Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wednesday, October 14, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Eleanor

Crown: Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Crown: Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Crown: Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Crown: Eleanor by Jason Gurley


by Jason Gurley

Although readers who stick to titles from well-known publishing houses may not recognize Jason Gurley's name yet, anyone who follows the world of self-published titles will probably nod "of course" when hearing that a traditional publisher enthusiastically acquired one of his own releases. After making a name for himself with his Greatfall series, set in the world of Hugh Howey's Wool, Gurley published a story about a girl called Eleanor that quickly generated buzz among readers. Conceived and created over the course of more than a decade, his fantasy story had the bones of a family drama with a dash of young adult genre in the mix as well. Now a much wider audience is about to discover this categorization-defying adventure.

In 1963, Eleanor lost a promising career as a competitive swimmer when she married an older man and quickly got pregnant with a daughter. Despite her husband's support, returning to her Olympic dreams as the mother of a toddler turned into an unrealistic goal. Struggling with her own unsuitability to domestic life, she became desperate enough during her second pregnancy to swim out to sea and never return.

In 1985, another Eleanor, granddaughter of the first, lost her twin sister, Esme, in a car crash at the age of six.

In the early 1990s, the now-teenaged Eleanor lives in the shadow of her sister's ghost, her family irrevocably unwound by Esme's death. Her mother, Agnes, the driver in the fatal accident, drinks away the days and spews a constant stream of vitriol at Eleanor for serving as a living reminder of Esme. Although life with her father, Paul, who divorced her mother in the aftermath of Esme's death, might have more normalcy, Eleanor feels obligated to take care of Agnes. The only brightness in her life comes from her longtime friend Jack, the one person she can trust.

In a different but intersecting world, two entities called Mea and Efah watch Eleanor. More than anything, Mea wants to pull Eleanor into her world. Mea hates to trust Efah, who wants to control her, but he promises to teach her how to bring Eleanor close to them. When Mea's early attempts fall short of their mark, Eleanor suddenly finds herself yanked out of her reality and into bizarre new realms. She watches younger versions of herself and Jack playing with fireworks, "painting elegant curls and spirals in the dusk with their sparklers." She tumbles naked into a miserable gray valley where "the clouds lumber by, underbellies black like those of automobiles." Although she's afraid to tell anyone about her experiences, Eleanor knows she is not hallucinating--not when she returns from these visions with different hair and clothing, not when her returns happen violently enough to send her to the hospital. Mea can only rage in frustration and try again, hoping the next time will bring Eleanor to her, hoping her attempts will not kill Eleanor. As she is torn from our reality again and again, Eleanor travels unknowingly closer to the pain eating away at her shattered family.

Ethereal prose and off-kilter fantasy worlds wait around every bend as Eleanor gets caught up in forces beyond her ken and control. Gurley flings genre boundaries to the wind and finds his own way through the intertwined threads of trauma, magic and love. The story's refusal to slip into easy categorization keeps the reader in a state of surprise; while we have seen the elements before, we have not necessarily seen them meshed in this way. Fantasy and drama lean on and feed into each other seamlessly, whipping Eleanor and everyone around her back and forth like windsocks. The chaotic overtones of the alternate worlds Eleanor falls into echo in her real-world existence where she cares for her mother instead of the other way around, where she "is her own psychologist." Although little time is spent explaining the mechanics of her movements in and out of our world, the asymmetry of the other realms fits so well with Eleanor's life that suspending disbelief takes little exertion.

However, Gurley's greatest strength is arguably his knack for writing his characters as people, not constructs. The reader never sees the writer's hand manipulating characters' actions to fit into the plot; rather, their reactions guide the storyline and feel completely organic. Teenage Eleanor's transition from a victim of paranormal circumstance to a champion brave enough to risk everything for her family must have taken Gurley considerable time and careful building, yet it reads as though undertaken effortlessly. Even hints of a possible romance between Jack and Eleanor dodge the trap of stereotypical teen angst; instead of yearning, Eleanor feels an inability to yearn. Gurley consistently demonstrates a deep understanding of how the actions of a parent can impact a child's entire future and continue to resonate through generations, both through the inner lives of characters and the nightmarish ecosystem Mea inhabits and Eleanor visits. By turns adventurous and contemplative but always heartfelt, Gurley's first foray into major publishing will surely not be his last. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Crown , $26, hardcover, 9781101903513, January 16, 2016

Crown: Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Jason Gurley: A World Behind the World

photo: Rodrigo Moyses

Jason Gurley is the author of Eleanor, the fiction collection Deep Breath Hold Tight and other novels. 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.

How does it feel to release the originally self-published Eleanor with a new publisher?

Oh, it has been such an amazing and new experience, and a very different one! As a self-published author, of course, most of the work that goes into a book falls solely upon your own shoulders. One of the greatest revelations about working on the book anew with my publisher, Crown, is that there's an entire team of dedicated, enthusiastic people working on Eleanor from all different angles. It's no longer me going it alone, and that's really refreshing. It's also incredibly encouraging, knowing that each person working together to bring the book to audiences for the second time genuinely believes in it, and wants to see it reach readers. 

You write from the perspective of multiple characters, including a pregnant wife and a teenage girl. Whose viewpoint did you slip into most easily, and who was the most challenging?

Eleanor herself was a bit of both. You know, I started writing this novel way back in 2001. In the earliest drafts, I was writing a story that was very similar to my own life and experiences, or at least deeply rooted in things that were on my mind all the time. I hoped that by writing from the perspective of a character drastically different from me that I’d remove myself from the story, gain some fresh perspective. Over the years, however, as the novel’s story transformed, I found Eleanor shedding any resemblance to me, and becoming a much more interesting, more well-defined character. Writing her has always been a bit like slipping into a shoe that looks comfortable, but contorts me into strange new shapes instead. 

What made you decide to tell this family’s story by leaping around in time and dimensions?

I love books that play a little loose with the fabric of reality, especially when the story otherwise features very ordinary, relatable humans with ordinary, relatable problems. Who wouldn't want to revisit the past in order to subtly adjust the present? 

The tragedies visited upon the Witt family are not only frequent, but devastating. When things go sideways for them, it's usually brutal, and with lifelong consequences. I wanted to examine the lives of family members a bit farther downstream. If you make a choice today, how does it affect your grandchild? Or their children? Would it matter? Eleanor is about choices--intentional ones, accidental ones--that create those kinds of ripples. Not all ripples are immediately obvious. By the time we understand the damage wrought by our ancestors, it might be too deeply ingrained for us to change it.

Finding the story's balance was a minor feat, to be sure. But the Witts are mostly stumbling through their present, still dazed by the various tragedies that have put them where they are. Eleanor's barely hanging on herself. Discovering that there's a whole world behind the world is a surprise, but it also doesn't quite go well for her at first, and I think there's a sense of acceptance there. Of course this unbelievable other realm is out to get her. What isn't out to get her? 

I hear that in addition to writing your own stories, you’re also a talented cover designer.

Well, thanks! As I was saying, when you self-publish a book, you do everything. I've worked as a designer and creative director for the past 17 years, so much of that work came naturally to me. I designed the book covers and interiors for each of my self-published novels, including the original edition of Eleanor. But it's a bit magical to be in the hands of my publisher's extremely talented artists, I have to say. Crown produced a stunning cover for the novel, and the interior feels as if it's been soaked in the Pacific. It's lovely work. I've had a peek at the cover that HarperCollins has been working on for the book's U.K. release, and it's wildly different and equally arresting. 

For a couple of years, I put my design skills to work for all sorts of authors and publishers. I designed many books for Wool author Hugh Howey, for example, and did a few projects for Subterranean Press and various Amazon Publishing imprints. I "retired" from book cover design at the beginning of 2015, however. I was balancing the various responsibilities of my daily work as a designer, as a husband and father, as a novelist, and as a cover designer. I'd forgotten what "free time" was altogether, and something had to give. Book cover design was the only expendable item on that list! I briefly came out of retirement, however, to design the cover for Star Wars screenwriter Gary Whitta's debut novel, Abomination (Inkshares, 2015).

I love the work of book design, though, and I'm constantly admiring the covers I see arriving each week at my favorite bookstore, Powell's. Of recent ones, I adore the cover for Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies and J. Ryan Stradal's Kitchens of the Great Midwest

What do you hope that readers take from Eleanor?

I think one of the novel's pervasive truths is about the roles we play and the secrets we keep, particularly in relationships that have been defined by our culture and society for years and years. Children and parents are a prime example: it's nearly impossible for a child to see their parent as anything but a parent, at least until the child becomes an adult or parent themselves. Often a child doesn't see their parents' hopes and desires; they see the person who provides for and takes care of them. And clearly a parent is much more than just a parent. The same is true of children; parents struggle to see their children, sometimes, as individuals with their own stories to tell, their own lives to create. 

After self-publishing the novel in 2014, I received many messages from people who had read the book and then shared it with their own mothers and daughters. It was as if each of them felt the book in a very personal way, as if it was really about them and their own relationships. And that was and is so moving to me. It means there's some truth in this thing that I've made. As a reader myself, I've done this before. Books become a sort of shared medium for understanding relationships. And if Eleanor is that, for anyone, it will be enormously gratifying. I hope it will be. 

What’s your next project?

My next project is tentatively titled Limbs, and it occupies territory that isn't altogether unfamiliar: like Eleanor, it straddles the blurry line between the real and the fantastic, and follows a family that's strung out upon that divide. It's early, but I'm very excited about how it's coming together. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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