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Q&A with All About Lulu author Jonathan Evison
What do you do when your one true love also happens to be your stepsister? That's the problem faced by Will Miller, protagonist and frequent narrator of All About Lulu
(Soft Skull, 338 pages, $14.95). For almost fifteen years, amid hilarious family antics, he struggles to seduce his charismatic sibling. As you might expect, it ends up hurting them both.
As a first novel, Lulu
is a mixed bag: author Jonathan Evison's strong voice and his talent for laugh-out-loud humor are checked by irrelevant subplots and several sinister similarities to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
. Click here
to read the full review.
But Evison is definitely an author to watch. This week, Tome Raider
caught up with him by phone to discuss family values, Nabokov parallels and Hot Dog Heaven.
Tome Raider: Talk about your previous writing experience.
Jonathan Evison: I've been at this a long time. I wrote my first novel when I was 19, buried it when I was 20. I even salted the earth, so nothing would ever grow there again. After a few more tries, I kind of got side-tracked. I was a syndicated radio show host; I wrote a comedy show called Shaken Not Stirred; I even wrote several screenplays on contract, but it was all vaguely dissatisfying. What I always wanted to do was write novels. I finally got it right with Lulu
How did All About Lulu get its start? Was there an image or an episode that prompted you to write the book?
You know…just sort of an idea. I knew that I wanted to write a coming-of-age story. I also wanted it to be a story about the state of the affairs of the American family over a certain period of time—in this case, from about the Summer of Love to the dot-com bubble. And I knew I wanted to write a love story. When I combined those three elements, I came up with Lulu
I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that you've read Lolita. Have you?
Oh yeah. I'm a big Nabokov fan. It's funny: so many people have made that connection. To me, the Catcher in the Rye
parallels are more obvious. But Powell's made the Lolita
connection, and the San Francisco Chronicle, too.
In what ways do you think All About Lulu is similar to Lolita?
I can see where Lolita
probably had a huge influence on me. I think the greediness of [Will Miller's] wanting to keep Lulu to himself is similar. Also the theme of obsession. Quite honestly, I think a lot of it is the fact that her name begins with an “L”. Some of the rhapsodic passages are probably reminiscent of Humbert waxing rhapsodic about Lolita
. I'm thinking of the beginning of the book—you know, the trip of the tip of the tongue, that famous opening passage.
You incorporate the work of a number of classical philosophers in the novel—specifically in the form of Will's college essays—but at times they seem irrelevant. What do you think is philosophy's role in All About Lulu?
The reason I chose to include Will's actual philosophy papers was to show how these ideas were affecting him. And I wanted to do it in a way that was stepping outside of him. Some people might think that it's kind of a clunky convention, that I just kind of threw those papers in there, but I did it very consciously.
In your opinion, how does Will Miller change across the course of the novel?
[pause] I think he ultimately realizes…I think he comes of himself. Lulu is kind of just a shadow of a bigger shadow, his mother. In order for him to thrive, he needs to come out from under those shadows. Ironically, in a world where everything's measured in mounds of muscle and flesh, he sort of finds his center in this disembodied voice, in the radio.
Twice in the novel, Will Miller refers to his own “black little heart” and his “dark little heart.” What do you mean by that? In what way is his heart black?
He's just being very honest about his guilt. He's harboring this secret, his obsession with Lulu, and I think that's a very human impulse, one we've all felt. You know when he kind of savors breaking Troy's heart by giving him the news about Lulu? I think Will holds himself accountable for those sorts of things.
How serious is what Will did to Lulu?
I don't think he did anything to Lulu. It was only in retrospect that he realized what she was struggling with, that he realized what he did to her. I mean, he did
do something to her, but he didn't do it consciously. [pause] I guess I don't know what he did to Lulu. I mean, they were very much in love with each other. But finding out [that they're half-siblings] suddenly changes the context.
You just said that Will isn't conscious of how he is hurting Lulu. But the novel seems to be dotted with moments of self-awareness, moments where Will says “I'm not proud of what I did.” How do you explain that?
I think that's the adult meta-narrative. In most cases the instances you're referring to represent the adult Will intruding in the narrative. For that reason, some people think that the [epilogue]…might be a little glib. But it's there because the novel starts from the perspective of the adult Will, and for me the [epilogue] is just kind of a reprise.
Do you think that there is a moral dimension to Will's relationship with Lulu?
That's a really interesting question. It's funny, because I often think of a moral vision when I write something. But in this particular case, I've gotta say that I didn't really weigh the moral vision of it that much. I guess I just sort of attached myself to the tragic alignment of these two souls. I don't know if I have an answer to that.
So ultimately Will and Lulu find out that they aren't just stepsiblings; rather, they're half-brother and half-sister. Talk about your decision to use that plot device.
The end wasn't really designed to be a reveal—although it ends up being a reveal for about 80% of readers. I guess…I don't want to oversimplify, but most great love stories have some sort of tragic road block stopping them. Something that stands between the people so that they can't be together, whether it's distance or some other relationship. I'm thinking of…Wuthering Heights
What's with the title? Is the novel really all about Lulu? Sometimes it doesn't seem that way.
For me the novel was about Will coming into himself; it really wasn't all about Lulu. The title's sort of ironic in that respect. The “all” is the emphasis. Throughout the novel, we don't
really know all about Lulu, you know?
How does the Hot Dog Heaven subplot fit into the fabric of the novel?
I think some people feel that the book is a little delineated there—like, where's Lulu? What's happening with Hot Dog Heaven? They may even see that as some sort of shortcoming to the novel's structure. But that was by design. I mean, that's just how life goes: you discover more things. That's the beginning of Will's emerging out from beneath the shadow of Lulu.
What about when Doug tells Will that he's gay? That caught me by surprise.
It's less an issue of a change in Doug and more an issue of Will's changing aperture. When Will is young, he sees his family—especially Doug—as cartoonish and ridiculous. But as he gets older and his understanding deepens, these people become whole. It's the same with Ross. Throughout the book, Ross is treated as sort of a buffoon. But he actually has a deeper understanding of Doug—he's seen this all along.
Now that you've had some time to reflect on the novel, what do you think are its greatest strengths?
I don't want to sound pompous, but I think the thing that people attach themselves to the most is the voice. Readers find Will to be a very companionable narrator. It's interesting—people tend to read the book really fast. I mean, most people I've talked to have said, ‘man, I read it in like three days.'
Is there anything that you would have done differently?
I'm glad to say, no. I mean, I probably rewrite things between 12 and 20 times, so I've had time to consider. I've yet to read a review that made me think, you know what? That criticism is right. But definitely ask me again in five years.
So what are you working on now?
The novel is called West of Here
, and it's very, very different from Lulu
. I wanted to write a novel with a really large historical scope that had a lot of postmodern ambitions but didn't read like an experiment. It's got 41 separate third-person limited POV's—all these tiny apertures.
What's the plot?
It starts in 1889 on the Olympic Peninsula. Half of it takes place in 1889, and half of it takes place in 2006. The thing that ties those two epochs together—the bridge—I don't really want to give away. It's kind of the mystery of the novel.
Come on, just a teaser?
I guess I can
say…OK, in 1889 this guy comes to this little town in the wilderness and begins to construct a giant dam, which eventually kills off one of the largest salmon runs in the world. It's all done without a thought to the consequences. But in 2006 the dam is coming down. It's crazy, dude. It's got like, Colonel Sanders and Bigfoot, and all kind of ecological destruction.