A Writer’s Insight: Evan Lavender-Smith

Evan Lavender-Smith’s “The Itch and the Touch” appears in the autumn 2017 issue of The Southern Review, and is reprinted on Longreads. Read Lavender-Smith’s insights about craft, doing justice to real-life characters in narrative nonfiction, and using humor as a tool for provoking an emotional response in readers that goes far beyond laughter.

Garrett Hazelwood: Grandpa John is an incredibly fascinating and charming character in this essay. He is also, of course, a brilliant storyteller. Have you written about him before? And whether this was your first attempt or fiftieth, how do you develop such a dynamic character on the page?

Evan Lavender-Smith: This was my first serious attempt. His depiction in the essay was largely guided by my feelings of love and admiration toward him, as well as the recent renewal of those feelings as I watched my children come to love and admire him themselves. Since he’s always had this larger-than-life presence for me, I have a deep well of memories to draw from; more than anything it was simply a matter of picking out some of the best. As with developing any character in a work of nonfiction, it can be tricky business navigating the character’s representation of a real-life human alongside the coloring of that real-world human’s personality that inevitably happens in the context of a deliberately structured piece of writing. But in this case it was probably a bit easier than usual: Grandpa John was always such a character in real life, so it never felt like a huge stretch to make that happen on the page.

GH: So much of your writing is deeply funny, even as it deals with weighty topics. In “The Itch and the Touch,” there is a constant push and pull between the playful and the poignant. Can you talk a bit about the different ways you use humor as a tool in your work?  

ELS: The humorous potential of a voice or form is often what guides me initially and keeps me interested. Sometimes things don’t progress any farther than that—it’s simply a playful piece of writing. But in other cases, like “The Itch and the Touch,” the humor eventually gives way to the possibility of something else, something more deeply felt. It may be that I use humor as something like a lure to keep the reader engaged for the length of time required for a deeper or more dynamic emotional response to become possible. I think that’s when I’m happiest about my writing, when I’ve figured out a way to get some good friction going between humor and pathos.

GH: Like so much of your writing, this essay is consistently surprising in its structure. What’s your approach to developing form? Do you make a conscious effort to create work that looks different on the page than what you’ve done before, or does the structure tend to arise organically from your subject matter?

ELS: Sometimes things magically begin with an ideal form, but more often than not I find myself writing toward the discovery of an appropriate form, trying to pay close attention to what the writing wants for itself (as opposed to what I might want for the writing). My process usually includes a series of missteps—trying to fit square pegs into round holes over and over again—until I start to see a pattern in the nature of the mistakes I’m making, and at last I’m able to say to myself, “You’re making the same mistake over and over again. Maybe it’s time to try something different?” In writing and life alike, my good decisions tend to come about through a process of exhausting my capacity for making bad ones. But I always try to keep my faith in a process of obsessively tinkering, knowing that if I don’t give up, the path forward will eventually reveal itself.

GH: In what is definitely one of the most heartwarming scenes of the essay, you describe bribing and threatening your children to give up Grandpa John’s war stories, motivated (at least in part) by the desire to somehow extend his life by sharing those narratives. It strikes me that this scene gets at an awkward situation many writers of nonfiction are forced to navigate. On the one hand, there is the feeling of perhaps stealing a story that isn’t yours. On the other, there’s the desire to celebrate the people in your life by sharing their stories with a wider audience. How do you negotiate that tension?

ELS: For me, the impulse to use other people’s stories in my writing needs to issue from a place of genuine compassion, otherwise it risks coming off as unfairly appropriative. And it can’t be a facile compassion—it has to be a compassion that’s undergone some reflection and interrogation, because often what one person considers compassion another will consider trespass. I commit what might be considered small acts of trespass on my kids’ lives all the time, for example, by regularly describing in my writing their struggles, their dreams, their fears, but I’m hopeful that it’s finally OK if only because I’m thinking about it so much, because I’m worrying about it so much. My anxiety about using real people in my writing ends up influencing their depiction, I think, or there exists about instances of potential trespass a sense of self-consciousness or self-doubt (or, in the case of “The Itch and the Touch,” of ironic self-confidence).

GH: You have a remarkable ability to weave tangents and recollections seamlessly into the main narrative that frames this story, maintaining the reader’s sense of always moving forward, even as we fracture off into other memories. In putting together an essay like this, how do you knit together all the pieces? Can you tell us a bit about your process?

ELS: With “The Itch and the Touch” it was initially a matter of deciding on the relatively limited scope of the present action—the drive with the kids over to Grandpa John’s place at Good Sam’s, etc.—and working on that part of the essay before finally growing bored with it and feeling I needed to loosen up the form if I was going to maintain the interest necessary to finish. So that’s when I started writing the stories that Grandpa John tells, and later the sequences that take place both in the recent past, like the episode about smuggling our puppy into Good Sam’s, and in the more distant past, like the description of having lived with my grandparents back in high school. I think that the trick to the knitting process you mention was, in this case, an attempt to enact through form a quality that would be somehow analogous to the narrator’s search for a way to wrap his head around the fact that Grandpa John is dying. The essay is a series of false starts, in a way, which is how I generally tend to approach the problem of death: I’ve made some valiant attempts but still haven’t figured out the right way to begin thinking extensively about the problem.

GH: What are you working on now? Any upcoming publications we should keep an eye out for?

ELS: I’m working on one of the last pieces in the essay collection that contains “The Itch and the Touch,” a long essay documenting my unlikely attendance at the Burning Man arts festival in Nevada last year. From the same collection, another essay, “Post-Its”—about trying and failing to encourage in my son an enthusiasm for reading literature—is coming out soon in New England Review. I also have some of the final stories from my unpublished story collection, The Family in Question, forthcoming in a couple of places: “Real Talk (III)”—a series of dialogues between a father and son talking about their faltering allegiance to vegetarianism—in Hotel Amerika; and “Two Unknowns”—a quick and dirty summary of the history of the evolution of the universe, life on Earth, and a writer’s drafting process—in the first issue of a new UK journal called Egress.

Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks. His writing has recently been published by BOMB, The White Review, and Hobart. He is the founding editor of Noemi Press and an assistant professor in the MFA program at Virginia Tech.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about his travels.

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