From dead-end jobs to novelist of year
Jonathan Evison's first novel won critical acclaim, launched a national book tour, netted a film deal and this month beat out a host of literary luminaries to win the 2009 Washington State Book Award.
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — Jonathan Evison's first novel won critical acclaim, launched a national book tour, netted a film deal and this month beat out a host of literary luminaries to win the 2009 Washington State Book Award.
Not bad for a guy who barely graduated from Bainbridge High School and spent the past two decades working as a telemarketer, bartender, rotten-tomato sorter, and "a roadkill hacker-upper and bear feeder," among other odd jobs.
Winning the state's top literary prize, Evison said, was unthinkable just over a year ago, when he was digging ditches for Bainbridge landscapers.
"It may take 20 years of dragging ... around without dental insurance, but it could happen," he said with a laugh. "Let that be a lesson for the kids."
With the win, Evison joins a select group that reads like a who's who of the Northwest's most respected writers: Jonathan Raban, Ivan Doig, Sherman Alexie, Raymond Carver. This year, the award's list of fiction finalists was dominated by Bainbridge Islanders: Evison for "All About Lulu," David Guterson for "The Other" and Carol Cassella for "Oxygen."
"It's a great honor," Evison said. "For someone who got a 1.9 GPA and dropped out of college, it feels good to get a nod from the literary establishment."'
Published in early 2008, "All About Lulu" is an offbeat coming-of-age story.
The protagonist, who Evison admits shares a good deal of his own biography, is a mild-mannered vegetarian raised in a family of meat-loving competitive bodybuilders.
An unrequited obsession with his self-destructive stepsister propels the novel through adventures in late-night radio DJing, hot-dog vending, Western philosophy and into the worlds of characters with names like Big Bill and Acne Scar Joe.
Interest in "Lulu" built slowly, first noticed by a younger group of readers and alternative publications like The Stranger. Then Hollywood came calling and the more traditional literary publications discovered it.
All the while, Bainbridge book lovers provided robust support that Evison said was invaluable in launching his career.
"Eagle Harbor Books has been amazing," he said of the Winslow bookstore. "They put me on their staff picks and did all kinds of things for me. They have a shrine there for me right now."
He also credits the Bainbridge Public Library for hosting his speaking engagements, promoting him in book clubs and prominently displaying copies of the novel.
"Bainbridge Island is so supportive," he said. "It's a mecca for writers for a reason."
Growing up on Bainbridge in the late 1970s and '80s, Evison was more interested in punk rock and skateboarding than putting words on paper.
He was an early pioneer in what would later take over the music world under the banner of "grunge." His band, March of Crimes, was a fixture in the "shady all-ages" Seattle clubs and played shows with groups that went on to dominate the charts in the early 1990s.
When music writers delve into grunge's history, Evison usually gets a call, but not so much for his impact on the genre. They're more interested in his band mates, who went on to riches and fame in Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.
"We were the Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers of punk rock, figuratively and literally," he said, noting a group known for launching the careers of several jazz greats. "The other guys in the band were musically talented. I just screamed."
Catharsis of rejection
Throughout his many dead-end careers, Evison remained a reader especially of Jack London, Charles Dickens and Kurt Vonnegut and found time to write several novels and screenplays.
"The first couple I knew were turkeys half way through writing them, but I had to finish them so I could learn," he said.
His skills as a writer grew, but so did a stack of rejection letters. As his 40th birthday approached, Evison almost gave up writing.
"I burned the rejection letters, all of them, and buried the six or seven novels, and salted the earth," he said. "It was cathartic. I was holding on to the rejection. But, I swear to God, after I did that snap, snap, snap the stories that were getting rejected were getting accepted."
He was able to quit his ditch-digging gig shortly after "Lulu" was published.
His second book, which he describes as a "Northwestern Western" was recently picked up by a large publisher and is set for release next fall. Set in a fictionalized Port Angeles, the book spans 125 years and mixes in plenty of "whores, whiskey and mud," he said.
His half-done third novel borrows heavily from Evison's years working as a caregiver in Kitsap County.
"On Bainbridge Island and Poulsbo, there's so many [people] who're afraid they're going to end up in the book," he said. "I have a T-shirt that says 'Careful, or you'll end up in my novel.' "
The state book award has given Evison a bit of prize money and spurred him to take a long-awaited road trip to Yellowstone with his wife and 3-month-old son.
Upon his return, Evison hit the keyboard hard. A few 18-hour days and at least two all-nighters have Evison writing again with a full head of steam.
"Let's see how long I can keep the ball rolling," he said. "I hope I remain lucky."