Novelist

Ideas

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.


Outtakes

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

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

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

Billings, Montana, where Edward and I live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

600 Hours of Edward (paperback)

600 Hours of Edward (ebook)

600 Hours of Edward (audiobook)


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 10

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

COMFORT AND JOY

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 9

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

SAD TOMATO: A LOVE STORY

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

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

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

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 8

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

SHE’S GONE

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

“What are you so angry about, Ross?”

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

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

“Shut up.”

“Listen—”

“Shut up.”

“Ross, about me and your momma—”

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

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 7

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

STAR OF THE NORTH

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 6

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

THE PAPER WEIGHT

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

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 5

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

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

“It was good?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s been a while.”

“Yes.”

“I think we should do it again.”

He said nothing.

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

“Tomorrow,” he said.

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 4

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

The story as it appeared in the Spring 2011 Montana Quarterly

CRUELTY TO ANIMALS

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

Take a listen for yourself:

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

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 2

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

THIS IS BUTTE. YOU HAVE TEN MINUTES.

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 1

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

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

We’ll start, appropriately, at the beginning.

SOMEBODY HAS TO LOSE

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

“Give me the ball,” he told Cash.

She fired a chest pass at him.

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

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

“Yes, sir,” the girls answered glumly.

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Dan Gensel

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

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


Progress Report: 7/19/11

Welcome, again, to the land of incremental progress:

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

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

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

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


Insatiable

Last night on Facebook, I asked my friends to suggest a single word — any word. Thirty-nine responses (as of this writing) produced some dandies. This morning, I ran a random-number generator to zero in on a winner: insatiable (thanks, Laura!). This word is the basis of what I hope will become an every-Friday writing exercise: Where I use the inspiration of a single word to write a scene or full story at least two pages long, one that includes the word in question.

Full disclosure: I came across this exercise on Janet Fitch’s blog and have adapted it to my own use.

Now, the story …

More and more, as she watched him slide away from her in increments, she thought of that first summer together. How his searching hands would find her, any time of day, and pull her in for closer examination. How his eyes, his mouth, his tongue would set out in insatiable discovery, like an explorer unleashed on terra nova. In the middle of the day, as the house sweltered, he would traverse the ridgelines of her hips, the switchbacks in the nape her neck, the deep canyons that hadn’t been breached in so long. Utterly exposed, utterly safe. Lately, those days, once the sweetest of memories, had turned to taunting her.

And now, her hair in tight curls, wearing clothes that would be loosened only by her own hand at the end of the day, she cried in the darkness of the pantry, clutching a can of black beans.

*****

She thought of their home now as a series of zones, diced up and labeled like a board game. Her knitting room, where solitude was a limitless resource. His office, stacked in prospectuses and Covey texts. Her armoire. His leather recliner. Her kitchen. His backyard putting green. The bedroom remained theirs, but battle lines hashed across that space, too, creating a score of demilitarized zones that only they knew.

Over a series of months, all-out war had ceded to détente, a kind of purgatory, and while she did not miss the fights, she yearned for the passion behind them.

She dabbed at her eyes with the kitchen towel and then punctured the beans with the can opener.

*****

The sound of his feet on the stairs, bounding up them two at a time, gave her insides a twist, and she pivoted from the center island to the oven, putting her back to the basement door.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Enchiladas.”

“Again?”

“Again. If you want something else, there’s a refrigerator full of food right there. Help yourself.” She waved her hand to her right, not turning.

“Relax.”

She bristled. He settled in at the table, letting loose with that series of grunts that she loathed. “Ohohohohohoh.”

“So, hon, looks like I’m going to San Diego next week,” he said.

“Oh?” She plunged the spatula into the dinner, carving it into servings.

“Yeah, meeting a new vendor. Could be interesting.”

“How long?”

“Four or five days.”

She brought over his plate, setting it in front of him and handing him a fork. “I could get some time off,” she said.

“Why?” He shoveled an oversized bite into his mouth, then spat it out. “Hot!”

“Go with you,” she said, sitting down across from him. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been there. Could be fun.”

He stabbed at the food on his plate, opening steam vents in it. “You know, Glen and I had pretty much planned to get in a few rounds of golf. Maybe next time, huh?”

She stood and then walked back to the oven, where she served up her own meal.

“You know, hon, I think I’ve figured out what I don’t like about these enchiladas,” he said. “They’re just a little bland. What do you think? Maybe some jalapenos on top? It might spice them up a bit.”

She sat down again, pressing the apron against her thighs. Her fork sliced clean through the soft corn torilla, whittling off a bite just so. She put it in her mouth and savored the taste, chewing it gently into pulp before swallowing.

“You know what, hon?” she said. “You’re a fucking asshole.”


Talking it out

If you live long enough and stridently enough — I’m working on the former and a master of the latter — life will eventually demonstrate to you that all of your grand pronouncements are, in a word, bullroar.

Luckily, I’ve been kicked in the teeth enough times to have a decent example of this at the ready.

In another life, I was one of the sports editors at the San Jose Mercury News. At the time, we had a columnist who is a rather well-known fellow these days (it would be indiscreet to tell you that his name is Skip Bayless). When this columnist was scheduled to write — three or four times a week — he would generally call in, get hooked up with the editor on duty (sometimes me) and engage in a long, mostly one-sided discussion about the ins and outs of the column. A few hours later, the column would arrive, and damned if it didn’t contain many of the words this writer had expended on the phone.

Back then, when these half-hour-or-longer phone conversations represented a significant expenditure of my overall workday, I considered this exercise a conceit by a big-timer that I had to swallow for the good of the team.

Then I started writing fiction — and started doing almost the exactly the same thing to someone else, my friend Jim Thomsen, whom I jokingly refer to as my literary wingman. Only it’s no joke.

A few weeks ago, as a story idea I’d been turning over in my head for months started to percolate and demand to be written, Jim and I spent upward of two hours breaking down my idea via text message. We talked about the basic heft of the idea, possible directions the story could go, point of view, secondary and tertiary characters, conflicts, setting. Everything. And while I don’t think I was a bother to Jim, the truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t have noticed if I were. I needed that skull session in order to move ahead with the marathon chore of actually writing the story. It’s not as if we intricately plotted things out; I still don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up, and some of the aspects that I thought were dead-solid certain have shifted even in these early days of drafting it.

Beyond that, I realize now that Skip’s seemingly incurable need to talk before he wrote was, perhaps, wholly legitimate in the context of his process. I get it now: If you’re a writer, you want to know that your good idea really is worthwhile, at least in the eyes of someone you trust. You want feedback on how you’re going to approach it, where it’s going to go, how you’re going to get it there. I feel a little sheepish now for any umbrage I took at Skip’s phone calls back then. (The sheer outrageousness of some of his contentions allow me to stop short of actual regret.)

Still, it must be said:

I was wrong.