Novelist

Archive for August, 2011

A few words about a few words

This thing up above is one of two dedications in my new book, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. (The other is to my wife, Angela.)

I never had the pleasure of meeting David Brockett or Bill Petter, but both men left a powerful influence on me.

David Brockett and his granddaughter Mia.

David’s daughter, Amy Pizarro, and I were co-workers at the San Jose Mercury News and are great friends. She’s the kind of friend — and I’m lucky enough to have several of these — who is right there at the moment you most need an encouraging word or someone to listen to your troubles. Because of the vagaries of day to day life and distance, I can go weeks and months without talking to her, only to find that everything falls away when I do. She is, simply put, a wonderful person.

Her dad ended up with a copy of 600 Hours of Edward and just loved it, so much that he and I struck up a correspondence by e-mail. David was a long-haul trucker, and we had an appointment to get together the next time his work brought him through Billings.

Sadly, it never happened. He got sick and died so quickly, it took my breath away. Took everybody’s breath away.

Amy details that on her blog, and I can’t suggest strongly enough that you go check it out. It’s a beautiful tribute to a man and a father.

Bill Petter is another guy I’m left to wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting. His daughter, Donna Moreland, is another of my friends, one of the many I’ve picked up on Facebook.

When Bill died on March 21, the outpouring of tenderness and stories from Kirkland, Wash., where he lived, was just incredible. Here’s but a sample. Donna told me that 600 Hours of Edward was one of the last books he read and that Edward’s fascination with numbers and process was something he shared with Bill. There’s just no way to say with any degree of adequacy how much sentiments like that mean to me.

We lost greatness with the passing of these two men. Luckily for us, they left legacies — in the daughters they raised and the lives they touched. I think you ought to know.

Update: Amy just e-mailed me with something pretty interesting: Bill Petter died one day before her dad, and the two men’s birthdays were one day apart. Wow!

Bill Petter and his Mickey Mouse gloves.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 10

We continue today with the story behind the story on the 10th and final piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

COMFORT AND JOY

Backstory: I originally wrote this story over the course of two days in December 2010 and published it in e-book form. It sold for $1, and I donated the net proceeds from those sales to Feed America. Now that it’s part of a larger book — roughly 10 percent of it — I will be donating 10 percent of the net proceeds from sales of Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure to that same organization. Also, an abridged version of this story is scheduled to appear in the Winter 2011 issue of Montana Quarterly.

Here’s an excerpt:

As spring melted toward summer, an answer to that prayer arrived. Life next door to Frank went back to some semblance of what it had been before. The woman went to work and came home. The boy went to school and then, as June rolled around and the summer break took hold, he and his friends often hung around the house, tossing a football in the yard or playing basketball in the driveway. Frank caught snippets of these things through the window. He would watch and sip his coffee, and then he would return to her.

Frank’s other prayer, that Lucy’s pain would subside, was a tougher sell with God. She barely moved some days, and Frank would have to pick her up and carry her to the bathroom. The small act of sitting on the toilet would aggravate the cancer that had metastasized in her bones, and in her agony she could barely make a sound, depleted as her lungs were. Frank would hold her close, careful not to hurt her further, and blink back the tears.

When he found the compression sores, he gave in and called for help from hospice, finally admitting that he couldn’t tend to her alone anymore. The nurses came in, and there wasn’t much they could do, either. They dressed her wounds and tried to make her comfortable.

Lucy died in the early hours of a Wednesday in late July. Nobody left flowers in her yard.

Trivia: In this story, I managed to work in some details about one of my heroes, a retired NASA engineer named John Aaron. If you saw the movie Apollo 13 — and if you didn’t, please rectify this oversight immediately — you saw Aaron portrayed by Loren Dean.

Take a look (Dean, as Aaron, shows up around the 6:30 mark of this clip):

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 9

We continue today with the story behind the story on the ninth and penultimate piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

SAD TOMATO: A LOVE STORY

Backstory: This entry will be very brief. Very brief. This is a continuation of an earlier story in the collection, Alyssa Alights. Beyond that, there’s almost nothing I can say about it that wouldn’t be a spoiler. It’s quite unlike any story I’ve ever written before.

Here’s an excerpt (a single paragraph, the first one):

The first time he cut her, she felt the endorphins rush her head and she thought, just for a moment, that she was going to die. It felt so fucking good. The blade sliced a clean, straight line above her ankle, and the blood held back until her heart beat again. It came first in a trickle and then a pour. He handled the knife like he was born to do it, the tip of his wet tongue hanging from his mouth as his eyes, immovable, focused on the target and the line. She looked at him and she wanted him so bad, and after he cut himself, too, she had him. She rode him until they collapsed together into the drying blood that stained the sheets. She didn’t wake up until after noon, and then the metallic smell of what they had done with the knife turned her on all over again, so she woke him.

Trivia: The real-life event that inspired this story happened on the week of my birthday in 2008. How’s that for a teaser? Once you read the story, feel free to write to me at amindadrift at gmail dot com and inquire about it. I’ll happily spill.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 8

We continue today with the story behind the story on the eighth piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

SHE’S GONE

Backstory: Long after I wrote about Ross Newbry as an adult, I came back to him, this time as an adolescent. Since family relationships seem to be the vein of fiction that I most eagerly mine, I wanted to explore the question of how the reverberations of childhood can mark us and influence our actions as adults. The result was this piece of short fiction, set in the early ’80s in Miles City, Montana. It’s another father-son story — an area that has been well-trod in my first two novels — but this one tacks a much different course.

Here’s an excerpt:

“That’s not much of a story,” the boy said, scooping the last bite of ice cream into his mouth.

“I just figured you’d want to hear it,” Dwight said, a bit too quickly, and he winced as he realized that he’d let the boy know he’d been wounded.

“No, you said it was too good a story to waste,” Ross said, staring at him. “It wasn’t good at all. It sucked.”

Dwight tugged at the napkin on the table, straightening it.

“What are you so angry about, Ross?”

“I’m not angry. I’m really glad you and Mom had a great day. That’s so awesome. Didn’t really stop you from leaving us, though, did it? You’re here, she’s at home, she doesn’t want me, I’m here, I don’t want to be with you. It really worked out for me, didn’t it?”

Dwight clasped his hands in front of him. “Ross—”

“Shut up.”

“Listen—”

“Shut up.”

“Ross, about me and your momma—”

“Shut up!” The boy threw back his chair, crashing it against the stained-wood wall of Dwight’s trailer. He ran to his room, shaking the doublewide again with a slammed door.

For a long time, Dwight stared into his bowl, waiting for his heart to thump with less urgency. When he finally scooped out some of the melted vanilla, the sound of his spoon clinking against the bowl reverberated in a house that had gone silent.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: Jim Quillen, the violent father at the center of my novel The Summer Son, is in the heart of this story, too. It’s a few years on from the breach between Jim and the narrator of the novel, his son Mitch. Jim’s appearance was in no way planned, but I have to say, he fit perfectly into this story, and it was good to see him again.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 7

We continue today with the story behind the story on the seventh piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

STAR OF THE NORTH

Backstory: This story, about a prison inmate waiting out a life sentence for a murder he’s never denied, was inspired by a specific event in my own life that didn’t happen. I can’t give all of the details without undermining the story a bit, so let me just say this: More than 20 years ago, on the precipice of a huge change in my life, I felt as though my family had been violated in a way that made me angrier than I’ve ever been in my life — so much that, had I been able to get my hands on the perpetrator, I might well have changed the trajectory of my future. So now, all these years later, I’m relieved that I never had a chance to act on that urge for retribution. The protagonist in this story, Ray Bingham, did have that opportunity. A lot of stories come to me this way; I think about an event from my own life, or the life of someone I know, and I play games where I extrapolate the path not taken.

Here’s an excerpt:

After lights-out, Ray kept his eyes open and chewed on the question of regret. To his recollection, Judge Mabry had been the first to ask about it, at the sentencing. The old jurist had spent much of the trial either polishing his glasses or idly spinning them by the temples. But at the final hearing, Mabry had pulled the glasses on and peered over them at Ray and asked if he wished to acknowledge the pain of Jeff’s family, if he had come to terms with the horrible thing he had done.

“Hell, no, I don’t regret a thing,” Ray had said. “Jeff deserved what he got, and I gave it to him. That’s about the size of it.”

“Young man,” Judge Mabry had answered, “you will find prison a cold and lonely place with that approach.”

In the intervening years, Ray had come to agree with Mabry about cold and lonely, but he didn’t figure it had anything to do with his attitude. That’s just the way prison was, for everyone.

Ray flopped over onto his left side, facing the wall, and doubled up his pillow.

I’ll never see a day outside this place, he thought. I know that now. But if the price of being free is remorse about something I’m glad I did, something I’d do a hundred times out of a hundred if given another chance at it, I’d rather stay here.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: One of Ray Bingham’s cherished memories is of a blue Mustang named Caroline he once bought at a car lot in Arvada, Colorado. I, too, bought a blue Mustang in Arvada. I never named her. She never deserved it.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 6

We continue today with the story behind the story on the sixth piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

THE PAPER WEIGHT

Backstory: Like Alyssa Alights, this was salvaged from a novel that didn’t make it to the finish line. For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a good blast-off on the challenging times newspapers and newspaper journalists now face. When I started my career more than 20 years ago, I knew what I was getting into, having had a stepfather who was a longtime reporter. But it also seemed, at the time, like a rock-solid profession, full of job security and interesting assignments. Well, the latter still exists, but the former is gone, probably forever.

The obstacle between wanting to write such a story and actually doing it lay in my being entirely too close to the subject matter, a condition that dogged this story when it was part of a novel-in-progress and threatened to derail it even as a short story. It was only when I conjured an absurd approach to the main character, Kevin Gilchrist, and played it out to its illogically logical end that I found my way through the thing. As it turns out, this has ended up being one of my favorite stories in the collection.

Here’s an excerpt:

These facts about The Diploma caused Gilchrist to despise him on several levels.

First, he had only four years of honest-to-goodness, in-a-real-newsroom experience. And in those four years, he had kissed enough of the right asses to be running the whole shooting match at the Herald-Gleaner, which, back in the days when people actually read newspapers, had been a pretty damned good one.

Second, the guy went to Kansas and Missouri, for Christ’s sake. If one were to equate collegiate sports with politics, it would be a little like defining oneself as an abortion-rights Republican from Alabama. (Gilchrist had begun to suspect that The Diploma didn’t care much for sports. On the odd occasions when he would join a newsroom bull session, uniformly uncomfortable moments for everyone, The Diploma would put on a serpentine smile and slink away when talk turned to whatever game was in season.)

Third, The Diploma had a master’s degree in journalism, which Gilchrist figured to be about as useful as a screen door on a battleship. Journalism—real journalism, the kind practiced by Gilchrist and those who had come before him at the Herald-Gleaner—didn’t happen in a laboratory. It wasn’t theoretical. It was real. It happened outside the glass walls, on the street, among people whose stories demanded to be told and among people who, as a matter of course, would lie, equivocate, prevaricate and falsify to keep somebody like Gilchrist from discovering the truth. The Diploma came out of Missouri with big ideas about databases and web hits and social media, none of which meant a damned thing to Gilchrist.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: This is important. None of the characters in this story has a direct relationship to someone I know in real life. They are all amalgamations of various people I’ve known in a 20-plus year career in newspaper journalism. You will never find a more irascible, maddening, insanely brilliant group of people anywhere, except maybe at a fiction writers’ convention.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 5

We continue today with the story behind the story on the fifth piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE

Backstory: The title story of the collection (obviously). A reader could be excused if, upon digesting this story, he/she assumed that it, too, sprang from the turmoil of late last year that I’ve talked about previously. Actually, that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure this is the oldest story in the collection, written nearly two years ago as a palate cleanser between my first and second novels. It does reflect my fascination with the politics of our most intimate relationships — the ways in which we use coercion and leverage, whether it’s subconsciously or with reckless abandon. The main character in this story, a man named Ross Newbry, shows up later in the collection as an adolescent.

Here’s an excerpt:

Her drunken lovemaking was, by turns, fierce and haphazard. She licked his face and slithered her tongue in his ear. When she moved to the other side, he reached up and swabbed her spit away. She lay back and invited his mouth to find her, and he did so by rote. The most preposterous memory stepped to the front of his mind. Sam Kinison, the manic comic, had a routine about oral. “Lick the alphabet,” Sam the Man said. So he did. She writhed and grasped at his head, and then, as the moment neared, she turned him on his back and rode him until it was done.

As she draped across him, he looked for patterns in the ceiling.

“It was good?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s been a while.”

“Yes.”

“I think we should do it again.”

He said nothing.

She reached for him and found him flaccid. “Oh.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

She turned away and ground her backside into him. He patted her shoulder and waited for her snores.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: When I was writing this story, the house that Ross and his wife, Laura, share was modeled on a place my wife and I lived in before we got married. Interestingly enough, that same house served as the model for Edward Stanton’s home in my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. In the novel, I simply moved the house one street away from where Ang and I lived.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 4

We continue today with the story behind the story on the fourth piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

The story as it appeared in the Spring 2011 Montana Quarterly

CRUELTY TO ANIMALS

Backstory: Hoooooo boy. Where to start? The latter part of 2010 was a chaotic time in my life. I was unfair and ugly to a lot of people, myself included. And I was taking all of that angst and emotional turmoil and spinning it into creative works, which left me close to half-crazy, wondering if I was doing it all just to gin up my fiction. This is a result of that creative burst. It’s an examination of two mismatched lovers, told from the viewpoint of only one of them (which means, of course, that somewhere out there another story is waiting to be told). It’s comical and cringe-worthy, just like ill-fitting love. This story originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Montana Quarterly.

Here’s an excerpt:

But Diane, she was different. For one thing, she wasn’t a gangly little girl anymore. She was thirty-four years old, one hundred percent woman if her online pictures were to be believed, and beautiful in a way that moved me in all the right places. Her sister, Rachel, lurked somewhere in my little online universe, but I rarely heard from her and spoke with her even less frequently. But Diane. Oh, man, Diane. I took advantage of any chance I had to swap notes with her, stay up late chatting online or whatever. I even played that stupid farm game, just because she did. Even if I grant you that online communication is two-dimensional in a way that makes it a poor substitute and a dangerous stand-in for genuine human interaction, I couldn’t help myself from falling in deep with Diane. She got me. She could tell when I wasn’t eating well or sleeping well, just from my demeanor in the little electronic box where we talked. I began sharing my frustrations about work, and she helped me there, too. When I told my creative partner, Jonathan, that his big-footing of me during pitches was damaging to our relationship, he was properly chastened. “I owe you an apology, Doug,” he said. “It was weird to hear you say it so directly. I don’t know. Usually, you just go into your office and break something when you’re frustrated.” That was a gift from Diane, the ability to confront Jonathan. She was changing me.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: Two pieces of it, actually. First, the title: It’s inspired by a Pernice Brothers song of the same name, which as it turns out, also has a similar theme. (Thank God titles can’t be copyrighted.)

Take a listen for yourself:

Second, the names Diane and Rachel in the excerpt above: In the story, the narrator becomes involved with “the kid sister of the first girl I ever loved.” The first love of my life was (is) named Rachel. Her kid sister? Diane. Beyond that surface detail, the story in no way reflects them. I’m proud to say that both remain good friends of mine to this day.

Be sure to come back Monday for Part 5 of this series.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 3

We continue today with the story behind the story on the third piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

ALYSSA ALIGHTS

Backstory: This is the salvaging of another failed novel project. I’d had this idea for a story involving an ensemble of characters: a teenage runaway, a street vigilante, a burned-out newspaperman, a standup cop dealing with departmental corruption. I had a vague sense of how they might all fit together, but as ensembles often go, I ended up writing not one cohesive story but several half-baked ones. Unable to reconcile them, I carved out the likeliest candidates for short fiction and went back to work. This and two other stories from the collection — The Paper Weight and Sad Tomato: A Love Story — were the results.

Here’s an excerpt:

Finally outside the house, she cut a path out of Sidney on side streets, staying well off the main drag, with its restaurants and gas stations. Even at such an early hour, the eyes that would surely see her leaving would give way to the tongues that would surely tell on her. It wasn’t until she neared the intersection of Highway 200 and Highway 16 that she dared skip over to the main road. She settled onto the shoulder and began walking southwest, toward Glendive, where a bus to Billings awaited.

She patted the right front pocket of her jeans, which held a wallet. That, in turn, contained eighty-three dollars, all the money she had managed to save from her job at the M&M diner. The wallet, she knew, was the most important thing she was carrying. Every few steps, her right hand found its way to the front of her pants, and she traced its outline, verifying once more its existence.

A mile out of town, the first semi of the day rumbled behind her, coming from Williston. She turned and thrust her right thumb skyward and smiled. Just as she figured he would, the trucker eased his rig onto the shoulder. When she caught up to him, he reached across and opened the passenger door.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: The constant patting of the wallet is a personal tic of mine. I also carry it up front — mostly because I don’t like the feel of sitting on it — and periodically brush the front of my pants with my hand to assure myself that it’s still with me. Is that weird? It seems kind of weird.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 2

We continue today with the story behind the story on the second piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

THIS IS BUTTE. YOU HAVE TEN MINUTES.

Backstory: This story, which is just a hair under 5,000 words, was inspired directly by a bus trip I took last fall from Billings to Missoula for the Montana Festival of the Book. I didn’t want to drive for a few reasons: First, I didn’t expect to need my car much during my weekend away, which proved to be true. Second, I wanted to travel as inexpensively as possible. Third, I didn’t have my car, because my wife was using it as she moved out of our home and we rode up to the brink of divorce. I’m not saying that flippantly; it was a horrible time in our lives, and as I’m wont to do, I was particularly attuned to inspiration in that crisis state. I found plenty of it on a Greyhound bus.

Here’s an excerpt:

Thirty-seven miles short of the mark, the Corolla belched forth a metallic grumble and died.

“Threw a rod,” the tow truck driver told him nearly an hour later, when he finally arrived and crawled under the nose of the car for a look-see. “Son of a bitch went right through the pan.”

“Oh, hell,” the man with the BlackBerry said as he relayed the news home in a text message. “I just had the oil changed this morning.”

“Yep,” the tow truck driver said, “and there it is.” He pointed back down I-94 a piece at the last dying cough of oil. “You get it done at one of those in-and-out joints?”

“Yeah.”

“I seen this happen a lot. Those guys there don’t take much care.”

“Bloody hell,” the man with the BlackBerry said. “How long to fix it?”

The tow truck driver whistled. “Long time. Expensive.”

The man with the BlackBerry rode the rest of the way in the cab of the tow truck, batting back her electronic invective (How could you not know you were leaking oil? How dumb are you?) with apologies and attempts at placation. In between, he attached a name to the tow truck driver, who hadn’t offered one.

Jeff Hobbs. 37 years old. On his third marriage. Works the graveyard shift at the refinery in addition to driving the tow truck. Former football star. Oh, and there’s this: He’s gay.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: The title of this story — This Is Butte. You Have Ten Minutes — comes directly from the mouth of the driver on my ride from Billings to Missoula. After hearing it, I promptly fell back asleep, so I never had a chance to put her on the clock once we arrived at the Butte depot.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 1

Starting today and running Monday through Thursday for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing details from each of the 10 stories that make up my forthcoming collection of short fiction, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.

I’ll include backstory, excerpts, and other stories behind the stories.

We’ll start, appropriately, at the beginning.

SOMEBODY HAS TO LOSE

The backstory: By far the longest of the 10 stories, at about 13,000 words, this one began life as a novel-in-progress. It just never really progressed, at least not to that point. At about 15,000 words, I realized that the story — about a basketball team pinning its hopes on a singularly talented girl — would never measure up to the definitive basketball-in-Montana novel, Stanley Gordon West’s Blind Your Ponies, even though mine would have an entirely different trajectory. So I reined it in, did some surgery and came up with a devilish ending, the kind I like.

Here’s an excerpt:

As Paul ran through the offense, the whistle rarely left his mouth.

“Give me the ball,” he told Cash.

She fired a chest pass at him.

“Mendy, it’s like this.” He squared up to the basket, squeezing the ball between his hands and planting a pivot foot. “First option: jump shot.” Into the air he went, releasing the ball at the peak of his jump and watching it backspin softly into the net. Cash, her face red, gathered the ball and rifled it back to him. “Second option: drive.” Paul took two dribbles into the lane and then fell back to his spot on the periphery. “Third option: make the next pass.” He slung the ball to Victoria Ford, directly to his left on the wing. “You know better than to just throw the ball over without even looking.”

Paul turned to the players clumped on the sideline. “Shoot, drive, pass. When you get the ball in this offense, that’s the sequence. I don’t want anybody not following it, you got that?”

“Yes, sir,” the girls answered glumly.

“You get the ball. If the defender has collapsed into the middle, you shoot the open shot. If they’re crowding you, drive around them. If you’re covered, make the next pass. This is not difficult. Run it again.”

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Dan Gensel

Trivia: The offensive style described in the snippet above came from my buddy (and best man) Dan Gensel, the former girls basketball coach at Soldotna (Alaska) High School. His philosophy was that too many coaches filled their players’ heads with so much minutiae that it paralyzed the girls’ freedom to take an open shot. The guy was one of the winningest coaches in the state for nearly 20 years, so I figure he knows what he’s talking about.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Publishing: pleasure and pain

Welcome to Day 4 of Honesty Week.

Look, I don’t know how I feel about self-publishing. Back when I first did it, in those yonder days of early 2009, it was in the most rudimentary way possible. I uploaded my book to CreateSpace. I used one of that service’s horrible pre-fab templates for my cover. And then I tried to get people to notice I’d released a book, all the while slowly refining the book’s appearance.

When a Montana publishing house, Riverbend Publishing, came calling for the book in August 2009, I happily signed it over, and I’ve never regretted that decision.

With my second novel, The Summer Son, I cast my lot with Amazon Publishing, and I’ve been happy with those results, too. Despite the scraps of carping you’ve seen during Honesty Week, publishing has been very, very good to me. But it still sucks. More on that in a second.

In between those two books, I started writing a bunch of short stories. A couple of months ago, I pulled them into a collection. I wrote earlier this week that story collections are the red-headed stepchild of the publishing world. So rather than facing a protracted and frustrating period of pitching these stories to the handful of publishers who actually appreciate short fiction, I’ve opted to release them myself under the auspices of Missouri Breaks Press, a publishing house I founded a couple of years ago to release under-the-radar literary fiction and nonfiction that interests me. I’ve been pretty damned successful with it, too, if you don’t mind my saying so: My first release, Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, was a Spur Award finalist. My most recent release, Ed Kemmick’s The Big Sky, By and By, is getting some grand notices. So, yeah, I’m self-publishing, but what I’m doing today bears almost no resemblance to what I did two and a half years ago.

With Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, I did it the right way. I engaged the services of a top-notch editor, one who is thorough and honest and hard-nosed. (Let me know if you want the name; I can’t recommend him highly enough.) I engaged the services of a good book designer (that’d be me, someone who has spent the bulk of his professional career as a designer of publications). The marketing piece, the toughest for any writer and one nearly every writer has to bear to one extent or another, will be mine, too.

So, am I now a dedicated self-publisher? Probably not. I always figured my career would be a patchwork of things: some traditionally published novels, some magazine pieces, some small-press stuff, some self-publishing. At the end of each project, I try to figure out the best route. Betting on my own publishing house seemed like the right choice for this one.

Now, about publishing: It sucks, except when it doesn’t. The economic model is a mess. Giving millions of dollars to vapid entertainers for their memoirs and novelty novels (Kardashian sisters, anyone?) while shunting workhorse midlist novelists to the sidelines is a dumb thing and bad for the culture. Returnability is a financial killer. Royalties really suck. A lot of people have figured out how to make a good living at self-publishing e-books, and now that distribution is no longer the sole province of the big publishers, more people will have that opportunity. The digitization of books has been a great equalizer. Some think this marks the end of the world. Others think the possibilities are just beginning. Count me in the latter group.

There are plenty of places you can go that will outline the whole self-publishing revolution for you. This guy, for instance, really knows his stuff. I won’t even attempt to explain all of that.

My assumption is that readers want good books. That’s what I’m trying to deliver, regardless of imprint. Which brings us to the interactive portion of today’s post:

How often, if at all, does the publisher of a book influence your decision to buy? Tell me in the comments.


Heartbreakers

Welcome to Day 3 of Honesty Week.

My friend Ron Franscell said something a couple of years ago, when I was just getting my legs under me, and it has stuck with me since: “You think when you’ve landed that publishing contract that the rejection is behind you. Unfortunately, a whole new group of people has lined up to reject you.”

I didn’t necessarily get what he was saying at the time. I’ve had a graduate course in his wisdom since.

Consider:

Bookstores: For every wonderfully helpful manager I’ve met at chain stores — and Billings, where I live, has been beyond lucky with Lorrie Niles at Barnes & Noble, Gustavo Bellotta at Hastings and Jacob Tuka at Borders (RIP) — I’ve dealt with three who didn’t return calls, who seemed uninterested (at best) about setting up a signing or a reading, who didn’t seem the least interested in, you know, selling books. That surprised me. I always figured my compact with bookstores worked like this: If the store was kind enough to stock my book, I would do my level best to come help move it into readers’ hands. And I put my money, literally, behind that view. I drove hundreds and hundreds of miles around this state with 600 Hours of Edward in an effort to sell that book. If I were to plot it on a straight P&L ledger, the numbers wouldn’t look very good for me. So it’s a little disheartening to say, essentially, “Hey, how about I spend $70 on gas and a day of my life to help you sell my book?” and to hear “Eh.”

The independent bookstores, by and large, have been much better experiences, because indies realize that they stand out in the book trade by being curators and experts, and part of that stems from their close relationships with authors. For as long as they’ll have me, I’ll always venture down the street to Thomas Books (Susan Thomas), to Bozeman’s The Country Bookshelf (Ariana Paliobagis), to Fact & Fiction in Missoula (Barbara Theroux), to Red Lodge Books (Gary Robson), to The Bookstore in Dillon (Debbie Sporich), to Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Wash. (the tireless Suzanne Droppert). These booksellers and the stores they run with care and love are essential to their communities.

Libraries: I hear this all the time: “Libraries are always in need of good programming for their patrons.” That’s fantastic. Here’s my response: “Call me. I will come.”

Fortunately for me, several have called. Big, big love to Parmly Billings Library, the Ronan City Library, the Stillwater County Library, the North Richland Hills (Texas) Public Library, the Chouteau County Library, and others.

But this post is about rejection, so here’s a little story: Back in the fall of 2009, right after Edward came out, I pitched a program to a Friends of the Library group here in Montana. A couple of weeks later, I received this curt reply:

“The Friends board met and decided not to sponsor a reading from your latest book.  I hope you can find a venue for your reading in the near future.”

Two months later, I’m at a ceremony where Edward is named a Montana Honor Book, and someone from that particular Friends of the Library board approaches me and says, “If we’d only known …” Indeed.

Look, I get it. Nobody can say yes to everybody. But a writer who’s just starting out needs breaks, needs someone to say yes. I badly needed that, and by the time we got to “If we’d only known …” I didn’t need it quite so much anymore. Further, this was a Montana library group, considering a book by a Montana author, released by a well-regarded Montana publisher. I’ve never asked a library for anything more than some time, a place and the opportunity to sell some books. This was not a difficult “yes,” and yet, it was still ”no.” Until, of course, it was “if we’d only known …”

So what I’m saying is, try “yes.” It won’t kill you.

This is my point.

Reviewers: Ha! The auspices of Honesty Week reach only so far. My personal ethic is that I’ll never get in a pissing war with a reviewer. So, I’ll say simply that in my dream world, reviewers would do three things:

1. Regard a book for what it attempts to be, not against some mythical measuring stick that has, say, Ulysses at the top and Breaking Dawn at the bottom.

2. Remove personal prejudices from the equation to whatever degree possible.

3. Present the good and the bad. I distrust any review that leaves out one of those.

Readers: Readers are kind and wonderful and have incredible taste.

You see, it’s also Smarm Week.


It’s Not Me. It’s Them.

Welcome to Day 2 of Honesty Week.

Today, I’m all in for the breakup. Not between you and me, dear reader. Between me and that shameless strumpet whose attentions I’ve been seeking the whole time we’ve been together.

The Other Writer.

See, that’s what happens in this game. If you fall in love with books to the extent that you’re actually willing to try to write your own — a task that is often akin to crawling through an Andy Dufresne-style river of feces — it’s probably because somebody wrote something so profound and moving that you want to know what it’s like to create something potentially magical. In other words, you want to be that writer you admired, or a reasonable facsimile. In further words, you buy into the fantasy.

So you write the book. And you beat the odds and someone actually wants to publish it. And now, if you haven’t done this already, you’re confronted with the challenge of impressing other authors who might praise your book, introduce you to their agent or their editor, drop your name at parties and all that other B.S. that informs the fantasy. And, hey, maybe that’ll happen for you. It’s certainly happened for others.

But it’s still B.S. I’ve yet to see reliable data suggesting that the endorsement of a well-known author spurs significant book sales. And yet I have significant personal experience suggesting that direct interaction with readers does sell books. Plus, groveling isn’t involved, for the most part.

Now, I have to backtrack a bit. Honesty Week has a tendency to send me rocketing down a strident path.

I’ve written two novels and a collection of short stories. They’ve been well-received (generally) if not bestsellers. I’m happy with them. Proud of the work. For better or worse, I think I have a self-imposed standard for my work that meets and/or exceeds the general standards of the industry, if the industry even has a general standard. And in the course of production of those two novels, I’ve eagerly tried to build friendships with other authors.

I won’t go dropping any names, but suffice to say, I’ve been fortunate to have met and become friendly with a good number of highly regarded and successful authors, people who have been really wonderful to me and who have been generous with their time, their expertise and their endorsements. Those people know who they are, and nothing I have to say here changes how I feel about them. They’ve given me a model for how to treat folks who might approach me in the way I’ve approached them.

I’ve also met some incredibly petty and punitive writers, too — enough that I was moved to observe the other day that, in twenty-plus years of journalism, I never dealt with a newspaper person (an edgy, hard-to-love lot) whom I despise nearly as much as I detest some of the authors I’ve met. But you know what? That’s cool. Book writing is a crazy, stupid, maddening business, and if some people lose their minds and become vicious bastards, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. By the end of Honesty Week, I may well be one of them.

My point, and I really do have one, is this: My proportions have been all wrong. Meeting and becoming friends with other authors is cool, and it’s something I’ll continue to do. Meeting and becoming friends with READERS — people who actually would like to read my books — is a far more worthy pursuit, and one that should get the vast preponderance of my time. That’s not to say I haven’t done it. I just haven’t done it enough.

One of the aims of Honesty Week is to change that.


Blowing stuff up around here

Remember all those daily coded posts — Once More, With Feeling; Progress Report; Another Page; Grab Bag; The Word?

Yeah, all that stuff is history. Not that I won’t post about music, or my progress on a given project, or a book I like, or anything at all, or the weekly short story. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. (In the case of the short story, absolutely I will. And my apologies for missing last week. A family medical emergency came up.)

The point is, the categories felt too constraining, and I’m in a mood to knock down walls. More accurately, I’m in a mood to knock down walls, drive over them with a steamroller, collect the microscopic pieces and shoot them into orbit on a rocket. Even more accurately: I’m in a mood.

You might have heard that I have a new book coming out, a short-story collection called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. Short stories don’t sell. Literary agents don’t want them. Publishers, by and large, don’t want them. (Except, curiously, for Press 53 and Graywolf Press, and both of those publishers do better with short stories than just about anybody.) But what the hell, you know? I just spent a year writing nothing but short stories, and I sure as hell have no intention of putting them in a box. So: Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. You can get a really good deal on it right now, and if you liked my two novels, you’ll probably like this stuff. If you haven’t read any of my books, this is a good first thing to try. And if you didn’t like my two novels, what are you doing here?

A friend of mine just spent the past weekend live-blogging, via Facebook and Twitter, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association convention, and this post in particular caught my eye:

Author/WWU prof Kathryn Trueblood: “I started out trying to sell my short-story collection, but couldn’t. Every agent said, ‘But I’d love to see your novel.’”

My response, via Facebook:

Oh, boy, do I know how this goes. It’s what set off my Obstinate-o-Meter. No, it’s not a novel in short stories. No, they’re not all linked. No, they’re not all in the same setting. Yes, there’s an assortment of styles. Its title? “Fuck You.”

I was only joking about the title. Again: It’s Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. Whether you like it or not.


Grab Bag: My new book

I’m thrilled to be able to announce that my third book, QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, will be released on December 6th, 2011.

The book is a collection of ten short stories — some previously published, some not — that fall under the broad heading of family drama. It’s not a novel-in-short-stories (as seems to be popular these days) or a group linked by a singular time and place (ditto). Like my two novels, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD and THE SUMMER SON, the settings are largely Montana, but the themes could play out anywhere. If there’s a unifying idea to the book, it is one that explores the concept of separation–whether it’s from burdens, ideas, fears, beliefs, places or people.

Here’s a quick look at the stories:

SOMEBODY HAS TO LOSE: A championship basketball coach gets caught between his team, the rabid partisans in his town, and the disparate desires of his family.

THIS IS BUTTE. YOU HAVE TEN MINUTES: Consigned to a late-night bus ride, a traveling salesman shares space with a coterie of oddballs and lost souls, and one mysterious woman. (This previously appeared in e-book form as the title story in a three-story bundle.)

ALYSSA ALIGHTS: A teenage runaway finds herself in an unlikely alliance with a self-styled street vigilante. (This also appeared in the aforementioned e-book.)

STAR OF THE NORTH: A prison inmate who has been stripped of everything except his sense of self-righteousness takes a young arrival under his wing. (Also appeared in the aforementioned e-book.)

CRUELTY TO ANIMALS: Two mismatched lovers try to hold together a long-distance relationship. (Previously appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Montana Quarterly.)

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE: A husband and wife realize they are on opposite sides of their desires.

THE PAPER WEIGHT: A longtime journalist faces a worrisome new reality–and learns some new tricks–when he’s busted down to an entry-level job.

SHE’S GONE: A boy is shunted off to the father he barely knows, a man who has plenty of his own problems.

SAD TOMATO: A LOVE STORY: You’ll just have to read it.

COMFORT AND JOY: A young man who has lost his father to a tragic accident finds a friend he never would have expected in an old man who lives next door. (This was previously published as a standalone e-book last December as a fundraiser for Feed America. More on that in a second.)

Now, while the book will not be officially released until December 6th, I’m offering early copies for sale through this site.

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011. However, you can get an advance signed copy now for $14 (plus shipping).





One last note: As the final story, “Comfort and Joy,” takes up roughly 10 percent of the book, I will be contributing 10 percent of all net proceeds from the sale of this book to Feed America and its effort to eradicate hunger in the U.S. I said last December, when I intially published the story, that its earnings would go to food charities in perpetuity, and so it will be.

Thanks for reading!


Another Page: ‘Populuxe’

This tome by Thomas Hine, originally released in 1986, is one of my favorite books of the past twenty-five years.

It is part social dissertation, part spin through popular culture, part deconstruction of an era — particularly the baby boomer years — and total fun.

With a meticulous and fanciful eye, Hine shows how spartan consumer products like washers and dryers became fashion statements in the post-WWII years, when America was awash in cash, well-employed and moving to the suburbs to enjoy the good life. Utilitarian products became, instead, a way of measuring one’s station in life, a tradition that carries on today in our mine’s-better-than-yours gadgets and toys.

And about that name, Populuxe … well, here’s what Hine himself has to say in the book:

Populuxe is a synthetic word, created in the spirit of the many coined words of the time. Madison Avenue kept inventing words like “autodynamic,” which described a shape of car which made no sense aerodynamically. Gardol was an invisible shield that stopped bullets and hard-hit baseballs to dramatize the effectiveness of a toothpaste. It was more a metaphor than an ingredient. Slenderella was a way to lose weight, and maybe meet a prince besides. Like these synthetic words, Populuxe has readfly identifiable roots, and it reaches toward an ineffable emotion. It derives, of course, from populism and popularity, with just a fleeting allusion to pop art, which took Populuxe imagery and attitudes as subject matter. And it has luxury, popular luxury, luxury for all. This may be a contradiction in terms, but it is an expression of the spirit of the time and the rationale for many of the products that were produced. And, finally, Populuxe contains a thoroughly unnecessary “e,” to give it class. That final embellishment of a practical and straightforward invention is what makes the word Populuxe, well, Populuxe.

I have to admit that I lost track of Hine’s work after this book. One of the happy discoveries in researching this post was his most recent book, “The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies.”

Yeah, I think I’ll be reading that one.

P.S. Notice something new on the website header? Come back tomorrow for details …


Progress Report: 8/2/11

Oh, golly, do I have progress to report.

The new novel project keeps trucking along. I’m at 15,000 words; once I double that, I’ll have enough confidence in it to start sharing some small details. Suffice to say, the writing is going really, really well, and I simply wish there were more time in the day for it.

Any day now — my money is on Thursday — I’ll have concrete details on my next book, a collection of short stories.

A photo titled "Ennisish." I will be in Ennis proper. No -ish about it.

Ed Kemmick and I are going to be in Big Timber, Mont., on Friday for the Spirit of Montana Authors’ Gathering at Carnegie Public Library, 314 McLeod Street. That runs from 6:30 to 9 p.m., and if you’ll excuse me just a second for being a big, sloppy fan boy, I’m really hoping for a Tom McGuane sighting/meeting.

On Saturday, we’ll both be in Ennis for the Madison Valley Arts Festival. That starts at 10 a.m. in Peter T’s Park.

It’s going to be a blast.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’

And I feel queasy.

Useless Fact No. 1: When singing along with this song — and I always sing along — I prefer the alternate chorus: “It’s time I had some time alone …”

Useless Fact No. 2: On the subject of singing along … One of my party tricks, when I was a lad in college and my 20s, was the ability to sing all these lyrics verbatim. Which explains (a) my relative lack of talent at anything useful and (b) the reason I was not invited to many parties.

Enjoy!