. I mean, people want to make people simple but they’re really complex.
But I guess that’s the whole point of all of this.
That’s the whole point of writing books. Empathy, understanding, how things you take for granted look when you change the context and you’re not yourself anymore.
John Melendez is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in On the Run, Bluegrass Unlimited, and Foreign Policy in Focus. He recently completed his MFA at Columbia University.
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