His upcoming novel, Eleanor, pubs June 27th, and is now gratefully accepting pre-orders, thank you very much. It’s the story of a young girl who loses her twin sister early in life, and watches her family fall apart because of it. One day when she’s in her teens, Eleanor is ripped out of time, and begins to have some remarkable experiences that bring her closer to understanding her parents’ pain, the trajectory of human lives, and her own place in the cosmos.
To call it a science fiction tale is leaving a lot of loose ends on the table. I read an advance copy and thought it really poignant and moving. As a writer, I was surprised to hear that the book took thirteen years to write. I thought that was worth talking about. So here’s Jason to explain.
Aren’t interviewers supposed to be kind of nosy? On a nosiness scale of one to ten, I have to say, this question wouldn’t even chart.
Thirteen years, mostly, because I was still green, still growing up, still figuring myself out. That doesn’t explain why the story stuck with me, though. So let me back up a little. I started writing Eleanor in 2001. I was twenty-three, still pretty much a kid. I was starting to ask myself some serious questions about things like belief and faith. My whole life had been spent in church — I slept under pews as a kid, played the drums as a teen, taught Sunday School classes as an almost-adult. I couldn’t tell you exactly when I began to wonder if I really believed everything that I was learning and that I was surrounded with, but when I did, it began to unravel fairly quickly. I’d been attending a Bible college. I dropped out. A few years after that, I took a ‘break’ from all things spiritual to give myself some room to think, to start figuring out who I was outside of that context. To start figuring out what I believed.
In those early days of that self-discovery, Eleanor was born. And for several years, the novel was a vehicle for the big questions I was asking myself. Eleanor was a surrogate for myself, except she was the opposite of me in most ways. She was fourteen years old when I sent her cliff-diving with friends, and wrote a terrible accident scene. I put her into a coma, and there, I gave her something like a religious experience. She had a conversation with someone that she thought was God, or a god. The novel was originally going to tell the story of that wondrous experience, and the challenges she found in the real world upon recovering from her accident. She would desperately search for that person she’d met during her coma, and realize that the real world didn’t quite measure up to that experience at all.
But the novel was slow going. I worked on it for years, starting over again and again, trashing my progress, rewriting and slashing and burning. I would take long vacations by myself, often traveling to Oregon, where I would stay in a cabin and write and write and write. I’d write fifty thousand words in a week, make insane progress… and then spend the next year rewriting and slowly building on those words, and never get much farther.
As time passed, though, I discovered something about myself: I was starting to answer those big questions that I’d asked at twenty-three. And even if I didn’t have a concrete answer for things, I’d begun shaping my own opinions enough that I didn’t struggle so much with those topics. The more I became comfortable with who I was outside of religion, the less I needed Eleanor to entertain and try to answer those big questions about faith and what I really believed.
That alone is the biggest reason it took so long to write. Once I began to settle into my skin, I had to figure out what Eleanor really was. If it didn’t have to help me answer questions about myself, then… why was I writing it? Was it time to put it aside and write something new? Had it really just been a prolonged sort of self-administered therapy?
They were fascinating to me. By 2012 I’d spent over a decade thinking about Eleanor. She’d been around longer than a lot of people I knew, longer than most of my friendships. She felt almost real to me, even if her journey had completely disintegrated. I was really reluctant to let her go, because I felt that I knew her so well I could tell just about any story with her in it. So I started thinking about that. If Eleanor’s story wasn’t the one I’d spent all those years on, then what was it? I didn’t want to put her in a drawer somewhere and never answer that question.
I quit working on the novel. Not for good, of course. But in December of ’12, I learned about a novel competition that Amazon hosts every year. It was called the Breakthrough Novel Contest, and my wife suggested I enter it. The only catch was that the deadline was just a month away. I couldn’t imagine trying to rush Eleanor to completion in a month, particularly after all of those years, and particularly because I wasn’t sure her old story was still the right one.
So I decided to see if I still remembered how to finish something. I put Eleanor aside, and I started writing a new novel called The Man Who Ended the World. I finished it in just under a month, to my great surprise, and then published it. I skipped the contest altogether and went right out into the world looking for readers. And I found some, and that gave me a bit of a high. So I went right into a new book, and then another one, and then another, and by the summer of 2013, I’d written four new novels and self-published them all. I clearly remembered how to finish things. I just hadn’t known how to finish Eleanor.
Those new books, and the audience that I began to discover, gave me a fresh dose of confidence and excitement about Eleanor, and I got back to work in a big way, tearing the entire novel down to its most essential elements – Eleanor, her quest, the book’s lovely setting on the Oregon coast – and as I began writing, an entirely new novel emerged from the pieces of the old, unfinished one, and Eleanor became something far more beautiful and complex and meaningful than my original intent for it.
It’s strange to look back and realize that I’ve been working on this book, more or less, for just about all of my adult life. When I began the novel, I was married to someone else. The novel outlasted the marriage. It followed me across state lines as I moved about, followed me through other relationships that didn’t work out, and it was there when I met my lovely wife, Felicia. We married and had a daughter, and the novel kept rolling along, but suddenly it meant more. I was a father. I better understood the awful fears that Eleanor’s own parents felt. I was thinking about things like legacy and history, and what those things mean in the context of a small family. And the larger themes of the new story began to emerge from all of that — the consequences of decisions, how they echo from one generation to the next, how children have little control over the life they’re given.
I think the parents became more real, and they embodied my own fears of failure. I was a kid when I started this book. I’m still a kid, but I’m a kid who has a little more experience. I think the book echoes that.
Oh, of course. Those scenes, though, were always a part of this novel. The sequences that I wrote about Eleanor’s coma, years ago, were not all that different from the dream and afterlife scenes that exist in the novel now. The logic of those scenes was a constant challenge. I adore writing setting — I could spend pages talking about fog rolling down a mountain ridge, or about a thunderstorm pelting the earth — but the scenes you’re talking about often left me with little more than the character and a dark void. So I had to spend time exploring Eleanor’s other senses. She can’t see anything, so what does it feel like to be here? What does this moment do to her heart, her mind, her guts?
Definitely a challenge, but if you felt that they turned out vivid, then I feel reasonably good about the job I’ve done.
I don’t. While nobody can say for sure, I’m inclined to believe that when we die, we’re dead. The dark curtain falls, and our senses shut off, and we’re finished. We’re a heap of molecules shaped like a person, but we’re not there anymore. We’re not anywhere. There’s a song by the band Death Cab for Cutie — I think it’s called “St. Peter’s Cathedral” — that goes: When our hearts stop ticking / This is the end / There’s nothing past this. I’ve probably just committed the cardinal sin — quoting song lyrics in an interview — but there’s something about the simplicity of that idea which appeals to me. It certainly makes me appreciate the moments I have.
I grew up, as I mentioned, in the Pentecostal church, one of the more demonstrative groups I know. My father was and is still a minister. My uncle is. Our family is distantly related to a Gurley who was a founder of the Pentecostal church, and even more distantly related to Phineas D. Gurley, a Presbyterian minister who was Abraham Lincoln’s pastor, and who gave his eulogy. I was baptized as a child — by my father, actually — and purportedly spoke in tongues. All the things that made up that particular spiritual experience, I experienced at one point or another. I was taught about the eventual Second Coming, the Rapture that would carry believers up to Heaven.
And I was terrified of all of it. I never knew how to tell anybody this, so I never did. But I was afraid of it — I was afraid of the concept of Judgment Day, of being found inadequate, of being sentenced to an eternity of pain and fire and such. That’s some terrifying imagery, of course. I read a book as a child — Raptured, by Ernest Angley — that scared the ever-loving shit out of me. The book suggested that anybody who “missed” the Rapture could still get into Heaven… but only through martyrdom. If I remember correctly, the main character in the book watches her family boiled in oil, their fingernails plucked out, and then she refuses to deny Christ and is decapitated. If that’s not exactly what happens, then I think it’s reasonably close.
On the flip side of that, though, was Heaven: an eternity of clouds and gold streets and God. And what I discovered as a child was that this was equally horrifying to me. I couldn’t conceive of anything that never ended as a good thing. I mean, what if I wanted to, you know, stop praising God for a bit, and just go take a nap? Was I seriously going to spend forever praising God for not setting me on fire with the rest of them? I’m all for gratitude, but that seemed like a bit much. And that was a terrible, awful future to envision.
Even now, after all the years since I’ve gone my own way, and figured out what I don’t believe in, I still find myself moved by the comfort that other people take in such things. I’m still absolutely fascinated by the idea that there’s something after, even if I don’t particularly believe it myself. I’m deeply curious about our traditions of telling ourselves stories that make us feel better about things that worry or frighten us — to tell them long enough, and emphatically enough, that we eventually forget that they’re stories. We’re a very skittish species, and sometimes we just need to be held. And if a story can hold us, and make us feel better about the billions of things we can’t control or change, then that’s kind of magical.
And that’s a sort of magic that I do believe in.