In his moving and beautiful collection of essays, I’ve Been Wrong Before, Evan James reflects on the time he spent in a myriad of places around the world — San Francisco, Barcelona, Sydney, and Provincetown, among them — in pursuit of adventure, intimate connections, and his writing career.
James’s insights into the complexity of human relationships arise from his encounters as a gay man. Some of the essays are deeply philosophical, while others display James’s wit and sense of the absurd. They are very relatable, and readers will be able to see themselves in the experiences he recalls.
James’s writing career began in San Francisco, where he had a day job working in the San Francisco Ballet’s ticket office while he wrote freelance for magazines. Then, when a seasonal layoff occurred at the ballet, he started writing fiction.
“That was my first foray into writing seriously and writing a novel,” he says. “I fell in love with comedic fiction.” He was inspired by James Thurber and Dorothy Parker. “I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and they offered me a spot, so I moved across the country and spent two years there. It was a turning point for me.”
From there, James was offered fellowships at Yaddo and the Carson McCullers Center, and at the latter he began to write personal essays. “The primary gift of these residencies is the ample time, half free from the expectations of the world,” James says. “And the unexpected gift is to reciprocate the favor, relaxing one’s expectation of the world in turn.”
The fellowships also enabled James to travel. His trips became the fodder for many of the essays in I’ve Been Wrong Before. “They were written over a period of seven years, at a time in my life when I was changing, moving, having a lot of new relationships and growing into my 30s,” he says. “At some point, I sat down with these essays and read them end to end, and I could see recurring themes running through them — ghosts, haunting, or romantic relationships, and how you establish intimacy with someone.”
The theme of ghosts comes partly from James’s mother, who is an active telephone psychic and believes that James was Lord Byron in another life.
One of the essays is about James’s adventures in Barcelona, where he is mistaken for a male prostitute. The story revolves around the conflict he was experiencing between staying in Spain and searching for his independence or returning to the States to finish school. “I don’t say that I regret returning home, but I look back and wonder what might have been,” James says. “It was a surprising and illuminating essay for me to write.”
In another essay, he writes of riding a mountain bike in Southeast Asia and falling in love with his riding partner. It captures the emotions of being drawn into someone’s orbit, though nothing comes to fruition. “It was profound and powerful for me how we can have that experience with people who we are close to or just passing by,” he says.
James grew up on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle, a place that Provincetown reminds him of, in that they have the same robust feel of nature, art, and sexuality. In his essay on Provincetown in I’ve Been Wrong Before, James explains that he became curious about the gay haven at the end of Cape Cod when he moved to New York City.
“I had very little experience with the East Coast and I wanted to see many of the places that were interesting and places of gay note,” James says. “Around that time, I saw that Bear Week was happening. Part of it was happenstance and part of it was the allure of the bears. I found the town to be very festive and freewheeling and had a sense of wonderful. I felt really comfortable in a place where there was so much gayness. I found it to be a very special experience.”
James still lives in New York and teaches creative writing at the Pierrepont School in Westport, Conn. After the success of his farcical first novel, Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe, published by Simon & Schuster last year, he’s working on a new book of comedic fiction.