Southern Oregon As Setting And Character: Josh Gross Captures The Region’s Quirks in Summer of Smoke
In last year’s Besties, Josh Gross was the Honorable Mention for our readers’ favorite local author category. Over the past year, he has completed his latest novel, Summer of Smoke. Taking a page from rock bands, Gross, the former Music Editor for the Messenger, will release off his book with a live event at Lithia Park Butler Bandshell, 3 – 5 pm, Sunday, May 16.
RVM: The story traces how different members of one family, the Gilberts, react to months of lingering smoke from forest fires in Southern Oregon, like the region has experienced in recent summers. Is there one of the characters in the family you most align with?
Josh Gross: As the emotional toll of a particularly brutal fire season drudges on, the family that the story is centered around each go their own version of nuts. One turns to online conspiracy theories. Another to environmental activism. One becomes a woodland firefighter. Another tries to get out of town by taking a job away from the smoke. And so on. And all of their coping strategies inevitably come into conflict with one another as the story progresses. But a major driver of those conflicts is that each character was based on different stages of grief (denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and acceptance), so I’ve related to all of them at some point or another—especially during the intensely smoky summer of 2018, when I conceived of this story.
If there is an element in Summer of Smoke that I most identify with personally, it’s more in the use of location as a character. A major motivation towards writing this book was to present the Oregon that I know—one of urban people living in a tense ceasefire with nature in rural settings, one of omnipresent fringe ideologies, and one in which the affable cultural quirkiness is always threatening to spin out into utter chaos—because that Oregon was something I’d never seen reflected in cinema or literature before.
RVM: Are there heroes or villains in the story?
JG: I find stories in which the conflict comes from the intersection of differing viewpoints more compelling than ones in which there is a clear line between good and evil or right and wrong. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and the villains of someone else’s, so when I’m thinking about setting up the world of a story, I look for ways to have the characters be both right and wrong at the same time, so that they must somehow learn to coexist with that duality.
If there were a villain, it would be the fire. But even there, villainy implies intent, and fire doesn’t care one way or the other. It’s just a fact.
RVM: This is a comic coming-of-age story. How fair is it to say this is the literary equivalent to a John Hughes film?
JG: In tone, perhaps, but not much beyond that. The archetypal Hughes film was a group of teens going through an experience together, and Summer of Smoke is about an age-range of characters experiencing something in ways that are totally disparate, in that the smoke sends them all on different journeys that happen to intersect with one another throughout the book.
Part of the idea I was playing with while writing this is that the concept of coming-of-age isn’t just a one-time thing. People come of age as teenagers, and as young adults, and as they enter middle age, and so on. And I wanted to place each of the different characters into their own coming-of-scenarios that were all triggered by the smoke, but which were all happening independently.
RVM: These is a certain degree of madness for each character. How sane have you stayed during the past year?
JG: I mean, how sane has anyone stayed? But that said, 2020 in all its Peak WTF horror, actually affected me far less than the three months of forest fire smoke in 2018 that birthed this book. Writing it helped me with my PTSD by letting me turn the tragedy into comedy. I still feel a pretty intense shot of panic when I see a controlled burn in the hills though.
RVM: The search for Bigfoot is a major theme of the book. Do you believe in Bigfoot? Or, is this something more symbolic?
JG: Part of my desire to write this book was to tell “the great Southern Oregon story,” and Bigfoot is such an undeniable element of the culture of the northwest that it didn’t seem right not to include him/her in some fashion. But it’s also sort of random. You can’t just have Bigfoot wandering in and out of a story based in realism. But in high school, I knew a girl who took a summer job as a research assistant to someone looking for Yeti. That always stuck with me as something no local really grasped the full strangeness of, because here it isn’t that weird. So when I was thinking about this book, I went back to that and thought, looking for Bigfoot would be a fun my-first-summer-job story to write for one of the characters, especially if that was placed within the even weirder context of fire season. And once I had that idea, the rest of the story clicked into place really quickly.
RVM: In addition to the text, this is a visual presentation. You created a movie trailer for the book and the cover is stunning. Local artist Aubry Hollingshead created 25 charcoal drawings for each chapter heading as well. Are these available anywhere else?
JG: Well, first, to be clear, Summer of Smoke isn’t a graphic novel or anything like that. But there are three big reasons for the illustrations at the chapter headings, (which will be on display for purchase at the book launch on May 16, and which will afterward be available through the artist’s website, AubryHollingshead.com).
The first is that, right or wrong, people do judge a book by its cover; and so I wanted the book to look as good as it reads, and took great care to get its design right. The goal was something that would really pop and stand out on a shelf; the kind of book you could clock from all the way across a bookstore and want to investigate. We went through three different covers I think to get it right. The book was actually delayed a full year to finish the art, and despite the intense frustration of that year, it was absolutely worth it because the final product looks even better than I’d hoped.
The second is that most of my favorite books growing up had iconic illustrations, and so that has always stuck with me as an essential component of presenting a text you want to be taken seriously and stand the test of time.
The third reason is a bit meta, but the idea of an artistic medium that is made possible by fire (charcoal), being used to depict the effects of fire, on paper made from trees, seemed to speak directly to the forest-life themes of the book in an essential way. And since I happened to know a supernaturally talented fine art charcoal illustrator, it felt like an opportunity to do something profound on a creative level that I’d never have again. So once it was in my head for the book to have charcoal illustrations at the chapter heads, I wasn’t able to think of it being published any other way because that was what made it whole and transformed it from just being a manuscript to being a book.