'Harriet Chance' Explores Late-Life Reinvention NPR's Scott Simon talks to Jonathan Evison about his new novel, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance, in which the title character finds herself on an Alaskan cruise with the ghost of her husband and a daughter she can't trust.

'Harriet Chance' Explores Late-Life Reinvention

'Harriet Chance' Explores Late-Life Reinvention

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NPR's Scott Simon talks to Jonathan Evison about his new novel, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance, in which the title character finds herself on an Alaskan cruise with the ghost of her husband and a daughter she can't trust.


Jonathan Evison has written a new novel that reminds us how people can be like icebergs. We're not just the small part that's visible. Harriet Chance is 78, recently widowed, and embarking on an Alaskan cruise booked by her late husband, Bernard, who declined - not so gently - with Alzheimer's. She's joined by her daughter Caroline, but there's just too much history between them for much comfort. Harriet had always found her husband stable to the point of predictable. But on board, she discovered he had an affair that he kept hidden, and she set adrift. Her sense of her marriage and herself receding like a long-ago port. "This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" is Jonathan Evison's latest novel. Thanks so much for joining us.

JONATHAN EVISON: Oh, my pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You tell this story in a series of scenes that go back and forth between Harriet's infancy and then Harriet at 78. How does that help us see Harriet?

EVISON: Well, you know, it's interesting 'cause the early drafts of this book were very, very linear. I mean, it was almost sort of suffocating, you know. Like, Harriet would pad to the kitchen and put the tea on to boil. And then, she'd look out the window and think about something that happened in 1958. And then she'd pour her tea water and watch it steep and look out the window again and think about her wedding day, and then, you know, chapter two. It wasn't - you know, every time when I write a novel, I have this aha moment. And usually it happens in an earlier draft. But with Harriet, I got through the whole book before I had my aha moment. And that was that this was a novel of reflection and memory. And these are very nonlinear processes, so I arrived at that voice that sort of pinballs through Harriet's life. And it really allowed me to explore Harriet's life in a more dramatic way. And there's a lot less tea drinking and staring out of windows.

SIMON: Harriet has a difficult relationship with her daughter. Caroline is in AA. She's a recovering addict. Harriet likes her wine and at one point (laughter) has to be removed from the Pinnacle Bar on the ship because she clubbed the ship's steward with a crab's leg after she had too much wine. What keeps two people who love each other from getting along?

EVISON: Well, that's an interesting question. You know, I've spent so much time earlier in my life sort of contemplating the father-son relationship, which, quite often, has to do with some sort of implacable distance between the father and the son.

And what I've noticed a lot in the female relationships in my life, between mothers and daughters - there's this theme with mothers and daughters that are so alike but don't recognize it. They have a really strained relationship and a hard time getting along. And often, I think, it's because they're so much alike. They might have a little bit - a different style, but their hearts are in the same place, and I was raised by women, so I've been around a lot of them.

SIMON: As a matter of fact, you begin the acknowledgements by saying that your greatest debt is to all the strong women in your life. Can you remember a couple for us that kind of appear in this novel? If not by name but, you know...

EVISON: Well, you know - yeah, well one of the things that really informed this novel is, you know, when I was 17 years old, I went to live with my agoraphobic grandma, Sweetie (ph), down in a senior citizen trailer park in Mountain View, Calif. You know, I was just starting to go to community college, and the majority of the tenants of this motor court were widowed women. And there's all these cliches about how you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but here I saw all these women reinventing themselves. Like, you know, 83-year-old women suddenly, like, getting into community theater or changing their politics from how they had voted with their husband for four decades to becoming more progressive. And that really struck with me to the point where - I mean, I only have a few themes, and I think reinvention is probably the most common thread between all my books. So I've been ruminating on this for three decades.

SIMON: You know, like a lot of writers, you've had a succession of interesting jobs on your way to the bestseller list. But I've got to ask you about one I've read about.


SIMON: You were a sunglasses telemarketer.

EVISON: Yeah, it's like those big huge ones you see little old ladies wearing. But it was not an easy sell over the phone 'cause, you know, you don't know...

SIMON: Yeah.

EVISON: ...What the person looks like. So you can't say I think they'd look great on your face or anything like that. I mean, it was - I sold everything back in the '80s when telemarketing was still viable down in Silicon Valley. And, you know, you sold everything from, like, fire safety guides to brooms to sunglasses. Sunglasses was one of the most interesting.

SIMON: Does - I mean this quite sincerely - does all of that help you become a better novelist?

EVISON: I honestly feel like almost every day something happens that's going to inform me as a writer. And I don't know what that thing is. I never do. I mean, it might be something I overhear. It might be something to see. It might be an action I make myself. I mean, that's what kept me writing through eight unpublished books. It's just such a great way to live.

SIMON: Jonathan Evison, his new novel, "This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" Thanks so much for being with us.

EVISON: Oh, thanks for having me, Scott.

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