Archive for July, 2011

Grab Bag: G.D. Spradlin, R.I.P.

You might not recognize the name, but surely you remember the face and the voice:

“You can take it and shove it up your ass with a poker, a red-hot poker!”

“I intend to squeeze you, Mr. Corleone.”

Turns out, Gervase Duan Spradlin, who died Sunday at age 90, was far more than an imminently employable character actor. He didn’t even break into Hollywood until his mid-40s, having been an oil company lawyer and a millionaire as an independent oil producer before that. But his sharp, hawklike features and rich Oklahoma accent made him a natural for the stage and screen once he stumbled into acting.

From the Los Angeles Times obituary:

“Being rich changes surprisingly little,” Spradlin told The Times in 1967. “You’ll still have to have an absorbing interest in life, something to do to make you feel alive.”

For Spradlin, that was acting.

In late 1963 his daughter Wendy, a member of the children’s classes at the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, wanted to audition for a role in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

To give her moral support, Spradlin accompanied her to the theater and wound up auditioning for — and landing — a role in the play, the first of three local productions he appeared in.

He also appeared in three episodes of the late-sixties revival of Dragnet, mostly playing morally suspect characters, the kind he excelled at.

My favorite of these is the rule of Arthur Leo Tyson in the episode “Baseball,” from the 1970 season. This is where Spradlin’s artistic life intersects with mine.

Here’s a passage from my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, where Dragnet-loving main character Edward Stanton gives his assessment of that particular episode:

Tonight’s episode of Dragnet, the 25th and penultimate (I love the word “penultimate”) of the fourth and final season, is called “Burglary: Baseball,” and it is one of my favorites.

G.D. Spradlin, an actor who appeared in three episodes of “Dragnet,” plays a man named Arthur Leo Tyson, and he cracks safes for sport. He’s an ex-convict who is on parole, and it turns out that he misses being in prison. This is a condition called “institutionalization,” and it sounds awful to me. And yet Arthur Leo Tyson has much to look forward to when he gets back in “the pen.” The inmate baseball team at San Quentin expects to have a good season, and he wants to be a part of it. This amuses Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon, who take a liking to Arthur Leo Tyson even though he is an unrepentant criminal. It’s nice to think that police officers can be a little human.

G.D. Spradlin is one of the more recognizable actors on Dragnet, and he went on to be a character actor in many shows and movies over the years. He has a very distinctive face: It’s kind of round, and he has crinkled eyes and a perpetually pursed mouth — the kind of mouth that “looks like a chicken’s asshole,” as my Grandpa Sid used to say. He has a raspy Southern accent, the kind that Grandpa Sid had, too. If you ever saw the movie One on One, starring Robby Benson as a basketball star, then you know who G.D. Spradlin is. He played the coach, and his mouth looked like a chicken’s asshole for most of that film.

I would have liked to have written to G.D. Spradlin about his experiences on Dragnet, but he was well-known enough that I never found out his address. I looked him up on the Internet a couple of years ago, and he seemed to still be alive, although he hasn’t worked in a long time. He would be old now — 88, according to the Internet.

That’s how old Grandpa Sid would be, too, if he were still alive.

Time flummoxes me.

R.I.P., Mr. Spradlin, and thank you for the memories.

Another Page: ‘Lapsing Into a Comma’

Today, I conclude my two-part series on books that can help you improve your writing and self-editing. For Part One, go here.

My opinion: If you aim to write in a cogent, conversational style while still employing careful usage and grammar, your best bet is to get this book by Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh (a friend of the blog, by the way, but one who doesn’t know this post is coming).

I’m going to deviate just a bit into a personal story before I get back to the book at hand. When I broke into the newspaper business in–holy crap!–1988, all I wanted to be was a sportswriter. (Wait, that’s not entirely true: I really wanted to be an editorial columnist, a truly laughable proposition then and even more so now.) But after a few years of that, I stumbled into the notion that my skill set and sensibility were better suited for an inside-the-office job, as an editor who helped pull the newspaper together. In 1992, I made the full-on switch, decamping for the copy desk at the Texarkana Gazette. There, I was mostly a design guy, building pretty pages and making a cursory attempt to be a decent copy editor. I was aided by the fact that I had an instinct for language and sentence structure, but my grounding in the conventions of copy editing and in Associated Press style was not impressive.

As my career continued, I began to realize that I was nowhere near a top-flight designer nor a particularly strong copy editor, and I made a concerted effort to shore up my game across the board. My talent, such as it is, lay not in any one skill but in many of them: I became a serviceable, eventually good copy editor. I honed my design skills and became decent, even good, at that. I even went back to sportswriting, for a single, really bad Oakland Raiders season. Cathy Henkel, a friend and the former sports editor at the Seattle Times, once called me a “glue guy,” and I took it as the compliment she intended. I tried to make myself as close to indispensable as possible by being a capable hand at almost anything. (I should point out here that this happened largely in the days when one could actually be indispensable at a newspaper; the economy in general and the newspaper economy in particular have cast that era in sepia tone.)

To whatever extent I became a good copy editor, I owe it in large part to Bill Walsh. (See, I told you I’d get back to him and his book.) Long before he wrote his “curmudgeon’s guide to the many things that can go wrong in print,” he was constructing the bulk of the book at his website, The Slot, and I was reading it voraciously, along with almost every other newspaper copy editor I know. If you’ve never seen someone swoon over a copy editor, you haven’t been with Bill at a gathering of them. It’s pretty damned funny.

His success, with his site and with the book, lies first in the fact that he knows his stuff cold. But, look, grammar and usage points are medicine to most people, and Bill has a wonderful way of making the dosage enjoyable. He riffs on pop culture. He chooses memorable ways to get a point across. As an example of this, check out this entry from the Sharp Points section of his website:

“Welcome to The Gazette staff,” began a very welcome letter I received late in my senior year of college. It wasn’t the time or place to get nitpicky, but that sentence contained one of my many pet peeves.

“The” goes with “staff,” not “Gazette.” So, regardless of whether The Phoenix Gazette’s style is to cap its The, that particular capitalized “the” was just plain wrong.

To use yet another of my reductio ad absurdum analogies (I didn’t minor in philosophy for nothing), I submit the following:

If the president owed you money and you intended to collect, would you capitalize the “bill” in “I’m going to bill Clinton”?

If you love words and love contemplating how they fit together, you have to love an entry like that.

Get the book.

Progress Report: 7/26/11

There’s not a lot to report. I’ve been writing, writing, writing and it’s gone well, well, well, but I’m still not at the point where I’m ready to talk about the project in any substantive way. So that pretty much ends that.

I spent the early part of Saturday at the Joliet (Mont.) Jamboree, a fundraiser for the town’s library, and that was a lot of fun. From a books perspective, the best thing about summer is all the outdoor festivals — all chances to meet readers and put books in their hands. I have three left before the summer fades away: Aug. 5 in Big Timber, Mont.; Aug. 6 in Ennis, Mont.; and Aug. 20 in Manhattan, Mont. Details here.

Meanwhile, Ed Kemmick’s book, The Big Sky, By and By, continues to draw attention. The Billings Gazette ran a review this weekend by Montana Public Radio’s Chérie Newman, as did the Great Falls Tribune (an online version of which Ed and I both have been unable to unearth). Books are stocked at Hastings, Thomas Books and the Western Heritage Center in Billings and are on their way to a few more locations in the state: The Bookstore (Dillon), Fact & Fiction (Missoula), The Country Bookshelf (Bozeman) and Books and Books (Butte). If you’re a bookseller and are interested in getting some copies, please contact me at craig at craig-lancaster dot com.

Once More, With Feeling: ‘Mull of Kintyre’

Now that I think about this, I’m dead certain I’ve done this riff on the Paul McCartney and Wings song before, but for the life of me, I cannot remember where. So what the hey and all of that, I’m doing it again!

If once was enough for you, I invite you to chill out somewhere else till this is over. You could go here. Or here. Or even here. Whatever works for you.

Now, Mull of Kintyre

What I remember most about the clip above is seeing it through bleary eyes in the living room of my folks’ home in North Richland Hills, Texas, in the late ’70s. My stepfather had sent me off to bed that night with a promise that he’d wake me when McCartney came on — even at that young age, I was a huge fan of Macca. (I had made this determination on the basis of the song Rocky Raccoon a few years earlier, and while that may strike you as dubious, the fact is that I’ve remained a faithful McCartney fan for the many years since. I can think of few things that have remained with me that long.)

The story behind the song is pretty interesting, too. It was recorded between albums, and while it was fabulously successful in the U.K., it barely made a dent here in the U.S., topping out at No. 45 on the Billboard charts.

Because it wasn’t on a regular studio album, I promptly forgot the song after my slumbering stupor, until I read about it in McCartney’s tour program during his New World Tour in 1993 (I caught the May 5 show in Cincinnati). The next week, I had a copy of Wings Greatest and proceeded to wear it out, listening to the song repeatedly. It has everything that makes a McCartney fan happy: an undeniable hook, those great pipes (McCartney’s and the bagpipers’), terrific musicianship and a soaring chorus. If you’re one of those unfortunate McCartney detractors, I suppose it also has everything that fuels your contempt. You can go talk about that bullroar on your own blog.

Grab Bag: An Honor for ‘The Summer Son’

I’m pleased to be able to say that my second novel, The Summer Son, has been selected as a finalist for the Utah Book Award in fiction.

It joins two other novels — Sarah/Sara by Jacob Paul and Danse Macabre by Gerald Elias — as a finalist for the award, which will be presented October 15th at Westminster College in Salt Lake City as part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival.

Needless to say, I’m absolutely thrilled about this and honored that my book is in such good company.

Here’s a look at the Paul and Elias books:


Publisher: Ig Publishing

Pages: 200

An engrossing meditation on the meaning of faith, Sarah/Sara is the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman who undertakes a solo kayaking journey across the Arctic Ocean after her parents are killed and she is disfigured by a terrorist bomb in a Jerusalem café. Haunted by her parents’ death, and in particular by memories of her father, a 9/11 survivor whose dream was to kayak through the Arctic, Sarah embarks on her expedition unprepared for the strenuous physical and emotional trial that lies ahead. What begins as a series of diary entries on her struggle with faith ends in a fight for survival, as Sarah slowly comes to realize that she is lost in the Arctic wilderness with the ice closing in around her.

The author, Jacob Paul, is an English professor at the University of Utah and a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.




Danse Macabre

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Pages: 288

From Booklist: When internationally celebrated violin virtuoso Rene Allard is found grotesquely murdered, blind violin teacher and former concertmaster Daniel Jacobus finds himself reluctantly involved in what seems to be an open-and-shut case. For Allard’s rival, the sensational crossover violinist and former Allard student who calls himself BTower, has been observed at the scene of the crime with blood on his hands. Jacobus, the protagonist of Elias’ first novel, Devil’s Trill (2009), remains an irascible and not always likable amateur sleuth, but with the help of a formidable presence and, like a terrier, never lets go.


And, of course, if you’re interested in The Summer Son, there’s plenty of information right here.

Another Page: ‘Woe Is I’

I’m going to spend the next two weeks on conversational, common-sense usage and grammar guides. For one thing, I pay the bulk of the bills as a professional copy editor, so these issues are important to me. For another, perhaps the most troubling things I see in new writers — and in far too many veterans — are sloppy uses of words and a fleeting grasp of grammar.

As my friend David Otey once pointed out (probably more eloquently than I will here): Writing that adheres to the conventions of grammar is not unoriginal and boring; it is, instead, a service to those who read it. If you’re a professional writer, or want to be one, lucidity is a noble aim.

First up is a fine book by Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

The brilliance of this book rests with O’Conner’s style, which is conversational and, at times, wickedly funny. Moreover, she does every reader a service by not only outlining the proper approach to style and grammar but also by taking dead aim at those hoary prohibitions that seem to persist, generation after generation.

I’m speaking here of split infinitives, split verb phrases, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition, none as a plural, etc. In my line of work, far too many of the bosses who brought me up were slavish to these and other such bugaboos. (I once had a supervisor who said, with a straight face, that every word in the English language should mean only one thing, to cut down on the confusion.) They ran pieces through weird sets of filters that were partly rooted in established style and partly in pet peeves. What O’Conner tries to do is cut through the nonsense and arm writers and editors with solid information that will truly make a difference in how their work is presented. And she succeeds.

The beginning writer or editor will find this book a good primer on the basics. Someone with a few more years behind the plow will find clear-eyed backup and, perhaps, some new discoveries.

It’s highly recommended.

Next week: My second style and usage recommendation. Hint: It’s not Strunk & White. Indeed, I subscribe to the notion that The Elements of Style does far more harm than good, especially for beginning writers. But that’s a post for another time.

Progress Report: 7/19/11

Welcome, again, to the land of incremental progress:

The official release date of Ed Kemmick’s book, The Big Sky, By and By, is a week from today, and I now have books in hand to ensure that select bookstores around the state receive copies. I’m happy to say that pre-sales have been very brisk indeed, as I knew they would be. If you’re in Billings and/or receive The Billings Gazette, be sure to check out Sunday’s books page, which will feature a review of Ed’s book by Montana Public Radio’s Chérie Newman. (Also, it’s worth pointing out again: If you have a Kindle or a Nook, Ed’s book is also available in those formats.)

I’m continuing to plug away on a new project. It’s still far too early to say anything of substance about it, but I’m very happy that the day-in, day-out writing experiences have been brisk. For whatever it’s worth, I’m seeing the road pretty clearly as I move through the first draft.

I’ll be in Joliet, Montana, on Saturday for the Joliet Jamboree, a fundraiser for the public library. I’m looking forward to that, and to sharing a panel with fellow Billings authors Russell Rowland and Nancy Brook, among others. Details here.

Just saw the sad news about the demise of Borders. Here in my town, that means the loss of what has been a very good bookstore, and that diminishes the entire community in a cultural way. Jacob Tuka, the books manager in Billings, has been terrifically supportive of local authors and was always cheerful about lining up signings for me. We had a bit of bad timing with The Summer Son, which was released in late January, just as a book-buying moratorium kicked in at Borders. The Billings store has been a reliable seller of 600 Hours of Edward, however, and so I’ll be sorry to see it shuttered.

Once More, With Feeling: ‘Wendell Gee’

R.E.M. fans are a diverse, divided group.

You have the originals, who fell in love with Murmur and think everything since has marked a slow sellout.

You have the come-latelys, who jumped aboard with Out of Time or maybe Automatic for the People.

And in the largest group, you have people like me, who took the band into their heart early and have been faithful right along, even when that faith has been tested (and never more so than with Around the Sun, which we shan’t address again).

Of the resilient band’s considerable catalog, however, the album Fables of the Reconstruction is my clear favorite. From the first ominous notes of “Feeling Gravitys Pull” to the last, lingering banjo note of this song, “Wendell Gee,” I’m utterly in love.

The backstory of this album, however, is not a happy one for the band. They recorded it in England, in winter, with producer Joe Boyd. And they were miserable, with the experience and with each other.

Here’s a quote from singer Michael Stipe as told in the book R.E.M. Reveal: “We weren’t sure if we really liked each other or not, and that was really reflected in the record.”

It’s telling that the band never worked with Boyd again, but those fans who find themselves enjoying Stipe’s much clearer, much more confident vocals these days can probably thank Boyd, in part, for that. He clashed with Stipe, urging the singer to put more muscle into them.

“I had problems with the vocals,” Boyd says in the book. “Michael Stipe wanted them quieter than I did. It was a strange experience — everyone in the group wanted themselves turned down.”

It follows then that this song, perhaps the one I love the most on the album, was no favorite of the band, at least not initially. Guitarist Peter Buck hated it, claiming that its only redeeming feature was his banjo solo. He’s since reconsidered that view: “I must admit, I was wrong. I don’t love it, but I like it.”

I more than like it. For me, it’s the perfect slow singalong on a long car ride into the distance.

The Word(s): Arbitrary Dilettante

The drill: Each week, I ask my Facebook friends to suggest a word. I then put the suggestions into list form, run a random-number generator and choose the corresponding word from the list. That word serves as the inspiration for a story that includes at least one usage of the word in question. We did a little change-up this week and took two words: “arbitrary” (contributed by Todd Keisling) and “dilettante” (contributed by Charles Matthews). I’d also like to throw a shout-out to my friend Ben Marquez, who gave me the indelible image of mud-wrestling a pig. And, finally, thanks to Dave Mogen for introducing me to the word “honyocker.” I love it. For previous installments of The Word, click here.

We sat there in a row in the upper reaches of the Richland County Fairgrounds arena, the twilight summer sky the color of grapefruit flesh holding us in on three sides. My wife, JuneBug, and her kid sister, Judi, occupied the first two spaces on the plank. A considerable distance down from Judi sat her husband, Skeeter, and then came me, close enough to Skeeter to let him think I was hanging out with him and yet far enough away to build a buffer between me and his soiled undershirt.

Every damned time we came back to Richland County, I told JuneBug to just do whatever she had to do but to leave me and Skeeter out of it. And every goddamned time, we ended up somewhere like this, the two sisters hook-armed and conspiratorial, and Skeeter and me thrown together and expected to get along because we were men and that’s what men do. Or something like that. The trouble, of course, is that there’s no partway with Skeeter; you’re either his blood or you’re just another honyocker taking up space. Well, Skeeter decided I was his blood, and so I sat there, listening to him ramble on, wondering how much it would hurt if I just ran down the line and launched myself over the railing to the concrete below.

“I’d mud-wrestle me a pig if I got half a chance,” Skeeter said.

I dug a gnat out of my ear. “What?”

“I would. I’d wrestle him. I’d win, too.”

I leaned forward and hoped I could catch JuneBug’s eye. She deliberately avoided my gaze.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” I asked.

“I’m just saying. I’d do it.”

I shook my head and looked down at the arena dirt. We’d reached the silly stretch of entertainment, where some of the little kids in the crowd were getting to try rodeo in the miniature. In the middle of the arena, a goat paced nervously at the end of a tether as a hell-bent-for-leather, lariat-twirling eight-year-old bore down hard on the back of a Shetland pony.

“Junie, Junie, look,” I said. “Goat on a rope.”

My wife, her face framed by enormous sunglasses, paid me no mind.

Skeeter backhanded me in the chest and stomped his feet. “Hey, that reminds me of something. I bet a fella could make a pretty good buck training goats for these kids’ rodeos.”

“Are you serious?”

“Shit, yeah.”

I swear to God, I knew I shouldn’t have prolonged it with him, but I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s a kids’ rodeo, Skeeter. I mean, they’re not on tour or anything. They don’t need a stock company. They aren’t going to Calgary tomorrow. It’s a goddamned kids’ rodeo.” I emphasized this by punching the aluminum bench seat with my right hand, tearing skin away from the knuckle.

Skeeter looked like I’d run over his dog with a swather.

“I was just thinking and stuff, man. You don’t have to be like that.” He wiggled to his left, sidling up to Judi, who drew him in with an arm wrapped around him. JuneBug looked at me and mouthed, “What the hell?”

Yeah, I’m the bad guy.


I sucked the blood from my knuckle, scuffing my feet and kicking gravel on the way to the car. JuneBug walked about as far from me as she credibly could while still moseying in the same general direction.

“Look,” I said, “just don’t bring me anymore, okay? I’m more than happy to just stay at home in Billings.”

“Look yourself, Chuck. This is important to me. I don’t understand why you’re such a petulant child that you can’t just be nice to him for a few hours.”

We were at the back of the car now, and I wheeled around on her. “I can’t. I just can’t. I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and I can’t.”

“Why?” She stepped to me, aggressive.

“Because he’s a dilettante. More than that, he’s an arbitrary dilettante. You know what he said tonight? That he wants to mud-wrestle pigs and fucking herd goats for kids’ rodeos. I’m supposed to just listen to that?”

“It wouldn’t hurt you.”

“It hurts my brain, Junie. It hurts my friggin’ fully operational brain. I mean, this was way worse than the last time, when he said he wanted to name every rest stop in the state after some famous Montanan. He was gonna drive to all of them, name them, and take the list to the Legislature to have the names officially changed. He’d have tried to do it, too, if I hadn’t told him what a bad idea that was.”

JuneBug threw up her hands. “I give up. Let’s just go home.”


By the time we got to Miles City, it was full-on night, glitter scattered across the sky. I slipped into the Town Pump for some seeds and a bottle of tea while Junie slept.

She stirred when I came back. “Where are we?”

“Miles City, baby. A couple hours to go.”

“Good.” She stretched and closed her eyes again. She was folding snores before we got back to the interstate. I reached over and took her hand, and she squeezed my fingers. For a mile or two, the street lamps cast moving pictures across her pretty face. Finally, they dropped away and night closed in around us, and on we drove.

Just beyond Forsyth, as the road bent into the hills, I spotted the idling long-haulers and the coterie of summertime RVs and passenger cars in the roadside parking lot.

“Gary Cooper,” I said.


Grab Bag: Festival fun

Five days ago, I sat in Nutter Memorial Park in Sidney, Montana, on a stunningly beautiful 70-degree day (it’s generally at least 20 degrees hotter this time of year) and did a couple of my favorite things:

  • I talked with friendly people who love to read books.
  • I put my books in their hands.

With January’s release of The Summer Son, I even had an only-in-Sidney pitch to make for my second novel. I could tell visitors to my table, nearly all of them from that part of the world, that a key moment in the book happens in the very park we were in.

Toward the end of the book, as the narrator, Mitch Quillen, is learning some of the context that helps explain his inscrutable, violent father, Mitch remembers something that happened in the summer of 1977, thirty years earlier:

On a day we broke early from work, Dad and some of the other drillers barbecued burgers in the park across the street from the motel where we stayed. The revelry went on for hours, and I loved seeing my father loosened from the grip of work. For most of that day and evening, he was everyone’s best friend, quick with a joke and a smile.

Then a helper for one of the other drillers brought out boxing gloves and suggested some friendly bouts, and another good time crumbled.

A boxer from his Navy days, Dad turned frolic into intense competition, chopping down each opponent, one by one, until the only willing foe was the hand who had brought the gloves out. He was long and lean, his abdomen ripped with muscle, and he was more than a match for Dad–and probably half Dad’s age.

When the fight began, the young hand bounced side to side on the periphery of Dad’s range. Dad stalked his quarry. He loaded up a right hand and sent it screaming toward the kid’s jaw. The young man slipped the punch, shuffled left, and plowed three quick jabs into Dad’s face.

Dad came at him again, still cocking the right hand. When he let it go, the punch just missed, crashing loudly against the hand’s sternum. The young man’s eyes grew wide; he knew that a couple of inches higher would have laid him out. He slid to his right, out of Dad’s reach, and offered recompense with two jabs to the face and a right cross that sent sweat flying off Dad’s head.

Dad bore in hard and paid for the strategy. Lefts and rights hit Dad, splitting his lip and leaving a welt under his left eye. Dad swung wildly and missed even more wildly. Each misstep carried a heavy toll of leather.

Dad cast off his gloves.

“Enough of this shit,” he said. “I’m too damned old.”

His opponent smiled and removed his gloves. He offered a handshake to Dad, who accepted it.

The guy never saw it coming. Dad gripped with one hand and crashed a fist into the guy’s mouth with the other, toppling him. He got in two kicks to the guy’s ribs–punctuated by “Now who’s the tough guy, motherfucker?”–before Dad’s buddies pulled him off.

I saw it all from my perch atop an old steam engine, just yards away. I watched as one of Dad’s friends walked him out of the park and back to the motel. I watched as the young man rose slowly to his feet and spit up blood.

I quaked with fear as I returned to the room, scared of who I’d find on the other side of the door. Dad said nothing when I came in. He stared at the TV set. I quietly undressed and climbed into the bed opposite his.

My father’s indestructibility left me awestruck. His ability to turn vicious draped me in fear.

Thirty years later, lying there in a bedroom adjacent to his, I found it difficult to comprehend that he no longer possessed much of either quality. The clock always winds down, whether we think of it or not.


I’ll be hitting other festivals in the weeks to come: July 23 at the Joliet Jamboree, August 5 at the Spirit of Montana Authors’ Gathering in Big Timber, August 6 at the Madison Valley Arts Festival in Ennis, August 20 at the Potato Festival in Manhattan. It’s a wonderful time of the year for any author who thrives on meeting readers. You can keep up with my schedule here.

It’s hard to believe the summer is floating away so quickly. Soon–much sooner than I think–the snow will fly and I’ll hunker down indoors with my work, waiting for the sunny days to return and bring festivals back into my life.

Another Page: ‘Bloom County Babylon’


This feature is supposed to be about books that have had a profound impact on me (or, in the case of guest posters, on others).

So I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this compendium, published in 1986. I was sixteen years old, and my sense of politics and humor — and the absurdity of everyday life — was just rounding into the form that, for better or worse, sticks with me today. Berke Breathed’s denizens — Milo Bloom, Mike Binkley, Steve Dallas, Bill the Cat, Opus, Hodgepodge, Portnoy, Oliver Wendell Jones and a coterie of others — were my constant companions back then.

As for proof of their lasting impact, I’ll give you this scene:

It’s March 2010, and I’ve just finished taping an interview with Chérie Newman of Montana Public Radio. A friend and I are standing outside the MPR studios on the University of Missoula campus, waiting for my wife and her sister to arrive so we can head off to lunch, and we start talking about “Bloom County.” What follows is a rapid-fire exchange of lines from the comic, word-perfect from memory:

“A TOOO-TOOO?” “No, No … It’s pronounced ‘tutu.’ “

“Leaving a trail of slime wherev-”

“I’ll just run it by our hot n’ juicy lawyers.”

“Careful, boy. I wouldn’t go a-puttin’ no prickly burrs up my tailpipe, if ya gets mah drift, ya little prairie poop.”

“I strangled Oakland.”

And so on. And luckily for me and every other “Bloom County” fan, there were other books. For the vast part of a decade, Berke Breathed was certainly the funniest and perhaps the most incisive social commentator of our time.

Even today, a reference to Deathtongue or Billy and the Boingers is apt to send me into peals of laughter. Opus the olive-loaf vigilante? Pure genius.

And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I suggest that you get yourself a copy today.

Progress Report: 7/12/11

Big news first:

  • Ed Kemmick’s The Big Sky, By and By is now available for the Kindle. And for the Nook!

As for the rest of it:

  • Had a very successful day Saturday at the Sidney Sunrise Festival of the Arts. As Kemmick himself notes, perhaps the most welcome development was the 70-degree day, with a nice breeze. At any rate, I hope I see equal or even better results at my upcoming festival gigs: July 23 at the Joliet (Mont.) Jamboree, August 6 at the Madison Valley Arts Festival in Ennis, Mont., and August 20 at the Manhattan (Mont.) Potato Festival.
  • I’ve had a run of really nice writing days, where I’ve found the thread easily and moved my new idea steadily down the line. This is huge for me, because as you can see from the chart below, my writing time is scarce and I have to make the most of it:

Once More, With Feeling: ‘Sweet Adeline’

My wife and I went off to the eastern edge of Montana this past weekend for the Sidney (Mont.) Sunrise Festival of the Arts (more on that later in the week, probably). Along the way, she pulled out some CDs that we stashed away some time ago (yes, we still listen to CDs … sometimes).

Among them: “XO,” by Elliott Smith, whom I miss dearly. This is the first cut, and much as I love the entire album, I think it’s still my favorite song.

It has everything that I love about Smith’s music: The simple chord progressions that get overlaid with piano and harmonies, the smart lyrics (“Fully loaded — deaf and dumb and done”), the aching emotional honesty.

This CD was on heavy, heavy rotation about 10 years ago, while I was living in California, and when I hear it, my head is bombarded with images from that time in my life. In particular, I associate this song with cresting the hill just above old Candlestick Park, headed back south to San Jose after a night in San Francisco, the lights sparkling on the bay. Beautiful.

I must have listened to “XO” a dozen times all told over two days while we were on the road. I’ve missed it, and I’ll be holding it close from now on.

Grab Bag: The Story on Short Stories

Amendment: How terribly embarrassing! A commenter points out that the Times piece referenced below is actually from 2003. And yet, I’m not sure how much has changed. Agents remain leery of short-story collections. Authors are still guided toward the long form, if they’re not getting there on their own. My librarian, the wonderful DeeAnn Redman, says story collections don’t circulate well. So I guess my thoughts still stand; that said, I should acknowledge the age of the piece that spawned them.

A friend forwarded me this New York Times piece a few days ago.

The long and short of it:

  • Editors and agents are leery of short-story collections.
  • Readers prefer the longer form of a novel.
  • Those who defend short stories don’t make a very compelling case for them.
  • Movies and TVs can do short diversions better.

This, naturally, was all welcome news to me, as short stories are all I’ve been writing for the better part of a year. The why of that is simple enough: I write what I’m compelled to write. I don’t size up markets or tailor my writing to the prevailing tastes. This isn’t some high-minded declaration of artistic freedom; it is, simply, a pragmatic accounting of what it takes to move my lazy ass from the couch to the desk.

I now have a collection pulled together and am standing by as my publisher considers it. I’m hardly an unbiased source, but I think it’s worthy. The ten stories come from a variety of points of view, engage in a number of styles, have full story arcs (this was another complaint of the article cited above, the prevalence of “meltaway slices of life that end in a wan epiphany”) and play across a robust range of human emotion. There’s an underlying theme to the collection, but I tried to keep it from being a bludgeon. The 53,000 words or so represent the best work I could do, and I’m eager to share it.

It’s a shame that the short form has fallen out of favor in some circles; some of my most-loved reading experiences came from reading Stephen King’s short stories in his heyday, and certainly from reading Hemingway’s short fiction, some of the best ever written. I read a lot of books in 2010, and not one of them resonated with me more acutely than Benjamin Percy’s wonderful Refresh, Refresh. I’m serious here: Get that book. You won’t regret it.

(Notably, Percy, in this interview with the BULLblog, says that the bulk of his attention henceforth will be paid to novels. The limited market for short fiction figures heavily into this decision.)

Oddly enough, we seem to be in a particularly florid phase for short fiction. Rare is the book that gets such universal high praise as Alan Heathcock’s Volt. Shann Ray, a Montana boy, just came out with American Masculine. Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall has won every significant prize under the sun. Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming is up for a High Plains Book Award. And so on. That’s a lot of short-story collections for a parched market.

So … what about you, kind reader? Do you like short stories? Do you read them? Why or why not?

Another Page: ‘Bound Like Grass’

One of the more remarkable books I’ve read in the past few years is this memoir, by Great Falls writer Ruth McLaughlin. In it, she details the story of her family’s struggle — ultimately unsuccessful — to survive on homesteaded land in the northeastern corner of Montana.

The impressive cover endorsements, from the likes of Mary Clearman Blew and Judy Blunt and William Kittredge, are both on-point and yet somehow lacking (and I say this not to denigrate those who praise McLaughlin’s book but rather as an attempt to feebly underscore just how original and striking the book really is).

Clearman Blew: “… Ruth McLaughlin refutes the romantic myths that have distorted our view of the agrarian past.”

Blunt: “Her voice is quiet, authentic, and respectful, even as she asks the hard questions and explores the hard truths.”

Kittredge: “These lives are absolutely American, and profoundly significant.”

All true, undeniably so.

Still, I struggled for a long time to put my finger on what, exactly, so captured me in the pages of McLaughlin’s book, and I may still fall short of a full answer. Here’s my best attempt: She writes so unblinkingly, without sentiment or equivocation, and yet so evocatively that I was propelled through the pages, knowing in my bones that McLaughlin was offering authenticity and whole-hearted examination of her life and the lives of those who lived alongside her, and yet never once did I see the storyteller’s strings. To read this book is to move into every corner of the human heart — not because you’re manipulated into doing so, but because that’s where McLaughlin’s clear-eyed and confidently voiced writing takes you.

Twice, I’ve heard McLaughlin read from this book — already a Montana Book Award winner — and each time, she chose an early chapter titled “Hunger.” There is much to consider there. Here’s a taste, where she contrasts her eating habits as a young woman, on her own for the first time, with her memories of the farm:

I ate what I wanted after work and gained weight. I found a store that carried fat red franks, and downed three or four at once. I bought half gallons of ice cream that I spooned from the box, huddled in bed to keep warm; I’d never had more than two scoops at once on top of Jell-O. Trembling from cold, my lips and tongue numb, I stopped just short of finishing the carton.

I could finally have all the ice cream that I wanted, I could turn bright red from franks (my brother maintains that the nitrates from our years of processed meat will keep us pink in our coffins long past death). But neither restored my depleted self as had my grandmother’s bath lunch.

Montanans who write memoirs often see their books compared, for good or ill, against Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky. A longtime devotee of Doig’s, I haven’t found much merit in those comparisons. Until now. Ruth McLaughlin’s book stands well with that masterpiece, and on its own.

Progress Report: 7/5/11

Not a lot to say …

  • I’m off to Sidney, Montana, this weekend for the Sunrise Festival of the Arts. The last time I was there for the festival, two years ago, I met a ton of nice folks and sold a lot of books. Hoping for more of the same.
  • I’ve started a new long-form project. That’s all I’m gonna say …
  • Some very, very good news that I’ll be revealing later. I’m such a tease.

Hope you had a wonderful Fourth!

Once More, With Feeling: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

Take it away, Jimi …

Have a happy Fourth, everyone!