The Man Who Started It All: An interview with EVENT’s Founding Editor, David Evanier
The past catches up with us in the strangest ways.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from EVENT Editor Elizabeth Bachinsky: ‘David Evanier has discovered our tote bags! New Yorkers are buying them because they are so random!’ That was it. A short flurry of tweets, emails and Facebook messages later, we were back in contact with the man who started EVENT.
David Evanier founded EVENT in 1971, when Douglas College was little more than a collection of trailers. Around this time, Jon Paul Henry—an editorial assistant at the time, and now an English instructor at Douglas College—took a black-and-white photograph of Evanier (and his memorable sideburns). The photo became an iconic image for EVENT and, in 2012, the image was incorporated into the design for our promotional tote bags—tote bags just weird enough to pique the interest of idiosyncratic New York writerly types, who’ve been buying them up since early March.
Though he moved on from EVENT in 1973, Evanier hasn’t stopped writing. In the last four decades, he’s published several books and countless pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. He also served as the editor of The Paris Review. Now he spends about 12 hours per day working out of the Writers Room, an urban writers’ colony in Manhattan. His current project is a biography of Woody Allen.
It was time to reconnect with our roots and rediscover our history. The following is from an online conversation between Evanier and EVENT Web Editor Joshua Grant.
EVENT: How did it feel when you saw your face on our tote bags?
David Evanier: I was elated when I discovered the tote bags. I had Googled my name and there they were. It was a wonderful feeling to have Douglas College and EVENT recognize me this way. It brought back a flood of memories about Douglas and EVENT, about some of my most gifted students there—Jacqui Polk, David Falconer, Lyle Lonneberg, Laverne McPhail and Bea Dawson, wondering where they are and how they are doing. I had, of course, been in touch with Jon Paul Henry. I remembered being interviewed for the job by Don Porter and George Wootton. The moment I mentioned having worked at the New York Times, Don Porter’s eyes lit up and left no doubt that I was hired. I met my wife Dini the first semester at Douglas and we were married in 1970. And I know I’ve mentioned him a lot, but George—George Wootton—he was the soul of Douglas, ever-questing, galvanizing, full of passion and emotion and churning ideas and good vibes. And a very kind and generous man. I never stop thinking of him. And other characters who were part of my life then: David Watmough, the talented Vancouver writer and playwright who introduced me to James Colistro, editor of a new show-business publication he was founding, Stage Door. I went on from UBC to become editor of Stage Door in Toronto, a riotous and happy time that ended very quickly and brought me back to Vancouver and the hiring by Douglas College. And I cannot forget my mentors at UBC, Doug Bankson and Jacob Ziilber of the Creative Writing department, and of course Cherie Smith and Buddy Smith, who started November House and published my first novel.
E: I’ve had a look at your website. It looks like you’ve been busy for the past 40 years! Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve been working on lately?
DE: I’m currently working on a biography of Woody Allen. My most recent books are The Great Kisser, a novel; a biography of Tony Bennett, All the Things You Are; and a biography of Bobby Darin, Roman Candle. My novel about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage case, Red Love, has recently been reissued as an e-book.
E: Writing a biography can be as elusive as the life it covers. With Woody Allen notably, recent allegations have cast his history in a troubling light. What are your thoughts on being a biographer as an interpreter of others’ lives? What do you feel is your responsibility?
DE: It’s essential to capture the full complexity of any person’s character and life. Obviously I cannot be judgmental or be enticed by colourful accounts, pro or con, by interviewees. I must respect the artist. Woody Allen is a revolutionary. He came and conquered the entire world and even his earliest standup comedy is still timeless. So, objectivity and fairness are my objectives.
E: You’ve published a lot of non-fiction/biographical works. Is that a recent passion, or were you interested in life stories while you were with EVENT?
(If you’ve been following us, you’ll notice that one of our biggest features is our yearly creative non-fiction contest. I think it’s interesting that though EVENT and you have gone separate ways, we’ve both “found” non-fiction.)
DE: I was always interested in character study above all, and in dialogue that captured the essence of the character I was writing about. The line for me between fiction and non-fiction is a thin one. Sometimes, as a result, I will insert a real name into a story or novel. It’s obvious that certain people we encounter are fabulous talkers. They just have to open their mouths and we know we can just sit back and write down what they say without altering it. Is that still fiction? Who cares as long as it works? Some Italians are fabulous talkers; so are some blacks and Jews. Night guards, lonely people who have no one to talk to, are haunting talkers. Some true stories are so fantastic they have to be told straight and not be disguised as fiction. I think that’s true of my book Making the Wiseguys Weep (which will be a movie, by the way), my biography of Jimmy Roselli, the singer who called himself “the sweetheart of the Mafia.” It’s true that the Mafia did love him, and when I interviewed many of the characters around Roselli, I just could not have invented dialogue better than what I heard from them. I thought in my early days as a writer that only fiction was real literature. Now it’s obvious to me that great writing can come from many different genres. If it jumps off the page and grabs you, it’s great, period. Autobiographies like A Life by Elia Kazan, A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin, and Act One by Moss Hart are masterpieces.
E: What was going on—in your head, in your life—when you started EVENT?
DE: I had just graduated from UBC, where I’d gotten an MA in Creative Writing. I wanted to implement my ideals and convictions about literature in a magazine that published only the best, most alive writing I could find. I really wanted to publish the work of writers I loved—those known to me and those I discovered. Charles Bukowski, with whom I was corresponding for years, was emerging as a great talent, and I published him in many issues. I also had many contacts in the publishing world and was able to go to writers like Cynthia Ozick, Charles Reznikoff and Harvey Shapiro, all of whom I had the deepest regard for. I had just gotten married and I had just published my first novel, The Swinging Headhunter, with November House in Vancouver. The creative director, Cherie Smith, had formed November House with the help of her husband, Julian (Buddy) Smith, who was a major force in the book business in Vancouver. She was idealistic and discerning as well, and had discovered and published some marvelous writers in B.C., including Bill T. O’Brien, whose Summer of the Black Sun endures as a wonderful novel. I published Bill’s work in an early issue of EVENT. That was one of the high points for me, as I loved his work.
E: Amazing. It seems that you were pretty prescient regarding Bukowski and others. May I ask, are there any writers that you regret turning down?
DE: No, not one. George Plimpton, my boss at The Paris Review, told me that I had a built-in shit detector. But when you turn down writers, some of them NEVER forgive you. When my work has been turned down, I feel terrible, but I try again, and again, unless I don’t respect the editor. My first job, before Douglas, was in the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times. I was at the front desk and a writer came storming in looking for Christopher Lehman-Haupt, an editor who had written a negative review of his book. The writer was beet red, shaking his fists, screaming, “Where is he? I’m going to kick him in the balls.” Curiously, I found a lot of this writer’s old novels on a book stall recently and thought of this incident. He’s one of the forgotten ones.
E: How did you come up with the name?
DE: I wanted each issue to be a notable event, a memorable event.
E: Can you give us a picture of what it was like to work on the first few issues of EVENT?
DE: I’d had journalistic experience in New York, working at the New Leader, a very fine weekly magazine, as well as at the New York Times, where I’d been an editorial assistant. Then I’d gotten my Master’s in Creative Writing from UBC, and Douglas was my first teaching job. We were starting from scratch, just like Douglas itself, experimenting, putting things together, learning about distribution, printing—the quality of paper, things like that. We had unconditional love and support from Douglas’s two leaders, George Wootton and Don Porter. They were different personalities, but each was memorable. George Wootton was a firebrand, a kind of educational revolutionary in his purple shirts, his galvanizing rapid-fire speech which could leave you almost breathless with its brilliance and erudition. It was a challenge to keep up with the fertility and innovativeness of his mind. He had the ability to coalesce and distill all kinds of information. All he wanted was excellence and he got it. Don Porter was quieter, calmer, but remarkably intelligent and insightful. (By the way, George Wooton’s mother, Hilda Richards, was a writing student of mine.)
E: In the first few years, what did you have in mind for the future of the magazine?
DE: I wanted to maintain the standards of excellence that are the only reasons for a literary magazine to exist. I hoped to expand the cultural scope of the magazine into film and theatre as well. I loved a film Gordon Pinsent wrote, directed and acted in called The Rowdyman, which had been filmed in the town of Corner Brook in Newfoundland. I featured the film and Pinsent himself in one issue of EVENT and hoped, in the future, to expand that kind of cultural coverage.
E: EVENT would have been very different indeed if we had included writing on film and multimedia rather than maintaining a focus on words. Tell me, what are your most vivid memories from the early era?
DE: There was the excitement of a new college that had the highest ideals, that was a little Renaissance in the heart of New Westminster, Surrey and Richmond. Douglas grew so quickly; no obstacles seemed to impede it. Nothing seemed impossible. The faculty I knew had been carefully selected and it was idiosyncratic, unique, gifted. Many terrific Canadian writers were emerging or had emerged, including Margaret Lawrence, Alice Munro, Pat Lowther and Mordecai Richler, among them.
E: What were your feelings on leaving EVENT?
DE: Too much sorrow. I came back a couple of years to visit, and almost stayed.
E: After EVENT, you moved on to The Paris Review. How was that experience?
DE: George Plimpton was very generous toward me. He called me from a plane to tell me he was publishing a story of mine. Then he published two more. Then I started reading from the slush pile for him and coming up with discoveries. And so he hired me as Fiction Editor. It was a very glamorous world of George’s, full of the beautiful people. I was not comfortable in it. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to eat at Elaine’s or hang out with Norman Mailer. But part of it was certainly my own problem. They call it fear of success and I would call it an inferiority complex. I got over it. I guess I saw that world as corrupting and I was a purist in those days. But in fact the literary world is saturated with these types of people, and some of them are brilliant and some of them are shnooks. I also went to Hollywood on a screenwriting fellowship from Stephen Spielberg’s Chesterfield Film Company and stayed there from 1993 to 2002. That’s a whole different kind of literary world where the money, if you make it, is so big and tempting you can’t wait to sell out. One of my first acts was to visit the house where Bukowski had lived on Delongpre Avenue. (There was also a bookstore in Hollywood run by a guy named Big Red that was a shrine to Bukowski: it sold only Bukowski books). I’m still in shock from that world, although Nathanael West got it right in Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts in 1939. I thought I would enjoy all that sleaze, but I got over it.
E: Are you working on anything else at the moment?
DE: My other projects are my novel in progress and a biography of Morton Sobell, who was convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union along with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I wrote of Morton fictionally in my novel Red Love. I also have three of my novels coming out as e-books from Open Road.
E: What literary periodicals do you feel are currently challenging and reinventing the medium?
DE: Outstanding journals certainly include Tin House, Sewanee Review, New England Review, The Paris Review, Southern Review.
E: Finally, what are you reading these days?
DE: Woody Allen. The plays of August Wilson. The fiction of Jennifer Belle, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Philip Roth, Iris Owens (After Claude), Ralph Ellison, Richard Yates, Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and Injured, Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, Jonathan Schwartz’s The Man Who Knew Cary Grant, Daniel Gordis’s biography of Menachem Begin, the letters of Jonathan Netanyahu, Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse, Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers. Also His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon and The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant.
Credit for the feature image (above) to Jon Paul Henry.
Interview by Joshua Grant.