by Jason Gurley
In late 2014 I visited fellow Portland author David Shafer at one of his events. We hadn’t met before, but had mutual friends. He inscribed a copy of his bestseller Whiskey Tango Foxtrot for me: “Every artist is the savior of every other. —Someone.” A little research led me to the true source, a line from D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love: “Every true artist is the salvation of every other.” I haven’t read the book, but the quote is shared widely online, and continues: “Only artists produce for each other a world that is fit to live in.”
I quite like the line. Though in context it may mean something entirely different, here out of context, it confirms my suspicion that no one writes in a vacuum. I know many authors who don’t read other books while they’re actively writing their own; they worry they might subconsciously ape what they’re reading. But many acknowledge that their work stands on foundations built long ago.
It wasn’t until I completed my novel Eleanor that I understood its influences. I’d taken lessons from these things, gathered over time; some recent, some as far-flung as my childhood. Here are some that shaped me and the writing of Eleanor:
1. Contact, by Carl Sagan
Perhaps it’s an unlikely influence, but without Contact, Eleanor wouldn’t have existed at all. The novel’s flawed, intelligent heroine, Eleanor Arroway, not only gave me the name of my protagonist, but Sagan’s gentle skepticism prompted me to ask questions of my own life which became the root of my early drafts.
2. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
3. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
4. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Published between 2002 and 2005, each of these novels had a dramatic, though delayed, effect upon Eleanor. Each tells a story firmly rooted in a plausible, grounded reality, then laces elements of the fantastic or science fictional through their narratives. Niffenegger’s book grants the gift (and curse) of time manipulation to a main character; Sebold’s protagonist is deceased, narrating her own murder mystery from the afterlife; and Ishiguro’s schoolchildren are shepherded into the world to serve a gruesome purpose. It wasn’t until 2013, when I tossed out a decade’s worth of work on Eleanor—and realized that her story would blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy—that these novels’ influence over my story became apparent.
5. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
Still one of my favorite stories, L’Engle’s was one of the first in which I met characters as ordinary as I was—yet capable of great intuition, able to exercise enormous gifts. Meg Murry is a nervous, rumpled girl who doubts her own abilities, but refuses to quit, if only because her family hangs in the balance. The beauty and mystery of the other worlds to which L’Engle sends her characters have held sway over me for many years.
There are countless others, of course, that have nudged me this way or that. These are the most apparent, and even the most beloved, of the works that lit the path as I wrote.