Monday, January 24, 2011: Maximum Shelf: West of Here

High Tide Seafood Company

Algonquin on audio from HighBridge: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

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The Bushwhacker Bar at Port Bonita

Algonquin on audio from HighBridge: All About Lulu by Jonathan Evison

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: West of Here

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Jonathan Evison's West of Here, which goes on sale on February 15. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and John McFarland. Algonquin has helped support the issue.


Seattle to Port Bonita Ferry Ticket

Books & Authors

Jonathan Evison: Color-Coded Manuscripts and Stage-Diving

Fiction writers toil alone for years before a note from a complete stranger shows he/she gets what you're trying to do and is crazy in love with it. Can you recall a moment when that happened for you?

I once got a letter from a reader of All About Lulu, describing how recently he'd been driving down Interstate 10, past the dinosaurs of Cabazon, when suddenly all of these vivid recollections of a night he'd spent there long ago came flooding back. He remembered the stars splashed across the sky, and a deep yearning, and an inclement restlessness stirring him from deep within, and a bottle of rum, and a small group of friends, and the buzzing of heat-dazed crickets. He was visited by an old, deep longing, as he sped past Cabazon on the Interstate.

But he couldn't figure out what the hell he'd been doing there in the first place. He didn't live anywhere near Cabazon. As far as he could remember, he'd never even driven past the place. He couldn't remember who broke his heart. He was never much of a rum drinker. None of it made sense, and yet it was so real. Finally, it occurred to him that what he was remembering was a story an old friend had told him about a night he'd spent in Cabazon. But then, that didn't make sense either. Who did he know that would've been out here? And why would he remember a heartbreak that was not his own so vividly? It wasn't until the next day that he figured out that what he'd been remembering was a scene from All About Lulu.

That meant the world to me, because that's my goal, both as a writer and a reader: to forget about myself, and experience something authentic, as though I am somebody else. That's magic. Where else but fiction can we achieve that?

West of Here is a huge, ambitious novel, spanning 100 years and embracing hundreds of fully realized characters. Where did the idea and inspiration come from?

Clams. No, really! Actually, I wanted to write a history of the Olympic Peninsula, a place near and dear to me. I spend an awful lot of time hiking and camping in the Olympics, making frequent stops in Sequim, and Port Angeles, and Forks. I live for these getaways. My old Dodge motor home allows me to basically live on the road. While researching in earnest, I was conceiving something along lines of a historical novel, but I soon realized that what I really wanted to write was a novel about history, about the countless tiny connections that bind people together, and tie people to a place, and a time, and how the sum total of all these connections amounted to a living breathing history. I wanted to bring the place to life on the page, like Steinbeck brought central California to life, or Twain brought the Mississippi to life.

The characters in West of Here, especially those from 1889, are fictional inventions, though they live and breathe so believably. Where did they come from and what kinds of research did you do to make them so real?

Nabokov likened his characters to galley slaves, as though they were instruments of his will. For me, it's quite the opposite. I create characters so that I can inhabit them, so that their wills can lead me on a journey, not vice versa. I want to empathize with my characters--and how am I to do that, unless I let them make their own decisions, unless I smell the world through their nostrils? I offer them a set of conditions and circumstances, and let them bumble and grope their way through the mess, and I go along for the ride. And when it's over, I feel like a more expansive and understanding person for having undertaken the experiment.

The key to the research in terms of familiarizing myself with the cultural and physical conditions of the Washington frontier (without sounding researchy) was to seek out material that wasn't historicized by a wide-angle lens. What I wanted was personal perspective, rather than historical perspective--personal narratives, letters, oral accounts, anything vivid and descriptive that wasn't bogged down by the omnipotent voice of "history."

Did you develop a method for keeping track of such a huge cast of characters living in two very different time periods?

I filled notebooks, I wrote on walls, I printed the manuscript in thick paper so I could color-code the spine. I ran for the hills, clutching stacks of graph paper and bundles of Sharpies. I was a madman. I slept very little, and looked for solutions at the bottom of beer bottles as I scratched out thought-maps and the like, and tried to make sense of my hieroglyphics in the morning (a highly underrated methodology, truth be told).

Each of your characters has such a clear, unique voice. Do you think that your tour of duty in radio, especially talk radio, fine-tuned that skill for you?

The only thing that hot talk radio inspired me to do was write 10 times harder, so that hopefully I'd no longer have to look through the glass at some beady-eyed souljacking producer, typing things like: "Ask her if she's hot?" on the tele-prompter three hours a day. I found the culture of hot talk radio to be suffocating. I think working in a film factory, or landscaping, or hacking up roadkill at the wildlife refuge offered me more insight into character than working in commercial radio, where they were always trying to reduce character to a demographic.

When you relocated from Los Angeles to the Pacific Northwest, you traded one kind of climate (many consider it ideal) for the one you capture so vividly in West of Here. Was there much of an adjustment before love of wildly erratic weather patterns set in?

I hated the climate in L.A. I find that it's a heck of a lot easier to write when you're looking out your window at mud puddles. Sun makes me restless. It makes me feel like I should be outdoors drinking margaritas--and that's too much temptation for me to overcome with any regularity. I'd still be writing Lulu.

As the solitary writer prepares for a book-signing and reading tour in support of West of Here, are you dusting off the audience-courting chops you developed during your days as frontman for the band March of Crimes? Will you sing on this tour?

I never sang in the first place. But maybe I'll scream a little, if it'll sell books. And if by courting the audience, you mean jumping on top of them, we shall see. Maybe a little stage-diving is just what the book tour scene could use.


Chuck Adams: Falling in Love

Chuck Adams is executive editor of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. In a publishing career that reaches back 40 years, he has acquired and edited hundreds of fiction and nonfiction titles from authors as diverse as Sandra Brown, James Lee Burke, Mary Higgins Clark and Ronald Reagan. Since coming to Algonquin Books in 2004 he has continued to advocate for books that feature vivid storytelling that will entrance readers, with one prime example being Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Algonquin, 2006).

How did you find Jonathan Evison's West of Here?

Johnny's manuscript came to me in the usual way, through an agent, in this case Mollie Glick at Foundry. I read the first few pages of the e-mail submission, liked the voice and the lightness of tone, and I printed out the first 100 pages and gave those to an intern to read. A day or so passed and Danny, the intern, returned, very excited, to ask for the rest of the manuscript. A glowing written report soon followed. I quickly started reading, called Mollie to tell her I was liking it very much so that she'd not sell it out from under me. I finished it in another day. By then, I was completely besotted.

What drew you so strongly to the novel?

In addition to the voice and the lightness of tone, what really captured me was how reading the novel was like reading a dialogue between two generations, born more than 100 years apart. That and the audacity--so unlike anything I'd ever read before. I loved the characters, the way Johnny had drawn each one so carefully, giving each his/her own voice, a complete life history. And I can't forget the setting, the woebegone little town of Port Bonita, Washington. Another major virtue was that it's really about something important--the way this nation came together, the way the world we live in was shaped, the way we create the future, how one man's success can become another man's failure, and how a footstep will echo and echo and echo through the years, leaving its imprint generations after.

West of Here, with its ambition and breadth, embraces a Then (1889/1890) and Now (2006) vision of the Olympic Peninsula and the town of Port Bonita in its storytelling; it teems with a wealth of characters, enough tales to fill six novels, and much sly humor and high drama. Did you find it challenging to encourage Jonathan to stay true to his kaleidoscopic approach while balancing all the elements that make the novel so rich and satisfying?

Even before I made an offer to his agent, Johnny and I talked about the novel and the work I'd want him to undertake, the kind of editing I would plan to do, the rewriting and reshaping that I thought was needed to make the read even more satisfying. I found the dialogue he'd created between the two different generations of Port Bonitans to be one of the novel's greatest strengths, and the kaleidoscope effect worked beautifully within the structure he had created. The initial edit was on my part mostly an effort to sort everything out, to arrange the stories in such a way that there wouldn't be so many different chronologies going on at the same time within the two separate time-frames. As for the number of characters, I believe I actually had Johnny add some; I specifically remember asking for a stronger female presence in the early years and suggesting one specific character--I had Johnny go back in and further strengthen the female characters, not only giving them more to do, but in one instance changing the nature of the character itself, making her hopefully more likable.

 Algonquin publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt with Evison.

You have been quoted as saying, "I also love this excitement when a new manuscript comes in and you think, 'Okay, I'm ready to fall in love again.' " I presume that you have to convince others at Algonquin that any new love of yours is true and lasting (i.e., that the book will find its readership). Can you describe how that process works at Algonquin?

The falling in love part of the process, though it happens rarely, is the easiest and most wonderful part of my job. Convincing others to share the love is more difficult. The process of convincing my boss and colleagues that a book is worthy of our publishing it is not markedly different from the process I experienced at the other houses I worked for. I take the project to the editorial board, where the publisher, assistant publisher and other four editors will discuss with me the pros and cons of the work as they see it. One of the great things about Algonquin--and this is different from my other experiences--is that even if the publisher and several of the other editors don't share my vision, they still will encourage me to try to buy the book if they feel my passion is convincing. Because we do publish (approximately) only 10 fiction titles each year, we need to convince ourselves that there is a reasonably sized readership out there for every title, one that our amazing publicity and marketing departments can locate and charm without too much effort.

What particular sections of the novel, or scenes, come to mind as ones that you predict will grab readers and be retold enthusiastically around dinner tables?

There are so many great scenes in West of Here that it's hard for me to choose, or to predict what others will respond to. Merely thinking of singling out one or another has just made me want to read it all again.

You grew up in Virginia, went to college and law school in North Carolina and now live in Chapel Hill again after many years in New York City. Your area of the country is justly famous for a lovely mild climate. As you edited Jonathan's descriptions of the wildly erratic weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest, were you tempted to don foul-weather gear and visit the actual territory to see it for yourself?

Certainly, in working on the novel I developed a vivid sense of what life on the Olympic Peninsula must be like. A visit, yes, that's something I'll gladly do, although the extreme weather (I did weather for years in New York City) is not so appealing to someone now comfortably living in central North Carolina.


Book Brahmin: Jonathan Evison


Novelist and editor Jonathan Evison was born and raised in California and has a résumé that features stints as, among other things, laborer, syndicated radio host and frontman for the punk rock band March of Crimes. An intensive childhood reading habit planted the seed of his consuming desire to write, write, write. After years of having his work ignored or politely tolerated, he saw his first novel, All About Lulu (Soft Skull Press, 2008), not only published to wide acclaim but also embraced by hordes of enthusiastic readers even before it was chosen for a Washington State Book Award. He lives with his family and a rambunctious assortment of dogs and rabbits on Bainbridge Island, Wash., a short, gorgeous ferry ride from Seattle. He is also the executive editor of the online literary journal the Nervous Breakdown.


On your nightstand now:

Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt, The Sister's Brothers by Patrick deWitt, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Your top five authors:

Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Herman Melville, John Fante, Mark Twain

Book you've faked reading:

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner. Started it three times, never got past halfway. Even bought the CliffsNotes for it.

Book you're an evangelist for:

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

Book you've bought for the cover:

I love a good cover, but I honestly can't think of a single book I bought because of its cover--okay, maybe a coffee-table book, say, Over Hawaii or something. That said, I've seen a lot of books with covers so ugly that I can't even look at them long enough to read the title. So, I do think it's important.

Book that changed your life:

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I'm guessing I'm not alone, here.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. What a delight! Like meeting the greatest uncle ever (before he got depressed and developed a taste for gun metal).

Book you wish you'd written:

Don Quixote. Then I could run around telling editors I invented the novel!


Book Review

Mandahla: West of Here

West of Here by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95 Hardcover, 9781565129528, February 2011)

Jonathan Evison's epic novel, West of Here, is an expansive, swaggering, utterly engrossing saga spanning a century, with dreams of exploration and growth clashing with indigenous people and lofty ideals. It's the American experience, where the past creates the present and unintended consequences of nation-building. And it's a heck of a ride.

The story begins with an end: the Elwha Dam in Port Bonita, Washington, constructed 100 years ago, is about the be torn down--the largest dam removal project ever carried out in the United States, in an effort to reclaim a major river system and salmon runs that once numbered more than 400,000 and dwindled to fewer than 4,000. The editor of the 1890's Port Bonita newspaper asked, "How do you get the public to conserve what they cannot even see the end of?" In 2006, a conservationist says, "For five generations, Port Bonita was an orgy of consumption that seemed like it would never end. Every day was Dam Day. But now it was time to clean up the mess."

At the annual Dam Days celebration in September 2006, Dave Krigstadt ("Krig") listens to his boss, Jared Thornburgh, give a speech to a swiftly disappearing crowd of Port Bonitans as "the rain came hissing up the little valley in sheets." Jared flees the rain, too, after he says "There is a future.... And it begins right now." Krig, the only one remaining, walks over to the fence above the Elwha Dam, watching the water roar into the canyon as fall Chinook beat their silver heads over and over against the concrete. As a kid, he thought it was funny. He muses about the dam, the salmon, the future and his past, as he works his high school basketball championship ring off his finger. Twenty-two years have passed, and playing on that winning Bucket Brigade team is still the high point of his life. But one has to start somewhere, so he tosses the ring into the chasm.

Jump back to January 1880: a gale-force storm roars inland, dropping more than four feet of snow near the mouth of the Elwha River. "It is said among the Klallam that the world disappeared the night of the storm, and that the river turned to snow, and the forest and mountains and sky turned to snow. It is said that the wind itself turned to snow as it thundered up the valley and that the trees shivered and the valley moaned. At dusk, in a cedar shack near the mouth of the river, a boy child was born...." For six months the boy child had no name, until his mother decided on Thomas Jefferson King. But he was given another name by Indian George, a Klallam elder; upon meeting the blue-eyed, mute child, he called him Storm King.

Between these two events lie the establishment of a utopian community, the building of the dam, the ambitions of entrepreneurs, the education of a would-be newspaperwoman and a prostitute, and, ultimately, the decline of a city with promise--Port Bonita, whose backers thought it would be the jewel of the newest state, outdoing Seattle for the honor, since the Great Fire of 1889 had reduced the rival city to rubble.

Woven through the stories of past and present is the expedition of James Mather, who was given the task of exploring the uncharted interior of the Olympic Peninsula between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the coast of the Pacific. Viewed from the Strait, "The high country was marked by gaps so steep and dark that the eye could scarcely penetrate them. And all of this was wrapped tightly about the waist with an impenetrable green blanket of timber." Viewed from Elliott Bay to the south, the Olympic Mountains presented a sheer wall of basalt, so steep in places that snow wouldn't stick. Mather chose, surprisingly, to set out on his 1889 expedition in the dead of one of the worst winters on record, because he was determined to be the first to penetrate the wilderness.

Port Bonita in 1889 was a rough, ragged town, with a ramshackle hotel, the Olympic, and a skeezy saloon, the Belvedere, run by John Tobin, a mean man and supplier of illegal whiskey to the Klallams. The men in the town "shared an appetite for new possibilities," from the obvious ones in the port to signing on with Mather to establishing a commonwealth outside of town. Women also had an appetite for new possibilities: Eva Lambert came to the commonwealth, pregnant and single, to be a newspaper reporter; Gertie McGrew came to the saloon to be a madam.

As Mather gathers information on the Elwha and points farther afield, a trapper named Lofall convinces him that the river is navigable by flatboat, but his other story seems too tall: a bear-man, howling on a riverbank like the devil himself. When Mather talks to the Klallams, they tell of a fertile valley, an idyllic paradise, yet one that the natives did not venture into, having been warned away by Thunderbird, a fire-spewing bird god.

Shortly after Mather arrives in town, Ethan Thornburgh shows up, looking for Eva Lambert. They had left Chicago together for the Northwest but she had abandoned him in Seattle, and he has tracked her down to make an honest woman of her, to get her to put aside her ambitions and the rest of it and get serious. "The rest of what? The rest of me? The rest of my life? Why is it every time a woman gets serious, she has to set something aside?" Ethan says she doesn't have to give up anything. He looks outside and says, "It's glorious, it's endless. It's up for grabs....Why not us, Eva? You're a new woman, why not a new life?"

The feeling of limitless opportunity and riches fuels everyone in Port Bonita--unexplored territory, inexhaustible timber, salmon runs that defy description. Ethan wanders out to the foothills, passing land grab claims, and finally comes to the head of a canyon where the Elwha thunders, and decides to build a cabin there, already dreaming of the mark he will make on the river. The first night, as he sleeps on a bed of spruce boughs, he's awakened by a howl, then a series of whoops and answering calls from the other side of the chasm--eerie, loud sounds, not owls, not elk. Perhaps the trapper and the Klallams weren't in thrall to dark imagination and myth. Perhaps there is something out there.

The characters in early Port Bonita are deftly drawn, and one of the many pleasures in West of Here is seeing how their personalities are carried over in their descendants. James Mather is an inveterate explorer, running out of virgin wilderness. But he wonders, what is the purpose of exploration but escape? Is he cowardice dressed up in snowshoes? Isn't Ethan throwing himself into the unknown just as bravely as Mather, but without the self-doubt? Indian George Sampson is a Klallam with a command of the King's English, a distaste for salmon and a fondness for sourdough bread. Dalton Krigstadt only hauls things, but comes up with an idea to harvest ice. Hoko, Thomas's mother, changes from an innocent girl to a bitter woman after the birth of her son--a mute and dreamy boy, following the sounds in his head. Adam has been taking a census of the territory and everything in it, but his current mission is to find out who is selling the natives liquor. Those drives, concerns and questions continue 100 years later for a new generation.

The Mather expedition leaves with five men, two mules and two dogs, starting out in a downpour. Inauspicious, but their morale is high--the terrain is easy, the fish plentiful, and they have worlds to conquer. Even the strange wailing in the night, like the "lament of some grizzled bagpipe," fails to dampen their spirits, but soon the terrain and the weather take their toll. After three months, they do not find Eden, but still another precipitous valley, and a terrifying mountain laden with blue glaciers and cut through with crevasses, a "sculptured face glowering at heaven"--Mt. Olympus. Mather wonders about the wisdom of embarking on this journey in the spring rather than winter. "But spring was too late. Destiny could not wait until spring."

In present-day Port Bonita, the weather is much the same, and the once-promising town is, according to Curtis, a teenage Klallam, "one big f***ing Wal-Mart." He meets with his guidance counselor about a job shadowing a tribal elder, but he balks. "Why couldn't his people just adapt? And what were they trying to sell him, anyway?... He knew being a Klallam back in the day wasn't all communing with nature and dancing with spirits. He knew about the slave trade.... He knew about the violence and hatred the Klallam had visited on the Tsimshians as well as the whites.... Funny, you never heard the elders singing that tune." But Curtis may be tied to his heritage more than he realizes; like Thomas, the Storm King, he wanders and has unsettling dreams.

So he goes with a shadow job at High Tide, the only seafood processor left in town. He reports to Krig, the production manager, who chafes at working for Jared, a state senator's son. "Where the hell was Thornburgh when Krig led the Bucket Brigade to the regional championship on the glory of his sweet stroke and sure-handed crossover, huh?... Who was pulling honor roll two years in a row? That's right, Krig. Not as dumb as he looked." Krig is in a dead end job and knows it; Jared shares his frustration: "How had his life been reduced to such trivialities?... Thornburghs didn't ponder the shipping cost of canned clams... [they] built dams out of mountains and put towns on maps!" At least Krig has a mission: he's a Sasquatch spotter, although he has only heard noises, not actually seen anything. He goes up the Elwha at night, armed with Sasquatch calls and a softball bat for making syncopated knocks on trees.

The characters in present-day Port Bonita are just as intriguing as the early settlers. Timmon Tillman is an ex-con who ends up there looking for a fresh start and just wants to be left alone. In search of solitude, he sets off into the wilderness with a modest store of food and five stolen library books. Franklin Bell is Tillman's parole officer, the only black man for miles. Bell hums Don Henley tunes, gives pep talks and drinks eggnog ("I know what you're thinkin'... what kinda dude drinks eggnog in June? Well, now, you take one look out that window and you tell me it looks like June, Tillman. Looks like goddamn Christmas to me.") Rita, Curtis's mom, has a dreary job gutting fish at High Tide. Hillary Burch works for Fish and Wildlife doing environmental impact studies, trying to predict how the landscape will react once the dam is removed; like Eva Lambert, she wants to make her way in the world unencumbered by society's expectations. Meriwether Lewis Charles, an elderly Klallam (and a sharp dresser), dispenses wisdom and caustic remarks with equal skill, and senses that Curtis "walks between worlds."

Jonathan Evison also walks between worlds in this sprawling, splendid novel. His sense of place is impeccable, as he limns a landscape of always-waning light, gray skies, snow and howling winds, driving rain, steady rain, drizzling rain and the omnipresent river, "a flashing silver serpent as it roared down the mountains." He captures the awesomeness and the beauty of the wilderness, coupled with man's desire to conquer it in a restless quest for adventure and riches.

At the same time that Evison is entertaining us with story and character, he also draws attention to thorny contemporary issues--habitat degradation, Native American alcoholism, dying small towns. Credit Evison's rich imagination for being able to combine the serious and the zany seamlessly in his storytelling, for bringing the Sasquatch into the same story in which Lord Jim, a Klallam elder, with his dying words, counsels us, "We are born haunted. Haunted by our fathers and mothers and daughters, and by people we don't remember. We are haunted by otherness, by the oath not taken, by the life unlived. We are haunted by the changing winds and the ebbing tides of history. And even as our own flame burns brightest, we are haunted by the embers of the first dying fire. But mostly, we are haunted by ourselves."--Marilyn Dahl


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