|photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Evan James grew up on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his debut novel, Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe (Atria, March 26, 2019), is set. His essays have appeared in Oxford American, the New York Times, Travel + Leisure and many other publications. He has an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in New York. He teaches creative writing to middle and high schoolers in Connecticut.
On your nightstand now:
Wit's End by James Geary, The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman, Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang, Seven Nights by Borges. I'm dipping in and out of things right now, and I like to read around on a lot of different topics. I'm about to go on book tour, so I plan on picking up very short books along the way that I can read on flights.
Favorite book when you were a child:
When I was really young, I had a copy of the Little Golden Books edition of The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown. I adored that book! In my memory it's about a couple of kittens in painters' suits getting wild with colorful paint.
Your top five authors:
Impossible! Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse were definitely touchstones for me when I started writing my novel, as was Oscar Wilde. I love writers with a powerful sense of structure and irony. And those who write brilliant dialogue. When I first started writing for newspapers, I was besotted with the great New Yorker humorists of yore: S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber. Tennessee Williams remains significant to me. I've gone way past five. All these people are dead, but I like a lot of living authors, too.
Book you've faked reading:
I try to lie to people a little less every year. I mean, I haven't read Wuthering Heights, 1984 or The Brothers Karamazov, but it doesn't keep me up at night. I wouldn't lie about it. I'll read them at some point--hopefully. I did once lie to someone in a bar about having read Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. A pretty bold one--I don't know how I managed to fake my way through having read a major science fiction epic, but it's easier to lie in loud places like bars.
Book you're an evangelist for:
When I worked in bookstores, I would often try to sell people on Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, about the life of an upper-middle-class Kansas City family between the World Wars. It astonished me the first time I read it. It's a beautifully crafted book and still feels totally fresh and fascinating to me. Another is Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar--a masterful and profound novel.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I probably bought The Musical Brain by César Aira for the cover. I'm interested in his work anyway, but there's no cover quite like it. It's a lenticular print; the effect is like one of those animated neon signs. I keep it face up on a low shelf in my apartment so that I can watch it doing its thing when I walk by.
Book you hid from your parents:
God, I hid so much from my family. I could be an obsessively private kid. In early Internet days, my other young teenage friends were excited about The Anarchist Cookbook, which was apparently circulating online and had instructions for making homemade explosives and LSD. One of them let me borrow some of the pages, which I'm sure I hid. I also had a habit of reading books about sex and sexuality at the Bainbridge Library.
Book that changed your life:
Don Quixote. I picked it up in my mid-20s after I had decided to devote myself more seriously to reading and writing. I was fully prepared to slog through an old classic--and it did become a slog several hundred pages in. At the beginning, though, I couldn't believe how riotous and chaotic the humor was. It also set the stage for my ongoing interest in books about people who are possessed by ideas.
Favorite line from a book:
Here's one: " 'Muffins stand for so much,' said Jenny." That's from Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Another, from Gogol's story "The Nose": "Perfect nonsense goes on in the world."
Five books you'll never part with:
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Mawrdew Czgowchwz by James McCourt and Ward Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. I love books that are concerned with the ache of the passage of time in some way. I'm also drawn to flamboyant style (see McCourt). The Farnsworth is one of the best books for writers on the topic of rhetorical craft that I've ever picked up.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. Another revelation at the time. It's one of those books that remind you that literature is full of distinct, singular triumphs of style and aesthetic vision.