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Washington state award-winner keeps success in perspective

Jonathan Evison's first novel won critical acclaim, launched a national book tour, netted a film deal and this month beat out a host of literary luminaries to win the 2009 Washington State Book Award.

Not bad for a guy who barely graduated from Bainbridge High School and spent the last two decades working as a telemarketer, bartender, rotten-tomato sorter, and "a roadkill hacker-upper and bear feeder," among other odd jobs. Winning the state's top literary prize, Evison said, was unthinkable just over a year ago, when he was digging ditches for Bainbridge landscapers.

"It may take 20 years of dragging your bump around without dental insurance, but it could happen," he said with a laugh. "Let that be a lesson for the kids."

With the win, Evison joins a select group that reads like a who's who of the Northwest's most respected writers: Jonathan Raban, Ivan Doig, Sherman Alexie, Raymond Carver. This year, the award's list of fiction finalists was dominated by Bainbridge Islanders: Evison for "All About Lulu," David Guterson for "The Other," and Carol Cassella for "Oxygen."

"It's a great honor," Evison said. "For someone who got a 1.9 GPA and dropped out of college, it feels good to get a nod from the literary establishment.'"

Published in early 2008, "All About Lulu" is an offbeat coming-of-age story. The protagonist, who Evison admits shares a good deal of his own biography, is a mild-mannered vegetarian raised in a family of meat-loving competitive bodybuilders. An unrequited obsession with his self-destructive stepsister propels the novel through adventures in late night radio DJ-ing, hot dog vending, Western philosophy and into the worlds of characters with names such as Big Bill and Acne Scar Joe.

Interest in "Lulu" built slowly, initially earning plaudits from a younger group of readers and alternative publications such as Seattle's The Stranger weekly. Then Hollywood came calling and the more traditional literary publications began taking note.

All the while, Bainbridge book lovers provided robust support that Evison said was invaluable in launching his career. He also credits the Bainbridge Public Library for hosting his speaking engagements, promoting him in book clubs and prominently displaying copies of the novel.

"Bainbridge Island is so supportive," he said. "It's a mecca for writers for a reason."

Growing up on Bainbridge in the late 1970s and '80s, Evison was more interested in punk rock and skateboarding than putting words on paper.

Throughout his many dead-end careers, Evison remained a reader especially of Jack London, Charles Dickens and Kurt Vonnegut and found time to write several novels and screenplays.

"The first couple I knew were turkeys half way through writing them, but I had to finish them so I could learn," he said.

His skills as a writer grew, but so did a stack of rejection letters. As his 40th birthday approached, Evison almost gave up writing.

"I burned the rejection letters, all of them, and buried the six or seven novels, and salted the earth," he said. "It was cathartic. I was holding on to the rejection. But, I swear to God, after I did that snap, snap, snap the stories that were getting rejected were getting accepted."

He was able to quit his ditchdigging gig shortly after "Lulu" was published.

His second book, which he describes as a "Northwestern Western" was recently picked up by a large publisher and is set for release next fall. Set in a fictionalized Port Angeles, the book spans 125 years and mixes in plenty of "whores, whiskey and mud," he said.

His half-done third novel borrows heavily from Evison's years working as a caregiver in Kitsap County.

"On Bainbridge Island and Poulsbo there's so many (people) who're afraid they're going to end up in the book," he said. "I have a T-shirt that says 'Careful, or you'll end up in my novel.'"