Novelist fulfills longtime dream
Last updated 5/11/2021 at Noon
J.T. Bushnell, a 1998 graduate of Sisters High School, dreamed of writing a novel from an early age, but he did not reveal this to others during his youth.
“I had the notion from a really young age to write a fiction novel, but to me, that was like saying I wanted to be a professional athlete,” he said. “So I told people I wanted to be a journalist instead. That seemed safer.”
Though he kept the secret for many years, the desire never left, and on May 11, his novel “Step Back,” published by Ooligan Press, officially launched and is available for purchase.
Bushnell, who now lives in Eugene with his wife Katie, and daughters, Lola, 3, and Anna, 6 months, began his writing career as a sportswriter for The Nugget while in high school. He spent four years at Linfield College where he majored in journalism.
Upon graduation from Linfield, Bushnell says he still felt “a deep unarticulated urge to write fiction.”
“So, I waited tables for two years and during that time, I actually wrote two novels,” he said. “They were terrible — I knew they were no good even while I was writing them — but I was just needing to try it out.”
The unsatisfactory result put Bushnell at a crossroads.
“After the first one I didn’t get discouraged, but with the second one, when I finished it, it was clear to me it was no better than the first and I realized I needed help,” he said. “I knew I had to seriously pursue learning the craft.”
He completed a master’s in fine arts at the University of Oregon, and found some success in writing short fiction and teaching writing at Oregon State University, where he has worked since 2007.
But all the while he felt that to really be a writer, he needed to complete a novel to his satisfaction.
“So I decided to try again,” he said.
And it took big chunks of the next 10 years to come to fruition.
Finally, a book is born
Bushnell, the eldest of four boys, says that the book ultimately coalesced around three “concerns” that he had pondered.
The first “concern” related to brotherhood.
“I wanted to explore what it means to be a brother, so I started with that, not knowing where it was going,” he said.
His first two attempts using the brother relationship as the focus went poorly.
“The first attempt was more of a mystery or thriller and it was terrible. I pursued it to the end and finally threw it all away. The next draft was headed the same way. But 600 pages in, I sort of took a left turn and sharply headed in a different direction and the next thing I wrote ended up being the opening chapter of the book,” he said.
The second “concern” grew from the fact that, during this time, Bushnell had begun reminiscing about his experience as a high school athlete who loved basketball.
“The more I thought about it the more I missed that camaraderie — intimacy even — of playing together, so I began to write about it,” he said.
Incorporating basketball helped develop the main character of the book, Ed, an 18-year-old lover of basketball, who is just finishing high school when he learns, out of the blue, that his parents are divorcing.
“When you go off to college, especially as a young man, you’re sort of just swimming,” said Bushnell. “Ed finds himself severely torn from his previous life — his parents, his brother Charlie, his hometown, and his future plans and the book follows his attempts to find identity and connection during his first year of college.”
The divorce of Ed’s parents underlines Bushnell’s third “concern.”
“Originally, the divorce was there to set up the other two things, as a way to heighten the importance of brotherhood and basketball,” he explained. “But then I became really interested in exploring the weight of divorce, which seemed sort of off-limits because it’s so common and everyone is so accustomed to the trauma it inflicts on families that it feels like we’re all supposed to kind of shrug our shoulders and say ‘oh well.’”
Audience and the practice of writing
Writers obviously consider their audience when creating fiction. Bushnell didn’t think too much about what it would be like for people who know him to read it until he was nearly finished.
“The fictional dream that I was creating — whether I incorporated something real from my life or something entirely made up — wouldn’t be obvious to strangers, but people who do know me might recognize a place, a mannerism, or a shared experience,” he said. “This can help make the story more real, and even evoke people who actually exist in their lives. As a reader it’s probably impossible to separate what you know about an author from what you are reading.”
“Fiction is a funny interplay between the imagination and reality,”
When asked about developing characters for the book, one in particular surprised him.
“The character Tonya, a waitress who Ed rents a room from, just starting walking and talking on her own and I just watched her and reported what happened,” he said. “I think most books need a character like Tonya to break boundaries and push things into where it wouldn’t otherwise go.”
Bushnell’s “day job” as an instructor requires him to carefully carve out time for his own writing.
“And now that I am not just a husband, but the father of two little girls, finding writing time can be daunting,” he said.
Grateful to grow up in Sisters
Bushnell moved to Sisters with his parents, John and Leslie, when he was 10. He went on to be a valedictorian, and took part in basketball, baseball, cross-country, drama, and leadership, among other pursuits.
Regarding his development as a writer and lover of literature, Bushnell fondly remembers his language-arts teachers Lora Nordquist, Samra Spear, and Carol Dixon, as well as his basketball coach, Rand Runco.
And they remember him.
Spear said, “After all these years, I still use one of J.T.’s essays as a model in my classes. I vividly remember how he was able to use diction that was precise and memorable. His writing voice came across as unique, strong, and powerful.”
“In a very literal way this book would not exist without the teachers and coaches I had at Sisters High School,” Bushnell said. “They made a profound impact on me. A specific impact.”
“I remember Lora Nordquist standing before my 11th-grade English class reading a passage from a book and being choked up, emotionally moved, by what she was reading, even though she had probably read those same passages many times before,” he recalled. “The words still affected her. Seeing the power that a book could have on her, moved me. It’s a poignant memory.”
Nordquist has memories, too.
Now the interim superintendent of Bend-LaPine School District, she said, “I am excited, but not surprised, that J.T. is publishing a novel. I think I told him at one point he would always be a writer, whether by vocation or avocation. J.T. was one of the very best writers I encountered in my over two decades as a high school language-arts teacher, the kind of student writer that still makes me miss teaching high school.”
“The way Rand Runco channelled his passion as a coach and teacher showed me what applying passion could mean,” he said. “The way that he pursued the game of basketball, and asked us to pursue it, is something that became part of my personality that translated into writing.”
“We would be up for practice very early in the morning and it was hard as a teenager,” said Bushnell. “He would stop and remind us that everyone else is asleep right now and you are here, busting your butt to get better at basketball. Writing takes a lot of discipline and passion and I thank Rand for modeling that and instilling it in me.”
“Samra Spear helped me overcome the awkwardness of ninth grade by making me feel a part of the class and taught writing and literature in a way that was not just academic but a social enterprise,” he said. “And, on top of that, at the end of the year she handed me a copy of “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan, an Oregon novelist and told me she thought I would like it. I still have it. It’s dog-eared and duct taped and remains one of my favorite books.”
With the wait over, Bushnell has plans to celebrate and share the book with friends and family. He conducted a reading on the actual launch day, May 11, and has a signing planned May 12 at Grass Roots in Corvallis. A livestream reading at Annie Bloom’s books is scheduled for May 13 via Zoom starting at 7 p.m. (www.annieblooms.com/event), and a signing and celebrating party at Oakshire Brewing in Eugene on May 14 from 3 to 5 p.m.
The book will be available at Paulina Springs in Sisters, as well as on Bookshop.org and Amazon.com websites.