In his seventh novel, The Ambitious Small world (Dutton, Jan. 11), Jonathan Evison provides a cross-section of America, following a group of characters of the present – linked by a train crash in the Pacific Northwest – as well as their ancestors a century and a half earlier. It’s an impressive juggling act, but on the phone from his cabin in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains in Washington, Evison suggests he’s hardwired for it. “I’m manic off the charts, I have all this energy,” he says. “And it’s best when I’m working.”

In this conversation, edited for space and clarity, Evison discusses the new novel, his thematic focus on the American Dream, and the recent controversy surrounding his 2018 novel, Lawn boy

Depending on how you count, there are about a dozen central characters in Small world† Was a particular character the first to emerge that provided a pathway into the story?

Not at all. I have set out from the beginning to tell all these stories. I ended up cutting out about six characters. I had to get everyone on that train. About halfway through the novel, I almost added a third generation of characters, but dropped that. I’ve written a lot that didn’t make it to the last book, but that work was never wasted. I ended up writing an entire novel with one of the characters I dropped, with its own storyline, sort of a western.

The book seems to be a product of the Trump era, where debates about national identity are very much on people’s minds.

The tribalism of the Trump era has always been there – it’s just more palpable than before. I started writing it about 3 years ago, in the middle of that time. But I didn’t react that way. It was more my own personal ambition to swing in front of the gates. The novel is pretty similar to how I’ve always written about America. I’m not trying to write a polemic. I feel like my job is to report on the state of the American dream.

There is a lot of optimism in the book as the characters grow over generations. But it also deals with racism, greed, abuse and family separation, which are also part of American history. Was it difficult to find a tone for the story?

It’s mostly intuitive. I’ll make tonal shifts that I’m aware of, but mostly it’s just a reflection of my optimism and who I am. You have to be pretty optimistic to write eight books and keep going. Even when I was a starving artist, I was hopelessly optimistic. I was really no less happy then. All my dreams have come true now, but I don’t think I’m happier at a grassroots level. It’s just who I am.

There’s a lot of history here – about railroad construction, orphanages in 1850s Chicago, Chinese immigrants in early San Francisco. How much time did you spend on research?

I wrote the book pretty quickly – 14 months actually writing, maybe 17 months [total] with the research. If I know what information I’m looking for, and if I know what questions to ask, it becomes a lot easier. Some things are things I already knew from previous books. A light bulb goes off in my head and I should go back and investigate, but I had an idea where to look.

Still, writing a book quickly sounds like this in less than a year and a half.

I have a very strange work schedule because I have three school-aged children and I am a very practical parent. So the only way I can do that is to go here to this cabin two days a week from my home on Bainbridge Island, about an hour and a half away. I drive here and work two days a week. And when I say two days a week, I mean 16 hours a day. I’m metabolizing the story all the time. The other five days a week will just be game-ready.

In the fall, your novel Lawn boy used to be the target of some schools when it was accused of containing pornographic material† Where is all that now?

The death threats have stopped. Every day for a month, I sent statements to students, teachers, and school board members, people asking me to make statements. But really there was nothing to defend. All attacks were made by someone who has not read the book; someone read a paragraph out of context, and everyone grabbed that ball and ran away with it. The book doesn’t do anything that Judy Blume hasn’t done in years, you know? I’m just fine tuning it at this point. It’s nice to see the book being sold again, but whatever. Since then I have written three and a half books.

Mark Athitakis is a journalist in Phoenix who writes about books for Kirkus, the Washington Post the Los Angeles Timesand elsewhere.