Novelist

Archive for August, 2012

Outtakes

Yesterday, the Kindle Post hosted an interview with me about the re-emergence of 600 Hours of Edward. It used three questions of a wider-ranging interview that my good friend Jim Thomsen, a freelance book editor and author, had conducted with me. Here, then, is the rest of the story …

Unlike Edward, you don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. But, like Edward, you’re a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, of the TV show Dragnet and of the band R.E.M., and you live where the book is set, in Billings, Montana. Talk about how you blended the factual and the fictional.

I get asked this a lot, and my sheepish answer is that I chose to incorporate all of those things into the narrative simply because I knew them well and could thus write about them with authority and great speed, a distinct requirement of the arena (National Novel Writing Month) in which I was working. Without that constraint, who knows what I would have chosen. And in subsequent works, I’ve begun to see the merits in putting fictional twists on real places. It opens up the imagination and allows me to more fully immerse myself in the little worlds I try to create. That said, I think a lot of people in Billings who’ve read the book have gotten a kick out of seeing, say, their Albertsons store represented in print. At one event I did in Texas, a boy with Asperger’s, the son of a high school friend, came up to me and said, “Is there really an Albertsons at the corner of 13th and Grand in Billings, Montana?” I was proud to tell him that, yes, there is. I shop there every week.

Billings, Montana, where Edward and I live.

How fine a line do you find there is between Asperger’s characteristics and just plain old human eccentricity? Edward is a slave to his routines — his constant logging of everything from wake-up times to weather to travel distances — but, to varying degrees, so are many of us who don’t have Asperger’s. How relatable do you think readers will find Edward to be?

What makes Edward work—for me as the author and for folks who read the book—is that he’s reflective of things that don’t know boundaries that are generational, ethnic, medical or educational—things like isolation, familial estrangement, the struggle to fit in and find one’s path, to make friends, to live life instead of letting the days pass by. That he has Asperger’s simply puts a different set of filters on how he experiences those everyday things.

600 Hours of Edward is such a lean, breezy read. Many literary authors tend to issue debuts full of dense prose and writerly devices — lots of metaphors and similes, exposition, backstory. Was it difficult to steer clear of that, or do you find your natural writer’s voice is an economical one?

I think the peculiarities of the story imposed some of that. 600 Hours is structured in a deceptively simple way. It starts with Edward’s waking up on a mid-October day and ends 25 days later. Everything proceeds in a straight line, and because the story is told in his voice, it’s naturally spare and devoid of rambling exposition. The few times he stops and speaks of past events, they always have a direct correlation—at least in his mind—with what’s happening in the moment. I do prefer spare to verbose, simple and clear to dense and poetic, and I think some of that can be attributed to my journalism background and some to my story sensibility. I put great faith in Hemingway’s idea of the iceberg’s dignity of movement, that you can write confidently and without adornments, and readers will fill in the details with their own minds. I like the idea that readers’ imaginations are active participants in the stories I write.

Another literary convention from which you steered clear was giving Edward an obvious love interest (though his disastrous evening with a woman he met on an online dating site is one of the funniest parts of 600 Hours of Edward). Did you wrestle with that as you wrote it, and did you have any misgivings about that based on the reactions of early readers who might have wanted to see Edward in love?

I never considered a love interest essential to this part of Edward’s story. What I knew about him is that he was straining against some of his self-imposed barriers, and his attempt at online dating is part of the way he challenges himself to connect with others. What I tell people who read the book and ask me what happens to this storyline or that storyline is to use their imaginations. This is a 25-day snapshot of a life in transition. After the window closes on Day 25, the story I told is over. But that doesn’t stop Edward, as a character living in readers’ minds, from going on.

600 Hours of Edward (paperback)

600 Hours of Edward (ebook)

600 Hours of Edward (audiobook)


David Allan Cates takes his own path

When I heard that Montana author David Allan Cates had a new novel, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, coming out and that he’d formed his own publishing company to release it, I knew that I had to talk to him about this. Truth be told, talking to David was long overdue. We share a state, know a lot of the same people, and I’ve been a big admirer of his writing since I read Freeman Walker, his fine 2008 novel from Unbridled Books. That he’d started a literary press (as I did a couple of years ago) and had decided to try self-publishing offered a sense of kinship long before I exchanged email with him. I’m happy to say that the subsequent electronic conversation made his journey all the more fascinating to me.

I asked David a lot of questions for an intended Q&A, but I’m just going to let his words find you as they found me. Enjoy!

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Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is a surrealistic homecoming story. A fifty year old Ben Armstrong, an engineer who lives in DC, is visited by his mother’s ghost and told that his brother forgives him and he should go home. Ben hasn’t been back to the farm since he was 25, when he fled in shame after carrying on a six year affair with his brother’s wife. Once back on the farm, Ben falls into a feverish dream that make for a night journey toward grace and self-forgiveness. Like all homecoming stories, this one is about coming back to self. And there are a lot of unpleasant things Ben must face during his night journey–about his own life, and the life of his family and their relationship to that piece of land that is their farm–in order to see himself fully, and then, of course, be able to accept himself. But only through this dark and daring journey will he be capable of loving and being loved again.

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is the second novel in a Wisconsin Homecoming Trilogy that I’ve written. My first novel, Hunger in America, is a tragedy set in Alaska but the main character is a cab driver from a Wisconsin farm who wants to go home. The third in the trilogy is a novel I finished recently–probably to be published next year–about a recently widowed doctor from a Wisconsin farm who has holed up in a cabin on the Eastern Front of the Rockies with a stack of letters from an old lover and a bear outside It’s a mad grief story, and also a homecoming story.

I decided to publish Ben Armstrong myself because, well, frankly, it’s too strange for anybody else to publish. I’m simply not famous enough for a publishing house to have any faith that its salespeople could get this novel on bookstore shelves. The fact of the matter is that despite having had three previous novels published by three different publishing houses, from giant Simon & Schuster to tiny Steerforth Press, and having gathered many lovely reviews, I haven’t sold many books. I have had wonderful editors for my three previous books, and that collaboration made doing this book myself scary. But I was able to find people who helped me make Ben Armstrong as good as I could, and I’m proud of how it turned out. I’m an ambitious writer. In all of my books, I have stretched myself to the breaking point and arrived in territory I never could have imagined before. I’ve gotten to the stage of life where I want the results of this work to be available to anybody who is interested. That’s all. For whatever it’s worth. I am going to re-issue Hunger In America, my first book, and if my agent is unable to sell Eastern Front in the next six months or so, I’ll publish that as well. I also have a collection of short stories I’ll bring out.

I have done a lot of different things as a way of making a living and living cheap. My wife has been a great partner in this adventure. I suppose the variety of things I have done have helped me get glimpses into the human condition–what are human beings?–which I think is the only question I am interested in writing about. How do we find meaning and dignity when the only certainties are suffering and death? I’ve done very few things deliberately so I could then write about them. I’ve done things because I needed to or wanted to do them. I’ve lived my life according to my passions. What do I want? What do I need? That sounds selfish–but it doesn’t have to be. Because I want to love and I need to take care of the ones I love. I’ve never had another career besides writing. I’ve had lots and lots of jobs, but nothing that could get in the way of writing.

How do I manage my ideas? Most of my ideas I quietly and repeatedly flip off. I say, “Bugger off, please, I don’t want to be disturbed.” The books I have written–and the stories–are the ideas that just keep coming back, that do not go away. In that way, the ideas are not chosen by me–on the contrary, they seem to chose me. Writing is so hard that I am unable to do it unless the idea is terribly powerful and will not leave me alone.

Last week I read for the first time Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton and I re-read The Fall by Albert Camus. I’m going to read for the first time Stay Away Joe this week. My wife and I are going to Mexico for five months beginning in September, and I’m going to re-read The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace, and I’m going to read Proust for the first time and a couple Roberto Bolano novels for the first time. I am into reading and re-reading the classics. They never disappoint. They always blow open windows and doors in my mind that I didn’t know were there…..and they inspire me to write something as beautiful.

David Allan Cates’ website

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (paperback)

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (ebook)


Edward, again

I’ve been waiting for today for a long time.

My debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, is making its own debut, as a newly published paperback, Kindle edition and audiobook under the auspices of Amazon Publishing. For a long time now, I’ve been living with Edward Stanton, the middle-aged man from Billings, Montana, whom I created four years ago in twenty-four fevered days of writing, and he continually surprises me. Today is no different.

If you count the original self-published version of this novel, and I do, this marks the third iteration of his story, and this one leads to new horizons: at the end of the new book sits the first chapter from Edward Adrift, the sequel coming next year. I can’t wait to share where Edward’s story goes, but first, the challenge is to introduce him to a whole new audience. Amazon Publishing, which also put out my sophomore novel, The Summer Son, is primed to do this.

So today, I feel nothing but gratitude for this novel and this character, both of which have allowed me to chase my dreams as a novelist. It all seems amazing to me still that the story could begin as a lark and turn into the work I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for the people who’ve believed in Edward along the way–starting at home, with my wife, Angie, and extending out to Chris Cauble and the team at Riverbend Publishing, who gave my book a chance back in October 2009, to my editor, Alex Carr, and the team at Amazon who’ve been such cheerleaders for this book, to all the readers who’ve had so many nice things to say about the work (including one from Belfast, Northern Ireland, just this past week!) and the many writers I deeply admire who’ve shown me kindnesses along the way. I’m so thankful.

But this isn’t a valedictory, not by a long shot. With time and luck and hard work, there will be many, many books to come.

Thanks for reading.