How One Portland Author Went from Self-Publishing to a Major Book Deal

It took Jason Gurley 15 years to write, scrap, re-write, self-publish, and finally get picked up by Crown Publishing. He holds forth on writing, success, and how Eleanor was born in the Oregon rain.

By Sarah Hopwood April 26, 2016

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Jason Gurley

Jason Gurley writes “weepy science fiction”—a label he didn’t choose for himself, but one that readers have ascribed to his particular, world-building fiction. His process has been long and at times arduous, but after nearly 15 years of chipping away at his first novel, Gurley self-published Eleanor in the summer of 2014. It's a story that dips in and out of worlds as protagonist Eleanor copes with a childhood tragedy and its effects on her family. After rave reviews—and climbing to number 25 in Amazon’s overall ranking in August of that year—Eleanor was picked up by Crown Publishing, a division of Random House. (Gurley is just one of many local writers to go the independent publishing route.)

Before his May 4 reading at the Plonk Reading Series with Mo Daviau (author of Every Anxious Wave), we caught up with Gurley to hear how his book was born in the Oregon rain, and why he chose a teenage girl as his protagonist.

You’ve lived in a lot of places—Alaska, Texas, Nevada. When did you finally move to Portland and how has it been finding a creative community?

I moved here in September of 2012. It’s been really rewarding. I’ve met a very large and thriving community of independent, self-published writers as well as writers that have worked with publishers here in town. On top of all of it, Powell’s has been 100 percent behind my books and it’s been pretty remarkable.

Can you tell us about the decision to set the book in Oregon?

Oregon was the only setting that I ever had in mind. The book originated on a trip to Oregon back in 2001. I was living in Reno, Nevada at the time and I wasn’t very happy there. I took this trip up to Oregon to meet my family for Thanksgiving—we were all living in different places and it was the perfect midpoint for all of us to meet up. I absolutely fell in love with the state and the weather. I drove in, in what must’ve been a monsoon or something—there were trees falling down across the highway, the rain was nonstop—and we had a place that was really close to the water. The waves were just pounding the shore.

On my way back to Reno, it was about 4 in the morning and pitch black. My mind was wandering and it came back with this fully formed sentence: "For all of her life, Eleanor had been falling." I had nothing better to do so I started playing with this one line and building on it. It happened in Oregon and this was the moment that Eleanor first came to me. It just felt like the story had to be set in the place that inspired me so much.

Eleanor, your protagonist in the book, is a teenage girl for most of the story. How hard is it to tell a story through someone so different from your 30-something self.

The line came to me with her name, so from the beginning she was always Eleanor, whether young or old. As the story evolved, I discovered that I was writing about these personal things that were going on in my life, this struggle with faith, a marriage that was coming apart, finding my place in the world, and as I began to write those things into the first draft of the book, it made sense to write these things from the perspective of a teenage girl. It gave me a layer of objectivity. I was one step removed from the story and I could do my best to write honestly without just channeling myself into it.

You worked on the novel for years, then took a break. What happened during that first chunk of time? And what happened when you came back to it?

It was 11 years before I took a break and set Eleanor aside to work on other projects. I needed to remind myself that I could finish projects and actually get something done so I took a 6– to 8–month break. When I came back I threw everything out—I felt like it was something that I didn’t connect with anymore. It took that small break to realize that I had grown and changed as a person and as a writer. All of a sudden, I didn’t need the book to tell my story—I could tell the story of these characters, the stories they had inside of them.  

You delve into the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. . .

I find myself drawn to exploring the interior life of female characters more than male characters. Maybe that’s because I live the life of a male, and honestly it’s kind of boring. I want to understand what it’s like inside of other people.

I grew up around very strong women in my life. My mother is a determined and resolute woman. I have a grandmother who is the matriarch of our family, and so there is this long line of women that live these quiet, stoic lives—they were not the ones who got emotional when things went sideways, they were the ones that held everything together. I guess I took a lot from them.

This is your first novel. You’ve published a lot of short stories and various projects, but did it surprise you when Eleanor took off as it did?

My biggest expectation for Eleanor was that people would look at it and be confused. Everything I had published up until then was pretty direct science fiction and a bit of horror. My work had always been character-based and a bit more emotional than some of the books my readers were accustomed to—to the point that they started to describe my work as “weepy science fiction.” But Eleanor was a completely different beast. I had this moment of identity crisis, because Eleanor was the book that I’d been working on for so long, the thing that encapsulated everything that I’d hoped for as a writer. The other books that I’d published had been fun little diversions, but those were things that I had become known for.

Eleanor did well as a self-published book, and it certainly exceeded my expectations, but it didn’t occupy Wool territory or The Martian territory. It wasn’t an obvious prospect begging for a movie adaptation and sequels, but then it happened. To my surprise and my enduring delight, it happened and it’s out there in the world now. People that would have never found this book are now stumbling across it at their average everyday bookstore.

Jason Gurley reads at Corkscrew Wine Bar on May 4.

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