In his seventh novel, the ambitious Small World (Dutton, Jan. 11), Jonathan Evison delivers a cross section of America, following a group of characters in the present day—connected by a train accident in the Pacific Northwest—as well as their ancestors a century and a half earlier. It’s an impressive juggling act, but speaking on the phone from his cabin in the foothills of Washington’s Olympic Mountains, Evison suggests he’s hard-wired for it. “I’m off-the-charts manic, I’ve got all this energy,” he says. “And it’s served best when I’m working.”
In this conversation, edited for space and clarity, Evison discusses the new novel, his thematic focus on the American dream, and the recent controversy surrounding his 2018 novel, Lawn Boy.
Depending on how you count, there are around a dozen central characters in Small World. Did one particular character emerge first who provided a way into the story?
Not at all. I set off from the beginning wanting to tell all these stories. In fact, I ended up cutting about six characters out of it. I had to get everybody on that train. About midway through the novel, I almost added a third generation of characters, but I decided against that. I did a lot of writing that didn’t make the final book, but that work is never wasted. I ended up writing an entire novel with one of the characters I dropped, with its own narrative line, a kind of Western.
The book seems like a product of the Trump era, where debates about national identity are very much on people’s minds.
The tribalism of the Trump era has always been there—it’s just more palpable than it has been before. I started writing it about 3 years ago, in the middle of that time. But I wasn’t reacting to that so much. It was more my own personal ambition to swing for the fences. The novel is pretty consistent with how I’ve always written about America. I try not to write polemics. I feel like my job is to report on the state of the American dream.
There’s a lot of optimism in the book because the characters grow across generations. But it’s also engaged with racism, greed, abuse, and family separation, which are part of American history, too. Was it difficult settling on a tone for the story?
It’s mostly intuitive. I’ll make tonal shifts that I’m aware of, but mostly it’s just a reflection of my optimism and who I am. You have to be pretty optimistic to write eight books and keep going. Even when I was a starving artist, I was hopelessly optimistic. I wasn’t really any less happy then. All my dreams have come true now, but I don’t think I’m any happier on a base-line level. It’s just who I am.
There’s a lot of history here—about the construction of railroads, orphanages in 1850s Chicago, Chinese immigrants in early San Francisco. How much time did you dedicate to research?
I wrote the book pretty quickly—14 months actually writing, maybe 17 months [total] with the research. When I know the information I’m after, and when I know the questions I need to ask, it becomes a lot easier. Some of it is stuff I already knew about from past books. A light bulb goes off in my head and I’d have to go back and research it, but I had an idea of where I had to look.
Still, writing a book like this in less than a year and a half sounds speedy.
I have a very weird work schedule because I have three school-age kids and I’m a very hands-on parent. So the only way for me to do it is to get away up here to this cabin two days a week from my house on Bainbridge Island, about an hour and a half away. I drive out here and work for two days a week. And when I say two days a week, I mean 16 hours a day. I’m metabolizing story the whole time. The other five days a week is just getting game-ready.
In the fall, your novel Lawn Boy was targeted by some schools when it was accused of containing pornographic material. Where does all that stand now?
The death threats have stopped. For a month, every day I was sending out statements to students, teachers, and school board members, people asking me to make a statement. But really there was nothing to defend. All the attacks have been raised by somebody who didn’t read the book; somebody read one paragraph out of context, and everybody just took that ball and ran with it. The book does nothing Judy Blume wasn’t doing for years, you know? I’m just tuning it out at this point. It’s nice to see the book selling again, but whatever. I’ve written three and a half books since then.
Mark Athitakis is a journalist in Phoenix who writes about books for Kirkus, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.