For various reasons owing mostly to a career that I no longer have, I didn’t do much traveling with Edward Adrift when it came out last year.
Starting Tuesday, April 8, I aim to rectify that. I’ll be hitting the road for a four-gig tour of western Montana independent bookstores and libraries, where I’ll read from and talk about Edward Adrift and will even include a sneak-preview reading from my next novel, The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter (release details still to come). Here’s where I’ll be, hoping to see old friends and make some new ones:
Tuesday, April 8: At the Country Bookshelf, 28 West Main Street, Bozeman, MT. 7 p.m. www.countrybookshelf.com
Wednesday, April 9: At Shakespeare and Co., 103 South 3rd Street West, Missoula, MT. 7 p.m. www.shakespeareandco.com
Thursday, April 10: At the Ronan Library District, Ronan, MT. 6:30 p.m. www.ronancitylibrary.org
Friday, April 11: At The Bookstore, 26 North Idaho Street, Dillon, MT. 5 p.m. www.dillonbookstore.com
Here we are, two months from the release of EDWARD ADRIFT. I’m nervous. I’m giddy. I’m loving every minute of the excruciating wait.
Some readers have been inquiring about pre-ordering signed copies of the book, and I’m pleased to report that the option now exists. Gary Robson, the owner of Red Lodge Books in Red Lodge, Montana, will be handling those orders.
Gary operates a great store, and he’s a great advocate for reading and for regional authors like me, so this was the perfect fit. He’ll take good care of you.
With only hours left in 2012, I can safely call it a watershed year in my writing life.
I wrote two novels in this calendar year. EDWARD ADRIFT, which comes out April 9, was started on Dec. 28, 2011, and finished (at least in draft form) in February. This past fall, I wrote a smaller, more intimate, more literary novel I’m calling JULEP STREET. That’s in the hands of my agent now. My work appeared in foreign editions (French and German for THE SUMMER SON). My first novel, reborn almost three years after its release, went to No. 1 in the UK Amazon store. It was a very good year.
For the first time since I made a snap decision four years ago to see if I could write a novel, I feel like I’m moving toward something of permanence. Slowly, my work is finding an audience at the same time that I feel ready to write about the things I really want to examine–the ways in which we live, the follies and glories of our particular time, the fear that holds us back, the eternal struggle with what we’re to do with this one beautiful life we get live. Artists of all stripes have been diving headlong into those topics since the dawn of time. Maybe I don’t have anything to add. But maybe I do. In any case, I’m throwing in.
The first four years of my nascent career have been marked by ups and downs. The work was validated, almost from the start, by readers and critics and those who hand out awards, and while I’ve been grateful for that—how could I not be?—I’ve always known that the latter two groups have fickle tastes and that I would never please myself by trying to please them. The commercial arts are not always a good place for someone wracked by self-doubt; it’s left me to wonder sometimes why a book doesn’t sell better or get more support or get more acclaim, and every moment spent worrying about that is ultimately destructive to the enterprise. In 2013, I shall endeavor to keep my mind on my work, the one variable I can control.
I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never written a book that didn’t come from the heart, from pure intention, from the best part of me. I’ve never played an angle or made a calculation. I’ve written what I wanted, when I wanted. As long as I stick to that, I think I can accept the results of the labor.
Thanks for reading this. If you’ve read my work, thank you for that, too. You chose to spend some of your life on me. I’ll never take it for granted.
Last Friday night, I spoke at the opening dinner of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Montana’s annual gathering, held this year in Great Falls, Montana.
When Nancy Hanford, the president of the Montana GFWC, asked me several months ago to talk to her group, she suggested talking about my recently re-released debut novel, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD. When I began looking into what the GFWC actually does, I was inspired to go in another direction. Name just about any progressive undertaking, and these clubs — which exist nationwide — are likely to be at the forefront. In Montana, specifically, they have built and funded libraries, worked tirelessly on behalf of children’s literacy, supported the Montana Talking Book Library (a particular passion of Hanford’s) — heck, even promoted white lines on the highway. If you live in a town with enough population to be concerned about general welfare and good things are happening there, it’s a good bet a women’s club is behind it.
So this is what I said …
This is my dad, Ron Lancaster. He was born on June 14, 1939, in a house in Conrad. He spent most of his formative years on a Fairfield Bench dairy farm, about 20 minutes from where we are right now.
He’s not smiling in this picture, although I can report to you that he was plenty happy. We were at the Alpine Casino in Billings, about to have fish and chips on a Friday. It’s one of Dad’s small pleasures in life.
Life has been long for Dad—much longer than he ever expected it would be—and it’s been hard, and on that count, he and I don’t have much in common. Mine has been a happy life in which I’ve been encouraged to run hard at my dreams, and he deserves some of the credit for that, along with my mother and my stepfather. And while I appreciate that about him, I often fret about the ways in which we find it nearly impossible to connect. I can’t talk to him about the books I read as a child that filled my heart. I have difficulty explaining to him what I do or how I do it. We never got close over throwing a football around or talking about sports teams or father-and-son campouts. Most of my relationship with him has been forged in the past 20 years, when I’ve been an adult.
But every now and again, I find my way to him. More often than not, it’s through the power of story. I want to tell you about that.
The matter of Dad’s schooling is a bit of a mystery. My mother, who married him in 1964 and divorced him nine tough years later, thinks that he received no more than a fourth-grade education. A cousin who knew him as a child thinks it’s closer to eighth grade, but in any case, school was an infrequent factor in his life. He is, in all likelihood, dyslexic, and I can guarantee you nobody in his young life recognized that. Reading has always been an unpleasant, unsatisfying chore for him, one made all the more difficult now because his eyes are nearly gone thanks to the macular degeneration that started working on him 20 years ago.
And still, Dad loves a story.
Like most of us, he’s interested in his own tale, but in many ways it’s one of such infinite sadness—a father he barely knew, a mother who withheld love, a stepfather who beat him viciously—that he’ll speak of it only in certain circumstances. Liquor is sometimes good at loosening his tongue. So, too, was a trip we made to the Fairfield Bench a few years ago so he could lay eyes on that dairy farm for the first time in 50 years.
It’s one of life’s poetic twists that he ended up with a son who has boundless curiosity and a penchant for language. For much of my life, I’ve been accumulating the dribs and drabs of narrative that he’s provided, seeking out people who knew him and mining their memories, and, now, in an Internet age, seeing what public documents have to say. Some years ago, I was able to find out what happened to Dad’s father, Fred Lancaster. I tracked him to a little hilltop cemetery in Madras, Oregon. I found a house he once lived in, occupied by the son-in-law of the woman Fred married late in life. That led to pictures of the grandfather I’d never seen and the man his own son barely remembered. The Social Security Administration gave us a copy of Fred’s application, filled out in pencil by the semi-literate hands of a working man. I took these things to my father and said “This is your story.” It brought me closer to him, something for which I yearned then and still yearn today.
After Dad left the Navy in the early sixties and settled down with my mom, he became an exploratory well digger, a line of endeavor that proved to be both the fulfillment of his greatest promise and the collapse of his fortunes. The child who’d known poverty and abuse became a self-made man in the most glorious manifestation of the phrase, a man who succeeded beyond any dream he’d ever had through the power of his own work ethic. Drilling gave him a community of peers and a means of identifying himself to the world, and few people needed that as badly as my father did. He also lived as the nouveau riche so often do, never saving, always accumulating, with the unspoken certainty that he would be dead before his spendthrift ways mattered. Life tends to be cruel to those who hold such delusions; at 73 years old, he’s lived far longer than his brother, sister, mother or father ever did, and most of his friends are long gone, too. Dad goes on, with his little pension in a little condominium in Billings, with his dog, Sausage, his memories, and his bewilderment at what life has become. And I’m there with him, nearly every day, maintaining our connection and cultivating another story, the one that belongs to us.
When my folks split in 1973, I was 3 years old, and I was an unruly child, one whose desires were pretty much indulged by a father who was rarely there and a mother who wanted out of her marriage and out of a crappy, cramped little existence in Mills, Wyo. A new man in her life, my stepfather, Charles Clines, whisked us away to his home in Texas, and at long last, stability set in. For nine months a year, I lived with Mom and Charles in a leafy, tree-themed subdivision, a bucolic world of school, friends, family dinners and intellectual curiosity. Every summer, I would fly to some outpost in the West where my Dad was working, so he could see this boy who was rapidly being formed in the image of another man. I would live on the periphery of Dad’s life—rough and tumble, nomadic, alcohol-soaked—but never really in it. Whatever I saw, whatever I experienced, would be packaged up and packed away into my memories at the end of the summer, when another plane would take me home to Texas and its crushing suburban normalcy.
I didn’t know it then, but all the while, I was gathering string—bits and pieces of memory and perspective that would come screaming to the forefront of my brain in my 30s, when I began writing fiction and honoring Hemingway’s timeless wisdom of writing what you know. I used to judge my father harshly for all the things he wasn’t, for all the ways he left me wanting his time, attention and wisdom. I know now that he was giving me an unconventional gift. He was helping me to understand how different people can be, how our backgrounds and our tragedies can shape us but not ultimately define us. One of the great aspects of our human sovereignty is this: The power to be what we want rests largely in our hands. My father has far exceeded the quality of the men who gave example to his young life. He’s kinder than they were. He’s wiser than they were. And he’s tougher, much, much tougher, than they were. He’s still here, still taking his swings at life every day.
Dad has given me stories, and in return, I’ve tried to give stories back to him. The work your clubs do on behalf of the Montana Talking Book Library specifically, and on behalf of literacy and children’s welfare in general, is vital and life-giving, and it hits home in a particular way for Dad and for me. As I said before, reading is a chore for Dad, but thanks to the Montana Talking Book Library, it doesn’t have to be. When he tires of my stories, or his own, he can listen to an almost limitless number of other tales. The ability I have to download a book and carry it to my father for his own listening enjoyment fills my heart. It’s given us another pathway to each other, another thing we can share as the two of us—he in his dotage, I in my middle age—try to bridge the gaps that time and circumstance put between us.
So thank you, so much, for all that you do for people like my father, and for letting me tell you my story, and his story, tonight.
After that, I read the first chapter of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, which hints broadly at the father-son story to come, a major theme of that book and the forthcoming sequel, EDWARD ADRIFT. The audience laughed at all the right places, a nice counterbalance to the more somber notes that preceded it. And that’s life, you know. It’ll break your heart and build it back up again, sometimes in the course of a single evening.
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.
Now that 600 HOURS OF EDWARD is about to be unleashed in a new edition, I have a confession to make.
But first, some backstory:
Almost four years ago, when I sat down to write what became 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, things were a lot different than they are now.
For one thing, the words 600 HOURS OF EDWARD hadn’t even entered my consciousness. The working title of the novel I wanted to write was “Six-Hundred Hours in a Life That Will Get Only 630,270, Assuming It’s a Life of Average Length, And I Don’t Like Assumptions,” as seen below on the original manuscript.
Second, as you may have gathered from the working title, I had no expectations that I would (a) finish the novel or (b) get it published.
So as I wrote about Edward Stanton and his world, I picked something I knew well–Billings, Montana, where I live–and dropped him into it precisely as I see it. His Albertsons exists. So does his Home Depot. And his golf course. And his downtown. His street address isn’t real, but the street he lives on is.
One of the places in the original version of the book, published in 2009 by Riverbend Publishing, is the Billings Gazette. It’s a crucial, feel-good part of the story.
When I was writing Edward, I gave absolutely no consideration to the fact that, a few years later, I might write a sequel. I certainly didn’t consider that there would be other books, other writing about Billings, a whole world that would take shape from my keyboard. And so I made the Billings Gazette, well, the Billings Gazette. Easy-peasy.
But here’s the problem: In the second book, which is coming out next year, the newspaper in Billings also figures into the storyline. But it’s not so feel-good. And here’s an even bigger problem: I work at the Billings Gazette. The one here in the real world, not the fictional world where Edward exists. I get paid and everything. It’s a significant factor in my daily life, to say the absolute least, and one I’d just as soon not compromise.
So here’s how I handled the delicate position I wrote myself into:
Because Amazon Publishing acquired the rights to publish a new edition of 600 HOURS, the original publisher, Riverbend, was contractually obligated to pulp the remaining copies and stop selling it. In a commercial sense, that means the original no longer exists (obviously, several thousand copies exist on people’s shelves and in readers’ heads). This represented the best chance I was ever going to have to make a material change to the book.
So, in the manuscript I submitted to my editor at Amazon, the Billings Gazette vacated the stage and a new newspaper, the Billings Herald-Gleaner, stepped in. Subsequently, I made the same change to the manuscript of EDWARD ADRIFT, which I was preparing for submission. With a few keystrokes, I changed Edward’s world — and made mine a lot more comfortable.
This also had the nice side benefit of tying together my work a little better. In my short-story collection, QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, the story called “Paperweight” concerns an aging reporter at a newspaper called the Herald-Gleaner. That character, Kevin Gilchrist, and Edward Stanton are now connected, as are Edward and the father character from my novel THE SUMMER SON (Edward’s dad was Jim Quillen’s boss). The sum is a fictional world that has threads connecting my Montana-set stories, which blend real and imaginary places and, I hope, give depth to what I’m trying to do.
This idea was clarified for me in an elegant way several months ago when I interviewed Emily M. Danforth, the author of the wonderful debut THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. Here’s what she had to say about using the real setting of Miles City, her hometown, in her book:
“In terms of setting, specifically, anyone who has any familiarity with Miles City will recognize some of the local attractions — the swimming hole, the Bucking Horse Sale, the Montana Theater, etc. — but each of those locations has also been fictionalized. I understand that this might be disappointing for some readers who want every street name or video rental place, whatever, to match exactly to reality — though businesses close and re-open all the time, right, so there isn’t a ‘fixed’ reality that a novel can capture and hold ever, because ‘the real world’ will always keep changing.”
My second novel, THE SUMMER SON, is the subject of a cool promotion today: It’s the Kindle Daily Deal, priced to move at just 99 cents.
It’s a one-day-only thing, so if you’ve wanted to read the book but haven’t, you’ll probably never see a better price. And please, let your friends (Facebook or otherwise) and Twitter followers know. I’d really appreciate it.
Here’s what Booklist had to say about THE SUMMER SON when it was released in January 2011: “A classic western tale of rough lives and gruff, dangerous men, of innocence betrayed and long, stumbling journeys to love.”
This is an odd bit of news to tag onto a post about a Kindle book, as it’s a casualty of the sea change marked by the emergence of e-readers like the Kindle: Thomas Books in Billings, Montana, where I live, is closing its doors in August.
It’s fair to say that I have mixed feelings about this. In the abstract, the closure saddens me greatly. I like Susan Thomas and her store, she’s always been a strong supporter of my books, and I hate like hell to see my town lose an independent bookstore. I’ve supported Susan’s store with my time and my money, and I would happily go on doing so. The same holds true for the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Fact & Fiction in Missoula, The Bookstore in Dillon, and on and on.
And yet, e-reading has changed everything for people who love books, and not necessarily in a way that’s a net loss. I’ve said before that buying a Kindle made me a better book consumer. I’ve gone on buying as many print books as I ever did (many of them at Thomas Books), and I’ve added dozens of electronic titles as well.
Obviously, that’s not true for everyone. As Susan notes in the story linked above, after building her revenue back up after the big-box bookstores came to town, she was swamped first by the recession and then by the incredible migration to electronic books.
(It’s also worth noting, as Susan does, that Borders (RIP) and Barnes & Noble were indie killers before Amazon came along, so it’s a little odd to see B&N now hailed in some quarters as the potential savior of bookstores.)
What’s really happening here is disruptive technology. And if you remove emotion from the equation–which, I’ll concede, is tough to do–you realize that this is a very old story. Disruptive technology is why you don’t see many horses and buggies clogging your downtown streets. Why your television set is an inch thick and weighs a tenth of what it did in 1975. Why nobody (except me) carries CDs anymore. Why there there are no record stores in shopping malls. Why newspapers, which once seemingly printed money, are being pared back to nothingness. The printing press that makes these wonderful books we all love — that, too, was disruptive technology. Rock carvers everywhere had to find a new line of work.
Disruptive technology sucks, especially in the moment when it’s being, well, disruptive.
It’s also the way we move from today to tomorrow.
I posted about this last week on Facebook (follow me here!) but wanted to wait for the official announcement before posting anything here. The press release went out Tuesday, so I guess it’s safe.
QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, the short-story collection I released back in December, has won a gold medal from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. It was picked as the top fiction book in the West-Mountain region for 2012.
You can see the full list of winners here.
I’m obviously thrilled that this book, so personal to me, has been recognized in this way. I’m doubly proud because the book was put out under the auspices of my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press. By now, the instances of smart self-publishers releasing polished, accomplished books are legion, so it’s not as if I felt compelled to prove something by going it alone. For me, Missouri Breaks Press has always been much more about finding high-quality manuscripts that for whatever reason aren’t viewed as commercial enough for the major presses to take on. It’s about finding work and writers I admire. And, occasionally, it will be about exercising the unprecedented choices we have as writers these days to release and market our work. Going it alone with this book made sense to me, and this award offers some validation of that choice.
I hope you’ll check it out.
On the occasion of my 42nd birthday, this one’s from me, for delivery at a time to be announced later.
I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time.
Thursday, I get on a plane here in Billings. Some hours later, I should walk off one at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. I should see my mom and stepfather there waiting for me, or else I’m thumbing it to North Richland Hills.
I’m going home.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook or real life — funny how the order of those has been transposed — you’ve no doubt heard me jab at Texas repeatedly. And I stand by those knocks: It’s too big, too crowded, too hot for full-time living. Plus, a lot of Texans live there. (Come on now, that’s funny.) Being from Texas is like having a crazy mother, not that I’d know. Yeah, she’s loud and she embarrasses you in front of your friends and you need a continent of distance so you don’t go crazy, too, but dammit, she’s the woman who brung you up. You love her. You need her sometimes, maybe more than you’d care to acknowledge. And you’ll throw haymakers at anybody who talks bad about her.
Lots of fun stuff happening. I have nieces and nephews to hug and tease, Wii games to play, long talks to have, sibs to reconnect with. We’re doing a big open house to launch the new book, celebrates my grandma’s 90th birthday and reunite with old friends from dear old Richland High and new friends I’ve gathered on the way.
Today–Tuesday, December 6th–is the official release date for my new book, a collection of short stories called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.
Truth be told, the book has been available in print and e-book form for a couple of weeks now, but a book needs a release date, and this is mine. It’s my third book, following the novels 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, and I’m incredibly proud of it. Part of that lies in where the stories came from and the time in my life that spawned them (there will be more on this down the line). Part of it lies in the fact that this is a full production for my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press, and a fully realized manifestation of my artistic and professional interests, not to mention my tendency toward being an autodidact. And part of it rests in the same sense of pride and apprehension that accompanies the release of any book. Author Scott Nicholson does a nice job of explaining that here. It takes something–gall, perhaps, or bravado or delusion–to write something and decide that people not only want to read it but also will be willing pay for the privilege.
As for the money part, I’ve tried to make that as pocketbook-friendly as possible. The trade paperback version of the book retails for a competitive $14. The e-book version, available in Kindle and Nook and everything else, is set at $1.99, an eminently fair price for ten good stories.
Back in August, I wrote a series of posts highlighting the ten stories and offering some insight into how they came to be. You can see those here if you missed them the first time.
As for the book, I hope you’ll check it out. I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done.
Here’s what’s been going on:
Even my slimmed-down version of NaNoWriMo crashed and burned. I still love the story idea, still think about it a lot, still like what little progress I’ve made on it, but I won’t be finishing any time soon. It just needs some more cooking time in my head. The longer I do this — and I’m three books into it now — the more I realize that the words and stories come in their own time. I can’t be a crank-o-matic. Wouldn’t even want to be one.
I’ve kept busy with some freelance gigs, mostly of the editing variety. This brings up a good opportunity to do something I don’t do very often, and that’s to pitch my editorial services. I have good, competitive rates, I turn the work around quickly, and I’m handing off good work to appreciative customers. Whether you’re prepping a manuscript for submission to agents and publishers or preparing to go it alone as a self-publisher, I can help you create a professional product.
Three years after 600 Hours of Edward was written, we continue to find appreciative audiences. One of my more interesting gigs was two hours with about twenty-five knitters at a local shop, Wild Purls. Check out this account of the evening on the store’s blog. I had so much fun. (And here’s a blatant tease for you: I expect to have some exciting news about 600 Hours in the near future.)
E-readers and e-books should be all the rage this holiday season. If you’re lucky enough to get a fancy new toy, you might consider loading it up with my latest, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. The e-book price has been dropped to $1.99 through the New Year, which is a heck of a deal. Go here for the Kindle version. Go here if you have a Nook.
On May 2, 2011, with this post, I began everyday blogging around here (well, Monday through Friday, anyway). For nearly five months, with the exception of a legitimate week’s vacation, I made sure something new was up every morning at 8. On Fridays, I even posted off-the-cuff short stories, inspired by words suggested by my friends.
I did this … why? To be sure, no one was clamoring for it. I did it because new authors — and I’m certainly one — endure this barrage of advice about building a platform, self-promoting, cutting through the muck and the mud of the publishing world and making a name. Daily blogging is one of the pillars of the author platform, or so we’re told. So I blogged. Even when I had little to say. Even when I needed the ample muscles of a friend.
And then, last week, I stopped. I did one last short story, big turd that it is, and that was that.
I’m done. Which isn’t to say I’ll never be around, never have something to say. In particular, the opportunity to bang the drum for other books and other writers is appealing to me — because of how interesting those folks are and because my daily wankery is not on display. Expect to see much more of those things and much less of the other, lesser stuff. This note aside, I’m tired of listening to myself, tired of reading my own facile words in this forum. It’s time to step back, shut up, and get busy doing what I’m here to do, which is to write stories. Social media, for all its wonder, has its hooks in the wrong parts of me, and the tweets and Facebook posts and blog posts and other nonsense have come to take up far too much of my time. I have a full-time job and a going-blind father and a sideline publishing business and a wife who’d like to see me once in a while, and I have books to write, too. There’s not room for everything, every day, and mine is not the sort of personality that can easily impose moderation, so we’re going to give this austerity thing a whirl.
Interestingly enough, I’m going be on a panel discussion about the role of literature blogs during the Montana Festival of the Book later this week. I promise, this screed aside, I’ll have something cogent to say.
I’ve had hours to consider what I’ll say here, and it’s still not clear in my head. I don’t know how to begin to describe the emotions of hearing that my favorite band ever, one I’ve been with — and one that’s been with me — for the majority of my life, has sent itself off into retirement.
I never saw it coming, and while I will concede that a good chunk of Wednesday was spent walking around in a stupor, I’ll also say that the way R.E.M. exited the stage is entirely in keeping with what I’ve come to expect from them in three decades as a fan: dignified, understated, no odious farewell tour or media blitz. Just a simple statement on the band’s website, and they’re gone.
Whatever conflicts I’m having about what to say don’t extend to the question of what to post. Of all the songs from 15 studio albums, eight compilations and two live albums, my favorite stands consistent. This one:
There’s a story behind my love of “Find the River,” and you’re going to get that, too.
In 1993-94, I worked for a small newspaper in Kentucky, the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. It was a good place to work (then), situated in a vibrant college town on the banks of the Ohio River. One day, I spent a late afternoon driving up the Kentucky side of the river to Hawesville, then crossing to Cannelton, Indiana, and coming back on the other side. It was one of those pitch-perfect fall days — a little chill in the air, sunny if slightly overcast, the road windswept with coppery leaves. My companion that day was R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People,” the album that probably represents the nexus of the band’s widest appeal and highest art. When I got to “Find the River,” I kept backing it up, hearing meaning in the words that I hadn’t contemplated before.
I was 23 years old, and I had this sense, for the first time, that I was the man I would be, for better or worse. That I’d made some decisions and had defined myself in some irretrievable way, and somehow, in my mind that day, those notions hardwired themselves to Michael Stipe’s words:
The river to the ocean goes
A fortune for the undertow
None of this is going my way …
In Rockport, Indiana, not far from home, I pulled over at a secluded spot and I wept. For what? I don’t know, not even today. Something powerful. Something beautiful. Something inside me that was drawn out by this band that I loved so much.
(Now, of course, I look back and see an emotionally dramatic 23-year-old. Enough has happened in the intervening years to teach me that nothing is irretrievable, that there are not only second acts in life but third and fourth acts. That’s what I know now. What I knew then was all I could deal with then.)
A lot of the coverage of the band’s retirement has focused on just how out of favor they are now with the musical mainstream, and while that’s an unavoidable part of the story, it means nothing to me. From “Murmur” in 1983 to “Collapse Into Now” in 2011, a new R.E.M. album was an event-with-a-capital-E for me. Just as I’m willing to follow a favorite author wherever he wants to take me, I’ve always been eager to see what new horizon R.E.M. leads me to. Some (“Lifes Rich Pageant”) appealed to me more than others (“Around the Sun”), but I was always packed for the journey. As I’ve considered my sadness at this news, that’s certainly been one of the biggest factors: No more new R.E.M. to look forward to, ever. The other biggie: Perhaps the best part of being a fan of the band was the sense that together, the four of them (and, after Bill Berry left in 1997, the three of them) were so much more as a unit than they ever were apart from that. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps they’ll go on to great heights in their own directions. I’d love to be wrong about this. And, really, as long as they’re happy, that’s the most important thing. R.E.M. never lost their dignity, and I trust they knew when it was time.
But, see, I think the guys also understood the greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts thing. I think that’s why they had the foresight, when they were starting out, to say that all songs would be credited to Berry Buck Mills Stipe, regardless of individual contributions on any given tune. They knew they’d have to stand together. And they did, for 31 years.
I will miss them.
Last week, I traveled to Fort Benton to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. I love every chance I get to explore Montana, but Fort Benton holds a special place in my heart — for its history, for the folks I’ve met there, for its beauty. It’s the kind of place — nay, it is THE place — where I’d love to live.
And you know what? Getting there is pretty damned dazzling, too.
Won’t you join me?
I left Billings just before noon Tuesday, climbing 27th Street to the top of the Rims and heading out into the rolling plains and buttes of central Montana.
At the little town of Lavina, about 45 miles from Billings, I encounter my first junction. Turn right, and I’m headed to Roundup. I’ll turn left.
For the next 65-70 miles, there are just a few towns — Ryegate and Harlowton are the largest of these — and lots of buttes and grazing land. It’s a pleasant stretch of highway. At Harlowton, I head dead north and run into the Judith Gap wind farm and its impressive sea of triple-bladed turbines.
Next comes another junction, where Highway 191 terminates perpendicular to Highway 12. Here lies Eddie’s Corner, the crossroads of central Montana. To my right is Lewistown. Also to my right is Eddie’s Corner. To my left is Great Falls. I’ll be going left, but after I slip into the store at Eddie’s Corner.
At Eddie’s Corner, it’s expected that you’ll take a picture of yourself in the restroom. Actually, I just made that up. Probably, I’m now the focus of a sting operation. Forget you ever saw this.
A driving man works up a powerful thirst.
OK, back on the road. Thirty miles beyond Eddie’s Corner brings Stanford, where I make a couple of turns and see a welcome sign.
I love the last stretch of this trip. It’s equal parts grandeur and stark beauty, with rolling plains, buttes, badlands and, on a clear day, mountains in the distance.
Finally, I descended into Missouri River Breaks, crossed the bridge and turned right into the heart of Fort Benton. One of the first things I see: my hotel, the Grand Union.
In a town chock full of history, the Grand Union fits perfectly. Opened in 1882. Continued for more than a century. Closed. Was resuscitated and refurbished and is now a showplace in this wonderful town.
But Fort Benton and all its wonderful history could wait. I came a day early for one reason, and one reason only: golf.
My golf game at Signal Point was unremarkable: lots of bogeys, double bogeys, triple bogeys and — for shame — quadruple bogeys. Two pars. Great scenery, though.
The next morning, I woke up early and absorbed the news of the (previous) day. Heartburn set in quickly.
Luckily, breakfast was much more appealing.
After breakfast, I went for a stroll. Just outside the Grand Union is a sculpture dedicated to one of Fort Benton’s most famous figures, Shep. (Seriously, I love this story so much!)
Later that day, during my talk to the Chouteau County Friends of the Library, I asked if anyone had known Shep. One gentleman raised his hand and said, “I fed him.” That was a story I had to hear (quick summation: Shep did not like kidneys). I felt like I was in the presence of reflected greatness.
Just down from Shep is a footbridge across the Mighty Missouri. A must-walk, even on a blustery morning.
Now, Fort Benton is a friendly town, one of the friendliest I’ve ever seen. But back in the day, you could find trouble there, if trouble was your cup of tea.
Meet Thomas Meagher (“Marr”). Fortunately for Fort Benton and its historical ways, the good governor was not the sort to fade away quietly. No, he was presumed drowned after tumbling off a steamboat on July 1, 1867, along this stretch of the Missouri. But given Meagher’s colorful life, I don’t think any of us can be certain he’s not in an Irish tavern at this very moment, lifting a pint.
After reacquainting myself with the governor’s story, I left the riverside and dived deeper into town.
Then, it was back to the Grand Union to clean up and prepare for my library gig.
After my library gig, I just had to see more Shep stuff. So I drove up to his resting spot.
One last nugget from Fort Benton, a house that pays tribute to its paddleboat past.
So began the long drive back home, 200-plus-miles of stunning views.
At Eddie’s Corner, I stopped again. This time for some dinner.
Sometime later, the traveler returned home.
Let’s do it again sometime.
Vacation’s over. Also, how ’bout them Cowboys? Wait … don’t answer that.
Pass it on to your friends. Also worth noting: This is the final week to get an advance print copy of the book (which releases Dec. 6) at the low, low price of $10.50. Details here.
If you’re in Montana, please check out the latest issue of Montana Magazine, which includes a feature story about my books (written by Chèrie Newman of Montana Public Radio) and a wonderful review of Ed Kemmick’s “The Big Sky, By and By,” which I published. The magazine is on newsstands now.
Finally, a travel advisory: Tuesday, I’m headed to Fort Benton, where the next morning I’ll meet with the Friends of the Library to talk about The Summer Son. Just a little more than a year ago, I was there with my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, and it was a great group of people and a great town (my first trip there).