Talented illustrator and amazing author, Jason Gurley has had an excellent premier year. He opened the anthology FROM THE INDIE SIDE with an excellent piece THE WINTER LANDS that I thoroughly enjoyed. It took me back to late nights, sitting in front of a tiny black and white Zenith watching Tales from the Dark Side and I, for one, would love to see the Winter Lands become something much larger.
Jason and I sat down and exchanged some ideas and I got his take on a lot, everything from the genesis of THE WINTER LANDS to where his writing career might be headed. I hope you enjoy the interview, and when you’re done, go pick up a copy of FROM THE INDIE SIDE.
MT THE WINTER LANDS seems like a wonderful introduction to The Winter Lands. Sort of the Old Man’s introduction to the Wardrobe. Do you have any plans to expand on this tale?
JG Thanks! I didn’t know that it would end up being the story that opens the book. Susan May, David Gatewood and Brian Spangler — who are responsible for making this book happen — made that choice, and I confess it feels a bit like an honor. I’ve published several short stories recently, and I’ve begun hearing from readers who really want to see the worlds continue. I don’t ever like to say never, but “The Winter Lands” feels as if it’s said everything that it needed to say.
MT I really liked that THE WINTER LANDS was the story of a story teller telling a story. (Read that again if you haven’t already read THE WINTER LANDS). It was the literary equivalent of a Tales from the Dark Side all on its own. It felt like the icy equivalent to Zelazny’s walking in shadow with the potential for a little Gulliver’s Travels mixed in. What influenced you when you wrote this short? How did you create the portal to THE WINTER LANDS?
JG THE WINTER LANDS wasn’t actually the story I planned on contributing to the anthology. I had a couple of stories in mind, both of which began their lives as short comic scripts. One of them, “The Caretaker”, has since been written and published. I banged away at the other — which, for lack of a better title, has always been called “My Father Who Travels Through Time” — for weeks, and was never really happy with how it was going. There’s a great story there, and one I’ll probably finish this year or next — my wife may have actually solved it for me, but that’s another story altogether — but it wasn’t quite clicking this time.
THE WINTER LANDS just started with an image, like most of my stories do. I can’t say what that image is — to do so would spoil the story — but for those who have read it, it’s the big finish of the story. For me, almost all of my stories start with an image or a question. The Man Who Ended the World began that way, with an image of a man alone in a bunker, watching the apocalypse happen on TV. I have a dozen or more voice memos saved on my iPhone — I usually get story ideas when I’m driving, so I dictate notes to myself for later. Most of those stories are unwritten, and might always be, but they’re compelling ideas. I hate to let them vanish without at least acknowledging that they happened, whether I ever actually do anything with them or not.
Some of my ideas are atrocious, and should never be explored further.
MT I know, from interviewing Michael Bunker, that you brought him into the group. How did you become involved with FROM THE INDIE SIDE project?
JG Well, that would be Brian Spangler’s doing. He approached me after he and Susan and David had already put the project together, and had signed on a bunch of authors. I think — but am not positive — that I was originally the last addition to the group. I’m still surprised that anybody thinks of me for these things, so of course I said I’d contribute a story. I can’t remember whose idea it was that I would design the cover. Might have been Brian’s, might have been mine.
In any case, soon after I joined, one or two authors had to bow out of the project. I suggested the creators talk to Michael Bunker and Peter Cawdron, and before I knew it, they were on-board and done with their stories. (In fact, I think Michael and Peter finished theirs before I even finished mine. Indies are fast.)
MT I know from reading your posts on KBoards that you’ve had a pretty good first year. Congratulations! To what do you attribute your successes in self-publishing?
JG Thanks! I don’t know what I expected at the beginning of 2013, but the year was much more interesting than anything I could have imagined. For me the measure of success isn’t all about the numbers, but about the connections I’ve gotten to make with readers and other authors. I’ve been incredibly fortunate this year to discover that not only did a few people want to read my books, they also liked them enough to tell their friends about them. They’ve shown up on Facebook and Twitter to tell me what they think of the books, they’ve emailed me and told me some very personal things about how my work has made them feel. It’s so surprising that anybody at all cares what I’m writing, and I’m grateful for every last person who gives my work a shot.
Along the way, I’ve also gotten to meet some truly inspiring authors, most of them independent authors like me. These are people who work day jobs, write in their stolen free time, publish books, then go do it again. They set the bar pretty high for people like me. They make me better at all of this. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t have a long way to go. I have so far to go.)
MT What are you doing differently or planning on changing during your second year? And how do you expect these changes will help you with as you publish more?
JG Oh, I’m not changing anything. I mean, I don’t think I’ve really thought about it quite like that. All I want to do is keep telling stories, and I’ll do that as quickly or as slowly as I am able to. I have an extraordinarily satisfying career as a designer, and in my spare time — usually after my little girl has gone to bed, after we’ve built Lego towers or banged out off-key tunes on her little green piano — I get to make up stories. Life’s pretty good already. I’m extraordinarily fortunate. I don’t know what sort of changes I could possibly make.
MT I am very interested in how other authors manage their creative process. Take us through the creation of THE WINTER LANDS. Where and when do you write? Do you have a planning process you use when you write a story or is it more ad lib? Are there any unusual tools in your tool box or critical things you must have at hand to write?
JG I write in stolen moments. That wasn’t always the case. For years I’ve worked on a novel called Eleanor, and for most of those years everything had to be just right: silence, the right lighting, etc. I was very picky. But I was a kid, and now I have a kid, and my wife and I have a house full of pets, and neighbors who put their trash out at two a.m., and we live not that far from a major road, so there are traffic sounds all day, or sirens — in short, all of the kind of distractions that would have made it hard for me to write when I was younger. But this is my life now, and writing is only a small part of that, and so I write when I can. Usually that’s at eleven p.m., or for fifteen minutes before I go to work. Now and then I’ll have a stretch of hours, and I’ll produce a huge amount of work — but I’ve gotten good at making enormous progress in small snatches of time. Give me fifteen minutes and I’ll get a thousand words down.
THE WINTER LANDS wasn’t planned at all. I do outline sometimes, but I didn’t in this case. I just let the story tell itself, and it turned out kind of slow and patient and weird, and that was the best part. I had no idea what was coming next, other than that image I was working towards at the end.
MT I’ve read and enjoyed your personal stories concerning literary agents. I can understand the idea and appeal of getting made by a big ink house — having someone else to do some of the plentiful leg work would be nice all on its own — but you seem to be doing okay right now and, if anything, your star is on the rise. Yet you wrote “[That] email nearly ruined my evening. It immediately made me doubt ELEANOR and all of the years I’ve spent on her. I thought: Maybe I should put ELEANOR in a drawer, and do something else. I commiserated with other authors, who said all the right things, and I ignored them, and moped.” Why do you think this sort of rejection cuts so deeply? Why do we, as writers, want representation or endorsement from an institution that we clearly don’t need?
JG Dean Wesley Smith has a wonderful series of articles that he’s collected into a book. They’re called “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing”, and I wish that I’d read them before I talked with that agent recently. They’re a remarkable bit of perspective about how dramatically the publishing world is changing, and really underscore one wonderful truth: These days, writers don’t really need anybody to help them publish. They can just publish.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I can tell you that for as long as I can remember I’ve been in love with the romanticized nature of being an author. I think this comes from movies, or from reading afterwords by authors who describe the glorious route to publication as a hard-fought battle, but one with immense reward waiting just beyond the gates. I think I had this illusion for years about publishing that was very perverse — it celebrated the author, not the book; it celebrated notoriety, not writing. I had this idea of rooftop cocktail parties to celebrate book launches, or lecture tours to packed auditoriums — things like that. And I can’t speak for anyone else, like I said, but for me, that sort of dream was not only completely inaccurate, but completely impossible. I am a massive introvert. If someone threw a rooftop cocktail party to celebrate my book, I’d probably want to hide in a corner, then sneak out early and go home and watch a movie or something. For me to do any of these things, I have to mentally prepare myself, then do them, then take hours and hours for myself to recover from having done them. Being that kind of author would turn me into a wreck in a heartbeat.
But this past year has taught me so much about publishing. For all of the years that I’ve been writing, I craved the status of being a published author. I wanted an agent. I wanted an editor I could have a beer with. I wanted to be part of the in-crowd of the publishing world. What’s missing from all of that?
And I’d rather have a wonderful relationship with my readers than with an agent any day.
MT You are a fan of apocalypse fiction. What about these survival stories keeps you coming back for more? Is there a specific kind of sub-genre that you enjoy more than others, for instance zombie fiction, and why? Is there a critical component, or universal thread that you think runs through the best examples of this kind of fiction?
As I get older, I wonder if the reason that I’m drawn to these kinds of stories is that I’m as introverted as I am. When I was a kid, you might find me playing with my friends… but it was just as common to find me climbing a tree in our front yard with a book, or sitting on our rooftop, reading. I’ve always liked being alone. So when I discovered books that told stories about the rest of the planet just… disappearing, I was enthralled. I read all of the books like that I could get my hands on. Earth Abides. Alas, Babylon. The Stand.
One of my very favorite short stories is called “The Silent Towns”, and it’s part of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which I try to read a couple of times a year. (My own Movement books are a sort of homage to Bradbury’s.) Like most of the stories in the book, “The Silent Towns” takes place on Mars, once mankind has moved in and set up cities and highways and made the planet its own. One day war breaks out on Earth, and everybody on Mars flies back to the homeworld. But a man named Walter Gripp stays, and the story of his daily routines was marvelous to me. He goes into a deli and makes a sandwich and pays for it, though nobody is there to notice. He’s all alone, and loves it. And one day a phone in a nearby house rings, and he discovers that while he’s the last man on Mars, he isn’t the only human on Mars. There’s a woman named Genevieve Selsior somewhere on the planet. The story of how Walter and Genevieve meet, and then the story of how Walter ends up alone again — and that wonderful final image of him just sitting in the middle of a highway on a folding lawn chair — is a near-perfect encapsulation of what I love about these kinds of tales.
But the current spate of apocalypse stories that you see in theaters has done very little for me. I get bored by stories that involve zombies and mutants and vampires and children who become ’the one’ and so forth. I’ve been looking for the perfect apocalypse story for years, one that captures the sheer loneliness of it all, without needing to inject the traditional dramatic structure of villains and hero’s journeys and such. And I think I found them, finally, a few years ago. Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD left me breathless. It was exactly the book I’d always been looking for.
And then, oddly enough, the perfect apocalypse movie came along, too. It wasn’t the film adaptation The Road, though. It was Wall-E. And not the whole movie — just the first twenty minutes or so, which play out in almost reverent silence while this little robot trundles through a world that is lifeless and marked with memories. I think I was the only person in the theatre watching those twenty minutes with damp eyes. It was exactly what I had always wanted to see.
Now that I think about it, though, I might have seen the perfect movie about loneliness years and years earlier, without even knowing it. The Black Stallion, Carroll Ballard and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation, captured that same overpowering quietude from the moment the boy lands on a desert island. Eventually both Wall-E and The Black Stallion become rich with dialogue and action, but for those brief chapters, they are everything that I love about last-man stories.
MT I see you went to Wizard World in Portland. Do you have plans to do any more conventions in 2014? If so, where are you headed? What do you get from conventions? Why are they important to you?
JG Oh, man, was that fun. I’ve actually never done anything like that at all, and I would love to do it again. A friend of mine here in the northwest, the author Erik Wecks, had organized a few science-fiction/speculative fiction book panels at Wizard World, and invited me and other local authors to be a part of them. I’d spoken in front of crowds before, but this was my first time to talk to people about writing, about stories. One reader in the audience actually recognized me and my work, which was earth-shatteringly amazingly cool. I got to meet new readers and sign a few books. It was just fun.
I don’t have anything like this scheduled for the rest of the year, but if the opportunity arose to do it again, I would in a heartbeat.
MT Is there anything you would like to say to your readers before we sign off?
JG Thank you! So many of you risk your hard-earned money and precious time on independent authors like me, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I hope to keep telling stories that you all enjoy!