Evan P. Schneider is the author of the novel A Simple Machine, Like the Lever and the founding editor of Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac.
- Hi, Evan.
- Hi, Ray. How are you?
- Oh, I’m good. But enough about me. Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?
- Originally, I was born in New Mexico. Then when I was 10 years old, I moved up to Colorado by way of Arizona for one year. I grew up, I was basically raised in Colorado. Graduated high school in Colorado and then went to Colorado State University for undergrad. That’s in Fort Collins which is the Northern part. My folks own a place. It’s about 19 miles from the Wyoming boarder so very, very far Northern Colorado.
- How’d you end up in Portland?
- When I was in Colorado, one of my really good friends moved out this way in about 2000. I had always heard of the Pacific Northwest and wanted to visit it. In the 6th grade, had done a project where they asked you to do your dream vacation, plan out your dream vacation and everybody was picking tropical islands or European countries and I chose Olympic National Park in Washington. I knew I was drawn to the Northwest, the greenery, the moisture. When I had a friend move to Portland, I really made a pilgrimage about every year, sometime in the spring to visit him. That was in 2000. Then it took me eight years to finally get here but I made it in about 2008.
- It’s funny that you would pick the Olympic National Park.
- I’m not sure what it was. I think at some point, you used to be able to write to the US Forest Service and request maps of their park. They would send it to you free. They may still do that but they’re probably now all electronic. I got it in the mail and I remember unfolding it and it had the pictures of just the rain forest and being from Colorado, especially the non-mountainous part of Colorado where it’s dry and flat and brown and very, very, very sunny, I guess I was looking for something that the opposite of that.
- How did you ever become interested in writing? Was this something you were going to school for? Something that dates back before 6th grade?
- I think it was probably my senior year in high school. I took an English class that I finally put some effort into and I remember reading … I wasn’t a very strong reader even though my mom was a reading teacher and taught me to read very early on, I didn’t have the … I didn’t have the attention span for it. I wanted to be playing outside. I wanted to be running around. Really, from elementary school up until high school, I didn’t read very much at all. I can remember reading two books. I can remember reading Jurassic Park and then I can remember reading The Lost World which is its sequel. Jurassic Park took me an entire year to read because I was just so slow and could maybe do two pages then I wanted to go do something else.
Then in high school, like I said, my senior year, took this humanities class and I knew it was going to be a daunting course so I really put my all into it. When I read these books, like a Dickens book or philosophy or just other remarkable fiction, I remember having this epiphany of this art would be amazing to be able to try to create. So then about that time, I started toying with poetry and I had always … I would strive to write fiction but I wasn’t very good at it at that point. I could understand the constraints of a poem and how to try to get through that. I started with poetry. My first pieces were poetry, poetry pieces. Then I got into book reviewing and hit up the local independent weekly newspaper there in Fort Collins in about 2001. I think I was just about at the end of college.
I just wrote them an email and I said, “Hey, I noticed you don’t have any book reviews. I don’t know why you don’t run any,” I didn’t know anything about newspapers or how they’re run or what a freelance writer was. I just said, “You should have book reviews and I wrote one. Here you go. Feel free to publish it.” I didn’t hear back so I followed up again and I said, “Hey, I just wanted to make sure you got my book review that I wrote. I’d really like you to publish this.” Still, didn’t hear anything.
Then on the third time that I reached out saying, “Just wanted to check one more time.” I had two different editors write me back. They each thought they had both responded to me which they had not and they said, “We would love to run a book review.” They ran my book review and I just, from then on, just tried to write a book review every month for that newspaper.
- Interesting. How do you feel about book reviews versus, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, versus actually writing a book or how does that feel different to you? Do you feel like they’re kindred things? Do you try to sort of reflect the book into the writing of the review?
- Like the writing of my own book?
- When you’re writing a review, are you thinking about what happens if the author reads it? Are you thinking about who’s your audience for that?
- Well, my thought was, first depending on what publication you’re in. For example, take Portland Newspapers. If you’re writing a review for the Willamette Week, your readership is going to be far more different than the Sunday Oregonian readership. I let that dictate a little bit how I said what I said. I think the jury is still on in how quote unquote write a book review. The New York Times book review which is generally considered the best place to get opinions about books. They do peer reviews which means if you have a book out and you relatively similar to me as a write and your book, they’ll ask you to review my book thinking you’re maybe the expert in the field on so peer review this book which I think has some inherent dangers because why would I go, if you’re my peer, why would I go in public and not review your book strongly? That just seem like you could set yourself up for some bad relationships in your field.
In any case, the way that I thought about a book review was you’re trying to determine what you want to read. I would just say, “Here’s what this book is generally about and here’s the way that it’s written. If you like these books, you’ll probably also really like this book. If you’re generally this type of reader, this is probably not going to be for you.” I just tried to set up for you what the writer’s attempting to accomplish and how well he or she did or did not accomplish that thing they seem to be setting out to do.
- I see, kind of like a Youtube comment … I’m joking.
- Exactly like that.
- Notoriously bad. You are, if I’m not mistaken, editor of Boneshaker Magazines, correct?
- Correct. I’m the founding editor of that. I think I started about in 2006.
A couple covers and pages of Boneshaker magainze.
- Tell me about the magazine.
- In 2006, I just got done with graduate degree in English and my specialty was 18th Century Scottish literature which is as you might imagine very useful in today’s society. I was yearning for something a little bit more practical to either study or write about or consume my time with. I had, for my whole life, ridden bicycles, used it as a primary mode of transportation out on those plains in Colorado where my mom says, “Sure, you could go to Scott’s house down the way but I’m not taking you.” I had to huff myself seven miles down the country road to get to my friend’s house. I’ve always sort of conceived to bicycling. Now, I have these two English degrees and I want to be a writer and I’ve done some book reviews and I really like bicycles. I thought, “Gosh, I don’t see anything out in the world about bicycles that I would really want to read.”
You see glossy magazines about racing bikes. You see glossy magazines about mountain bikes. You see all that sort of stuff ad filled. I thought, “Where is kind of artistic look at bike riding? Where is people writing short stories about bicycle, poetry about bicycles, drawing bicycles?” I conceived of it as this almanac, this catch-all. The first issue I think came out on in 2006, 2007, after working for about nine months to solicit really strong writing for it so that when the first issue comes out, when people pick it up, they kind of have a sense of what they’re getting in the issues to follow. Now, I’m into issue 10, it will come out this summer. It was supposed to be twice a year but sometimes only once a year. Depends on how much time I have. That’s how I got that started.
- I take that you still ride a bicycle.
- I do. I commuted in this morning from the other side of Mt. Tabor which is six and a half miles in, six and a half miles back.
- What kind of bike do you ride?
- I have many, many, many bikes but the bike that I have set up as a commuter right now is just the pretty cheaply made Chinese bike called the Linus. I just outfitted it pretty simply and have a basket on the front to carry my shoes and lunch.
Evan with his Linus bike. Photo Credit Mei Ratz
- There you go. Simple. I mean, do you see bike riders in certain sort of stereotypical categories? I take it from the way you describe your bike, you are not a super hardcore biker but then you also said you had a lot of bikes. Why did you choose that one? Are you really into the fixed gear, cleaned up Portland stereotype of a bicycle?
- You asked several questions there.
- I think the first one was do I see biking in the stereotypical categories?
- It’s kind of difficult not to see certain categories. I have a nickname for the guys that are bedazzled in their spandex and logos and I just always call them squiddies, like they’re just always fit squid suits and they’re out there just, they have their clip in shoes. All of these items I do have or have had in my bicycling tenure. I just kind of don’t … I don’t necessarily see the need for all of that spectacle just trying to get to work. But then again, I think people that are riding bikes, they should do whatever is most comfortable for them. If you want to wear your suit, your actual dress up suit, I believe my boss even kind of wears his tie sometimes on his bike, or if you want to wear your racing suit, whatever you want to do. There are a lot of different categories.
- How do you, on a normal day, like today, when you biked in, you dressed differently or you have something you change out of or …
- Yeah, I don’t want to usually sweat up my work clothes too bad. I wear some pants and a shirt that is the … I mean, kind of specific biking pants that are, for lack of a better word, almost capri pants or knickers that don’t get caught in your chain.
- Got you.
- Then I just wear a t-shirt and my helmet and my little hat under it but, yeah, then I change into my work clothes when I get to work.
- Somewhat recently, you wrote your first novel, A Simple Machine like the Lever.
- That’s true.
- The protagonist described thusly. You’ve probably heard this phrase. Nick’s struggle to position is aesthetic within the world is a story of a perfectionist who’s far from perfect, who is considerate but clumsy and maybe invisible. Is that all autobiographical?
- I like to, in the last six month, I heard Patrick DeWitt who’s another Portland author here who wrote the Sisters Brothers. Somebody asked him that same question when I was standing next to him and he said, very confidently, “It’s about 60% me and 40% something else. Amalgamation of other people that he’s met in his life.” I think that seems about accurate, 60% me, 40% exaggeration or other things that I’ve seen out in the world. But yeah, there’s certainly some elements that I went through to be able to write that book I think.
- How did you conceive of this? What made you decide to write this book.
- Well, somewhat unsurprisingly the main character is a bicyclist. Here I had had all these years as an editor of a bicycling publication. I knew I wanted to try my hand at fiction so a very good friend of mine and a very, very fantastic writer and editor, said to me, “You should try to write that book.” I demurred and said I didn’t think I could write that book. But he said, “Why don’t you write a chapter for me and just send it to me.” I said I would try that. I wrote him a chapter and sent it to him. Then he said, “That’s great. Let’s see a second chapter and a third chapter and a fourth chapter.” He kind of is a very good friend and a very good editor coaxed, I like to say coaxed it out of me.
Then when I got to what I thought was the end of it, he said, “Perfect. Now you can start over and really write it.” So then I had this frame work and all this kind of description of a young 30-something, kind of really struggling to get through life. He’s made some really bad financial decisions. He’s made some pretty poor relationship decisions and trying to rectify that all the while kind of riding his bike to and from work everyday. That’s how it kind of came to be.
- That’s an interesting, I guess process. Did you sort of realize the story as you’re writing on that first past. I mean, when you were sort of being asked, “Just give me one chapter.” Were you kind of thinking about the whole picture of the story or were you kind of, “Well a chapter. That’s easy.”
- Yeah, sort of like that. A chapter is easy. Since I had never written before. I really didn’t know how you do that. The two degrees I have in English are not creative writing. They’re literature. I knew what a book looked like but I didn’t necessarily know how to get to that point. I just went back and studied all of the books that I like best and thought how did this person create this thing? I’m not exactly sure how they created it but seems as though your character does this and then dialog looks like this and then your description looks like this and then you move between these conflicts thusly but just taking it chapter by chapter, then I think about three quarters the way through amassing stuff. Then I could kind of see the arc that I was building which is by then the friend editor says, “Now, this is when you start over and really start piecing it together so that the narrative frame work works like a book and isn’t just a list of disjointed chapter drafts.”
- How did you reach a point when you knew that you were done and how did you feel that it turned out, like on a personal level?
- I think when it first came out, I was less pleased with it than I am now. Now, it’s been out since 2011, it’s got a good three and a half years under its belt. I was really nervous to let it go into the world as this being and live its own life. For two and a half years, I had created it. I was kind one of the only people who had seen it. Now, to let it go out into the world on its own accord was a very, I thought it was a really terrifying thing because then it reflects on me. I thought, “This is so silly. What a silly, silly thing to have created.” But it really resonated with a lot of people to my surprise which has probably built up confidence in the project. I look back at it and I think “Oh right. I would have probably changed some things.” But as a first book, I’m very happy with it. My wife is fond of saying if I wanted to, I could have probably written on it three more years but it may not have been any better of a book.
At some point, you have to be done or you turn into a Walt Whitman changing Leaves of Grass 62 times. I like being done with the project and letting it go and letting it stand on its own and moving onto the next project.
- Are you working on anything else? Can you tell me?
- I can tell you that I … about a year and a half ago, I really started writing a collection of short stories. I think I made some really good headway and then I purchased a house a year ago, a year ago last Friday as a matter of fact. That has taken up a lot of my time in the greatest way possible. I love owning a home and I spent pretty much all my extracurricular time working on that house and trying to get it into a shape that I like.
- First of all, the short stories though, I’m curious, you actually set out to write a collection of short stories?
- Yeah, this one was a far different beginning than the first book and that I had a very tangible idea of what I wanted this collection of stories to look like and feel like. In six months, I think I made, I probably got about half the manuscript to the point that I wanted it. Now, I probably have another half of it but I know exactly what I’m trying to do in this one and I know what I want the stories to do and how many of them are and how they work together and don’t work together. I’m kind of loosely tying them together around a specific landscape and it’s that landscape of Northern Colorado where I grew up. I think that the more that I moved around from Colorado to Rhode Island where I went to graduate school, Atlanta where I took an office job, to Portland, I’ve seen now just how unique that area was that I grew up and I think there’s a lot to be harvested there in fiction.
- This is probably inside baseball, what do you write on, laptop on Microsoft Word?
- Yeah, I’ll take notes to myself during the day, just in a little notepad if I think something up or I’ll send myself an email real quick, just, “Remember you had this thought about this thing,” I just kind of keep an ongoing list but then in the mornings, I write far better in the morning than I do at night. My creative juices are just more potent between 5am and 7am than they are even 5pm to 7pm. Usually at the end of the day I’m pretty cashed out. If I can get up and have coffee and go at it for about two hours. I can’t really write more than three hours at a time. If it’s generative, if I’m creating stuff, if I then turn my attention to editing after that, I can maybe spend six hours but maybe it’s still some of that ADD I had as a kid where I want to get outside. Yeah, I write on a laptop and save my versions then go back and forth between.
- I see. What do you presently do for a living?
- Right now, I’m the communications manager at Literary Arts, a nonprofit here in town that Needmore has made the brand new beautiful website for.
- Yeah, I’ve been a fan of Literary Arts forever. What is it that you do and tell me about what you do there?
- As communications manager, I oversee and the project manager, basically our online presence or website, updating that after it was built by you all, really reflecting what we’re up to, just making sure it’s always up to date. Then I run all our print collateral with our other design firm that designs it so I oversee all the print programs for Portland Arts and Lectures or the solicitation letters that go out from the office, any real print collateral that comes out of the office, I oversee.
- That design work is with the fine people at Aha?
- That’s correct.
- In Vancouver, Canada, right?
- I mean, British, I mean …
- Right here in Washington.
- Right across the river.
- Yes. It’s not that far. Nice. I’m curious about your house. What have you done, what have you been busy doing to it? What kind of projects do you like to take on? Are you handy?
- I think there is a latent handiness to me that I had forgotten over 10 to 12 years of apartment living but there was, again, back to that landscape of Northern Colorado, I really can’t remember a weekend that I wasn’t outside working on cars with my dad or building a tree house or cleaning out the gutters or landscaping something or putting in a garden or mowing the field or digging tree stumps out of the septic field, like all the time doing some sort of project. But like I said having move to and from cities for the last decade and a half, I hadn’t really been up to that stuff. But then when I moved in, my wife and I, we knew that if we ever got a piece of property, we wanted to try to grow some food on it. We, in the first year, dug out the front lawn and most of the back loan and put in 8 raised beds in each. We had 16 raised beds, a compost bin, and then a garage where we started seeds for this year and some tools to do some work. I’m in the process of building a chicken run so that we can have some egg laying hens back in the backyard.
Evan’s front and back yard from a fun progress blog his wife and he started.
- You guys are going to be fully ready for the coming apocalypse, aren’t you?
- Or something.
- Yeah. That’s great.
- The number of people that drive by our front yard and stop their car and roll down the window and say, “Wow, I remember when my parents did this as like a victory garden back in the ’50s.” I was really surprised by the number of people that it seem to resonate with and they loved that we were doing that to the lawn. I was afraid that they would react negatively and that, “Why are you putting these boxes in the front yard?” But we’ve only had really positive response.
- No, that makes a huge difference. We put our boxes in our last house and it was just so much nicer. It’s easier to grow stuff. The water doesn’t just sit in there.
- Yeah, the soil is way better. It’s easier to tend.
- It just keeps it compartmentalized rather than just a massive growth.
- With kids, as you know, we have a couple of kids, it’s impossible to train them where exactly to walk but once you put in the raised beds, it was like, it’s pretty obvious now where you shouldn’t walk.
- Stay out of the beds, stay on the pathway.
- Where do you see, I mean, Literary Arts is celebrating I think its 30th anniversary now?
- Yeah, this fall.
- What sort of big things are coming up for Literary Arts this year for all that? What do you have to deal with for that?
- Well, we just announced our 2014, 2015 season of Portland Arts and Lecture. That begins in October. That opens with James McBride then there’s a nonfiction writer that comes next, Elizabeth Colbert, then we have one of my favorite writers, Michael Shaben coming in January and then we have after that Ruth Ozeki who I’ve never read but I’m excited to hear because she’s also a Zen Buddhist priest and a fiction writer and a screen writer so I’m very interested in how that plays out. Then we close with investigative journalist named Katherine Boo in April. We have that. Then we’ll kick off some 30th anniversary festivities that kind of last a majority of the season. There’s a birthday bash that’s going to have some big name writers that I’m not allowed to say yet but that’s going to happen. We’re reintroducing a series downtown called Poetry Downtown where three big poets will come over the course of the winter and give presentations then we’re also relaunching Poetry in Motion which is the poems that you see on Trimet, on the buses, on the trains and they’re going expand this year be on the bus stops and bus shelters. We’re doing that as well.
- All right. That was my first, probably a lot of people’s first I guess encounter with Literary Arts. I remember when I, was probably not long after I moved here, this was like probably I remember this from the late ’90s, seeing those in the bus, it’s like “That is so cool. They have poems on the buses here.” It seem that sort of like faded out and now it’s coming back. It’s exciting.
- Yeah. I believe Portland was one of the pilot cities for Poetry in Motion, back in the ’90s is when they first started it. Some of those same poems have been on the bus for a while since the mid 2000’s and now we’re doing a refresh. That’s also exciting. Lot’s happening for the 30th.
- Where do you get those poems from? Is it student work?
- Yeah, this time around it’s going to be I believe a three-part calling. One is going to be nationally known poets and we’re pairing with the Academy of American Poetry I believe. Then local poets and then some student works. One third of each of those and then to be decided by the public which ones we feature.
- As communications director, how much of your is spent writing email and how much is spent on the phone?
- I’d say email is close of 85% of the day. It’s a lot.
- That’s higher than I was expecting.
- Yeah. But it could be lower if I made more phone calls but as a writer, I really like to communicate via email.
- I’m the same way. I’m the same way. I would much rather, because I feel like … hopefully none of our clients are listening to this. I’m only kind of joking but sometimes I feel like having a face to face meeting is almost like a cop out because when you have to write it down, I feel like writing clearly is thinking clearly and it forces you to spend your time thinking through what you’re trying to say. Instilling it to something coherent beforehand and then the person who receives it has the courtesy of only having to spend five minutes of reading it and it’s very clear and I just, I’m trying to promote that. I think email is a great tool. Frankly, I don’t get spam anymore so I think it’s … I like email is what I’m saying.
- I love that process of writing both fiction and even nonfiction communicative work like an email, being forced to try to say a thing as clearly and as true as possible within the confines of a sentence. The sentence then for me takes on this whole … it becomes an art form in itself, this sentence. How are you saying what you have to say because it’s so easy to write a sentence that doesn’t say anything. But it’s so much more difficult to say a sentence that’s both true and says something necessary. I love it.
- Great. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me, Evan.
- Absolutely. I’ve loved every second.