Witness & Scrutiny: An Interview with John W. Evans

John W. Evans’s memoir Young Widower (University of Nebraska Press, $19.95) begins with the author imagining his place in a bookshop’s self-help aisle. Here he finds the cloying jargon, the “wistful elders look[ing] out plaintively from dust jackets,” but nothing that resonates with his experience: his wife, Katie, was mauled by a bear while the couple was hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. She was 30, Evans 29. Wandering the aisle, Evans says, “I tried to imagine the subsection where I would find some particular instruction after Katie’s death:

Personal Growth- Grief- Animal Attack- Bear- Coward

Personal Growth- Grief- Young Widower- Survivor- Hopelessness

Personal Growth- Grief- Youth- Widowed- Blank Slate- Free

Personal Growth- Grief- Violence-Witness- Failed Husband”

john_author-9Or really, Young Widower begins with Evans becoming irate when the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica remains out of stock at Blockbuster. This is a book concerned with the meditative tasks of grief, with the young artist’s experience of mourning and resilience, but also with the mundane details of getting on with it. Evans lives with his in-laws in an Indianapolis suburb, making chocolate chip cookies with his nieces and nephew and watching American Idol. He gets nagged for leaving the space heater running all day. He takes care of his cats.

Throughout all this, in therapy sessions, in emails to friends, and in his journal, Evans retells the story of his wife’s death. “Writing allowed me the tools to take a kind of self-cure: to pursue the completion of a narrative interrupted by her death,” he explains. Or as his therapist impresses upon him,  ”life would improve with witness and scrutiny.” The result is an account of unprecedented loss and of negotiating with narrative as self-preservation.

Evans (who now teaches creative writing at Stanford) was kind enough to answer my questions about the process of remembering and writing the first year of widowhood.

Kelsey Ronan: I vividly remember reading your essay “Elegy and Narrative” in Missouri Review three years ago, which has since become the first chapter of Young Widower. Did you know then that it was a chapter rather than an essay?

John W. Evans: I had a sense of “Elegy and Narrative” as a personal essay, but not a chapter. I wrote it trying to answer a question about my writing at the time, which was why new poems lacked the intensity and feeling of poems I had written in the first years after Katie’s death. I feared that I was writing in an elegiac mode, but perhaps I was losing some of the energy and attention of real elegy. I did find it immensely satisfying to pose questions and try to answer them in prose. “Elegy and Narrative” felt like new thinking and writing. I appreciated that. Much of the first draft held up through revision. Beyond my personal blog, I had never written prose, really. So, I turned to other questions to answer, which became other essays, and after a while, I began to see the structure of the memoir.

Ronan: You discuss keeping a journal throughout that first year after Katie’s death. Did you return to those journals as you wrote this? Is this the book of a widower looking back from several years on, or is there a kind of doubled perspective at work here?

Evans: I did spend a lot of time with those journals, especially when I wrote the long middle chapter, “The Legend of a Life.” I also went back and looked at many of the photographs from that day. I still keep the journals and photos in the small box of Katie’s effects that I describe in “Losing the Marriage.” When I wrote Young Widower, however, I could not really immerse myself in those materials. I ended up taking them down off the shelf and pretty quickly putting them right back up. They felt radioactive to me, especially the early pages of the journal.

I don’t think I could have written this book when I was thirty, grieving, walking to Blockbuster, etc. There would not have been the distance to engage the emotional or discursive range of the book. Also, on a practical level, the relationships within and outside of the family might have felt distinctly different. I would not have had the sense of things closing down that became clearer toward the end of that year, and in the following years. Also, I think that if I had written the book then, I might have come too close to something I really avoided in the book, which was a self-pitying posture about Katie’s death, her absence in the world, and my remembering her and us. So, I’m happy to have had the space and time to write this when I did.

Ronan: You delve into your past with Katie, but the narrative frame stays within that first year after her death. So much has happened to you since—the Stegner fellowship, remarriage, children. How did you decide when the story of Young Widowerwas over?

Evans: I made the choice at an early stage to keep Katie’s death at the center of the book, and to work associatively and lyrically to interconnect questions, themes, memories, etc. That question at the beginning of “Young Americans” was important to me: why begin to tell any story that I know is going to end abruptly and prematurely with Katie’s death? It seemed ridiculous to say there was a narrative arc to our life together, and especially awful to suggest there was one to Katie’s life. So, narrative was out. John Updike made an interesting choice in his memoir, Self-Consciousness. He chose six life events, and wrote about them with all the force and energy of representation. Following that model, especially early on, was helpful, in that it relieved me of a burden of feeling comprehensive.

The book ends with a ritual that held great meaning for family and friends during the year after Katie’s death: gathering in the nature preserve to visit her ashes and remember her together. For the one-year anniversary of her death, our gathering together seemed only to emphasize how individual our experiences of grief had become. That interested me: the failed ritual. It suggested an end. The book ends with my memory of sleeping next to Katie in Bucharest, and a failed superstition: knocking on the bedframe as we fell asleep and wishing for nothing bad to happen. I think that Young Widower ends where the rituals of grief are superseded by imagination and history. It’s reminiscent of that line in Swinburne, “and time remembered is grief forgotten.” How we remembered Katie, and found meaning in those memories, stopped being a shared experience, which is what I think happens to grief. The ritual failed us, or perhaps we failed each other, and whatever we did next in Katie’s memory, it wouldn’t be to grieve.

I keep over my desk a quote from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

“All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories…The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.”

—which I mention here to address your question of scope. My own life has changed considerably in these intervening eight years. I love this life dearly and I feel very blessed. But I don’t think that my fundamental experience of grief, or the absence of Katie in my life, is all that different. If anything, there is a loneliness to remembering her, and that life, because that life doesn’t—it can’t—continue into the present moment. With time, it feels more and more like a distinct life.

Ronan: I read on your blog that you’re working on a second memoir, Forgetting. Did you write Young Widower with the idea of a second book?

Evans: I didn’t write Young Widower with a second book in mind. But once I had finished it, it did seem interesting to think through how someone who had arrived at Young Widower’s conclusions about grief, meaning, temporality, and unreason, chooses to love and marry again, and perhaps, how some of those choices are different. So, that’s what I’m trying to do inForgetting. If it ends up being a giant consolation story after Katie’s death—this wonderful life that followed the terribly tragedy—then I think I’ll have to ask whether I am writing memoir, or something a bit more polemic and less literary, e.g., a self-help book, which I’ll scuttle in a heartbeat, if only that the timeline, and corresponding distance from the experience, wouldn’t be quite right.

Ronan: Near the end of the book, you discuss what it’s like to lose the intensity of that initial shock of grief: “Each time I imagine her death, I remember more of myself and think less of her.” It reminded me of a line I love from Mark Doty’sHeaven’s Coast: “I am glad I do not have to live, now, in quite the porous state these pages try to capture, but I am lucky to have been there, and to have been able to make some record, however halting, of those days.” How is this book different, eight years later, than it might have been had you written it earlier?

Evans: If I had written Young Widower any earlier, then I think I might have felt a lot of pressure to speak in an earnest and heartsick way about the best parts of my relationship with Katie, and to leave out the ambivalences, and also, the events of the day of her death. I might also have looked to frame the book with a reassurance to the reader about my continuing life. The idea that speaking honestly and directly about grief, loss, absence, trauma, unreason, etc., would be of any interest to anyone, and would not seem excessively disclosing in a bad way, would not have occurred to me in Indiana. So, in that sense, I think I needed the distance of those years to write the book I wrote. Heaven’s Coast is a beautiful memoir.

Ronan: In an interview, you said, “I keep open books I admire around me when I’m writing.” What were the books you kept around you when writing Young Widower? What books have been open as you’ve worked on Forgetting?

Evans: For Young Widower it was: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That, Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons, Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures, Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army, and Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog.

For Forgetting (so far), it has been: Emmanual Carrere’s My Life as a Russian Novel, Kate Brastrup’s Here If You Need Me,Cynthia Ozick’s Art and Ardor, Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Anne Lamott’sOperating Instructions, Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, Jorie Graham’s Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, Stephen Spender’s World Within World, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, Louise Gluck’s Proof and Theories, Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects, and Augustine’s Confessions.

Ronan: You’ve had two books come out in quick succession. How do you feel these books differ or complement each other? Are there ideas or moods you feel poetry gives you access to in a way that memoir does not, or vice versa?

Evans: I wrote most of The Consolations, then took a break from it and wrote Young Widower, and as soon as Young Widower was finished, I wrote the two long poems in the book, “The Consolations” and “The Legend of a Life.” So, there was definitely an interchange between the books, which felt to me like following one genre until it started to come up short, and then switching over and working in the other. I never did have all that much luck trying to write poetry and prose simultaneously. Working in one or the other still feels sacred and distinct. Of course, The Consolations comes much closer to the present moment than Young Widower.

Regarding your question about ideas and moods, I do feel much better at writing poetry with affection for the present moment. And, I was never able to write about the events of Katie’s death in poetry, in any way that felt representative or particularly moving. I think that’s because poetry always required some consideration of formal tradition, in a way that memoir never felt too distanced from its subjects and subject matter. Even now, I feel more comfortable writing poems about my present life, than I do prose.

Ronan: I went through the death of a boyfriend when I was 24, and I identified with your articulation of grief as something we associate with the elderly—“The iconography of widowhood was distinct and expressly excluded the young. Testimonials that consoled the death of a spouse—peace of mind, medical bills, inheritance claims—said little about the angst and worry of continuing to live for a very long time.” Did that missing place in the grief literature influence you to write this book? Did you ever have the sense that your incredible circumstances obligated you to write about them?

Evans: I was pretty angry that it was so hard to find a book about early widowhood, and then, even harder to find one that did not situate grief as a subtext of war, region, national consensus, etc. I didn’t write toward the absence, but it was helpful for my thinking about how extraordinary that year in Indiana was, for me, my family and friends, Katie’s family, even neighbors and colleagues. It’s frustrating that there cannot really be a normalcy to living with or after grief; that there is no decorum for it, except either to ignore it or bring it up and share with people, and either way, however deliberately it comes up, it’s pretty amazing how often people feel the need to instantly contextualize your loss, and acknowledge the life and events that follow it. Joan Didion calls it “a certain look,” and says that we used to know to bring over meals and sit with our neighbors after their loss. But loss is exceptional now, so it’s not surprising people don’t know how to live with it. Anyway, Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape was the closest I came to finding a book in the bookstore about young widowhood, and even that memoir makes a turn at the end to a kind of optimism that feels distinct from his experience of grief. The pressure to contextualize and explain away is intense: a consolation to the living, but a real challenge to the person living with grief. I wonder if that’s true to your experience.

Ronan: One thing I found especially effecting about the book, and that resonated for me personally, was the way you captured the normalcy of those months after Katie’s death. We imagine mourning with a lot of wailing and rending of garments, but really, you have a lot of days to get on with, and unless you’re living in a Victorian novel, that involves buying groceries and feeding your pets. And at the same time, grief places you in such a heightened state of awareness, such a strange experience of time, that those banal details seem sharper, stranger. What was it like to call up the suburbs of Indianapolis as you wrote this?

Evans: Memories of Indiana do encompass a lot of strange details for me about grief. It’s a surreal experience to be sitting at a desk, looking at photos and sobbing hysterically, and then twenty minutes later to rush to battle stations over whether the cats have a right to leave the room and the second floor. I kept my world there incredibly small. It was a huge deal to go to a movie, or for a walk, and I was easily restless. I was easily overwhelmed and often bored. I tried to get at some of those inconsistencies in “Cognitive Bandwidth.” Grief made things strange, and made me, at times, I’m sure, hard to live with. That said, I have a real fondness for Indiana. Everyone was so generous, and the city and state were such beautiful places to inhabit during my year. I spent so much of that year getting to know my nieces and nephew, and sister-in-law and brother-in-law. I certainly learned to want a family, and to be a father, while living with them from the safe distance of the live-in uncle. So, I’m grateful for that.