Jonathan Evison: ‘Harriet’ and the writing process

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Jonathan Evison and his new book, ‘This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance.’
Jonathan Evison spent a lot of time taking care of his grandmother. Maybe that’s why he was so successful in getting inside the head of the 78-year-old woman he spotlights in his latest book, “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance.”

“I do have a lot of experience with elderly women,” Evison said during a phone interview from his home on Bainbridge Island, WA. “I took care of my grandmother when I was 17. I lived in a senior citizen mobile home park. I was the only person under 65. I watched first-hand how women in their 70s and 80s reinvented themselves. They created whole new political ideologies for themselves and did things like community theater.”

“This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance” is dedicated to his mom.

“I don’t know how she feels about that yet,” he admitted. “I’m not even sure she’s read it yet.”

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Evison’s book has been made into a feature film, debuting at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
It took Evison, the author of “Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” (one of my favorite books of 2013), a total of two years to write “Harriet,” but he said “40 percent of the novel took about five weeks at the end. Once I had my ‘ah-ha’ moment, it was just very rapid.”

The book is told in segments, first in Harriet’s voice, then from the point of view of a Ralph Edwards-like character (the host of the TV show, “This Is Your Life”).

Harriet’s husband, Bernard, shows up, as does her wayward daughter, Caroline, and long-time friend, Mildred.

Unaware that Bernard purchased an Alaskan cruise prior to his death, Harriet decides to use the tickets and take Mildred with her.

Mildred backs out at the last moment, but not before she gives Harriet a letter to read after the ship sails.

Harriet begins to examine her life in a series of flashbacks, set off by the letter’s shocking news.

“Memory and reflection and association are all non-linear processes,” Evison explained. “And they’re all triggered by things in real time. Every few chapters the reader has to totally re-conceptualize everything they thought they knew about Harriet. I didn’t just write her life in these moments and throw them willy-nilly in there. They were all placed organically with what was happening in real time.”

In the beginning of the book, it’s hard to separate truth from fantasy. The reader knows Bernard died an ugly death as the result of dementia, but he begins making appearances and Harriet can feel his presence.

“Is this really happening to her,” Evison asked. “Or is it just her imagination?”

Evison knew bringing Bernard back was a risk, but it was one he was willing to take.

“What I do know about those passages is even if they fail to suspend the disbelief of the reader, the information in those scenes is necessary to the book.”

Evison, married and the father of two, approaches each book as an “exercise in empathy. It’s just jumping through that empathic window and inhabiting other people, accruing their experience.”

In order to do right by Harriet, Evison had to get out of his own way.

He needed to “inhabit the character and really consider what it is to have an 80-year-old body and an 80-year-old mind and be a different gender and come from a different generation.”

Although he has great empathy for his characters, he doesn’t dictate what they do.

“They’re not my galley slaves,” he noted with a laugh. “I get inside them and let them lead me.”

He eschews control.

“Trying to control things too much, you run into all these tropes and similarities,” he explained. “Things fail to surprise you. The more writers try to be crafty, the more visible the framework becomes.”

Letting the character control the story allows Evison to become “a more expansive person, a better husband, a better dad [he has two young children].”

“Harriet” has been “reviewing well,” Evison noted with a little trepidation.


 “I’m afraid of good reviews,” he joked. “Luckily haters are coming out. I eat up those one star reviews. I need ’em. I’m grateful The New York Times is reviewing me. I just want to be part of the conversation. I want to know I’m relevant.”


 

Evison need not worry about his relevance. He is one of today’s top writers. “Harriet” should be on a lot of “best of” lists at the end of the year and has already been optioned for the big screen.

“Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” has been made into a film starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts and Selena Gomez. It will most likely be released next year.

And, he’s hard at work on his next book, “Mike Munoz Saves The World,” which will probably be released in 2018.

While touring behind the new book has its drawbacks, Evison has fond memories of his travels.

“Every night I see a friend or sometimes a whole entourage and they drag me out drinking beer,” he confessed. “I have a great time, but I’m just worn out. It’s reinvigorating for me to be home.”

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For more on Jonathan Evison, follow him on Facebook or visit his website.

This feature is from an interview done in November of 2015.

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