Author Jason F. Wright's latest release The Cross Gardener is an uplifting tale about how to deal with grief, loss, suffering and, most importantly, how to find the way back to hope. He spoke with Hair Balls about the novel, what prompted him to write it and why he choose to tell this story, based on personal experience, as fiction instead of a memoir.
Hair Balls: Please tell our readers, who may not know the story in The Cross Gardener, a little bit about the book.
Jason F. Wright: The book is about a young man [named John] who suffers a great deal of loss in various ways, most importantly a car accident that takes the two people he loves most in this world away. That sends him to a pretty dark and depressed place for a while. He puts two roadside crosses at the crash site and spends a lot of time there, mourning them.
One day he shows up at those crosses and he meets a man who calls himself the Cross Gardener. He claims that it's his hobby to travel around the area and tend to those roadside memorials. The two men develop a friendship over the course of a month or two. They have long discussions about life and death -- why we die, how we die and what that process might be like. As the book unfolds, it gives readers some hope our loved ones are not as far away as we think they are and the veil between this life and the next is more thin than we realize.
HB: How did you come to write this story?
JFW: I had lost a number of good friends and relatives in car accidents -- a lot of us have, I'm not alone there. One of them was my brother-in-law. Through the years, I've seen a lot of these crosses on the side of the road. I've always wondered what it was like. If it's two o'clock in the morning and you're dying on the side of a road by yourself. By the time the rescue squad gets there, you're long gone. What must that be like? Is it really that lonely or is there someone there to help with that process?
Those thoughts also had me thinking back on the death of my own father when I was 16 and my frantically racing to the hospital and being too late to be in the room so that I could say good-bye and be there when that process happened. That was one of the reasons I wrote the book, so that I could deal with my own feelings of grief. And I probably learned more writing the book, than anyone will ever learn from reading it.
HB: Why did you choose to tell this story as fiction? You very well could have made it a memoir about losing your own family and friends, and about your own journey of grief.
JFW: I wouldn't write it as a memoir because I wouldn't want anyone to think that I think my life is that interesting or that I think my life is so important that [readers] need to learn from it. I think it's important to take a little bit of truth and experience from life and to fictionalize it into something that's bigger, that's about more than me. The book is not my lesson to the world. It's about what life might be like, not what my life was like.
Also, by fictionalizing it, it gives people the opportunity to interpret it any way that they want to. If it's too closely based on my life and my experiences, then [I'd] really be forcing the reader to interpret it the way [I] want them to. I don't think that's fair.
The book is fiction, but the feelings in the book are very, very real. There's no fantasy element to this. And I think that as you read this book that is fiction, I think it will inspire in you real feelings that will take you to a real time and a real place. There were dozens of times since I wrote the book that I could close my eyes and I was back at my father's funeral, I was back at my brother-in-law's funeral. It's a fictional book, but one that has very real feelings. And people who read the book will be taken back to [similar] feelings and maybe have a little more hope about thing than when they had those feelings for the first time.
HB: As the author, you could have told any story you wanted, including one that's all sunshine and rainbows. Why did you choose to tell one with such pain and grief?
JFW: I don't know a lot of people whose lives are like that. I do know a few people whose lives seem to be a Disney movie, but not many. For most people that I know, including myself, life doesn't work that way.
I'm a big believer that solutions to life's problems come through a lot of trial and error - and a lot of time. I think this life is a refining process and you don't solve problems overnight. I think that we're made better and stronger, in the real world, through trials. And not just one, now and again, but a sort of constant process.
If you want people to relate to a book, they've got to be able to read it and say, "that could be my life." There are good days, and there are bad days, and sometimes the good days are too far apart. That's the idea in The Cross Gardener. The book ends with a lot of hope, and I hope people see that, too. The main character, [John], finds his way through the pain, through the grief. He finds his way back to living a life that, if not completely happy, is certainly happier than he was in the beginning.
HP: There are lots of those crosses in Houston and every once in a while, we'll have someone complain about them, saying they exclude non-Christians or saying that using public land for a memorial for one person is unfair unless we can use public land for memorials for everyone. What do you think about those arguments?
JFW: I knew that this question was coming up at some point on this [publicity] tour and I wish I had a better answer for it. The state of Virginia has a sort of "look the other way" policy. They don't officially allow them but they don't prevent them. Nobody wants to be the man in the orange vest that works for DOT that has to remove all of the teddy bears and crosses that somebody left on the side of the road.
But they do encourage people to let the state put something there. They have a program where people can make a small donation and the state puts up the marker and they care for it. It serves as a memorial to whoever lost their life, but also as a reminder to drive safely.
The best answer I can give you is that I'm a big believer in state and local rights and control. If there's a community that says they don't want a cross or other memorial on the side of the road, that's fine. If there's a community that wants some other type of program to mark where a person died on the side of the road, that's fine. And if they don't want anything at all, that's fine, too.
Jason F. Wright will read from and sign copies of The Cross Gardener at 7 p.m. today. Borders, 3025 Kirby. For information, call 713-524-0200. Free.