The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities co-sponsored the event and distributed free copies of Evans’s book to K-12 teachers in attendance.
The 20-something-year-old winner of the 2011 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize sat alone on stage and prepped the audience of about 40 for an extended selection from one of her stories. “There’s this persistent rumor out there that I’m a short story writer,” she said wryly. “But I’m actually a long story writer.”
As the wait staff casually circled beneath her, Evans rattled off a devastating excerpt from “The King of a Vast Empire, ” a story about a family traumatized by tragedy in “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.” Punctuating lines with a shake of her head, Evans read, “She went back to her bed and slept there for the rest of our adolescence, though her nightmares continued; I could hear them through the wall.”
Evans then fielded questions before signing copies of her book. She talked about her writing and editing process — “Part of the fun of being a writer is being your first reader” — and emphasized the “haunting” quality of fiction, particularly short stories. “A good short story should keep you up at night,” she said.
Evans said she “wasn’t thinking about a book” when she began the pieces that would eventually comprise “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.” “I was just writing stories.” But then she realized that those stories spoke to one another. Donna Kate Ruskin’s “The Bridge Poem, ” the collection’s epigraph, ultimately tied the stories together for her.
Evans, who also teaches literature at American University, cited Colum McCann’s 2009 National Book Award-winning “Let the Great World Spin” as one of the best books she’s read this year. She also loved Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel “Pym, ” about an ex-professor’s obsession with Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel.
As the evening drew to a close, one audience member asked Evans whether she ever found the experience of writing fiction cathartic. “No, it’s not cathartic,” she said after a pause. “I’m trying to write my way into understanding.”