Parent trap

Fort Collins author J.A. Tyler spins domestic themes into magic

Courtesy J.A. Tyler

Many parents want to stop time. They’d like to keep their children small and innocent and exactly a certain age — if not forever, then at least longer than the ticking clock allows. It’s a natural impulse to want to protect them from our cruel, unforgiving world.

But there’s another natural impulse: the desire to run away. That’s because being a parent is one of the hardest things someone can do in this life. These themes run deep in Only and Ever This, the new novel from Fort Collins author J.A. Tyler, out now via Dzanc Books. 

Told in poetic prose, the book veers between plotlines following the unnamed mother — who takes some, let’s just say dramatic, steps to keep her children young — and the father, also unnamed, a pirate who chooses the sea over his dad duties.

Tyler is himself a parent and teacher, and he says a major part of the novel is about navigating those conflicting parental impulses while watching your kids grow up. Part of you wants to flee, because you fear you might not be doing it right, while another part says maybe you just need to step aside and let your kids grow up. 

“But then there’s the other half, embodied in the mother character, of wanting to freeze her kids right where they are, because she knows things are gonna get rough, and there’s gonna be a lot of obstacles for them,” he says. “And what if you could just pause them right there?”

Courtesy Dzanc Books

‘A weird world around us’

The true craft of Tyler’s writing lies in his beautiful sentences. He worked on the book for nearly a decade before landing an agent and publishing deal with Dzanc, partly due to this granular attention to style and detail.

“On the sentence level, I have just been chipping away and revising and revisiting for so many years that I do feel like I finally in the end got the version I wanted,” he says.

But there’s more to Only and Ever This than parental angst and poetic prose.

“I was also trying to make sure it had a nice cinematic throughline that was visible from start to finish. Because I can definitely get off on poetic tangents and lose myself in those because I love to write in that way,” he says. “So it’s kind of trying to skirt the line between the poetics and the cinematography of a book, and also having that narrative throughline and making sure the action was clear and had forward momentum.”

That narrative momentum takes various forms in Only and Ever This. Some chapters follow the father out to sea, while others explore the twin brothers’ perspective, which Tyler likens to the adventures of characters in the ’80s film The Goonies.

“I just wanted to let those twins have this adventure of falling in love and looking for treasure and those sorts of things while their parents are fighting to hold them back, just because they think that’s what’s best,” he says.

Not only is there adventure, but Tyler also manages to work in several elements of magical realism, and even some unexpected creatures like vampires and mummies. He’s the type of writer who can take what might seem like an ordinary moment in daily life and find a way to work it into his story of pirates and buccaneers. As Tyler was drafting the book in a Fort Collins coffee shop, he drew information from the “sketchy” characters he saw there. 

“I was just writing them in as I was seeing them,” he says. “Because I feel like even though it’s a fantastic book, and it has mummies and allusions to vampires and ghosts, and all these things … we have a weird world around us, if we just pay attention to it.” 

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ON THE SHELF: Only and Ever This is available now in hardback via Dzanc Books.

Further reading: Three books that inspired J.A. Tyler while writing Only and Ever This

Light Boxes by Shane Jones (Publishing Genius Press / Penguin, 2009):  “I read it all the time. He’s a fantastic writer. He’s got a lot of books that have surreal or magical realist elements. And I think they’re so fantastic.”

Motorman by David Ohle (Knopf / Calamari Press, 1972): “That novel is just so wonderful because it picks up in a future world, and it’s just apocalyptic. He goes for it, and he doesn’t explain anything. It just moves forward and it stays poetic and beautiful and light the whole time. And he doesn’t bog down with having to world-build. He just puts you into it and you move forward with him. And there’s something really graceful and magical about that.”

The Fish and the Not Fish by Peter Markus (Dzanc Books, 2014): “His books are like gold. I just love them. He manages to write about real people, fathers, mothers, sons, brothers in a way that seems so totally natural. And yet they do these things that are far fetched and outlandish and often border on the magical if not seeping into it.”