Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, published February 2019 by Roaring Brook Press; my previous novel, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish. I’m currently working on a new project.

The wee hours

Used to be, when I couldn't sleep on a cold night like this one, I would pull on a sweater, then a hoodie, then a thicker coat over the top, then some mittens, then a knit hat, then tug the hood over the top and tuck the hoodie strings into the neck of the outer coat and zip it up, then climb behind the wheel of my gloriously exposed Jeep — no top, no doors — and set off into the dark, beneath a fat, white California moon, the Jeep's heater roaring against my shoes, the radio silent, nothing but the sound of the wind rushing by and the great dark silence beyond it. 

But not tonight, or this morning, rather. For most of the past day, the wind has been tearing through the neighborhoods and streets out here. The neighbors behind our bedroom window have wind chimes that usually sound quite lovely; tonight they're a cacophony, a thousand hollow metal tubes cast down a rock staircase. The streets and sidewalks are strewn with shredded tree branches, locks of pine needles. The wind is so forceful, so insistent, that you can't hear cars passing by on the main drag. There could be a fleet of emergency vehicles whipping by, sirens a symphony, and I doubt we'd hear it from our home. 

I don't know why I can't sleep. When I was a kid, and church and Bible stories and such things filled my life, I remember someone saying that when you woke suddenly in the night, or when you couldn't sleep, that was supposed to be God or an angel urging you to get out of bed and pray, because somewhere, someone probably was in trouble, and your prayers were desperately needed to save them from that trouble. I remember hearing this sort of thing often, actually, and it was usually followed by personal anecdotes. 

"And the next morning the phone rang, and we learned that Uncle Gordo had been in a car that was hit by a train, but he was thrown clear, and had only suffered a broken collarbone. It could have been much worse, if not for... prayer." 

As a kid I remember thinking that if God or that angel knew something bad was happening, and they knew that if they woke you up you'd pray about it anyway, couldn't they just stop the bad thing from happening and let you stay asleep and warm? I mean, the outcome would be the same. Maybe the preacher just wouldn't have the anecdote to share. 

In the days of the old blog, I often wrote like this when I couldn't sleep. My thoughts would wander, and I'd chronicle them, and eventually I'd get tired, and in the morning I'd re-read what I'd posted the night before and wonder if my readers thought I was losing my mind. 

I don't mean to touch on the topic of religion lately, though it's always seeping around the edges of my thoughts, never all that far from that cast iron pot where stories seem to simmer for years before getting written. It seems inevitable that I'll write something about religion and belief someday; Greatfall doesn't count, though, since it was such an extreme version of such things. When I do write about belief and my many questions, it won't be in situations that involve bloody sacrifices and cults. It will reflect, I think, the darker things I've often wondered about belief, and organized religion, and the simple power of the crowd. I've taken some missteps towards these topics before — an ill-conceived short story about believers occupying Texas and seceding from the rest of the country, and building a wall to keep non-believers out, and enacting dreadful, old-world Biblical laws, for example; another about the second coming of Jesus, who discovers that nobody quite buys that it's him, and he's spent the past couple thousand years building a perfectly nice town called Heaven that nobody wants to occupy because it lacks 21st-century conveniences — and those missteps probably won't ever be finished. They're parodies of the real things I want to explore. 

I listened to a new podcast recently that's produced by Slate. It's called Working, and in each episode, the host (David Plotz, I think?) talks to someone about the intricacies of the career they've chosen. He's interviewed Stephen Colbert about producing The Colbert Report, and talked to the guitarist from They Might Be Giants, and, most recently, interviewed a cartoonist about what it really means to make a cartoon.

But somewhere in between those episodes, he interviewed a pastor about the business of, well, being called to save souls. I listened to the episode and was surprised — at least at the time, perhaps not so much in retrospect — to hear that pastor talk about things like church constitutions and bylaws, about attending meetings all day, about parishioners coming to him with problems, which he then referred to a church counselor because, well, he's not a therapist, just a pastor. The pastor spoke of being called to preach... but so little of what he talked about reflected the calling. He talked about family legacy — he's the fourth generation of preachers in his family, with a master's degree in divinity — and he talked about the challenges of never having time to himself. He talked about the patterns of preaching, the call-and-response tradition of an African-American congregation. 

Most curiously, when the host asked if the pastor was ever able to turn it off and just take time for himself, I seem to recall the pastor saying that he's always pastor, he's never just Bob (or whatever his name was). Shortly after, though, he said something interesting: he said that after he's preached three times in one weekend, he needs some time to himself, and he sometimes just gets on his Harley and goes for a ride, or plays golf with his old college buddies, among whom he feels comfortable having a drink or a cigar, because with them he's just Bob, not Pastor Bob. 

It was an aspect of the church life I'd forgotten about, at least to a large degree. As a kid whose father was a minister, I was often privy to, or at least peripheral to, some behind-the-scenes moments of church life. Some of it was of no real consequence, like seeing what was behind the door that the pastor emerged from each Sunday morning to take his place on the stage; some was much more intimate, like hearing frank discussions about how to handle a sensitive situation involving this church member or that one. And sometimes, here and there, I'd see what a pastor was like when they weren't "on." Turns out they're just like everybody else. 

Some of the things I heard on that podcast dredged up an old question I'd asked in Bible college (which I dropped out of after a single semester, partly because nobody was interested in answering the kinds of questions I needed answers to): If Christians are charged with saving the "lost" souls among us, where is the urgency? Why isn't that believer channelling all of their energy and effort into saving every single lost soul they encounter? Wouldn't the horror of a lost soul dying while still lost put a bit of a fire in their belly? And what would a Christian who did feel that urgency look like? What would they behave like? Would they be able to hold a job? Would everything be sacrificed to the urgency of that singular mission? Wouldn't lives depend on it? 

There's a story in that one, I think. I've been toying with the parts, seeing how they might fit together. It's not as ludicrous or cartoonish an idea as some of my earlier ones, maybe. 

It's four in the morning now. I'm still as awake as I was before I began writing this post, so if there's one thing I can rule out as a sleep aid, it's writing. I suppose in the long run that's a good thing. If I nodded off each time I sat down to write a page, I doubt I'd ever finish a novel. 

In the old days — which is what I'm calling them now — I'd have bundled up and gone for that long, cold, moonlit drive, wind or no wind. (One great aspect of driving a topless, doorless Jeep in stiff winds is that there's much less surface area for the wind to batter; it just whips right through the skeleton of the vehicle. One downside: all that random sharp debris the wind kicks up gets flung right into your face from both sides.) Tonight, however — nope, sorry, this morning — I'll stay inside where it's warm, because I'm getting old like that, and my sense of adventure is asleep, while I'm not. 

Nibs and inkwells