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Jonathan Evison gets in touch with his inner 80-year-old woman for 'Harriet Chance'

Part of Jonathan Evison is an extrovert, the kind of author who remembers names and does 70 book events a year. Another part of him is a nature boy, the man who retreated to Bainbridge Island off Seattle in his 20s for its woods and counterculture. And a third part of him, these days, is an 80-year-old woman who is having visions of her dead husband.

He channeled her for his latest novel, "This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" Although Evison is known for writing richly empathetic characters — in the bestselling "West of Here" and "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving" — an octogenarian woman might seem like a stretch for a dad in his 40s. But his personal history prepared him for nothing in particular, except perhaps for being a novelist.

"When I was 17 years old, I lived with my agoraphobic grandmother in a senior citizen trailer park," Evison recalls. "I was going to community college. I did her grocery shopping, cleaned up after her, basically was her caregiver. I loved the hell out of her — she drank 12 beers a day, smoked like a chimney, we sat and watched 'Rockford Files' and got along great. But the interesting thing — I was the only person under 65 in this whole community."

The large mobile-home park was home to a couple of hundred seniors, mostly elderly widows. "What impressed me was watching these women, once they got out from under their husbands, reinvent themselves. Like wildly, this late in life," he says. "That was almost 30 years ago. I've always been impressed by an elderly person's ability to change."

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In the book, Harriet is confronted with change: She has lost her husband and favors her son over her daughter. As she prepares to take an Alaskan cruise with her best friend, she wrestles with a variety of memories presented in short chapters that alternate with accounts of the present day, framed by a humorous narrator who has the breathless enthusiasm of the old "This Is Your Life" television show.

"Who is that striking young lady just left of the mistletoe, poised in the sapphire blue evening dress with the portrait collar, looking ladylike in her long white gloves — the one who looks like a slightly chubby Susan Hayward? In the right light, anyway, at the right angle, after enough buttered rum. Why it's you, Harriet Nathan, at your father's Christmas party."

The narrator sounds a little like a radio announcer, and it should come as no surprise that Evison, who has a resonant, scratchy voice, was once a drive-time radio host. It's one of the many jobs he had — including landscaper, busboy, caregiver and warehouse worker — before becoming a writer.

Evison never actually studied writing — he attended community college sporadically and eclectically, taking a class on Hegel three times because he wanted to get everything out of it. As an author, he learned by doing. Before finding a home for his 2008 debut, "All About Lulu," an indie hit, Evison had completed eight unpublished novels.

"Three of them are actually buried ... decomposed by now," he says.

"I feel like the only way to arrive at an original voice is failing and trying. You know what I mean?" We're talking by phone as he walks in the woods by his house, his breath occasionally catching. "I'm very proud that I mentor a lot of young writers. But I don't really want to teach them, because I feel like I'm doing them a disservice. I want them to figure it out."

Evison, who has called himself a manic writer, tends to set impossible deadlines and meet them. Maybe it's because he never had the luxury of the college-and-MFA route; maybe it's because he knows he got a late start.

"Before I had kids, I was a real workmanlike get-up-at-5, work-till-noon, six-days-a-week kind of guy. But there's a lot of navel-gazing and staring out the window and other extracurricular activities going on in that seven hours," he says.

Now that he has a family, his routine has changed. He lives on Bainbridge Island with his wife and two young children; his mother, who might run into a character like Harriet Chance at her church, lives nearby. Evison focuses on his family when he's there and then retreats to a remote cabin on the Olympic Peninsula each week for a three-day writing binge.

"What I've found is that it builds up through the week. When I get there and sit down now, it comes out more developed. I've been dreaming it as I walk my daughter in the stroller," he says. "I'm probably working the same amount of hours, maybe less, but the time is so much more focused and productive."

Even so, it was only in the last drafts of "Harriet Chance" that he hit upon using the voice-over narration as a way to frame her life. In the present, she seems to be a contented grandmother, but the flashes of her past begin to reveal her ambitions and frustrations and the heartbreak she has refused to acknowledge.

"I was so excited when I arrived on it," Evison says of the narrator, who enabled him to fracture the linearity of the early drafts. "To reorganize the information like a thriller writer would do."

But "Harriet Chance" doesn't have a thriller's edge; it is infused with Evison's characteristic empathy and heart and humor. Its tension emanates from the relationships Harriet has botched and from our changing understanding of who she is and what's at risk. ("I always look at the reader as my best tool," he says.)

As a writer, he's got a talent for character, emotion and pacing. His hope is that the "the reader [will] glean something intuitively even a little beforehand, so the reading experience will be pleasurable."

"It's like this dance," he adds. "The reader's gotta do everything I do backwards, in heels."

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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Jonathan Evison

What: The author reads and signs "This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!"

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

 

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