Write On, Wednesday: Jason Gurley on his sublime novel ELEANOR, time travel, The Americans, Grief, & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A highly unusual, yet beautiful read by emerging author Jason Gurley exploring death, grief, second chances, and ultimately…we think: hope.  Eleanor jacket

ELEANOR (Crown, January 2016) is a family drama through the eyes of a young girl.  It’s an explosive dive (quite literally) into the watery torrents that is family. Everyone’s grieving, for various reasons and it isn’t just a death we’re talking about here. The prose is absolutely stunning. If words could glitter, Jason Gurley’s would. At the heart of the story is a fantastical reality, spurred from grief and creativity, a balm to cure a weary soul.

Readers are thrust into a gloriously strange brew of fantasy, reality, dreams, and death. It’s sad, it’s deep, it’s dark. And if you’re in the mood for something like this, then you’re in for a treat.

Today I am honored to welcome Jason Gurly to the blog couch. So pull up a cup of coffee, and listen in.

Leslie Lindsay: Jason, thanks so much for taking the time to pop by. I know that you have worked on ELEANOR for a long time—like a decade, plus—that’s some serious stamina. Tell us a bit about your inspiration.

Jason Gurley: It’s my pleasure, thanks for the invitation. And yes, quite a long time—nearly fifteen years, all told. Before I began this book, I’d written three novels, and none took longer than, oh, eight months. I had no idea what I was getting into, as it turns out.

The early inspiration for ELEANOR, without question, was my own peculiar, looming crisis. I was twenty-three when I began writing the book. I grew up in the Pentecostal church—my father was and still is a pastor, in fact—and I was beginning to struggle mightily with my own faith. Of course, the novel has nothing to do with that subject now, at least not directly, but that was how it began.

“[An] elaborate mix of ghost story, time travel, and dream worlds. . . . Readers will keep turning the pages to see how it all ends up.”

Booklist

 L.L.: Like you, I have story that first hit the page when I was about 22. And then life got in the way. What’s it like to set something aside and then come back after some years—and other publications—under your belt? Had your perspective changed?

Jason Gurley: Oh, life’s really good at that. Yes, absolutely, my perspective had changed. Over the course of a decade and a half, you can’t help but grow up. Your observations of the world around you change, filtered through a very different lens. I began writing the novel as a young adult, struggling with very deep, very personal questions; when I returned to it after about a year-long break—that’s when I wrote and self-published a few other books—I realized that a break was exactly what ELEANOR required of me. Coming back to it, I found that I couldn’t relate to the story I’d been trying—and failing—to write. But I sure did love these characters; I’d lived with them for years, and I couldn’t bear to let them go.

So I made a decision that should have been painful, but was instead quite liberating: I tossed away everything I’d written, and started anew with only those characters. The book that emerged from that period of deconstruction couldn’t be more different from the one I’d begun all those years before.

L.L.: Eleanor is pulled from her reality and where she goes…well, no one knows. Exactly. Kind of. This is that part of the story where we ought to be encouraged to suspend our beliefs in the spiritual realm and what we believe to happen before life and after death. This is deep stuff…can you speak to that, please?

Jason Gurley: One of the most beautiful books that I ever read was Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME. From an early age, the idea that time might be malleable—whether science supports it or not—simply fascinated me. The things you could do, if only time were more forgiving!

As a young man, I discovered Carl Sagan’s wonderful novel CONTACT, and it was so saturated with optimism and wonder, and his incredibly lovely way of summarizing our fragile species’ flaws. I find my own views on the subject of gods and afterlife very closely aligned with his own. He often corrected people who believed he was an atheist, explaining that an atheist would have irrefutable proof that there were no supreme beings looking out for us, and Sagan could claim no such evidence. That doesn’t make him a believer; just an honest skeptic.

And of course I grew up in a culture that believed very firmly in a life that follows death: a hell, where unsaved souls would exist, forever, in a state of permanent torment; and a heaven, where those chosen believers would celebrate with their god forever. When I was young, both were equally frightening to me. Heaven sounded perfectly cool, but couldn’t you take a break, eventually, from thanking someone for so graciously putting you there? And wouldn’t it get tiresome, perfect harmony for eternity?

This answer’s getting long, but I suppose all of these things have led me to my own conclusions about the world: there’s probably no god, no afterword to the lifelong novel we’re all presently writing for ourselves, no safety net to protect us from the lonely dark. And yet there’s so much we can’t possibly know and understand. As deep as my personal suspicions run, it’s still lovely to imagine that there’s something beyond this. And isn’t a novel the perfect place to put aside your certainties, and to explore any imagined realm you like?

L.L.: And dreams! I find them so fascinating on their own and often can’t wait to go to sleep so I may fall into my own alternate reality. What is it about dreams that we find so alluring?

Jason Gurley: For me, the dream is less fascinating; what’s really remarkable is the brain that produces it. This thing inside our skulls cranks right along while we’re away from the wheel, journeying into the most mundane and extraordinary places. What little we’re permitted to bring with us back into the waking world often seems so magical, so strange. It’s as if we’ve detoured from our ordinary lives, from time itself, to explore a series of entertaining and worrisome what-ifs. In your dreams, you might discover that the irritating cubicle-mate at work is secretly an ocean explorer. Or you might find yourself leaping in front of buses to save your own child (which is how my dreams seem to go these days). You might walk around with a lion’s head and a pink-tinted sparkler, or drift formless through some void, embodying all the consciousnesses of all the souls who ever lived.

Dreams are weird, basically, but our brains are even weirder.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away?

Jason Gurley: For all of its fantasticality—is that a word?—ELEANOR is about something far smaller, and familiar. It’s about the gifts or curses we pass along to our children, and their children, often without even knowing it; about the small decisions that change the future of people we haven’t even met yet, who aren’t yet born. Can we understand our influence? Even if we did, would it change a thing? Are we so wrapped up in the moment that only our immediate choices—so often self-serving—matter?

But I suppose I hope people will read the book and look a little differently at their mothers and fathers, or at their children, and wonder: what do they dream of? Who were they before I came along? What are their regrets?

We don’t share enough of these things with each other. And I get it. I’m guilty of it myself. It’s a very full, complicated, distracting life we all lead. So for me the book is a reminder to ask my parents about themselves, to get to know them better as people, and not strictly the familiar, loving faces they’ve always been. To consider my own life, and how it will resonate upon my daughter’s.

L.L.: Often I find myself so very inspired by what I read that I can’t wait to get to the page. Who inspires you?

Jason Gurley: So many authors, of course! I’ll stick with who I’m reading currently, though, just to save time. I’m reading an advance copy of Alexis Smith’s new novel, MARROW ISLAND, which is so rich and beautiful that it just makes me want to be a better writer. I can’t wait until everyone can read this one; I think it’s due out in June. And I’ve just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, which has an urgency and timeliness that I think fiction can only aspire to.

My book, of course, owes terrific debts to some wonderful novels, such as Audrey Niffenegger’s THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, or Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES, and of course A WRINKLE IN TIME, all of which taught me that yes, it was possible to write a story about a family—and blur the lines of what’s real and what’s wondrous at the same time.

L.L.: ELEANOR was originally self-published in 2014 and widely popular…and then it got picked up by Crown Publishing. Can you talk about what that transition was like?

It’s really been exciting. I don’t know any writers who, in their teens, dreamt of one day self-publishing a novel. Everyone dreams of selling a book to a major publisher, of building a terrific writing career. Self-publishing is a more viable option every single day, and I know many amazing authors overlooked by major publishers who have been able to build remarkable careers on their own terms. Most of my readers to-date discovered me because of my self-published novels and stories.

It has been a marvelous treat, however, to work with my very talented editors at Crown, and to see the kind of muscle that ripples within a publishing house. They’re capable of doing things that I simply wasn’t able to do on my own. As an independent author, I was able to do some pretty great things for ELEANOR…but mostly online. Crown published the book a few weeks ago, and since then, readers all over the country have sent me photos of the book on shelves in bookstores in their towns. I couldn’t have gotten the book onto those shelves on my own. Crown took a chance on my little book, and was able to give it the kind of wings that I couldn’t. I’m excited to see it wind up in the hands of many more readers.

 L.L.: What’s gotten under your skin lately? What’s obsessing you?

Jason Gurley: The Americans. Oh, man. Everybody should watch this show. Well, except for little kids. They might be pretty scared by it. I think it’s back in two months, and I’m just desperately anticipating it. (And yet I think I may have to put off watching it right away so I can binge on a bunch of the episodes, rather than meter them out, one by one.)

If you haven’t seen the show, or know anything about it, then here you go: it’s the story of two deep-cover Soviet KGB spies, living in America. They’re posing as a married couple; they have two children, who complete their cover story, and who don’t realize their parents’ identities. Tell me this isn’t already fascinating! Oh, and it’s set in the early ‘80s, of course, which means we all know exactly how this story is going to turn out for them, and for their homeland. And yet nothing is a foregone conclusion, and it’s simultaneously the most tense, the most compelling, and the most intimate show out there right now. Just trust me. Call in sick to work, spend a week gorging on the three seasons that are already out there. You won’t sleep.

L.L.: What can we expect next from you?

Jason Gurley: I’m working on a new novel at the moment—tentatively titled Limbs—that explores the same blurry boundary between what’s real and what isn’t. It’s about a near-perfect marriage, two people who are perfectly paired, and who without each other would be utterly broken—and what happens when circumstances irrevocably rip them apart. Oh, and it involves trees. Great, big, mythological, bad-ass trees. We’ll see where this goes, of course, but at the moment it’s ridiculously fun to write.

L.L.: Thank you for hanging with us, Jason. So very enlightening!

Jason Gurley: Such a pleasure, Leslie!

Jason Gurley credit Rodrigo MoysesJASON GURLEY is the author of Greatfall, The Man Who Ended the World, and the fiction collection Deep Breath Hold Tight, among other works. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Loosed Upon the World and Help Fund My Robot Army!!! He was raised in Alaska and Texas and now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Visit his website at www.jasongurley.com or follow him on Twitter at @jgurley.

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