My interview with writer and cover designer Jason Gurley

I met Jason Gurley through our ever-growing indie publishing community. He had been designing covers for Hugh Howey, Michael Bunker and others for a while and I was lucky enough to get on his schedule to design the cover for one of my own books. In this interview, however, I’ll talk to him more about his writing. And his cowboy boots. And hot chocolate vs. coffee. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me briefly mention how the cover design process went down with Jason. I sent him a sketch my girlfriend’s daughter Chloe had done that I thought should somehow be incorporated into the cover. I also filled out a questionnaire on his web-site that goes into some of the specific themes of the book. A few days after the promised date for starting the project, he emailed me.

Jason: “Stefan, here are three suggestions for the cover. Let me know what you think.”

Me (screaming on the inside due to the utter awesomeness of one of them): “I’ll take number 2.”

Jason: “You got it.”

That was it. There was no back and forth. He nailed it on the first shot, one hundred percent.


S.B. Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. I know you’re very busy and I appreciate you taking the time. Speaking of which, what time is it now, the very moment you are reading this?

JG: Stefan, it’s my pleasure — thanks for inviting me! It’s seven p.m., Pacific time, on Monday, May 26th. I’ve been hanging out at coffee shops for most of the day, working very hard to finish the current edit of Eleanor. I’m about to call it a night, and go home to read bedtime stories to my daughter, Squish, and then I’ll probably be up until midnight or so working on the book.

I did take a small break today to see the new X-Men movie. It was really quite good. Lots of movies about time travel lately, aren’t there? I keep getting distracted by the trailers for Tom Cruise’s new movie, Edge of Tomorrow. I know there are a lot of Tom Cruise detractors in the world, but I can’t help it. I love the guy’s movies, no matter how cornball or serious they are, and this one looks like a really wonderful combination of Vanilla Sky and Oblivion.

I think this is the only interview I’ve ever started off with a bit of Tom Cruise cheerleading.


SB: I’m glad you started the interview that way. Help me, help you, Jason. Help me, help you! I happened to read the screenplay to Vanilla Sky. It was in book form and in the foreword, the director talked about how they included more than 100 items (songs, phrases, and images) in the movie to make it deeper each time you watch it. Do you put items into your books that are usually only discovered on reading it for a second time? But the real question is, when you hang in coffeehouses, does your coffee contain cream, no cream, sugar, honey, or Mocha Cookie Crumble?

JG: Back when DVD players were still marvelous and new, I watched the Times Square sequence (at the beginning of Vanilla Sky) frame by frame. Mostly I wanted to catch all of the imagery that Cameron Crowe was slipping into the scene — there’s a lot — but also because, if you look closely, you can see people pressed against the glass of the buildings overlooking Times Square, staring down at the movie set below them, watching Tom Cruise run and act.

I love little discoveries like that.

I wouldn’t say that I consciously insert things into my books this way. But I do think that a lot of the things that happen in my books are a bit layered, and might read in a new or fresh way the second or third time a reader opens the book. At least, I hope so. You never can tell if you’re doing that well, or if you’re being too ham-fisted and obvious about it.

Here’s the thing: I do a lot of writing in coffee shops… but I don’t drink coffee. Hot chocolate all the way, my friend. Even on the hottest of days.

SB: Speaking of layers and coffee, I always think writing is like making coffee in a coffee maker. The water has to take time to go through the filter, absorb the coffee and come out on the other side, rich in taste, texture, and smell. No instant coffee can do that. Not sure how it works with hot chocolate but that might be a different metaphor altogether.

Let’s talk about Eleanor for a moment. I heard that you began writing the book about thirteen years ago. That’s a long time. Not only for a book, obviously, but also for you personally. You’re now thirteen years older, you’ve had thirteen years worth of experiences during that time. You got married and you got Emma, a.k.a. Squish, so I’m assuming your life changed completely within those years. When you now read the first few chapters of the book again, do you get the sense that you are reading something from a younger you? And do you see the changes in you reflected in the story?

JG: I started writing Eleanor in 2001. An enormous amount of change has transpired between then and now. I was twenty-three then, greener than I like to remember. I’m still young at thirty-five, but a bit more experienced. I can see the gaps in my approach back then.

But Eleanor has never been a linear process for me. I’ve stopped, started, restarted, thrown everything away, burned down the walls, dug up the foundation, laid new pipe — all of that, a dozen times over. The Eleanor that will be published in June is almost nothing like the Eleanor I began all those years ago. Its broad themes are entirely different, its specific characters barely resemble the ones I first wrote about. The entire novel is fresh, every word new.

You’re right, though, about the way things change over a period of time like that. When I began the book, I was married. Not long after, that marriage ended, and rightfully so. Years later I met the right woman for me, and we’re the proud parents of a dancing machine — Squish — and as a father and a husband, I think I’ve managed to write a better Eleanor than I could back then.

I hope I have, that is!


SB: Speaking of dancing machines, what hobbies do you have? What interests you but you haven’t gotten around to yet? Ballroom dancing? Crocket? Sky diving? Stamps?

JG: As a teenager I was into baseball cards, which was simple enough until I discovered that I could forge autographs on them. I ripped off more than a few classmates. (This keeps me up nights even now.) I love movies, and these are my top five (though there are never only five): Contact. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Mosquito Coast. Almost Famous. The Abyss. And let’s throw Road to Perdition in there for good measure. That list leaves out an awful lot of movies I love — everything from the original Superman to Wonder Boys to Snow Falling on Cedars — but like I said, the list is never just five movies long. Maybe five hundred.

I also own cowboy boots, though I haven’t worn them in awhile, and I have a special affinity for going dancing in them. My wife and I used to go to a little place back in San Luis Obispo, California, where we would stomp around and two-step and learn how to do dances called the El Paso or the Continental. Fire up a country song and I still start clicking my heels around.

Other things, as you might expect, include baseball — I grew up with the Astros, switched allegiance to the Twins, and now I’m adrift in Oregon, no team to call my own; Darryl Strawberry was my favorite player as a kid — and sleeping, something I don’t do nearly enough of these days.

I can’t imagine these things are actually interesting to anybody…


SB: I’m right there with you on Contact and The Abyss. The scope and depth of either were phenomenal. I don’t want to neglect your two-step dancing, trust me, but speaking of scope and depth, I believe Greatfall was one of the early Wool fan fics, right? I remember reading it and enjoying it tremendously. Do you have the sense that writing one book sparks the idea for the next one or would you, for example, have written Greatfall without having written The Settlers first? But seriously, let’s talk a little more about the “El Paso” afterwards.

JG: In retrospect, Greatfall was early to the party. But at the time, I certainly felt like I wasn’t doing anything original. Wes Davies had already struck gold with The Runner, and Patrice Fitzgerald was going gangbusters with The Sky Used to Be Blue. Thomas Robins had a book of silo-themed poetry out. Lyndon Perry, I think, had already published his first silo story. I can’t remember if Michael Bunker had yet published the first installment of his Silo Archipelago series. He and I may have landed around the same time.

I’ve been very fortunate that the book seems to click with Wool fans. In fact — and this is super fun for me to mention — tonight I’m going to talk with a book club here in Portland that’s just finished reading Greatfall. My only regret is that since Greatfall is only an ebook, I can’t bring signed copies for everyone.

I’m dodging your other question, though. I don’t know if books spark each other into existence. For me, I think it’s readers who do that. Each time one of my books finds an audience, and people enjoy and share it, I’m inspired to write something new. When I published The Man Who Ended the World, my first novel, sixty-four people bought it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I actually know sixty-four people — which meant that strangers took a chance on my book. That was amazing, and definitely inspired me to dive into my next project, which was The Settlers, then The Colonists, then Greatfall after that.

The El Paso is a courtly little couples dance. It’s easy to learn, and everybody should: I can’t possibly by the only science fiction writer who does these kinds of things, can I?


SB: Haha, Jason. If I like somebody’s work, I do become interested in other things about that person. I think we all do. Take On Writing by Stephen King, for example. One of his best books, in my opinion.

JG: I like to call that being a completionist. Or maybe a completist? For me, being a completist of Stephen King means extending my interest in trivial facts to his family — which, admittedly, sounds very stalkery right now. I had the chance to attend his son’s reading and book signing at Powell’s Books last year. Joe Hill looks startlingly like his father, but he’s also a damn fine writer — perhaps on his way to being an even better one than his father. He told some wonderful stories about growing up King — dinner conversations about Shirley Jackson and H.P. Lovecraft, or the typewriter in the foyer that they all visited, adding sentences to a collaborative short story. I recall him mentioning that they all went out of their way to be as risqué and offensive with their contributions as possible, even as kids.

I’m not the sort of person who is easily star struck, or who goes out of his way to talk to people who are famous. But I’d probably blubber a bit if I ever had the opportunity to meet Stephen King. He almost singlehandedly taught me to love writing.

SB: By the way, I watched the video you mention and it’s nice and all but I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a video of you doing the El Paso. I think your readers deserve to see you do it. In your cowboy boots. Maybe when Eleanor comes out? I’m not hinting on anything. Not in the least. But isn’t that a really great aspect of being an indie author? You can fully be there for your readers and listen to their comments and, as you mentioned earlier, be inspired by them. This might be a question with a short answer but If a major publisher would want to buy Eleanor in the months to come, do you know what you would do?

JG: I’m no Hugh Howey, though. Dance videos — not so much. My daughter, on the other hand, is all about dance parties right now.

I’m not sure what I would do if a publisher asked about Eleanor. It’s not something I think about all that often. As an indie author — or a self-published author, or author-publisher, or whatever we’re calling ourselves these days — it doesn’t matter all that much if a publisher notices the book or not. Come June 27, readers can dig in. That much I can do myself.


SB: Jason, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I wish you the utmost success with the Eleanor launch. I know you’re very busy so I’m going to let you go back to what you do best.

JG: I really enjoyed it — thanks for inviting me, Stefan! And I can’t wait to pick up The Fourth Sage!

Make sure you visit Jason’s website and sign up for his newsletter. He gives away free stuff. CRAZY!

Jason’s latest novel, Eleanor, already has 94 reviews on Amazon. Here is the link to pre-order it. Publication date is June 27th. Go and get it!



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