Novelist

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I’m looking at you, Bozeman, Missoula, Ronan, Dillon

I always have a good time reading in Ronan. This is from my 2010 visit there to read from my debut novel, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD. (Photo by Jim Thomsen)

I always have a good time reading in Ronan. This is from my 2010 visit there to read from my debut novel, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD. (Photo by Jim Thomsen)

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


The Next Big Thing

“Fobbit” author David Abrams was kind enough to tag me in this ongoing string of posts. The idea is that you answer a standard set of questions about your current work in progress—or whatever is next in your pipeline—and then tag a few others. I’ll do that at the end of this post.

(By the way, “Fobbit” is great. Great! You should read it. And from the sound of things, you should look forward to reading “Dubble,” too.)

What is the working title of your book?

“Julep Street,” which follows “Evergreen,” the conceptual title. When I finished the thing—or, rather, when I finished it to the point that I was ready to send it to my agent—the manuscript bore little resemblance to the original idea I had. (These things happen, alas.) And thus, it also had little fealty to the title I picked out for it when I started. That’s one of my little idiosyncrasies. I can’t write the first word, much less the 70,000th, without a title. Even one I’m going to eventually drown in the tub.

“Julep Street” is the fictional name of the main thoroughfare in the fictional (and unnamed) Kentucky town I’ve conjured, and it’s the artery that supplies blood to most of the story, so it makes sense as a title. Still, I resisted it for a long time—mainly because “Julep Street” sounds a little like the title of a book a failed movie novelist (played by William Hurt) would write. But it’s the best I have, so it’ll have to do for now.

Though the town in “Julep Street” is fictional, it does have a real-life inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

On the list of Top Ten Reasons Craig Is Likely to Wallow in Relative Literary Anonymity, being unable to align with a genre has to rank pretty high. “Julep Street” has literary themes—everything I write does—but I don’t think I’d call my work “literary fiction” unless I were willing to kick my own ass for pretentiousness. On the other hand, with this book more than anything else I’ve written, I directly confront my fear of obsolescence and my uncertainties about God, all in 61,000 tidy words that generally buck my over-reliance on simple declarative sentences.

So, yeah, literary fiction, I guess.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Actually, now that I think of it, William Hurt is not a bad choice, especially if he’s still carrying around that extra weight from “A History of Violence.”

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

One lonely man is made a relic before his time—and proceeds to lose his shit.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Two months? Three? It’s hard to tell where first drafts end and the million tiny adjustments and major overhauls and sentence tinkerings begin. I started in the early summer of 2012 and turned it over to my agent last month.

I will say, for what it’s worth, that quick first drafts tend to be a good harbinger for me. I’m not suggesting here that the writing is easy. Goodness no. It’s not, ever. But when I’m connecting with the work and the characters and I feel myself slipping into the screen as I go along, only good things seem to happen on the other end.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t want to be difficult here, but I’m just not good at the compare-this-book-to-another-book game. Those comparisons usually end up being skin-deep anyway. Further, I tend to think cinematically when I’m writing and reading. On that note, I’d say that there’s a little “Falling Down” in this book, and maybe a little “Cast Away,” and perhaps even a little “B.J. and the Bear,” if you can picture “Bear” as an ancient yellow Lab rather than a cheeky chimp. No Sheriff Lobo, though. (God, yes, I am a child of the ’70s and ’80s.)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Several things:

1. I built a career as a newspaper journalist. Perhaps you’ve read about our industry’s struggles (on the Internet, no doubt). Further, I’m a newspaper production editor, a particularly endangered subspecies of journalist. Do you think I might have some questions about my long-term efficacy as a gainfully employed citizen? Maybe.

2. One of the things I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about is self-identity and the terminology we use to present ourselves to the rest of the world. When those words come from some external source (“I’m an engineer at General Dynamics,” “I cut the meat at Albertsons”), we give up power; someone else can render those definitions moot if the quarterly reports don’t look good. The main character in “Julep Street,” Carson McCullough (yeah, yeah), has spent his entire working life self-identifying as a newspaper editor. It is how he thinks of himself. It is the face he wears for others.

But what if, without warning, there were no more newspaper office to go to? Then what?

3. One of the less-than-complimentary reviews my second novel, “The Summer Son,” received on Amazon was from a thoughtful fellow who contended that the absence of any fulsome reference to or thoughts about God undermined its effectiveness. The subtext of this criticism was that I, the author, just didn’t have anything to say about God. That’s not true. I’ll admit that my thoughts tend to be muddled and searching, but they exist, and in Carson I found a vehicle for exploring them. (Sidenote: A Facebook friend once accused me of being hostile to God, which is both incorrect and silly. I’m hostile toward religion, mainly because the worldwide story of religion is told in hostilities. I’ve never been hostile toward God, even if I have profound questions about who (or what) he is and how he operates.)

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

It’s funny. I just got finished with a Q&A about my new novel, “Edward Adrift,” and in it I mentioned that I tried to avoid the usual road-trip tropes of a hitchhiker and an unforeseen destination. Well, “Julep Street” also has a road trip, and in the revision phase, I added a hitchhiker. One of my trusted early readers made that suggestion, saying that if Carson was going to go on a big, sloppy road trip, he should bathe in all its excesses.

On that note, an excerpt is probably in order:

The miles fall away in a soliloquy.

“See, the thing was, I knew when I met Sonya—that was my jezebel, I told you that, yes?—I knew I would fall. I am not a strong man, no sir, I am not, and when I met Sonya, I knew I was not strong enough to stay away from her. I tried, Lord yes, I tried. But I fell. I knew I would.”

The highway man gave his name as Jagur, which Carson figures to be the fakest name ever, but who cares? Carson introduced himself as Jerry Joe Ray Bob Dale—“honest to goodness,” he said—and faked out the faker. Now Jagur sits in the passenger seat and dangles a hand into the backseat of the car, stroking Hector’s undercoat and sending the dog into contented sleep.

“Wait,” Carson says. “ ‘Fell’? So you, what, boinked this Sonya chick?”

“An unnecessarily crude assessment, I rather think, but yes, that is what happened.”

“So what?”

“She was not mine to boink, as you colorfully put it. I am a married man. I have a daughter who is on the student council and the Honor Society. I should have no time for jezebels. It was a sin.”

“So what are you doing out here? Go home. Be with your family. Forget Sonya. A mistake.”

Jagur’s hand leaves Hector and palms the dashboard. The hand is massive, vascular. He sweeps it across the dash, leaving a grooved trail of dust behind.

“Are you married, Mr. Ray Bob Dale?”

“That’s Mr. Dale. The rest is my first name.”

“My apologies. Are you married?”

“No.”

“Ever married?”

“No.”

Jagur again massages Hector. “Forget Sonya, you say. I could sooner forget a knife plunged into my heart. God is testing me, Mr. Dale. When I told my wife—”

“You told your wife?”

“I am not a keeper of secrets, Mr. Dale. When I told my wife, she and God said that I should leave the house and venture into the world. The truth of the matter is that she said only that I should leave the house. It was God’s idea that I go into the world. My penance is out here. My test is out here. And when I have passed it, when I have satisfied God, I shall return again to my wife and to my daughter and to the world I am not presently fit to live in.” 

When and how will it be published?

We shall see, on both counts.

*****

Now, to keep this thing going, I’ll tag …

LynDee Walker, whose debut novel, “Front Page Fatality,” has turned into a big hit.

Stant Litore, who writes literary biblical tales of the voracious undead.

Elisa Lorello, the dazzling author of “Faking It” and “Ordinary World,” and quite possibly the most ardent Duran Duran fan alive.


Want an autographed copy of EDWARD ADRIFT?

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.

You can order today at this link.

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.

 


Looking back, looking ahead

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.

 

Craig Lancaster

Billings, Montana


What progress looks like to me

Self-portrait in the Hilton Garden Inn men’s room before my talk to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Montana statewide gathering.

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 …

The picture of Dad I showed at the GFWC gathering in Great Falls. I’m pretty sure he wears the 49ers cap just to irritate me.

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.


Introducing PRETTY MUCH TRUE…

I’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderfully talented folks with the little indie imprint I run, Missouri Breaks Press. Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice was a worthy successor to her Spur Award-winning debut, God’s Thunderbolt. Ed Kemmick’s collection of Montana yarns, The Big Sky, By and By, has found an enthusiastic audience and is a High Plains Book Award finalist. And today, I’m proud to welcome a new novel, Pretty Much True…, into the Missouri Breaks fold.

Kristen J. Tsetsi’s Iraq war novel, a penetrating look at the impact of the conflict on the homefront, both confirms and expands the Missouri Breaks mission. It is, first and foremost, an excellent work of high literary value. It also moves the imprint beyond the boundaries of the American West and into a wider, more universal, American experience. I’m so proud and thankful to be associated with it.

With that, I’m going to yield the floor to Kristen, so she can introduce you to her novel. Please consider purchasing a copy. Links are at the end.

*****

Kristen J. Tsetsi

I couldn’t be more excited, and more honored, to be published by Missouri Breaks Press. Pretty Much True… has had a few years of publishing struggles, with more than a couple “almosts,” and to finally land with Craig Lancaster’s indie press, to have someone of his judgment and experience want to publish this book I’ve believed in and continue to believe in, means more to me than I can say. I will be forever grateful.

Pretty Much True…, at its most surface level, is about a woman waiting for her lover to get back from war. Why this story?

For two reasons, really. First, I’m very attracted to, and captivated by, human drama and the truth that lies silently beneath the surface of almost every relationship conflict. Those very private, complex factors that build and steam.

Second, I believe love pain has to be the most intoxicating, distracting, passionate, discombobulating emotion we’re capable of experiencing, and it’s something I’ve always been compelled to write about. When I was in a marriage I no longer wanted to be in, that desire to escape appeared in my short fiction. Another time, when I recognized the difference between married love and real love, one of which I had and one of which I wanted, that became short fiction.

When the man I’d loved for a decade finally became mine only to deploy to Iraq three weeks later, I was thrust into the most torturous experience of my life, both emotionally and psychologically. The nature of the uncertainty has only been matched by the month my father spent in ICU with less than a 5% chance of living. Combine that kind of uncertainty with the romantic love of two people who have been, by all accounts, star-crossed for a decade. (Can there be a more complicated, messy love than one interrupted by war? Likely not.)

Once my husband—who was “just” my boyfriend, at the time—had been home for a year and I was able to release the after-effects and look at the experience from an artistic perspective, I knew it had to be a story. Not only because it had all of the elements that make the kind of story that would have me riveted if I were to read it, but because there was so much truth to explore, so much about a war story people had never been exposed to before in all of the soldier stories they’ve read or seen in theaters. It’s part of the larger war narrative that’s been largely absent and that is every bit as valid.

Pretty Much True… isn’t a Dear John love and war story. It’s not about missing someone, pining away, or sticking yellow ribbon magnets on a bumper. It’s about a state of not knowing, of losing control, of the friendships and love that form or fall away in a world that, to those who are closest to war’s effects, has become a funhouse mirror reflection of the world they knew before.

If Pretty Much True… were a movie, what cable channel would it play on?

The creator of Unfunnyme.com, Tera Marie, recently said of Pretty Much True…, “If books were people, Pretty Much True… would be the love child of The Bell Jar and The Things They Carried.” So, I’d have to say HBO. There’s a lot of intensity in the story, and HBO handles intensity amazingly well.

A cross between The Bell Jar and The Things They Carried. So, it’s character-driven?

Very much. There’s no “In a world when…” plot to speak of, but there are several character arcs launched from the springboard of the war, and each character has his or her own personal conflicts that are exacerbated by the war. They also have their unique ways of dealing with those conflicts, whether that means, for example, making a decision about a romantic relationship or coming to terms with nagging demons.

Some nasty politics surrounded the Iraq War. How political is Pretty Much True…?

Politics appear without making the book a political statement. It would have been impossible to ignore that aspect. When the person you love most is, as you see it at home, in constant danger of dying, and politicians and TV commentators are yammering on about the war like it’s a game of RISK, that has an impact. It’s just as much a part of the war story as bullets flying in a war zone.

Who is most likely, and least likely, to enjoy this book?

Early copies were read by readers whose interest has long been genre fiction, and they wrote to tell me that the story had captured them. Men have read advance copies and have expressed things to me in emails that led me to believe they enjoyed it as much as, if not more than, women. So, the two demographics I might have expected would be cool toward it have surprised me by becoming the most likely to enjoy it.

Those who may not enjoy it as much are certain military spouses who mistakenly think this is commentary on all military spouses or significant others. The protagonist’s behavior, a vehicle used to communicate a larger feeling, would probably not speak well of a group of people, were the character intended to represent them. But she isn’t. Just as Full Metal Jacket is one story about specific characters and their war experience, just as Casualties of War is another story about specific characters and their war experience-and not commentary on all soldiers of all wars–Pretty Much True… is a war story about very specific characters, and a certain set of war experiences. There are many, many war stories. This is just one of them.

How much of Pretty Much True… is true?

All of it is true, and none of it is true. (I’m not trying to be clever. It’s just true.)

Buy Pretty Much True… in paperback

Buy Pretty Much True… for your Kindle


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.


Worlds of fiction

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.”

 


Today’s Kindle Daily Deal: THE SUMMER SON

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.


An honor for ‘Quantum Physics’

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.

If you’d like to read QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, it’s available for Kindle, in paperback from Amazon.com and signed direct from me.

I hope you’ll check it out.


Gigs? Turns out I have gigs

Since I came home from the Montana Festival of the Book back in October, it’s been a quiet few months on the get-out-and-yak-about-books front, and that hasn’t been entirely unwelcome. For one thing, I managed to shove the short-story collection out the door. For another, I managed to move to a new house. For yet another, I managed to write another novel (or a draft of one, anyway). What I’m saying is, I haven’t wanted for things to do.

And still, I have things to do. Fun things, thankfully:

The Great Falls Public Library.

On March 29th, I’ll be at the Great Falls Public Library as part of The Great Falls Festival of the Book. I’ll be doing an event with my friend and colleague Ed Kemmick that is being billed as, wait for it, “An Evening With Ed Kemmick and Craig Lancaster.” This is my favorite kind of event, and it’s not even close. Being able to get together with people who truly love books and share stories with them … I can’t think of anything book-related that’s more fun. (Did I sufficiently hedge that statement?)

The Great Falls Public Library is at 301 2nd Ave. North, and the fun begins at 7 p.m.

With Country Bookshelf owner Ariana Paliobagis during one of my dashes across the state.

And then, on Tuesday, April 17th, I’ll be at one of the grandest independent bookstores you’d ever hope to find: The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman. I’ll be reading from Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, and I might even work in a selection from my current work in progress. Who knows?

The Country Bookshelf is at 28 W. Main Street in Bozeman. That event, too, begins at 7.

*****

Brandon Oldenburg, right, in a screengrab shamefully stolen from a classmate.

I was neck-deep in the day (er, night) job during the Oscars telecast, but I couldn’t miss the excitement as my Facebook feed burbled with the news about Brandon Oldenburg winning for his work on the short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”

Oldenburg is an alum of my high school. I didn’t know him — mine was a big-box high school — but I sure am proud of him. (And I loved the fact that he wore a tuxedo made by Dickies to the show.)


New writing digs

Things have been a bit quiet around here lately. I have a good excuse: We moved into a new house.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The house is old: 83 years old. But it’s new to us.

The move from a one-bedroom condo to a rambling old three-bedroom cottage has not been without its adjustments, all of them for the better. But for me, there was one sadness in leaving the old place: It’s where I wrote my first three books, in a little corner of the main room. The new house gave us the space to allow me my very own office (at the bottom of the stairs, in the basement), and I have every expectation that I’ll find this spot as conducive to writing as I did the old one. I’d better.

Here’s a quick tour:

Looking into the office from the outside hallway. That's my couch. For "resting."

 

This lovely old home features all kinds of cool built-ins, including these shelves along the entryway. And here is a snippet of my eclectic reading.

 

I chose a small wall for the writing awards. I'll be happier that way, I suspect.

 

The desk. In the pink bag: Some of my wife's perfume that ended up in a box that got unpacked down here. It just hasn't made its way upstairs yet.

 

The wallpaper that came with the place has a fish motif. Not really my preferred activity, but I like the look. I think it's gonna stay.

 

When I bought this behemoth in 1996, it was top of the line. Now it's playing out its days hooked up to an equally ancient VCR. I'm not really the Luddite type, but that damned VCR has outlived a half-dozen DVD players. Sometimes primitive technology is the hardiest.

 

And here are the ancient videos that go with the ancient TV and ancient VCR. Luckily, I could watch "Caddyshack" and "Animal House" daily for the rest of my life.

 

If Ernest Hemingway were alive today, he would have a Dallas Cowboys Snuggie. I'm certain of this.

 

One of my current projects is going through and marking up the first draft of my current manuscript. (Yes, this is the "Edward" sequel.)

 

The last writing space didn't have one of these!

 

Or one of these!

 

The full view of the office, from the bathroom doorway. Desk on the left, couch on the right, TV and archealogical VHS tapes across the room.

 


A birthday gift

On the occasion of my 42nd birthday, this one’s from me, for delivery at a time to be announced later.


Read it. Absorb it. Live it.

I’ve been a professional novelist for nearly three years now. (Note that I said professional, in the sense that I get paid for my work. I’m still working on self-sustaining.) And if there’s anything I’ve learned in that time, other than the writing life seems to dole out pleasure and pain in equal measures, it’s this: I may have plans for what I write, but in the end, the story is in control, not me.

Terrible Minds

I’ll offer a good example of this, as I have one sitting handy: In mid-December, I was certain that I’d be taking the first half of the year off, if not longer. I’d written a novel, and then another novel, and then a collection of short stories in quick succession, and I was tired and even a little discouraged.

On December 28th, compelled to my writing desk by an idea I couldn’t and didn’t want to shake, I started a new manuscript. As I type these words, I’m more than 42,000 words into it, and I long ago passed the point of danger. Some manuscripts never make it; they’re either put aside or repurposed into something else. This one is going the distance. More than that, it’s good. That’s harder for me to say than you might imagine.

Concurrent to this abrupt change to my plans, I read this article: 25 Things Writers Should Start Doing (ASFP).

It’s aggressive and raw and in-your-face profane. And I fucking love every word of it.

Two of the 25 things, in particular, stand out for me:

7. Start Discovering What You Know

Ah, that old chestnut. “Write what you know.” Note the lack of the word only in there. We don’t write only what we know because if we did that we’d all be writing about writers, like Stephen King does. (Or, we’d be writing about sitting at our computers, checking Twitter in our underwear and smelling of cheap gin and despair.) The point is that we have experience. We’ve seen things, done things, learned things. Extract those from your life. Bleed them into your work. Don’t run from who you are. Bolt madly toward yourself. Then grab all that comprises who you are and body-slam it down on the page.

Abso-goddamn-lutely. The past two books I’ve written were dark slogs into the human heart. I don’t disavow them. That horrible muck we go through when we love somebody but can’t say it, or hate someone with nuclear intensity, or want to kill somebody and would if not for the grace of well-timed civility — all of that is in me, all of that informs who I am, and when I wrote those stories, I needed to purge it. I make no apologies.

But that’s not the whole of me. There’s a wickedly absurd sense of humor in there, too, and a subversiveness that undercuts with laughter rather than rage. I’ve been neglecting that too long. I’m gonna write some funny books and stories. (I already have, in fact. What I’m saying is, I’m gonna write some more.) There are plenty of people channeling Cormac McCarthy and casting our lives against bleak landscapes. Good on them. I’m gonna do something else.

11. Start Cultivating Your Sanity

You’re crazy. No, no, it’s okay. I’m crazy, too. We’re all a little bit unhinged. Hell, I’m one broken screen door away from drinking a fifth of antifreeze and driving off a highway overpass on a child’s tricycle. Writing is not a particularly stressful job — I mean, you’re not an air traffic controller or an astronaut or some shit. Just the same, it’s a weird job. We hunker down over our fiction like a bird with an egg and we sit there alone, day in and day out, just… making up awful stuff. People die and hearts are broken and children are stolen by van-driving goblins and all that comes pouring out of our diseased gourds. So: cultivate your sanity. Take some time to de-stress your skull-space. Take a walk. Take a vacation. Drink some chamomile tea and watch the sunset. Chillax. That’s the new thing the kids are saying, right? “Chillax?” Yeah. I’m up on my lingo. Chillaxin’ is the hella tits, Daddy-o!

I’ve written before about the crazy. All the bullshit that goes into publishing — the wretched egos and the inscrutable decisions and the rampant pettiness — can get your ass down in a hurry, and if you’re harboring some bit of bad brain chemistry when it does, you’re screwed in ways you never imagined.

It’s time to put that nonsense to rest. It’s a beautiful world, and I get to breathe air in it. You don’t like me? Too bad. You don’t like my book? Fine. Get another. I’m writing to please me, and all I can do is hope that it pleases others. As for the rest, I don’t even care. I got a momma and a daddy and a wife and two dogs who love me. That’s all I need.

Strike that: I also need the Dallas Cowboys to stop sucking. Amid all the pragmatic doing-for-my-own-self shit, a guy’s gotta dream.


Texas

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.

Me, sister Karen and brother Cody. I'm guessing this is Christmas 1978. Maybe 1979. A long damn time ago, in any case.

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.

Can’t wait.


Wrapping up 2011

"Dorky Smile" (self-portrait by author, 12/31/11)

And so 2011 ends, the third full year that I’ve been able, with varying degrees of credibility, to call myself an author.

In the past 365 days …

  • I’ve seen two books into the world. My novel The Summer Son released on January 25th, and my collection of short stories, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, came out December 6th. I’m really proud of both.
  • I’ve watched The Summer Son become a Utah Book Award finalist.
  • I’ve been proud to have two short stories, “Cruelty to Animals” and “Comfort and Joy,” appear in Montana Quarterly. Both stories are in Quantum Physics.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of working with my friend and colleague Ed Kemmick to bring his book, The Big Sky, By and By, out to an appreciative audience.
  • I’ve made some new friends in the book business and even repaired a couple of damaged friendships. I’m particularly thankful for the latter.
  • I’ve also struggled with occasional bouts of self-doubt and despair about the book business. Rejection and disappointment are frequent realities, and at least for me, they’ve become no easier to take than they were in the beginning. At least twice in the past year, I’ve intimated to a friend that I think I’m done. Both times, I’ve been wrong. The first because I’m not really a quitter (I just like to talk about being one, apparently) and the second because …
  • When I least expected it and, in fact, had resigned myself to taking 2012 off because the pump was dry, I was hit with an idea that is so mind-consuming that it propels me to the writing desk each day in a pique of wonder and joy.

I needed that.

So, in 2012, I resolve …

  • To see my new project to completion and find a publishing home for it.
  • To not take things quite so hard when they don’t go my way. By any reasonable measure, I’ve been extremely fortunate. It’s time for me to remember that.
  • To keep writing. No matter what.

Happy New Year.


Here comes ‘Quantum Physics’

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.


How are you? It’s been a while …

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.

Reading the story "Comfort and Joy" from "Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure" at Wild Purls. (Photo courtesy of Wild Purls)

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.)

Finally …

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.

Happy holidays!


Off to Missoula and other adventures

I told you I’d be back.

A few quick things …

The Montana Festival of the Book is this weekend in Missoula. Actually, it starts today, and in a cool collaboration, it’s being held in conjunction with the annual conference of the Western Literature Association, which means Missoula will be crawling with even more literary luminaries, if that’s even possible.

If you’re within driving distance of Missoula this weekend, I implore you to check out the incredible list of events and deliver yourself unto them. It’s going to be a great couple of days, and I’m proud to be able to join in the fun.

A few programming notes:

On Friday at 1 p.m., I’ll be at the Missoula Public Library with David Abrams (the forthcoming Fobbit), Keir Graff (The Price of Liberty) and Jenny Shank (The Ringer) to talk about literature blogs and how they’re influencing the lit world.

Saturday at 11, I’ll be back at the library for another panel — this time with Keir, publisher and poet David Ash, author and e-publisher Kathy Dunnehoff and publisher Dave Batchelder — to talk about the wild world of independent publishing and self-publishing. The bottom line, at least for me: Between the gold standard of the Big Six and the wasteland of poorly conceived, horribly written vanity projects, there’s a big, vibrant, thriving world of publishing. I can’t wait to chat with these folks about it.

After that, I’ll choke down some lunch and be back at Festival of the Book World Headquarters (aka, the Holiday Inn) for a reading from The Summer Son at 1 p.m.

****

Speaking of The Summer Son

It’s being featured this month as one of Amazon’s hot 100 reads priced at $3.99 or lower ($2.99, to be exact). So if you’ve been holding out or you just bought one of those snazzy new e-readers, now is a good time to jump.

****

Speaking of e-readers and e-books …

Just this week, I made a new e-book available for the Kindle and the Nook. It’s called Scenes of Suburban Mayhem, and it’s 17 very short stories that you might remember from The Word series here at the blog (which I’ve mostly taken down, now that many of them are compiled in this e-book). I originally wrote 21 of the pieces, but some of them just weren’t up to snuff. These 17, totaling about 16,000 words, are the ones that were best received here and other places I posted them.

For a cool $2.99 — less than a cup of designer coffee, and better for you — it’s yours.

To purchase for the Kindle, go here.

For the Nook, here.

See you next week!


A new direction: over and out (for a while)

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.


Goodbye, R.E.M.

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.


Fort Benton travelogue

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.

Wide open spaces ...

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.

Lovely little Lavina.

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.

Windmills in the distance.

A closer view of the windmills.

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.

Everybody stops at Eddie's Corner. Everybody.

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.

My traveling uniform. Go team!

A driving man works up a powerful thirst.

Look, Ma! Sugar-free!

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.

Sixty-five miles to go ...

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.

Square Butte in the distance.

A closer view of Square Butte.

Into some badlands.

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.

The Grand Union Hotel, my host for the evening.

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.

My room. My overnight bag made itself right at home.

The Mighty Missouri burbles just outside my window.

But Fort Benton and all its wonderful history could wait. I came a day early for one reason, and one reason only: golf.

The view from the 9th tee at the Signal Point golf course in Fort Benton.

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.

Just off the ninth green, you can see the town below.

The next morning, I woke up early and absorbed the news of the (previous) day. Heartburn set in quickly.

"Oregen"? You did not coat yourself in glory, Great Falls Tribune.

Luckily, breakfast was much more appealing.

Eggs, bread, fresh plum, coffee, orange juice, granola. Yum!

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!)

Commemorative Shep.

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.

Shep's story.

Just down from Shep is a footbridge across the Mighty Missouri. A must-walk, even on a blustery morning.

The Mighty Missouri from the bridge.

About the bridge.

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.

"The Bloodiest Block in the West"

The bloodiest block now sports a supermarket. Not all change is for the worse.

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.

Thomas Meagher plaque.

Thomas Meagher, preserved.

More on Meagher.

After reacquainting myself with the governor’s story, I left the riverside and dived deeper into town.

I love spooky old abandoned churches.

The Chouteau County Library, one of many Carnegie libraries in Montana, all of them showplaces.

The Banque, a terrific steakhouse. This is Front Street in Fort Benton.

Then, it was back to the Grand Union to clean up and prepare for my library gig.

The Grand Union dominates the downtown area.

The lobby of the Grand Union.

After my library gig, I just had to see more Shep stuff. So I drove up to his resting spot.

The marker atop the hill.

I didn't see a headstone, per se, but I'm guessing that cairn marks Shep's resting spot. He was a good boy.

Here's Shep's eternal view of the town that took him in.

Shep's train station. Passenger service to Fort Benton ended long ago.

One last nugget from Fort Benton, a house that pays tribute to its paddleboat past.

Giving houseboat a whole new meaning.

So began the long drive back home, 200-plus-miles of stunning views.

Still wondering why it's called The Big Sky State?

At Eddie’s Corner, I stopped again. This time for some dinner.

Liver and onions. So good.

Sometime later, the traveler returned home.

Billings, as seen from atop the Rimrocks.

Let’s do it again sometime.


What I’m Reading: ‘The Sourtoe Cocktail Club’

If I’ve triggered this damn thing to autopost at the proper time (8 a.m. Mountain, Wednesday, September 14th), I should, at this very moment, be sitting (or perhaps lying down) in a wonderful old hotel in Fort Benton, Montana, reading this extraordinary book by Ron Franscell:

I started The Sourtoe Cocktail Club about 10 days ago, but because of several factors — a vacation, my own projects, vast swaths of time lost to Facebook — I’ve been making incremental progress on it. But you know what? That’s good. Because this book, at least over the first 100 pages or so, is so damned good, so damned thought-provoking, so damned deeply felt that I really don’t want the experience to end.

The title is clever and on-point enough; Franscell and his son, Matt, set out for the Arctic a few years back in search of a bar where the drink specialty has a mummified human toe at the bottom of the glass. It’s the sort of title that is sure to attract attention, and that’s part of the game in bookselling. A big, hairy part of the game.

But you know what? The title doesn’t come close. This book should be called Life, The Whole Of It.

Franscell has written an unusually intimate, penetrating book about fathers and sons and how to get out in front of generations of screwed-up relationships. It’s a road book, a heart book, a deconstruction of many lives. It’s some of the most absorbing reading I’ve done in a long, long time.

Just read it.

You can whet your appetite here, with the book trailer:


Monday media musings

Vacation’s over. Also, how ’bout them Cowboys? Wait … don’t answer that.

Did I ever mention that the wondrous R.J. Keller and golden-voiced Todd Keisling teamed up to create a book trailer for Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure? Well, they did. Check it out:

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).

Tuesday, I’ll be playing golf here. And staying here. You’re free to be envious on both points.