Jason Gurley: The Double-ended Cyclops of Indie Publishing
Interview with Designer, Art Director, Author, Jason Gurley.
WRITTEN BY: Ian
May 28th, 2014
Jason Gurley is a rare species in the world of Indie publishing. Both a seasoned art director and prolific writer/indie author, he is making a name for himself doing the things he loves to do. I met up with Jason once out in Lake Oswego, Oregon where we chatted about his passions and it's then that I realized that he was not just another designer turned writer. His approach to creating visibility for his work—both writing and design—comes off as professional and expert. Perhaps because he is a graphic designer, anything that he touches on a marketing level—his blogs, newsletters, social media postings and book cover work that he has done for all of his novels and plenty for the likes of Hugh Howey, and many successful indies—he somehow manages to make it all flow together seamlessly like he's been at it for 20+ years. While his current novel, Eleanor, slated for release this coming June 27, 2014, took him some 13 years to massage to perfection, he has written numerous other novels and short stories in between that time. I received a few of his newsletters as of recent, encouraging advance readers to write a review of the title in advance of the pub date. His approach to selling his storytelling is something every indie author should take notes on. He advocates that design is important in selling your book, that hiring professional editors is critical to a book being well received, that creating a narrative about the life of your book, leading up to it's birth, and showing baby pictures of it afterwards is critical (while I'm talking about pictures of his book, he does also post a ton of cute shots of his baby girl—and if that don't sell books, I don't know what will). Just as much as your book tells a story, it's important to create a narrative surrounding your books life. I feel like I'm taken on a mini journey every time I read one of Jason's book promo posts, I feel encouraged to help him make it a success, I feel a part of something. I think an author who can make their potential audience feel that way about a book is doing something very right. We all know it's a tough sell out there. Might as well make it memorable and personal.
Anyway, this is meant to be an interview with Jason, so here it goes:
How much of your family dynamic thwarts or inspires what you do creatively as a writer and designer?
I adore my family. The most important thing to me is that I’m doing something that they can be proud of. My wife sees it, I think, but my daughter is only two. One day, I hope she picks up Eleanor or The Dark Age and thinks that I’ve made something good. Creatively speaking, most of what I do works around my family, as opposed to the other way around. There are exceptions, of course, when I’m just crushed under fifty things that need to be done at the same time. But I never want to regret spending more time on my own projects than with them.
Right now my daughter’s favorite thing seems to be impromptu dance parties, and they are the most amazing thing ever. Ever, man.
I'm going to lump your lucky turn of fate into one: you are both a book designer and seasoned indie author, how much do you think about the cover as you write? Do you consider yourself lucky to be the creator of package and content? Or do you ever feel you would rather see some other designer take a stab at your novels covers?
I think about the covers for my books quite a bit while I’m working on them. Sometimes I have a good idea of what they’ll become, but often I’ll surprise myself when I actually sit down to begin designing. Just like a novel, sometimes a cover has its own idea about itself, and it will surprise me. I’m sure you know this feeling well, too.
I don’t want to call myself a control freak, because I don’t think that I am, but I’m a very curious person, creatively speaking. I want to know how to do everything, which is how I’ve come to design my own covers and my own book interiors as well. There are only a few things that I currently ask for help with, and that’s the actual manuscript itself — I hire an editor and a proofreader to help me polish the words. But I’ve never hired anyone else to design my books. And so far that hasn’t been a curse, only a blessing.
I’m a tinkerer. I have a hard time adding people to my process, and then depending on them when things need to be changed. I think I’m relatively good at what I do, and I’m always trying to improve, so I tend to go it alone.
Though I’d be curious, of course, to see what a designer like you or Archie Ferguson might do with a book like Eleanor. I am not by any means under the impression that I’m the best designer of my own work — just the most accessible one!
Do you find your design inspiration is often found in similar territory as your writing inspiration?
Oh, man. That’s a really hard question to answer! I’m not entirely sure I can ever really put a finger on what inspires me as a designer, but you might be onto something here. I’m inspired, mostly, by questions — that is, by work that forces me to have questions about it. There’s a French artist, for example, named Francois Schuiten, whose work I absolutely adore. He’s incredibly proficient, technically speaking — he has an architecture background, and his work is very intricate and real — but what I love about his work is that it begs for questions. This is one of my favorite illustrations of his: http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lxw2n7j8kZ1qhttpto1_r1_1280.jpg. It’s a perfect example of what I mean. It demands you to ask questions. Who is the man? What is he doing? What is this wonderful place? A library? A junkyard of books? Who are the men behind him?
This illustration makes me think of a hundred stories to tell, and is exactly what I try to do in the best of my work, I suppose: provoke the viewer into wanting to know more.
Do you see yourself dying at the writing table or the gates of Adobe?
I hope to die at neither! I hope that when I go I’m with my wife and my daughter and my grandchildren, and we’re gathered around the little portholes of our space transport, leaving Earth and headed for the stars…
Okay. I clearly can’t answer this question without flights of fancy interrupting my answer. But in ridiculous seriousness: I don’t have any interest in dying anywhere, ever. There’s way too much about where we’re going that I want to know, that I want to see. I read a novel once about an astronaut who travels to the edge of our solar system to investigate a strange object that’s appeared there. The object turns out to be a gateway, and the astronaut goes through it… and for the next eight millenia, he bounces around in a series of wormholes, occasionally popping out to see what’s happened to Earth. It goes through some dramatic changes. That’s what I want, except without the bouncing-around-the-wormholes thing.
I want to be Ted Williams’s head. Or a vampire, but one that prefers breakfast to blood.
That book, for anyone interested, is Stephen Baxter’s Manifold Time. I think. It’s one of the books in the Manifold series.
What are the major themes in Eleanor that you feel are most personal in your aging process and maturity as a writer, since the process spans 13 years?
Well, the biggest one, at the beginning, was my own doubts about the existence of a god. I was a pastor’s son, and it took me a long time to be bold, to ask myself hard questions about the things that everyone around me believed in. At twenty-three, I sometimes think I was late to my own party — I think sometimes that I should have been asking those questions years earlier, and I don’t know why I wasn’t. But other times, I think that I was right on time.
In the beginning, Eleanor was a vehicle for my questions. My protagonist struggled with a similar question, though her direct experience was much more dramatic than mine. She’d gone cliff-diving with friends, but had a terrible, brutal accident, and wound up in a coma. And while unconscious for months, she had a sort of spiritual experience. A conversation, really, with someone she thought might be God. But when she wakes up, the real world is a terribly disappointing place. After that kind of experience, how does real life compare?
So that’s how the book got started. But as I got older, and as I began to realize what I did and didn’t believe in, Eleanor started to change. The book didn’t have to answer any questions for me anymore. Frankly, it didn’t even have to exist. But I never lost my fascination with Eleanor herself, and I never stopped writing about her. I experimented with her character, taking her out of the world I’d created originally, and dropping her into all sorts of other small worlds — what would Eleanor do if she woke up and there was nobody else on the planet? What would she do if she was middle-aged, and having an affair? What if she was perfectly domestic and happy?
Eventually I plucked her story out of those different experiments, and it became the version of the novel that’s coming out next month. The important thing is that, finally, I feel as if I’ve figured out enough of myself to figure her out, too. The novel that Eleanor has become is literally nothing like the novel I began thirteen years ago.
Well, except for its title.
How much of your writing is driven by marketing concerns? You planned to release Eleanor as a three book series at one point. Was that a marketing effort in light of being a rising indie author or because you felt it could pace readers through an otherwise epic journey?
That was part of the reason that I considered serializing the novel, yes. But I think that my own impatience was probably the root of that entire consideration. It’s killing me that the book is still a month from release! After thirteen years, you’d think that a month would be easy. But it’s not, not at all.
The important thing, though, is that I realized very quickly that Eleanor is not a novel that can be easily serialized. It asks some very big questions, and it’s more patient than I am about doling out answers. There are no perfect cliffhangers. There’s just one absolutely enormous arc that Eleanor takes through this story, and it would be utterly unfair to readers to unnaturally divide that story into pieces.
So: it’s one novel, the biggest one I’ve written so far.
You're an expert marketer. Your blog, eblasts/newsletters and fact that you're a seasoned designer seem to indicate you have a slight insider perspective of the indie publishing world. What advice would you give to authors taking the path?
I’m sipping hot chocolate while I answer these questions, and I just about choked. No, no — I’m not an expert marketer. There are some things that I consider myself expert at, yes, that I’ve logged far more than ten thousand hours on – but marketing is not one of them. I spent years as a creative director, and I still have a very satisfying career as a designer for a startup, but I’m by no means an expert at marketing.
I have been fortunate, I will say, that my work on book covers has opened a lot of doors for me, and introduced me to people who have been great mentors. Through that design work I’ve gotten to meet authors like Hugh Howey and A.G. Riddle, or to develop friendships with people at various publishers, and that’s all been extremely helpful. I’ve learned a lot from all of them.
But I’m no expert. I do have some advice, though, just based on my own experiences. I mentioned this in another interview recently, but it bears repeating.
Take care of the readers who take care of you.
Do things for other authors that they’re not often able to do themselves.
Say yes until you can’t say yes anymore, and then say yes to the things that matter most to you.
That’s my advice. It may sound rather trite, but it’s working well for me now, I think.
Do you see yourself slipping into other genres? A self help book for indie's?! Or a guide to parenting?
Other genres, definitely. Nonfiction? Extremely unlikely.
Eleanor, actually, marks a bit of a shift. Most of the books and short stories I’ve published, so far, have been undeniable occupants of some flavor of the science fiction genre. But Eleanor is… more difficult to describe. You might use terms like “magical realism” or “contemporary fantasy,” and you wouldn’t be wrong. Some of my early readers, including some fellow authors, have picked up on this, and have compared the book to others written by Neil Gaiman or Madeleine L’Engle. And while I’m no Gaiman, no L’Engle, it’s encouraging to know that I’ve written this book well enough for others to identify what it’s all about.
I do know that not all of my current readers will be able to take this journey with me. Not all science fiction readers will want to read a novel like this one, and that’s okay. I think this novel will probably find a new audience all its own, and introduce my work to a whole new set of readers who will enjoy it — but who won’t have a whole lot of interest in my prior science fiction novels.
What's your ideal thinking conditions in contrast to your execution conditions? Are you flooded with ideas while vacationing? And inspired to put pen to paper when your at your desk? Is the world littered with your napkin notes?
My iPhone is stuffed with voice memos that I’ve recorded while driving, mostly. There are a few dozen story ideas there, some almost fully-realized, some just a description of a scene I imagined. I get a lot of ideas while I’m behind the wheel. Other people think best in the shower. I think best when I’m steering a three-quarter-ton death machine down a concrete artery, surrounded by other distracted humans. Go figure.
As for writing — these days I can do it just about anywhere. I write most often in coffee shops now, in small snatches of time that I steal from the rest of my day. I write before I go to work, or on my lunch break, or in my Jeep if I’m early for something else. I write at night when my daughter goes to bed, or in the morning before she wakes up. If I have fifteen minutes, I’ll write a thousand words or more. I don’t have time to stall, it seems.
It wasn’t always this way. I once needed the perfect lighting, the perfect music, the perfect quiet. If someone was mowing the lawn two blocks over, it would ruin everything. I think that becoming a father just made it necessary to adjust. That isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes get overwhelmed by the distractions — I do, we all do — just that I’m not able to really do anything about them anymore. So I do the best with what I’ve got.
Did you have visions of being an author as a youth or was it an accidental affair?
I’ve always wanted to tell stories. I’ve been writing novels since I graduated high school. I’ve been in touch recently with a creative writing teacher who — as she put it — “realized that you needed wings, not lessons,” and who really shaped my early desire to write. My recent collection, Deep Breath Hold Tight, is dedicated to her.
I never imagined, though, that my path would be such a solo affair. I had an image of what being an author would be, and very little of that image was about the actual work of writing. Most of it was about rooftop parties and drinks and lectures and book tours and constant celebration of my accomplishments. It took years to realize that being an author is literally nothing like that at all. Being an author is not a romantic thing, unless you’re easily romanced by little, real-life struggles, like the challenge of finding time to write in a day that’s already packed with a day job, being a good father and husband, feeding and walking the dogs, putting away toys, designing book covers, et cetera. I mean, last night I forgot to eat dinner, and I went to bed early, just completely tapped out by the fifty things on my to-do list and the seven more that arrived in my inbox while I was doing two other things.
The one thing I have going for me, I think, is that I don’t expect to ever support myself with my books. I have a really fulfilling career that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that takes the pressure off of my stories. I get to write what I want to write, not what I think I have to write in order to sell thousands more books.
Are you on fire? Are we going to see a novel every few months to a year from Jason Gurley? Or will you mull over things from here on out?
Let’s put it this way: In December, 2012, I took a break from writing Eleanor to try to write a new novel. (I wanted to remind myself that I could actually finish something, I think.) In the next six months, I wrote four novels before getting back to Eleanor. Six months! Clearly Eleanor is the bottleneck here. So while I can’t promise anything, I hope you’ll see at least a book every year. I don’t know how not to write.
Designers have been known to write. Both fiction and non fiction. How much does being a designer influence your observations as a writer?
Have they really? I need to meet some other people who are doing this. I traveled to Seattle last December for a Kindle Worlds event at Amazon, and Philip Patrick, the head of Kindle Worlds, made a comment to me about how much he liked my cover work, and my stories, and how rare it was to find an author who was also an equally adept designer.
Being a designer, though, can often be an enormous curse, at least when it comes to the kinds of observations you’re talking about. I observe way too much, I think. If I never critique another badly-kerned sign or another real-world example of poor user experience, like a badly-designed parking lot or an uncomfortable transaction, I think I’ll be a happier person. My wife certainly will be. The world needs fewer design rants, not more of mine.
But that isn’t what you asked. I think that by nature designers are curious, as are writers. I think, in my case, they’re two halves of the same coin. It’s like I’m Cyclops from the X-Men, except I also shoot laser beams out of my butt. You can quote me on this, by the way. Here, I’ll even make it more sound-bite-y for you: Being a hybrid writer-designer is like being an X-Man, but with double the powers. It’s like I’m Cyclops, but I also shoot laser beams out of my butt.
Of course, now my mind is wandering down the road of X-Men mashups. Can you imagine?
Doesn’t matter too much, though. Superman could kick their butts even if they fired lasers out of them.
Wow, did I derail this question or what?
I can't wait to read Eleanor and see what you're up to next!
Thanks! I can tell you the next book — it’s The Travelers, the final book in my Movement series — but after that it’s really anybody’s guess. I’m not making up my mind about anything just yet. I’m enjoying the idea that there’s a wide-open road out there, waiting for me to see where it goes.