How do you get out of bed in the morning when you have lost the dearest, most precious thing to you in the world?
That’s the question that novelist Jonathan Evison puts before readers with protagonist Benjamin Benjamin in his latest novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. It’s not far into the novel that we learn that his loss is one of the deepest imaginable: his two young children have been killed in an accident which he may or may not have been responsible for. Ben is by turns vulnerable, self-effacing and angry as he tells his own story:
“Listen to me: everything you think you know, every relationship you’ve ever taken for granted, every plan or possibility you’ve ever hatched, every conceit or endeavor you’ve ever concocted, can be stripped from you in an instant. Sooner or later, it will happen. So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact: nothing is indestructible.”
The heartbreak of loss is an affliction Evison has faced since he was 5 years old, the age he lost his sister. As he explained to Think Out Loud’s Allison Frost, “This happened almost four decades ago and my family still feels the reverberations of it.”
Evison, who says he lives with a “sister-sized hole” in his heart, constructs this book from the vantage point of how he perceives reality, interjecting both immense sorrow and hope into the narrative. “The thing about hope is, it’s a shape shifter … you can’t always look for hope where you found it in the past,” says Evison.
Evison says he drew on challenges he faced during his mid-30s to create the foundation for his main character Benjamin. Evison had written six novels, one collection of short stories and a memoir, all of which were unpublished. He was working at a frozen yogurt shop and dealing with the recent infidelity of his first wife. It was a rough time in his life. In a moment of bitter catharsis he actually dug a hole, threw three of his works in it and “salted the earth … so nothing would ever grow there again.”
“It wasn’t funny while it happened,” Evison says, “but when I stepped back and looked at it through a fictive lens, I wound up in some really absurd and hilarious situations.”
His life changed with his seventh work All About LuLu, a moment when he found literary fame.
These days, Evison is not taking anything for granted. Since All About LuLu he has published two acclaimed novels. He is in the process of finishing one work while diving into the research for another. As for his older novels, the few that were spared from the hole and salt, one day they may see the light of day. “Maybe in like 18 [years] when my daughter needs some college money,” laughs Evison. “For a guy who had no plan four years ago, I’ve really taken this planning thing to extremes.”
Listen to the full conversation with Jonathan Evison on Think Out Loud.