Novelist

Readings

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


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.


Catching up

Some news and notes on various fronts. I’ve been really busy these past few weeks–with the promise of more busy-ness to come–and haven’t had time to get to this stuff until now:

600 HOURS OF EDWARD is out, and doing swimmingly. In just over a month since it’s re-release, it has garnered about 25 new, mostly glowing reviews on Amazon.com (about 50 if you count the enthusiastic response in the UK, and I do). I don’t like to talk about sales figures, but it’s safe to say that the reception has exceeded my hopes. I’m thrilled that the book seems to be finding its audience.

The audiobook version of THE SUMMER SON has been delayed a bit. It’s now scheduled to drop on Oct. 23. The audiobook of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD is already out.

The coming weeks will also bring my work into other languages. The French version of THE SUMMER SON (titled UNE SI LONGUE ABSENCE) will be released by Presses de la Cite on Oct. 12, and the German version of the novel (DER SOMMERSOHN) is scheduled for Nov. 13.

I also have a couple of upcoming events:

  • This Friday (Sept. 28), I’ll be in Great Falls, Montana, for the state’s General Federation of Women’s Clubs meeting. I’m speaking at the group’s dinner.
  • After a short vacation, I’ll be in Lewistown, Montana, on Oct. 17 for a presentation at the library. It’s called “Living With Your Character,” and it should be a lot of fun.
  • I’m reading from QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE during the High Plains BookFest in Billings, Montana, on Oct. 20, and that night I’ll find out if the book, a finalist for the short-stories award, is a winner. (To see all the fine books that are up for High Plains Book Awards, go here.)

Information on appearances is available here.

Thanks to the new 600 HOURS OF EDWARD and its bonus first chapter from the upcoming sequel, EDWARD ADRIFT, I get a lot of questions about when the new book is coming out. I don’t have an official release date yet, but Spring 2013 is a good bet. I can tell you that principal editing begins this week, so the process is moving along.

Finally, I’d urge you to check out this interview I did with Jonathan Evison to mark the release of his latest novel, THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s my favorite book so far this year.


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.

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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.)


Q&A: Jason Skipper

“Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history …”

Jason Skipper

When I first heard about Hustle, the debut novel from Jason Skipper, I was intrigued, to say the absolute least. Here’s a guy who’s from the same part of the world as I am (Texas), writing about fathers and sons (a common milieu for me) and the way those relationships, when they’re difficult, repel and attract, constantly drawing men who love and hate each other together, then driving them apart.

It’s my own weird combination of manic energy and peripatetic attention that has kept me from reading Hustle, but thanks to the connection of Facebook, I’ve been watching closely as Jason has embarked on a backbreaking schedule of travel to put this book in front of readers, and I knew he was someone I wanted to feature here. I shot him questions while he was on the road, he promised to get to them, and he turned out to be a man of his word. The interview exceeded my considerable expectations, and I can’t wait to read this book.

I bet you won’t be able to wait, either.

Give us the skinny on Hustle. Where did the idea come from, and how long did you work on it before you started looking for a publisher?

Hustle developed from short stories I wrote that stemmed from my life. Like the central character Chris, I grew up in Texas selling shrimp from a van on the side of the road for my con artist grandfather and my father. Those earlier pieces were closer to my personal experiences, like being taught how to hustle people, dealing with my grandfather’s alcoholism, and my family’s financial struggles. My childhood crush on Olivia Newton John and the movie Xanadu. But the characters began to speak and act on their own, and through revision I started writing toward the patterns and underlying ideas I saw emerging, like Chris’s development as an artist, concepts related to masculinity, and struggles with disease and illness, until eventually the events of these characters’ lives were pretty much their own. The first draft of Hustle, written as stories from multiple characters’ points of view, took four years. I revised for five more years, cutting some parts and expanding others, eventually weaving it into a first-person novel, which is the book as it now stands. I submitted it to agents off and on throughout that time, but eventually landed it with a publisher on my own. I had writer friends help me out – Kyle Minor, who directed me to Press 53, and Ann Pancake, who gave my editor, Robin Miura, and publisher, Kevin Watson, a slight nudge to read it. Then, after nine long years, came the magical call at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning.

The story centers on three generations of men and, according to your publisher’s website, is a “coming-of-age story (that) explores the ways people struggle to fulfill their wants and desires–and what they are willing to sacrifice to feel free.” What drew you to the family dynamics, and particularly the interplay among men, in this story?

I believe most stories are about the struggle for connection, and I am particularly drawn to dynamics between parents and children. People tend to believe that these relationships are inherent and the connection is, or should be, unconditional. So, particularly for the children, when that relationship is strained or nonexistent, it affects their sense of self worth, which manifests throughout their lives in many ways. Funny, heartbreaking, and destructive ways. With Hustle, I became interested in the blind devotion that many sons maintain for their difficult fathers. For example, when Wrendon is driving Chris to Florida to kidnap Buddy to rescue him from a drinking binge, Chris asks why they are going, since Wrendon hasn’t talked to his father in ten years. Wrendon responds by saying, “Because, what kind of son lets his father die like that?” and then he answers his own question: “No kind of son.” Wrendon feels this devotion, and he expects it from Chris. When Wrendon doesn’t get it later on in the book, he knows how to work Chris, to get it out of him – poking at his soft voice, his desire to be an artist, ways he doesn’t fit the portrait of a typical male kid. But I honestly don’t think this sort of manipulation is so unusual. We see it in families all the time, and it gets passed down from one generation to the next. These people just happen to also make a career of it.

On the other hand, in this book, you have Chris’s mother, who doesn’t hustle at all, and she tries – to an almost destructive degree – to be honest and to keep things together, which also affects and shapes the type of person Chris becomes. She is a counterpoint to Wrendon, a direct contradiction. I think we find ourselves within contradictions, so this is part of Chris’s development in discovering the type of person he will become, raised within all of this tension. As I’ve met more people who have read the book, this relationship between Emily and Chris comes up frequently, as well as his relationships with the many other people – “unreliable mentors,” as Charles Baxter called them – who come and go throughout Chris’s life.

Your biography notes that you’ve been a bartender, a snowboard instructor and a freelance journalist. How do those varied work experiences come to bear on your work as a fiction writer?

My favorite part about writing is getting to know the characters, and I tend to be a magnet for freaky people and weird situations. I think all of these jobs call for a desire to be out in the world and a sense of curiosity about the lives of others. They also often present challenging situations, requiring persistence to see them through. As a bartender, I dealt with people whose personalities would flip from introverted to outrageous without warning; as a snowboard instructor, I sometimes had these super-skinny kids or really big kids who thought it would be easy to learn to snowboard, like in a video game, who got frustrated and would not listen to directions and instead just tore down the hill, careening into everyone. It would start out kind of funny, then get not so funny, and I’d have to figure out that particular person in order to deal with the situation, because you can’t just walk away from them. As a journalist I have to really think about what people have interesting stories – teaching stories – and be willing to ask them questions, which can be intimidating. All of these traits – the curiosity, the willingness to ask questions, the empathy, and the persistence – have helped me out as a fiction writer. Plus, these jobs gave me all kinds of characters and situations to write about. Have I written about the actual jobs? Not quite yet. The people? Yes. Some are in Hustle.

You teach creative writing and literature at Pacific Lutheran University. How does teaching enhance your approach to your own writing?

I think that breaking apart a story or a poem to consider how it functions is the best way to learn to write. To teach the material, I have to know it inside and out, and I learn a good deal about craft when I prep. Then students – at least those who have read closely and with intent – come to workshop and they lay out their take, which is hopefully quite different from mine. Together we compare notes and figure out the ways that these writers have manipulated the fundamentals of craft in order to break our hearts or make us laugh or make us hungry, in every sense of the word. From teaching, I have learned that most stories have a similar blueprint made up of similar fundamentals, which is what makes them recognizable as a story; our goal then is to figure out the ways certain writers have manipulated those fundamentals toward a desired effect, then practice these approaches until we have them at our fingertips, or at least can say we’ve tried them. That’s just one way, but this is how teaching in general enhances my writing.

There’s a whole lot of your home terrain of Texas in Hustle. What was it like to tap your memories of that place now that you’ve escaped to the Pacific Northwest?

Texas was never so alive to me as after I moved away and while I was writing Hustle. You are correct to say I escaped; I left because of the heat and because I wanted to know more of the world. I got away as quickly as possible. I didn’t actually want to write a Texas book; in fact, I wanted to avoid writing a Texas book. But eventually I got steamrolled by the characters. In my day-to-day writing process, I draw heavily from setting, both to anchor myself in the narrative and to give the story tone. Writing Hustle, I found myself thinking a good deal about the weather in Texas, like those ground-shaking thunderstorms and their greenish-pink afterglow. That was essential in the chapter titled “Tangled in the Ropes,” where Buddy teaches Chris how to hustle people. There’s the summer heat and the rattle of the window a/c unit when the babysitter, Theresa, teaches Chris about sex. The cold weather and the snow toward the end of the novel, when Chris starts to harden. Writing the book, I also came to better understand the people of Texas. Something I noticed was a systemic underlying tension in the dual nature of many people I’ve known, both men and women – that strong sense of loyalty combined with wildness, and how this manifests as people grow older and get responsibilities. What happens when that wildness prevails and cannot be overcome? That was a question that kept coming up with the characters as I wrote.

You’ve done a lot of traveling in support of Hustle. What’s been your worst road experience? Your best?

This year I was away from home almost constantly between September 2nd and December 1st, visiting bookstores and universities, and doing house readings. Self-funded and self-organized, with advice I got from friends and my publicists. Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history (one room was so bad I slept fully clothed, wearing a hoodie); putting another $35.00 in the gas tank each morning (then getting lost several times while en route); passing all the dead raccoons on the roadside (gross but completely true!); eating salt-soaked fast food and growing rounder while learning the temperament of drivers in each new state (if you don’t go ninety in parts of Michigan, you get run over); the severity of introspection that comes with being alone in a car for hours (salvation comes from singing loudly to anthemic punk rock); that mild relief/panic before opening the door on another motel room (you know if the a/c is on full blast, it’s thinning out some smell); and hoping the reading would go smoothly (which it almost always does). At the same time all of this is quite beautiful, and it was great to stay with friends and family when I could. I knew it would be challenging, but, like most things I end up doing, I wanted the experience.

The events themselves are the best part. So no two readings are ever the same, I do something different each time: I’ve sung Dwight Yoakam as I read, and I’ve sung Wilco songs during Q&A’s as part of an answer. I’ve had audience members read with me. I’ve truly – above all else – enjoyed meeting the many people that I have met along the way. Bookstores owners and booksellers who are excited about Hustle. Other writers and teachers. Book clubs are great. People who have read the book and are nervous to talk about it. People who say they finished the book in a single plane ride or they couldn’t go to sleep because they couldn’t put it down, which really surprised me. People who want to tell me which actors should play which parts in the movie version, if there is a movie version. Someone said Gary Busey for the grandfather, and I thought that was a riot. Also I’ve been able to hand off books to Rhett Miller, the singer for the Old 97’s who appears in the novel at a crucial time in Chris’s life, and to Dorothy Allison, who is a hero of mine. Many times, over the nine years it took to write and publish the book, I thought it would never come out, and I still freak out when I see it on a shelf at a store. Now people are reading it, and I’m reading it to people, and to me that is amazing.

What’s your preferred way to work? A certain time of day or place?

I tend to write best in my office at night, usually starting around 11, especially when I’m writing initial drafts. I talk to my characters, and this seems to be the time when they’re most vocal. When I’m revising, I can work all day, every day. I am learning more to write away from my desk, to go for walks and drives and think through the scenes before trying to write them down.

What’s next from you?

As I’ve been traveling to support Hustle, I’ve also been doing research for my new book. I’m working on a nonfiction project about my father and stories he told me while I was growing up – his involvement with the suicide of his first wife at sixteen, his twin brother who was crushed beneath a car while they were working on it – and other tragic events wherein he situated himself as a sympathetic protagonist. Stories that I have since learned he reconstructed almost entirely. The events occurred, but his involvement was not as a he claimed; in fact, often he was in some ways to blame. The book is going to focus on the whole of his life and our relationship. I’ve been traveling to different places where he lived – the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts – to interview people and see where all he lived. The experience of coming to know him as a ten year old and as a twenty year old has been startling and amazing. It’s been a lot to take on, but I’m excited to see how all of these stories are starting to come together.


Awards and other jazz

Lots of great literary news from the weekend.

I’ll start with something not great but okay nonetheless: The Summer Son, which was up for the Utah Book Award in fiction, didn’t win. Congratulations to Gerald Elias, who took home the prize for Danse Macabre.

Here in Billings, the High Plains Book Awards were handed out at a ceremony Saturday. Some great books and authors were recognized:

Alyson Hagy won the fiction prize for her short-story collection Ghosts of Wyoming. I love this book and love the way Hagy writes. Her publisher, Graywolf, puts out a ton of great stuff, none better than Alyson’s work. Check it out.

Ruth McLaughlin, whose Bound Like Grass has already won the Montana Book Award, added another with the prize for best first book. I’ve already sung the praises of this book, but I’m happy to do so again. Get it.

The High Plains awards added a new category this year: art and photography. Dan Flores’ Visions of the Big Sky, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, was the winner.

In the nonfiction category, Rocky Mountain College professor Tim Lehman won for Bloodshed at Little Bighorn. I’ve seen Tim do readings from this book a couple of times, and his command of the history and narrative is just amazing. Last year, when 600 Hours of Edward won in the first-book category, I was told that I was the first Billings author to win a High Plains Book Award. I’m pleased that the club is no longer exclusive.

Henry Real Bird, whose tenure at Montana poet laureate just ended, was the winner for poetry with Horse Tracks. Henry’s an amazing storyteller and chronicler of his time and place. His book is well worth your time.

Finally, in the best woman writer category, Susan Kushner Resnick took the prize for Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, her account of the Beavercreek Smith Mining disaster. It’s a fine, fine book.

Congratulations to all!


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.

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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.

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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!


Q&A: David Abrams

David Abrams

David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen blog is a friend to writers and readers everywhere, politely but persistently banging the drum for literary fiction, giving authors an outlet to write about their experiences and giving exposure to recently released and upcoming books (as well as the occasional tune).

Along the way, David has occasionally updated folks on the progress of his own novel, Fobbit. Earlier this month came the most welcome news of all: Fobbit has been acquired by Grove/Atlantic. Even in his happiest moment, David was plugging for others. Here’s a snippet of his e-mail announcing the acquisition of Fobbit: “All I can say is, I am honored and thrilled to have my manuscript accepted by the same publishing house who brought you A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent–all books I count among some of my favorites.”

David was gracious enough to answer some questions. Here we go …

Give us your 25-words-or-fewer elevator pitch for Fobbit.

Elevator Pitch #1: Two groups of soldiers muddle through the Iraq War: infantry “door-kickers” on patrol and cubicle-worker “Fobbits”–those who never leave the security of the Forward Operating Base.

Elevator Pitch #2 (if we were going up another couple of floors): It’s the love child of Catch-22 and The Office.

Where did the idea for the novel come from?

It’s an explanation which requires some backstory, so bear with me.  In January 2005, while serving on active duty with the 3rd Infantry Division, I deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I was a sergeant first class with the division’s Public Affairs Office and would be working media relations in the task-force headquarters.  After being in the Army for 17 years, this was my first combat deployment and I had no idea what to expect.  Most of my co-workers had already been to Afghanistan or Bosnia-Herzegovina; some of them had felt the hot wind of bullets flying past their heads.  I felt inadequate, completely out of my element.  Here I was, a senior non-commissioned officer, and I was supposed to be a level-headed, decisive leader able to clearly see ahead to the next step and the next step after that.  Instead, I was a bundle of nerves.  On the plane ride into Baghdad, I was crammed into the hull of the C-130 with everyone else, the weight of the Kevlar helmet crushing my skull and the flak vest cracking my ribs, and thinking I might die–not from a terrorist’s rocket-propelled grenade but from a stress heart attack.  I won’t lie: I even let out a couple of nervous squirts of urine in my underwear.

By the time we landed and walked out into the hot Baghdad sunshine, I’d worked myself into a lather of anxiety.  But when I reported to work at the task force headquarters the next morning, I was surprised to find I was working in a cubicle jungle–something that resembled a call-center at any U.S. corporation’s customer service.  Replace the chatter about grid coordinates and roadside bombs, and we could easily have been working the Turkey Hotline at Butterball on Thanksgiving Day.  Here we were, supposedly in the white-hot center of war, and people were sitting around designing PowerPoint presentations, filling out spreadsheets with statistics from sniper attacks, and playing computer solitaire.  Off to my left, I swear I heard the hiss of an espresso machine at someone’s desk. My vision of war had suddenly turned into a farce.  Not that I was working with clowns and buffoons or that we weren’t deadly serious about the business of war–we were, believe me.  But there was so much comic potential to be mined here that I knew I had to capture it in words.

Fobbit started as a series of journal entries I kept during that year in Baghdad.  I was under the delusion that I’d be the Ernie Pyle of the Iraq War.  But instead of going out with soldiers on the business end of rifles–the GI Joes of Pyle’s world–I ended up staying back at the Forward Operating Base (the FOB) and it wasn’t long before I realized I was one of those despised “Fobbers” or, more popularly, “Fobbits”–rear-echelon Hobbit-like soldiers who rarely left the protective shire of the FOB.  Fobbits were a bit of a joke over there–one officer even went so far as to design a Fobbit “combat patch” (I can’t remember what it looked like, but it was probably a pair of crossed pens and a pillow set against a Twinkie-yellow background).  I went around telling myself, “I may be a Fobbit, but at least I’m not out there playing the Death Lottery every day.”

In truth, I was too busy working at my desk in headquarters to go “outside the wire.”  I worked 12-hour shifts 6-and-1/2 days a week and only had enough energy at the end of the day to go back to my hootch, type a new entry in my journal and read a couple of chapters in my Dickens novel.  Eventually, I had a good amount of material in my journal–enough for a book–but the problem was, it was boring.  I mean, who wants to read about a soldier whose greatest fear is getting a paper cut when he loads a ream of paper into the printer, or whose biggest daily challenge was deciding between the short-order line or the full-course option at the chow hall?  So I started to think of ways I could amp up the story of a Fobbit and soon the idea of a novel came into my head.  I could still use what happened to me over there, but I would embellish it.  Thus, I arrived at the “truthiness” of war.  When I got down to the business of writing the novel, I took much of what I had, but then I turned the volume up to 11.

How long did you work on the novel before you considered it ready to start submitting to agents?

I was incredibly lucky, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming kind of lucky.  An agent, Nat Sobel, contacted me while I was still over there in Baghdad.  He’d seen some of the journal entries I’d written which had been posted at The Emerging Writers Network website and he reached out to me through EWN’s proprietor, Dan Wickett.  Almost from the get-go, Nat encouraged me to view the war through the lens of fiction.  One of the most significant and meaningful emails he ever sent me went like this: “I’ve come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public.  And, only a modern day Yossarian can be that vehicle.  That’s you, buddy.”

I should note that while I appreciate Nat’s encouragement, I’m not worthy to touch the hem of Joseph Heller’s robe.  Even though the ghost of Catch-22 haunts the edges of Fobbit, and I toss it around as a comparison, I know I’m not even close to Heller’s mastery.  So, short answer to your question: I started working on Fobbit in 2005 and turned in what I’d hoped was a polished near-final draft to Nat in January 2011.  It went through several more revisions after that–Nat and I going back and forth via email–until I felt it was ready to send around to publishers.  Nat started shopping it around in late August.  Three weeks later, I had another of those pinch-me moments when Grove/Atlantic made an offer on the book.  I’m still living in the glow of that Cinderella moment–can’t quite believe it’s real.

What is your writing process like? Do you write at a certain time each day, strive for a word count, that sort of thing?

Before Fobbit came along, I was a very sporadic writer–thoroughly undisciplined.  If there’s a way to Not Write, I’ll find it.  But, somewhere in the third year of working on Fobbit, I decided this was getting me nowhere.  If I kept this up, one day I’d be sitting in the nursing home telling everyone about this novel I was “writing” but still hadn’t finished.  So, I hurdled some inner wall of procrastination, got my shit together, and established a daily routine for myself.  Now I set the alarm for 3:30 every morning, come downstairs and write.  For the last year-and-a-half, too much of that time has been taken up with the distraction of writing a blog, but in theory, this is the time I work on my novel and short stories.  I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that 3:30 to 7:30 am routine for about three years.  I never hold myself to a certain word count–it’s always a question of completing a “beat” in the narrative–you know, the natural rhythmic pauses in a story when I feel I’ve reached a stopping point for the day.

Do you have a group of “beta readers”? How do you find reliable feedback while you’re working?

Prior to Fobbit, I didn’t normally send my work to others–I’m too insecure about my writing to just “put it out there”–but after the second draft of the novel, I figured I should have one of my most-trusted Army buddies read it to make sure I didn’t completely fuck up the facts.  I was, after all, a Fobbit writing about infantry tactics, techniques and procedures.  That friend of mine read the manuscript and pointed out many glaring errors and places where I had no idea what I was talking about.  He saved my bacon on more than one occasion.  Which is not to say that I won’t still get it wrong in places–but if I do, I’ll just fall back in the safety net and say, “Hey, it’s fiction–what did you expect?”

I also had another trusted reader–a former editor at Narrative magazine–who offered to take a look at Fobbit.  She helped me see the ways I could make the story better by improving the narrative structure of the book.  I owe her big time for helping me see the possibilities of what Fobbit could be and where it was headed in the wrong direction.  I’ve also posted a few excerpts from the novel on my blog and readers have been very good about telling me what works and what doesn’t work–advice I cherish.  Now, I don’t think I’ll ever again send a book off to a publisher without having at least one other trustworthy reader run their eyes over the pages.  I live in relative literary isolation here in western Montana and I need that kind of feedback, that broader perspective.  Having a “beta reader” is a crumbling of pride, I suppose.

Like many of us, you’re a working stiff in addition to carving on novels, writing short stories, maintaining a blog, being married. How do you balance everything?

Caffeine and cocaine.  Okay, I’m kidding about one of those.  Having a very patient, understanding and supportive wife is also essential.  I’d advise it for every writer.  Then again, not everyone can be as lucky as me to be married to Jean (aka The Best Wife in the World).  She’s one-of-a-kind and is definitely the center of my balance.  She calls me on my bullshit, holds my feet to the fire, and greets me at the door every night after work wearing a sexy French maid’s outfit and holding a glass of wine.  Who could ask for anything more?

You’re an active book reviewer. In what ways has turning a critical eye to other’s work made your own better?

Turning that around, because I’m a novelist I hope I’m a more sympathetic critic.  I’m a firm believer in John Updike’s rules for reviewers–the first of which is “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”  This doesn’t mean I should only write positive reviews–it’s entirely a good thing to warn readers away from a bad book–but I always strive to see the author’s intent and then determine whether he or she fulfilled that intent.  As far as my own work is concerned, I think every book I read makes me a better writer–even the bad ones.  Lame-and-lazy novels make me mad (“If they can publish this junk, then why can’t mine be published?!”) and make me determined to write a better book, give me angry confidence to pole vault over these kind of literary turds.  By the same token, good novels hold the bar high and make me want to reach for excellence.  Reading just one excellently crafted sentence written by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford or Flannery O’Connor fills me with a little despair, yes, but it also makes me want to grab the pole vault and spring into the air to their heights.

Several months ago, you had your first public reading from “Fobbit,” at the University of Montana Western. What was that experience like?

Not only was it the first public reading of Fobbit, it was also one of the first public readings I ever gave in my career.  The only other time I publicly read my fiction was years ago as a graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and all I can remember of that experience was a shaky voice and rivulets of sweat trickling down my back.  The reading at UMW was phenomenal.  The crowd was small but very appreciative.  I’d go back to Dillon for a reading in a heartbeat.

You’ve also had a few interviewing coups, notably Thomas McGuane, who sat in your kitchen while you pitched questions at him. What did you learn from talking to him?

Tom is a very gracious, down-to-earth individual, someone who makes you feel at ease from the first handshake.  He was kind enough to sit down with me at the start of his book tour for Driving on the Rim.  We talked for an hour or more and we had a wide-ranging conversation–everything from fly-tying to Don Quixote.  The thing I took away from him?  Never stop being a good, decent human being, no matter how many books you’ve published or awards you’ve put on your mantel.

Did you have an “aha!” moment that solidified your desire to become a writer? Where does the passion come from?

God, the answer to that is complicated and long-winded.  There have been so many “aha!” moments, I don’t know where to begin.  Okay, how about this?  My first moment as a writer was back in 1969.  I was in first grade and I had just published my first book, “The Lady and the Clock.”  It was a masterpiece of crayons and stapled paper.  I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe it involved a wealthy woman, an impoverished clockmaker and the tragedy of a broken spring.  I can still remember the satisfaction of making words which, when put together, told a story from Point A to Point B to Point C.  This was something I had cobbled together from sounds in my head!  Before I put crayon to paper, this story didn’t exist.  There’s a magic and mystery to that act of channeling stories onto the page, something I feel even today as I sit here typing.  Back in 1969 was the first time I felt the thrill of bringing something to life.  Years later, I would probably have said I felt a little like Frankenstein assembling his monster–making something from nothing.

What up-and-coming writers should the rest of us be reading, in your estimation?

If you haven’t read Alan Heathcock’s short-story collection Volt, then your reading life is incomplete.  Do it!  Do it now!  It’s simply some of the best fiction–short or otherwise–I’ve read in a long, long time.  Other new-ish writers who have impressed me include Shann Ray (American Masculine), Cara Hoffman (So Much Pretty), Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness), Lindsay Hunter (Daddy’s), Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men are Gone), Justin Torres (We the Animals) and William Lychack (The Architect of Flowers).  And, even though she doesn’t need any more press, I’d have to recommend Tea Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife.  I’m also reading the much-hyped The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and am pleased to report that, so far, it’s living up to the buzz.  Among poets, everyone needs to read Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) who has produced some of the most important writing about the Iraq War–his poems burn inside you for months afterward.

A contrived question, but I don’t care: You’re going to be gone from home for a month and can pull only one author’s canon off the shelf and take it with you. Who’s it going to be and why?

Dickens for the endless delights.


Q&A: Kevin Morgan Watson

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m a bit of a fanboy about Press 53, a small publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. As one guy running a small publishing house in his living room, I’m always on the lookout for small presses that get it right, that stick to what they’re good at and toss off the conventions of the large-press approach of covering the world with books it may or may not want. The more I heard about Press 53 — from friends whose books have been published there and by others who, like me, admire it from afar — the more I realized that this an outfit that has a plan for survival in these turbulent publishing waters and the discipline to stick to it.

In other words, Press 53 is a role model.

So I was delighted when Kevin Morgan Watson, the leader of Press 53, agreed to field some questions. Let’s get to it …

Kevin Morgan Watson

First off, tell us a bit about Press 53. What is it? When was it established? Where is it based? What are you trying to do?

Press 53 is an independent publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction based in Winston-Salem, NC, that opened in October 2005. I started the press for a few reasons: I had lost my job in the airline industry and decided to try and do something I enjoyed; I wanted to learn how to design and layout books; and I wanted to find readers who liked the same writing as me and share my books with them. My basic business model is to ignore market trends, and I ask my series editors, Tom Lombardo (poetry) and Robin Miura (novel/memoir), to do the same. We find writing we love and then set out to find readers who agree with us. What I’m trying to build is a community of readers and writers who share similar tastes but aren’t afraid to sample something new from time to time.

What is your background? How did you come to this line of endeavor?

I grew up in Kansas City, MO, and was a bored student who excelled in photography, running, and daydreaming. I sold my saxophone in high school, bought a guitar and began writing songs. I moved to Nashville when I was 30 and spent 5 years actively writing and pitching songs, and the next five years transitioning from songwriting to short story writing. I found I preferred short stories over songs because people can’t mess with the stories without your permission, unlike songs where everything is open to interpretation and style. When the airline company I worked for at night closed their Nashville office, I transferred to Winston-Salem and began seriously writing short stories. I also decided to go to college to earn my BA in English, so I enrolled at the oldest all-women’s college in the nation, Salem College (est. 1772). While there, I noticed that I was finding fewer and fewer short stories that I liked; they all seemed too dark and hopeless and depressing. I got an idea and approached a New York City arts foundation, that had published one of my stories, and asked if they would be interested in publishing an anthology of short stories that held to some sense of hope, with characters trying to do something meaningful in a messed up world. The arts foundation approved the project so I spend all of 2000 reading every short story I could find that was published that year. In 2001, they published the Silver Rose Anthology. Since I worked for an airline, I was able to travel and attend readings I had set up for the authors, which included folks like Robert Olen Butler, Julie Orringer, George Singleton, Patry Francis, Sally Shivnan, and three authors who would be the first I signed to Press 53: Doug Frelke, Tom Sheehan, and Al Sim. That experience gave me the publishing bug and I decided that someday I would like to operate my own small press. When I lost my job at the airline in 2004, I jumped into publishing.

One of the things I’ve been struck by, being friends with some of your authors, is that you seem to have an organic community of writers, rather than the traditional write-acquire-publish model employed by larger publishers. What have been the advantages of this?

Besides a great manuscript, we look for writers who are active in the writing community, who are earning recognition through publication and awards, and who understand that a small press can offer a platform upon which to build a career. This gives us a family of writers who champion one another and support each other. We have a Facebook group that is only open to Press 53 authors and editors where we can all share ideas and concerns. When one of us succeeds, everyone benefits from the added publicity. The challenge for me is keeping up with all the successes and taking advantage of all the energy created by our writers.

Another tack you take: Unlike many publishers, you don’t do returns. What’s the thinking behind this?

I allow returns on books ordered directly from Press 53 because I am able to encourage a bookseller to order a reasonable number of books which reduces the number of returns. Returns kill small presses. Our authors are encouraged to always carry extra copies with for readings at bookstores, just in case they run short. Our books are distributed through Ingram, but they are nonreturnable to avoid returns that could bankrupt us. I made a few of our books returnable early on to accommodate a writer who was convinced his or her book could only be sold if it was returnable. In every instance, the author spent weeks and weeks traveling to bookstores for readings only to end up in the hole after returns. It’s a wasteful model and an expensive one, for the author and especially the press. I chose to no longer participate, and I only work with authors who agree to this. There are better ways today to operate than to shotgun books to bookstores and hope our readers find them. I love booksellers who embrace our authors and their books and will hand sell the book after the reading. Stores that order books for readings and them immediately return what didn’t sell at the event are not the stores for us. We’re looking for partners.

The publishing landscape these days, in many ways, seems almost dystopian. What are the opportunities for a small literary press in an era of blockbusters, e-books and newbies and midlisters alike testing the waters of self-publishing?

I don’t see it as dystopian. It is chaotic, but also full of opportunity. The Internet and new printing and publishing technologies now offer writers the opportunity to take back creative control and offer numerous ways to find their readers. I know exactly who our readers are at Press 53, I just don’t know where they all are. But thanks to the Internet, we are able to find our readers, rather than waiting for them to hopefully discover one of our books on a bookstore shelf. And thanks to ebooks, writers are able to put their work out there at no real cost and find their readers. Of course the result is a glut of material, good and bad, all mixed together. Our model is to create an oasis for readers via our website where they will return to discover new voices and experiences, and to use social media to encourage readers to seek out our authors wherever they buy their books.

Could you hazard a guess at what the future looks like for books and publishing?

The book will be around for a long time. Books will go out of style when blankets go out of style, and for the same reasons. They are comfortable and reliable and don’t need to be plugged in. Still, there is a place for ebooks and it’s a format that should not be ignored. Here is a glimpse at the future. I got an email recently from a bookstore manager in New England who will be hosting one of our authors. He wanted a couple of books to display in preparation for her visit. When I checked out his website, I noticed the store had an Espresso Book Machine. There are currently only 19 EBMs in the U.S., and this machine has over five million titles available on it using print-on-demand technology. The EBM can print, bind and trim a paperback, perfect-bound book on acid-free paper in three to five minutes. And since we exclusively use POD for our books (as do most larger publishers to some extent), this bookstore manager already had access to all of our titles. So he printed out a couple of copies for display and began selling them from his EBM. Now that is exciting! Imagine having a machine that takes up the space of an old IBM copy machine that can deliver, literally hot off the press, over five million titles to your customers. That solves a lot of problems and opens up whole new worlds of opportunities for readers, writers, and booksellers.

What do you look for in a submission? Can you quantify or describe what constitutes that moment of “I have to publish this book”?

I get a bit spiritual here, in that everything is energy, including the words on the page. And those words either connect with me or they don’t; they either flow freely or they stall and fizzle. I’ve read lots of manuscripts by some fine writers who have a very interesting story to tell, but after a few pages I find myself drifting, not connecting with the way the words flow. I know I’ve passed on some excellent pieces, but I have to trust myself to know what I like and what I want to share. And I ask my editors to do the same. What I like are stories and poems that have strong, natural, conversational voices that allow me to witness the story; writing that trusts me to get the subtleties and doesn’t explain everything. I want my senses engaged, and I want to be taken to new places. That’s probably why I’ve published a few more women than men.

What does Press 53 have cooking? We know about Anne Leigh Parrish’s book. What else is coming up?

I’m very excited about Anne’s story collection. We always have lots and lots of great things going on. To name a few, new poetry from Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Katie Chaple, Richard Krawiec, and John Thomas York. New short story collections from Okla Elliott, Darlin’ Neal, Steve Mitchell, Stefanie Freele, Kurt Rheinheimer, and Clifford Garstang. A publishing guide for writers by Kim Wright, Your Path to Publication, based on 30-plus years of her experience as a published author. A spunky memoir titled, My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson. Three novels for our Press 53 Classics editions: Lion on the Hearth, by John Ehle; The Scarlet Thread, by Doris Betts; and Molly Flanagan and the Holy Ghost, by Margaret Skinner. We’ve just launched our 5th annual writing contest, the Press 53 Open Awards, with five categories and three winners in each. Oh, Surreal South ’11, edited by Laura and Pinckney Benedict, that comes out every odd year on Halloween. Limited edition hardcovers (limited to 53) that are numbered and signed by the author, and a new program for our friends, “Press 53 Friends with Benefits,” with special offers and window stickers and pens and other fun stuff. I know I’ve probably forgotten something, but I have to stop. I’m suddenly feeling overwhelmed.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Kevin.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my press and our authors with your readers.


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.


Heartbreakers

Welcome to Day 3 of Honesty Week.

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

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

Consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is my point.

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

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

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

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

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

You see, it’s also Smarm Week.


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.


Progress Report: 6/14/2011

It’s been a light week. And, dammit, I deserved it.

A few things:

  • Finally, the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, is for sale in advance of its official July 26 release date. If you’d like a signed copy, please jet over to Ed’s site and make a totally safe PayPal transaction. If you love Montana and Montanans, this book will not disappoint you. I’m damned proud to have it as the second release from my little literary house, after Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice.
  • I’m hitting the road this week, heading up to Ronan, Montana, to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. Ronan was a great host last year when I was thumping 600 Hours of Edward, and I’m really, really looking forward to talking to my friends about my new novel, The Summer Son. This, I suppose, is the unofficial kickoff to my summer book season. Check out my calendar for the other stuff I have on tap.
  • My collection of short stories, tentatively titled Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, is in the hands of a trusted editor before I move it along to my publisher. Really, really excited about these. Really, really hoping the publisher will be, too.

And now, a personal note:

Today is the 72nd birthday of my dad, Ron Lancaster (shown above with my dogs Bodie and Zula). (By the way, them’s my legs behind him.) I’ve written some about his difficult life, and my occasionally difficult dealings with him. I’ve never shied away from the fact that The Summer Son is, on some level, both a vehicle for working out my frustrations with him and a love letter to him.

But I’ll be telling him today — as he will never see it here — that I love him very much and am blessed to have him in my life.

Happy birthday, Pops.


To Dillon and back: an incomplete travelogue

If you followed the old blog, you might remember my Missoula travelogue from a week ago, when I proved that I’m a rather lacking photojournalist. Not content to prove it once, I’ve reiterated it with a trip to Dillon this week for a reading at the University of Montana Western.

Take my hand and away we go …

When I left Billings at about 9 a.m. Monday, this was the view of the sky through the moon roof of my car. Nice, eh?

In a post preceding the trip, one of the things I asked for was a clear view of the mountains. Wish granted.

I love Bozeman so much, I can’t even tell you. I get a little shot of energy every time I drive into downtown.

Maybe it’s the awesome sugar-free latte that awaits me at Leaf and Bean

… or perhaps it’s that I’ll be visiting the Country Bookshelf, one of my favorite bookstores. This time, I had to pick up the current issue of Montana Quarterly. I made a snap decision on the way out to read my short story “Cruelty to Animals,” which appears in this issue.

About 35 miles outside Bozeman, I stopped at the Town Pump to load up on snacks. My haul: a frozen huckleberry drink (44 ounces), a loaded hot dog (tucked away in a pizza sleeve), and Tic-Tacs to blunt the effects of the hot dog.

Downtown Dillon, August 1942, from the "Captured: America in Color" collection. Check out this picture and others at http://tinyurl.com/4xzvcpg

 

OK, do you remember this photo from downtown Dillon? Well, the building is still there …

I think I speak for everyone when I say “Bring back the turret!”

This is what was directly behind me when I took the picture of the now turret-less building. After reading this, I’m now sorry I didn’t go in. Next time!

I made it to Dillon just after 2 p.m. and my host for the evening, Alan Weltzien, was not going to be ready for me for a few hours. So I did the only sensible thing: I headed for the Beaverhead Golf Course.

 

And like the hack I am, I put up a craptastic score. Here’s the thing, though: My form is picture-perfect. Clearly, my tools are inferior.

Now then …

At this juncture, the picture-taking ends for a while. Among the things that happened as I kept my cell phone in my pocket: dinner with Alan and his lovely wife, Lynn; a stroll on campus; a reading to a very nice crowd at The Cup, the UM Western campus coffee shop; a few rounds of drinks with Alan and some of his friends. Because, hey, who wants to see that when you can look at a golf cart, right?

Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., I headed home:

The day before, on the way to Dillon, I’d noticed a closed-down campus of some sort in Twin Bridges. It’s the old Montana State Orphanage, which has been closed since 1985. I vowed to take a closer look on the way back. Here’s the sign out front, festooned with for-sale messages.

You can’t see it very well in this picture, but there’s a Victorian house on the grounds that is just haunting — and badly in need of repair.

Over the fence, here’s a view of some of the buildings on the campus. This Seattle Times story from 1995 tells what life was like at the orphanage for a couple of its former residents.

More orphanage buildings. A Bozeman Daily Chronicle story of more recent vintage tells what the owner of the property hopes to do with it.

Back on the road. The route between Dillon and Interstate 90, where I’d turn east toward home, basically runs in a long river valley between mountain ranges. Here was the view outside my passenger window.

Still more scenery. One of the things I love about driving in the mountains is that there’s such a difference between what you see on the way in and what you see as you retrace your path.

Trenchant political commentary in a restroom at the Whitehall Town Pump.

As I made my way home after lunch in Bozeman, I watched the coming weather with trepidation.

As it turned out, I just had to withstand a little rain. No problem.

Everyone should get to come home to a dachshund.


Going west, again

The list of things that I love, if I were to be completely honest and cast out the most casual uses of the verb, would not be very long. (I do not, for example, really love red velvet cake, although I am amenable to heavy petting.) But right up there — somewhere below my wife and dogs but above my shirt-tail relatives — would be road trips. All things being equal, and the cost of gas not being a factor, I can think of few things I’d rather do with a day off than point the nose of my SUV toward some destination. Often, the more remote, the better.

Where I’m headed today fills the bill nicely: I’m going to Dillon, Mont., 257 miles southwest of Billings, to read from my work at Dances With Words, a program hosted by the English department at the University of Montana Western. You can read the press release here.

Downtown Dillon, August 1942, from the "Captured: America in Color" collection. Check out this picture and others at http://tinyurl.com/4xzvcpg

From http://maps.google.com/

I’m really looking forward to this trip, even coming on the heels of a longer one — to Missoula and back — last week. A natural-born road tripper should never complain about the frequency of his journeys, lest the road gods conspire and keep him caged in one place for a protracted time.

One of the great things about this relatively new career as an author is that I get invitations to visit places that aren’t necessarily on the road to anywhere else, and when I’m beckoned here in the state that I’ve made my home, I get to fill in some more of my knowledge of this vast, history-filled place.

My hope for today: clear roads, a good view of the mountains and new friends at the other end of the asphalt.