A Novel for 2018’s Moribund American Dream
"Lawn Boy" author Jonathan Evison on the changed meaning of America, and how literature should reckon with it
Jonathan Evison may be a bestselling author now, but he was broke for most of his life. At the age of twelve, he started working odd jobs and continued to do so until his first novel was published in 2008 at the age of 40. In the decade since, he has written five emotionally resonant and quirky funny novels.
His latest book, Lawn Boy, follows Mike Muñoz, a young, struggling landscaper who grew up on a reservation and now works as hired help in a wealthy neighborhood near Seattle. The book uses the struggles to the working class poor to ask whether the American Dream that we know and cling to is still attainable today.
I spoke with the author about how the meaning of the Dream has changed, and how literature can reckon with the shift.
Adam Vitcavage: Let’s talk about being broke, the unfortunate state of many a writer, and a serious problem for families and individuals across the U.S. You’ve talked before about being poor for a long period of your life. How did those years shape you?
Jonathan Evison: Working hard was just a continuation of my childhood, really. We never had any money. My mom was a single mom of four kids, originally five, so I started working young. [When I was an adult], I was really compelled to write. For most of my adult life, I didn’t usually work more than thirty hours a week which was to protect my writing time. I just made the decision to be broke and live on rice cakes and cheap beer so I could have more time to write. It’s so hard to give yourself fully to writing if you have to work a full work day. It’s why I don’t teach.
My life hasn’t changed. I have money from writing now, and that’s awesome. The money doesn’t make me happier. I was always happy to have the work. As long as I have just what I need, you know?
AV: When did you start to write?
JE: Third grade. My family started falling apart after my sister died in a freak accident. My dad left us. I just had a lot of external pressures pushing against me. I’m bipolar and I was always a manic kid. Thank god they didn’t put me on Ritalin. I started to become a handful in school and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Handford, saved my life. She saw I had a thing for writing and she just let me sit in a corner and write. She made a writer out of me.
I got published in fourth grade and then nothing for thirty years. Eight, nine books and hundreds of rejections. But writing is how I manage my freaky-biochemistry. I can get a lot of stuff done but I finally realized in my forties is that the real reason I write books is because I like the focus. I need to focus. When my mind is going a hundred different directions, writing has always been there for me. It’s something I can really get inside of.
AV: What gets you focused when it comes to writing?
JE: I approach writing like an athlete. I write for two or three days in my cabin for sixteen hours a day. All week long I am preparing myself mentally for my workflow, making notes organizing my thoughts. By the time I get to my cabin, I can finally focus and get into writing pretty easily. It’s a lot of mental preparation.
I have three kids, so I don’t have a lot of me time. I’m always tending to someone else’s needs. I’m not complaining though. My wife sometimes thinks I’m sitting around, drinking beer and listening to records, which I am, but that’s not me time. I disappear completely into the story when I’m writing. I’m not even aware of my surroundings. People always say how beautiful my cabin is for writing, but I don’t really notice. I’m just inside of my story. Maybe I’m an escapist.
AV: What inspired you to write a story about a struggling landscaper?
JE: Wealth disparity and social imbalances. I think the American Dream is pretty moribund. We teach The American Dream as a 20th Century, post-war ideology but it has a different meaning in 2018. I wanted to write a book about how poverty, race, and class could thwart aspirations. A lot of people with money don’t understand what it’s like for the working poor. They can’t wrap their brains around somebody working two jobs and still having to live in their car. It’s so abstract for some people.
I always wanted to write a novel about class. West of Here was my novel about history. I wanted to subvert all of the tropes in history. I always wanted to do that with class, but with a wider scope. Every now and then I will just write anonymously. I started writing a blog by a landscaper called Mike Muñoz Saves the World. It looked like a 1996 website with this murky, shit brown background, terrible html and corny little lawnmower gifs. I was just screwing around when I found the irreverent working class voice I needed: Mike. The theme of class just embodied itself in him.
AV: How much of your personal landscaping experiences have seeped into Mike’s story?
JE: Anytime the novel waxes poetic about landscaping, that’s me. I love the instant gratification that comes with working with my hands. In fact, I just mowed an acre before I got on the phone with you. Mike is mixed, but identifies as white. Obviously, I’m just a white guy. Mike was based on my nephew, who’s his age and like a son to me. All of those experiences are based on observations I have had.
I’m in all of my characters. I’m even in Harriet from This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! I think there are universal emotional responses to things. There’s always the saying to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. Take that a step further and strip away the self. Instead of being a 49 year old guy, I was a 79 year old woman. My history was her history. You start piling that stuff on and the new character’s decisions start to become real. That’s the greatest thing for me: coming out of the other end of a book and feeling like I’m a more expansive person.
The range of experience I can access without having to leave a chair is what keeps me about writing. I write about reinvention, that’s the unifying nature of my works, but I love exploring the lives of characters. I can ride a bus through downtown Seattle and my mind is racing. I can see a guy out the window standing on a corner wearing a jacket and my mind is thinking about what his home life is like.
AV: I know a lot of high school teachers use The Great Gatsby as the gateway to introduce students to the American Dream —
JE: The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel for WASPs. I’m not degrading the book; it’s a beautiful book. It’s an amazing, luminescent piece of literature. But for me, it’s just the Great American Novel for a very small cross section of the world. If I were to look at the Great Jewish American Novel, for instance, I would suggest What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. I wanted to write the Great American Landscaping Novel. I wanted to write the Great American Novel for the working class poor.
AV: What are the plans now that the Great American Landscaping Novel is out in the world?
I turned in a new book last week. The working title is Legends of the North Cascades. It’s a big book that jumps through 15,000 years of history about the American Northwest.