Spring arts 2018: Meet author Julia Dixon Evans
Resident Julia Dixon Evans is no stranger to the written word. She’s a 2014 PEN in the Community resident and a Poets & Writers grant recipient for teaching creative writing. Currently, she is program director for the literary nonprofit and small press So Say We All. “How to Set Yourself on Fire” is her first book.
Q: How has living in San Diego influenced your debut novel?
A: San Diego is fundamental to this book. I’ve lived here since I was 11 years old, and I’m still always unsettled by the heat in October and November. That’s when this book is set, because that often feels like the most existentially weird time here. The way any sort of season only shows up in the very early morning or late at night. And fire: the way I’ve watched wildfires shake us to the core, and then, we gradually work around wildfire season, and soon we try to act like we’re used to a wildfire season, but we never are. Also, living in a city that’s often caricatured as some sort of beachy, perfect-weather joke made me want to kick at that a little. I wanted to set a story here without making a big deal out of it. The book is very much anchored in place but also, to me, very universalizing of San Diego: this could happen anywhere, but it didn’t, it happened here with a backdrop of insufferable autumn heat and a haze of ash in the sky.
Q: Shelia, your main character is a bit untethered and a mess, but as a reader, you root for her. Was that your intention?
A: I’m so glad you rooted for her! Definitely my intention. Unlikeability in characters, particularly female characters, is such a gamble. We heroize difficult-yet-lovable male characters all the time, letting them get away with all sorts of unlikeable behavior just for the tiniest shreds of vulnerability. I wanted to write a female character with very specific flaws, not things I could shrug off as cute token flaws. But I also wanted her to have things readers (and, of course, myself) could reach for. She wants, and I think that’s her most relatable core. Sheila wants to be happy.
Q: What’s your inspiration for this cross-generational story?
A: Harold’s letter writing style came directly from some ridiculous teenage love letters I still have, and in re-reading those, I realized I couldn’t even remember replying. I’m sure I wrote something (equally ridiculous) in return, but it doesn’t matter: my only archive erased my own contributions.
Q: What advice do you have for unpublished writers trying to get a book published?
A: Make sure you believe in your work before you put it out there. The road to publishing is punishing at best, and if you can’t ground yourself every so often and remind yourself, “no, I love this book and I want to share it with the world,” then it’ll be even harder to motivate to work on it after each rejection, suggestion, edit, or less-than-glowing write-up. The hardest part, for sure, is the self-doubt. It’s not the criticism or having other people’s hands in your work (because I truly think that stuff makes a story and a writer so much stronger) but it’s the way that you can take a somewhat simple hurdle or a speed bump like a rejection and let your mind downward spiral until suddenly you think: “maybe I’m not meant to be a writer.” A good editor and a good agent will fight for your book.
Q: What makes you laugh?
A: My kids. I know it’s a cliché but the things that come out of the mouths of small humans is wild.
“How to Set Yourself on Fire” will be published in May by Dzanc Books. 312 pages. $16.95.
Davidson is a freelance writer.
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