Novelist

Short stories

An honor for ‘Quantum Physics’

I posted about this last week on Facebook (follow me here!) but wanted to wait for the official announcement before posting anything here. The press release went out Tuesday, so I guess it’s safe.

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, the short-story collection I released back in December, has won a gold medal from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. It was picked as the top fiction book in the West-Mountain region for 2012.

You can see the full list of winners here.

I’m obviously thrilled that this book, so personal to me, has been recognized in this way. I’m doubly proud because the book was put out under the auspices of my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press. By now, the instances of smart self-publishers releasing polished, accomplished books are legion, so it’s not as if I felt compelled to prove something by going it alone. For me, Missouri Breaks Press has always been much more about finding high-quality manuscripts that for whatever reason aren’t viewed as commercial enough for the major presses to take on. It’s about finding work and writers I admire. And, occasionally, it will be about exercising the unprecedented choices we have as writers these days to release and market our work. Going it alone with this book made sense to me, and this award offers some validation of that choice.

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

I hope you’ll check it out.


Gigs? Turns out I have gigs

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

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

The Great Falls Public Library.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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


Read it. Absorb it. Live it.

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

Terrible Minds

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

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

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

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

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

7. Start Discovering What You Know

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

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

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

11. Start Cultivating Your Sanity

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

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

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

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


Wrapping up 2011

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

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

In the past 365 days …

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

I needed that.

So, in 2012, I resolve …

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

Happy New Year.


Here comes ‘Quantum Physics’

Today–Tuesday, December 6th–is the official release date for my new book, a collection of short stories called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.

Truth be told, the book has been available in print and e-book form for a couple of weeks now, but a book needs a release date, and this is mine. It’s my third book, following the novels 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, and I’m incredibly proud of it. Part of that lies in where the stories came from and the time in my life that spawned them (there will be more on this down the line). Part of it lies in the fact that this is a full production for my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press, and a fully realized manifestation of my artistic and professional interests, not to mention my tendency toward being an autodidact. And part of it rests in the same sense of pride and apprehension that accompanies the release of any book. Author Scott Nicholson does a nice job of explaining that here. It takes something–gall, perhaps, or bravado or delusion–to write something and decide that people not only want to read it but also will be willing pay for the privilege.

As for the money part, I’ve tried to make that as pocketbook-friendly as possible. The trade paperback version of the book retails for a competitive $14. The e-book version, available in Kindle and Nook and everything else, is set at $1.99, an eminently fair price for ten good stories.

Back in August, I wrote a series of posts highlighting the ten stories and offering some insight into how they came to be. You can see those here if you missed them the first time.

As for the book, I hope you’ll check it out. I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done.


How are you? It’s been a while …

Here’s what’s been going on:

Even my slimmed-down version of NaNoWriMo crashed and burned. I still love the story idea, still think about it a lot, still like what little progress I’ve made on it, but I won’t be finishing any time soon. It just needs some more cooking time in my head. The longer I do this — and I’m three books into it now — the more I realize that the words and stories come in their own time. I can’t be a crank-o-matic. Wouldn’t even want to be one.

I’ve kept busy with some freelance gigs, mostly of the editing variety. This brings up a good opportunity to do something I don’t do very often, and that’s to pitch my editorial services.  I have good, competitive rates, I turn the work around quickly, and I’m handing off good work to appreciative customers. Whether you’re prepping a manuscript for submission to agents and publishers or preparing to go it alone as a self-publisher, I can help you create a professional product.

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

Three years after 600 Hours of Edward was written, we continue to find appreciative audiences. One of my more interesting gigs was two hours with about twenty-five knitters at a local shop, Wild Purls. Check out this account of the evening on the store’s blog. I had so much fun. (And here’s a blatant tease for you: I expect to have some exciting news about 600 Hours in the near future.)

Finally …

E-readers and e-books should be all the rage this holiday season. If you’re lucky enough to get a fancy new toy, you might consider loading it up with my latest, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. The e-book price has been dropped to $1.99 through the New Year, which is a heck of a deal. Go here for the Kindle version. Go here if you have a Nook.

Happy holidays!


Off to Missoula and other adventures

I told you I’d be back.

A few quick things …

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

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

A few programming notes:

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

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

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

****

Speaking of The Summer Son

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

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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: Anne Leigh Parrish

Anne Leigh Parrish

The next couple of days are going to be a real treat around here. Today, Anne Leigh Parrish, the author of the new short-story collection All The Roads That Lead From Home, is here to talk about her new book, literary fiction, breaking through into publication and where her stories come from.

Tomorrow, Anne’s publisher, Press 53 editor Kevin Morgan Watson, will chat about where fiction and publishing are going, and how his highly regarded press is getting from here to there.

First up: Anne Leigh Parrish. Anne writes the kind of fiction I really like to read: about everyday people and their struggle to get along with themselves and with each other, to find some direction in a world that often seems ready to swallow them whole. And Anne’s own story is one of persevering, of remaining committed to craft.

Here’s what C. Michael Curtis, the longtime fiction editor for The Atlantic, has to say about Parrish’s work: “Anne Leigh Parrish has written a collection of stories that deserve a place on the shelf next to Raymond Carver, Tom Boyle, Richard Bausch, and other investigators of lives gone wrong. Parrish writes with painful clarity about marriages turned sour, children at war with their parents, women drifting from one damaging relationship to another, and about unexpected acts of generosity—an impoverished woman giving her battered piano to a priest who had befriended her, a schoolgirl who bribes a boy to pretend an interest in an overweight classmate, then finds that her kindness has disastrous consequences. These are potent and artful stories, from a writer who warrants attentive reading.”

Your stories seem to be full of people who are not only not happy but also seem uncertain how they got into the circumstances that make them unhappy, and little idea of how to confront their pain and arrive at constructive resolutions. What draws you to such fundamentally broken people?

Well, at the risk of sounding glib, it makes dull reading to write about happy, healthy people.  And I’ve known my share of misfits and oddballs.

How did you find your writing voice? You have the craft and discipline and literary sensibility of the kind of short-story writers who hold MFAs, yet you haven’t been in an MFA program.

I take that as a fine compliment!  Writing takes practice, and I’ve practiced a lot. That said, I think the voice I have now isn’t far from the one I began with.  It’s something inherent in me, I guess, that all the years of hard work didn’t really change.  What has changed is the degree to which I feel comfortable managing all the things that make a piece of fiction work, and finding the confidence to go out on a limb now and then.  When I think of an MFA program, I think its highest value is to get feedback from people “in the business.”  I got that without enrolling in a single MFA class, from the editors I submitted my work to, and most notably from Mike Curtis at The Atlantic, who read my work for nearly eight years.

The agents and editors who approached you after you won some noteworthy fiction contests all said they didn’t want to consider a story collection, but a novel.  How did they explain that? And how have you chosen to deal with that?

Simply put, they didn’t feel they could successfully market a story collection to the larger commercial publishers.  I have to think that they know their business, so I take them at their word.  I put off writing a novel for a very long time.  I began one about two years ago, and let it sit, then worked on it, then let it sit.  Now it’s nearing completion, and I’m excited about that.  I actually feel that I could write another, which is far cry from the attitude I held for years and years.

The stories in your collection are all set in Dunston, which I take it is a fictional stand-in for Ithaca, New York. But you’ve painted a town that isn’t necessarily what most people would expect of the hometown of an Ivy League school. What is the real Ithaca, and what do your stories say about the divide between the perception of any given community and its everyday reality?

I was a part of that Ivy League world, by extension.  My parents were professors at Cornell.  Yet most of the kids I went to school with were from less exalted circumstances.  They were often poor, or lived out in the country, or in the “flats,” which was essentially the downtown area, not where the professors tended to be, in a neighborhood called Cayuga Heights.  To me the real Ithaca is part of northern Appalachia.  After my father moved out of the house, my mother invited a series of girls to live with us on a temporary basis.  They were from very bad family situations, and I guess we were providing informal foster care.  One of these girls and her sister lived in a trailer with no indoor plumbing.  They hauled their water from a nearby creek. My classmates were often farm kids.  I remember one boy coming to school with his rubber boots on.  When asked why he dressed like that, he explained that he was up at five-thirty in the morning to muck out the cow barn.  I’m not sure there’s a real divide between how the locals see Ithaca and how it really is.  Everyone who lives there knows what the surrounding country is like.  By the same token, they also know that Ithaca is either “town” or “gown,” (as in graduation gown), meaning either you’re a part of the university or you’re not.

Short fiction seems to have been increasingly marginalized in the literary community, with most collections not selling well and many periodicals no longer publishing short stories (or no longer paying for them). Should we be alarmed by this? What is the best argument you have for the need to read and support short fiction and help it find wider audiences?

Well, the story is the classic American literary form, and I don’t think it’s exactly languishing.  While it’s true that there a fewer print venues for short fiction today than there used to be, there’s been a surge in online publishing – literary journals of very high quality, such as PANK Magazine, Storyglossia, and Eclectica Magazine.  If you read their list of contributors, you see that they’re publishing some of the best and most successful short story writers around.  As for an argument to read stories, I’d say that they’re often more powerful than novels, simply because they have to present a world in a much smaller space.  I think readers can take a great deal away from a short story.

One of the recurring motifs in your stories is the inability of your characters to verbally communicate their unhappiness. They’ll edge up to it, or circumvent it, or use silence as a communication tool, or act out. In your experience and observation, why is it so hard for us to just talk to one another?

For a number of reasons.  Trust is a big one.  But we also often lack a proper vocabulary for what we feel, or are too timid to really confront what’s painful.  People act out their misery more often than they describe it in words, I think.

Despite the strained conversations and thick silences between characters in your stories, you impressively avoid sinking your characters into slogging interior dialogues. How do you communicate the unhappiness in prose that the characters themselves cannot communicate in dialogue?

By showing the reader what they’re focusing on, or what’s in the background.  Maybe the sky is grey and dreary.  Maybe a character is thinking about how ugly a sidewalk is.  He might be wearing a dirty shirt because he’s too upset to notice or to do better.  A college student who’s extremely stressed out comes to hate the sight of herself in the bathroom mirror, and attempts taking a shower in the dark, until a floor mate asks what she’s doing.  Things like that.

What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

I’m finishing the novel I referred to earlier, Pen’s Road.  It draws from one of the stories in my current collection,”Pinny and The Fat Girl.”  Then I’ll return to my second collection of stories, a linked group called Our Love Could Light The World.  This, too, draws from a piece in the collection by the same name.  I hope to find a publisher for both next year.

 

Thanks so much to Anne for taking the time. Remember to come back tomorrow to hear from her publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53.

Anne Leigh Parrish’s website: http://www.anneleighparrish.com/

Anne Leigh Parrish at Press 53: http://www.press53.com/BioParrish.html


A few words about a few words

This thing up above is one of two dedications in my new book, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. (The other is to my wife, Angela.)

I never had the pleasure of meeting David Brockett or Bill Petter, but both men left a powerful influence on me.

David Brockett and his granddaughter Mia.

David’s daughter, Amy Pizarro, and I were co-workers at the San Jose Mercury News and are great friends. She’s the kind of friend — and I’m lucky enough to have several of these — who is right there at the moment you most need an encouraging word or someone to listen to your troubles. Because of the vagaries of day to day life and distance, I can go weeks and months without talking to her, only to find that everything falls away when I do. She is, simply put, a wonderful person.

Her dad ended up with a copy of 600 Hours of Edward and just loved it, so much that he and I struck up a correspondence by e-mail. David was a long-haul trucker, and we had an appointment to get together the next time his work brought him through Billings.

Sadly, it never happened. He got sick and died so quickly, it took my breath away. Took everybody’s breath away.

Amy details that on her blog, and I can’t suggest strongly enough that you go check it out. It’s a beautiful tribute to a man and a father.

Bill Petter is another guy I’m left to wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting. His daughter, Donna Moreland, is another of my friends, one of the many I’ve picked up on Facebook.

When Bill died on March 21, the outpouring of tenderness and stories from Kirkland, Wash., where he lived, was just incredible. Here’s but a sample. Donna told me that 600 Hours of Edward was one of the last books he read and that Edward’s fascination with numbers and process was something he shared with Bill. There’s just no way to say with any degree of adequacy how much sentiments like that mean to me.

We lost greatness with the passing of these two men. Luckily for us, they left legacies — in the daughters they raised and the lives they touched. I think you ought to know.

Update: Amy just e-mailed me with something pretty interesting: Bill Petter died one day before her dad, and the two men’s birthdays were one day apart. Wow!

Bill Petter and his Mickey Mouse gloves.


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 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 3

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

ALYSSA ALIGHTS

Backstory: This is the salvaging of another failed novel project. I’d had this idea for a story involving an ensemble of characters: a teenage runaway, a street vigilante, a burned-out newspaperman, a standup cop dealing with departmental corruption. I had a vague sense of how they might all fit together, but as ensembles often go, I ended up writing not one cohesive story but several half-baked ones. Unable to reconcile them, I carved out the likeliest candidates for short fiction and went back to work. This and two other stories from the collection — The Paper Weight and Sad Tomato: A Love Story — were the results.

Here’s an excerpt:

Finally outside the house, she cut a path out of Sidney on side streets, staying well off the main drag, with its restaurants and gas stations. Even at such an early hour, the eyes that would surely see her leaving would give way to the tongues that would surely tell on her. It wasn’t until she neared the intersection of Highway 200 and Highway 16 that she dared skip over to the main road. She settled onto the shoulder and began walking southwest, toward Glendive, where a bus to Billings awaited.

She patted the right front pocket of her jeans, which held a wallet. That, in turn, contained eighty-three dollars, all the money she had managed to save from her job at the M&M diner. The wallet, she knew, was the most important thing she was carrying. Every few steps, her right hand found its way to the front of her pants, and she traced its outline, verifying once more its existence.

A mile out of town, the first semi of the day rumbled behind her, coming from Williston. She turned and thrust her right thumb skyward and smiled. Just as she figured he would, the trucker eased his rig onto the shoulder. When she caught up to him, he reached across and opened the passenger door.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: The constant patting of the wallet is a personal tic of mine. I also carry it up front — mostly because I don’t like the feel of sitting on it — and periodically brush the front of my pants with my hand to assure myself that it’s still with me. Is that weird? It seems kind of weird.

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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.


Blowing stuff up around here

Remember all those daily coded posts — Once More, With Feeling; Progress Report; Another Page; Grab Bag; The Word?

Yeah, all that stuff is history. Not that I won’t post about music, or my progress on a given project, or a book I like, or anything at all, or the weekly short story. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. (In the case of the short story, absolutely I will. And my apologies for missing last week. A family medical emergency came up.)

The point is, the categories felt too constraining, and I’m in a mood to knock down walls. More accurately, I’m in a mood to knock down walls, drive over them with a steamroller, collect the microscopic pieces and shoot them into orbit on a rocket. Even more accurately: I’m in a mood.

You might have heard that I have a new book coming out, a short-story collection called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. Short stories don’t sell. Literary agents don’t want them. Publishers, by and large, don’t want them. (Except, curiously, for Press 53 and Graywolf Press, and both of those publishers do better with short stories than just about anybody.) But what the hell, you know? I just spent a year writing nothing but short stories, and I sure as hell have no intention of putting them in a box. So: Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. You can get a really good deal on it right now, and if you liked my two novels, you’ll probably like this stuff. If you haven’t read any of my books, this is a good first thing to try. And if you didn’t like my two novels, what are you doing here?

A friend of mine just spent the past weekend live-blogging, via Facebook and Twitter, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association convention, and this post in particular caught my eye:

Author/WWU prof Kathryn Trueblood: “I started out trying to sell my short-story collection, but couldn’t. Every agent said, ‘But I’d love to see your novel.’”

My response, via Facebook:

Oh, boy, do I know how this goes. It’s what set off my Obstinate-o-Meter. No, it’s not a novel in short stories. No, they’re not all linked. No, they’re not all in the same setting. Yes, there’s an assortment of styles. Its title? “Fuck You.”

I was only joking about the title. Again: It’s Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. Whether you like it or not.