Novelist

Writing process

Q&A: Gwen Florio

florio_lrg

Newspaper people exist in a small world, which is how I felt as though I knew Gwen Florio even before I met her. We spent a number of years working for the same newspaper company. She was at the Missoulian, I was 350-some miles east at The Billings Gazette. She was a reporter. I spent most of my time on the copy desk, and editing her stories was how I grew familiar with her and her writing. When she chucked the newspaper career and became a full-time novelist, I can’t say I was surprised. I was doing the same thing.

Her first novel, MONTANA, let readers get to know Lola Wicks, a seasoned foreign correspondent who has been pulled back to the States against her wishes. Told to take some time off, she heads to Montana and lands in the middle of a murder mystery that is very personal to her.

Next up is DAKOTA, which puts Wicks back in the cross-hairs, this time in the booming Bakken oil formation. The new book releases March 21 from The Permanent Press.

In the midst of an active touring schedule, Florio was kind enough to answer a few questions …

dakotaQ: DAKOTA comes on the heels of MONTANA, a novel that has garnered fine reviews and introduced us to journalist Lola Wicks. What do you want people to know going into this one?

That Lola is back, and as bullheaded as ever. When she gets her teeth into a story, she can’t let go, even when specifically warned away. It takes place amid the social upheaval of North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, a situation I found absolutely fascinating.

Your protagonist is a female journalist. You, of course, were a longtime, award-winning newspaper reporter. The inevitable question: How much of Lola is you?

One of the great pleasures about writing fiction is that you can create a protagonist who shares some of your own characteristics, and then make her so much better! For instance, I was never a full-time foreign correspondent. I just “parachuted” into situations for a few weeks and then came home. Lola is the seasoned correspondent I wish I’d been. As I’ve often remarked, she’s also taller, thinner and younger, which annoys the heck out of me. Sometimes I think that’s why I put her in such awful situations.

Why do you think so many reporters make the successful transition to fiction? And what caused you to think, OK, it’s time for me to leave the beat behind and focus my energy on books?

Because they got tired of a regular paycheck and health benefits? Seriously, most reporters I know are avid fiction readers, so it makes sense that they’d like to write novels. And, because they write daily, the prospect of writing a novel is probably not as daunting to reporters as to other people. Finally, that crack about a paycheck and health insurance actually was part of the impetus to finally give fiction a full-time go: As the field of journalism became more and more tenuous, with near-daily reports of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures at newspapers, it seemed silly to hang on to a job I felt as though I inevitably were going to lose, anyway. I also waited until I had a two-book contract before I left, so the leap wasn’t completely quixotic.

You’ve been traveling a lot and meeting readers in support of your first book. What has been the best moment you’ve experienced? Did anything surprise you?

A couple of things: Traveling around Montana, something the day job left little time for. Giving readings and doing research is a great way to see the state. Last summer, we drove out to the Bakken for research on DAKOTA, and then back along the whole Hi-Line, something I’ve wanted to do ever since I moved to Montana. It was worth the wait. Even more, it’s been great to connect with people who love books, and with other writers. I’ve met people, like you, whose work I’ve admired from afar. That’s much fun. The biggest surprise? The fact that readings in the smallest towns sometimes attract the biggest and most engaged audiences. That makes it doubly fun for me, because the smaller towns are the places I most enjoy going.

What led you to writing as a career?

I’ve always loved to read. I grew up in a very rural area without a lot of other kids around, so I just read and read and read. I was an English major in college (more reading) and got into journalism when my dad not-so-subtly suggested that I might need to channel all of that reading and writing into a job.

OK, you’re at home, working on a manuscript. What does a day of work look like?

I’m at my laptop no later than 9 a.m., a big change from when I used to slide into work a minimum of 10 minutes late each day (we won’t talk about all the unpaid overtime each night). When I had the day job, I shot for 500 words a day. When I first started writing full time, I upped that to 1,000, and recently started working on 1,500 to 2,000 a day. A daily total is important to me—it harkens back to my daily journalism deadline, so feels familiar, and it also helps me get through the hell of a first draft. Afternoons are for blogging (not often enough), setting up readings, and keeping track of the surprising amount of minutiae that goes along with this business. One more thing: I have a rule about not writing in my jammies. I have to be showered and dressed, more or less presentably, before I start work. Finally, when I’m deep into revisions, I often work well into the night. I’m not much fun to be around then.

How do you hone a project? Do you have a critique group or trusted early readers?

I’ve been a member of two terrific writing groups (Rittenhouse Writers’ Group in Philadelphia and 406 Writers in Missoula) over the years, and they’re really helpful, especially with short stories. Novels are a different animal, and I’m still feeling my way with them. On the advice of my agent, I hired an outside editor for MONTANA (Judy Sternlight; can’t say enough good things about her) and turned to her again for DAKOTA, and hope to do so with subsequent novels. I’m also a member of an online group of four women formed after last year’s Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers convention in Denver. That’s really helpful.

What lies beyond DAKOTA? Can you give us a glimpse into your next project?

WYOMING! And then, ARIZONA and UTAH. Seriously, my publisher did me a favor when he named the book MONTANA by giving me a theme of sorts. As long as people, please God, are interested in following Lola around, I’m going to keep sending her from one state to the next. It’s fun trying to figure out a plot that’s thematic to each place.

If you’re not writing, what interests fill your time?

For many, many years, writing took up all my spare time. I’m still getting used to the fact that I actually have personal time on evenings and weekends now. For starters, I’ve gotten reacquainted with my sweetie, a huge benefit. He comes along on my book research trips, so we’ve had fun exploring remote parts of North Dakota and Wyoming. I started running a couple of years ago, completing one marathon and three half-marathons so far. If my knee cooperates, I’ll shoot for at least one half-marathon this year. The training gets me outdoors on trails around Missoula, something that—even in the worst of weather—I just love. And, I can’t spend too much time in Glacier. Oh, and reading. Lots of reading. Never enough time for that.

Gwen Florio’s website

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Plotting vs. pants-ing

broken pencil

With all necessary apologies, I’m going to talk a bit here about process. If that topic bores you as much as it does me (ordinarily), you won’t hurt my feelings by going somewhere more fun on this great wide Web.

You might like this place better.

If you’re sticking around, you’ve been warned, etc., etc.

Some months ago, I started a new manuscript. In short order, about eight double-spaced pages in, I put it down. Extensive work on another project—a partial teardown-and-rebuild, then a developmental edit—interceded, and I figured I could get back to the new manuscript when things were less frantic around here.

That opportunity came a week ago, and I’ve spent several hours with it every single day. In that time, the manuscript has grown: from eight pages to 102 (as I write this—with more writing scheduled for later tonight, who knows where it will be when I succumb to sleep).

This is unusually fast progress for me. In fact, it’s happened only two other times, and both of those were stories involving the same main character who is occupying my time now. I’m not trying to be coy here. It’s another Edward story.

I can’t explain why this character and his situations reveal themselves to me in such an expeditious way, when everything else can be such a struggle (see: my earlier mention of the teardown-and-rebuild). I can’t explain it, but I also don’t question it. To do so would show a lack of gratitude, and I’m endlessly grateful.

Part of the reason stories can be slow in coming lies in how I approach the work. I’ve tried plotting, but it doesn’t work well for me. I end up deviating from the plot, and if I’ve taken the time to write out notes before beginning the story, I feel compelled to revise my notes, which means I’m working on multiple documents simultaneously, and all of this serves to drive me out of the mental place where I can just let the narrative come as it may. If all of this sounds hopelessly artsy-fartsy (technical term), please believe me that I used to think so, too, long before I wrote fiction and I thought that writers who droned on about process were in danger of disappearing into their own nether regions. Now I’m one of them. Whatever.

What does work for me is putting a character on the page, giving him/her a nudge, and then following wherever he/she goes. Yes, sometimes those travels contradict the sense and sensibility of something that has come earlier, but hey, that’s why we revise. Yes, sometimes those journeys hit a dead end and the story dies. And yes, sometimes those characters travel to a place where the story is completed, but in a way that’s so unsatisfying that I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone else read it.

A friend of mine, novelist Taylor Lunsford, made a simple declaration when we were talking about this: “You’re a pants-er.”

“Huh?”

“You fly by the seat of your pants.”

Well, yeah.

So there it is. I’m a pants-er. I’m not going to apologize. I’m not going to dedicate myself to reform. I’m just going to grab every available minute until this story spins itself out.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.


Working blue

I woke up this morning to this online review of 600 Hours of Edward.

The salient bit:

If not for the swearing it would have received five stars and been one of the best books I’ve read lately hands down. As it is I don’t feel I can recommend it to my children or friends…unfortunate.

I don’t hear this often, but I do hear it. And I feel bad every time. First, it’s a missed opportunity to bring a reader fully into my work. More than that, I hate it when my own reading experiences pull me in two irreconcilable directions, so I have no wish to leave others with that feeling. It might have been more satisfying for this reader to have hated everything about the book. It certainly would have left things less muddled.

I have a policy about not responding directly to critics in an online forum, a stance that—so far—has kept me from gaining notoriety for all the wrong reasons.  That policy goes hand in hand with a general sense of gratitude I have toward those who spend time with what I’ve written and take the initiative to share their thoughts. This is walk-the-talk stuff. You can’t bask in the five-star reviews and take them as confirmation of your literary genius and then turn a blind eye to those who find flaws in your work and present their case in a coherent way.

So instead of rebutting this review—because it’s a well-presented, well-spoken opinion and thus needs no rebuttal—I’d like to instead talk about why blue language appears in my novels and why, even if I wanted to, I cannot keep it out.

The stories I write are given birth by my imagination, but the characters inhabiting them are dumped out into a world that’s very real to me. Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours of Edward and its followup, Edward Adrift, in particular inhabits a place I know well. He lives in Billings, Montana, where I live, and shops at the Albertsons on 13th and Grand, where I shop. His house is modeled on a dwelling I once lived in, and it’s situated at an address (a made-up number on a very real street) a block away.

And in this world, bad things happen and intemperate things are said. I have an intellectual responsibility, when I write of this place, to reflect it as I find it. This isn’t something I think about overtly—there’s not a message above my computer that says “remember your intellectual responsibility.” Instead, it’s an interior compass that guides me as I go, that assesses each paragraph and each quotation and asks this fundamental question: Is this true to the story? If it is, it stays.

And let me be clear: Even gratuitousness can be true. I once spoke to a library group about my second novel, The Summer Son, and was challenged on both the language and the violence in it. The reader asked why I felt compelled to present it in such a graphic way. That novel took place against the backdrop of another world I once knew well, that of oil rig workers and their itinerant lives. My response was that I presented that world as it presented itself to me. Impasses were addressed not with the high language of a diplomat but with the raw anger of hardened men. Where language wouldn’t do, fists would. I said I couldn’t see any other way to show it. And I can’t. And I won’t. This is where differing sensibilities have to be given respect. And sometimes, as in this case, the author and the reader simply can’t find a way across the street to one another.

One last thing: The balancing factors of ugliness and crudity are grace and elegance. Just as it would be irresponsible of me to present a world where no one curses or kills someone, so, too, would it be irresponsible to show a place where the light never gets in. I’m fundamentally a hopeful guy, and so the work I do bends toward that hope. In the end, I have to think that carries more weight in the work than the battered world in which the characters live.


The Next Big Thing

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

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

What is the working title of your book?

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

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

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

What genre does your book fall under?

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

So, yeah, literary fiction, I guess.

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

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

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Several things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that note, an excerpt is probably in order:

The miles fall away in a soliloquy.

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

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

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

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

“So what?”

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

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

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

“Are you married, Mr. Ray Bob Dale?”

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

“My apologies. Are you married?”

“No.”

“Ever married?”

“No.”

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

“You told your wife?”

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

When and how will it be published?

We shall see, on both counts.

*****

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

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

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

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


Outtakes

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

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

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

Billings, Montana, where Edward and I live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

600 Hours of Edward (paperback)

600 Hours of Edward (ebook)

600 Hours of Edward (audiobook)


David Allan Cates takes his own path

When I heard that Montana author David Allan Cates had a new novel, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, coming out and that he’d formed his own publishing company to release it, I knew that I had to talk to him about this. Truth be told, talking to David was long overdue. We share a state, know a lot of the same people, and I’ve been a big admirer of his writing since I read Freeman Walker, his fine 2008 novel from Unbridled Books. That he’d started a literary press (as I did a couple of years ago) and had decided to try self-publishing offered a sense of kinship long before I exchanged email with him. I’m happy to say that the subsequent electronic conversation made his journey all the more fascinating to me.

I asked David a lot of questions for an intended Q&A, but I’m just going to let his words find you as they found me. Enjoy!

****

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is a surrealistic homecoming story. A fifty year old Ben Armstrong, an engineer who lives in DC, is visited by his mother’s ghost and told that his brother forgives him and he should go home. Ben hasn’t been back to the farm since he was 25, when he fled in shame after carrying on a six year affair with his brother’s wife. Once back on the farm, Ben falls into a feverish dream that make for a night journey toward grace and self-forgiveness. Like all homecoming stories, this one is about coming back to self. And there are a lot of unpleasant things Ben must face during his night journey–about his own life, and the life of his family and their relationship to that piece of land that is their farm–in order to see himself fully, and then, of course, be able to accept himself. But only through this dark and daring journey will he be capable of loving and being loved again.

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is the second novel in a Wisconsin Homecoming Trilogy that I’ve written. My first novel, Hunger in America, is a tragedy set in Alaska but the main character is a cab driver from a Wisconsin farm who wants to go home. The third in the trilogy is a novel I finished recently–probably to be published next year–about a recently widowed doctor from a Wisconsin farm who has holed up in a cabin on the Eastern Front of the Rockies with a stack of letters from an old lover and a bear outside It’s a mad grief story, and also a homecoming story.

I decided to publish Ben Armstrong myself because, well, frankly, it’s too strange for anybody else to publish. I’m simply not famous enough for a publishing house to have any faith that its salespeople could get this novel on bookstore shelves. The fact of the matter is that despite having had three previous novels published by three different publishing houses, from giant Simon & Schuster to tiny Steerforth Press, and having gathered many lovely reviews, I haven’t sold many books. I have had wonderful editors for my three previous books, and that collaboration made doing this book myself scary. But I was able to find people who helped me make Ben Armstrong as good as I could, and I’m proud of how it turned out. I’m an ambitious writer. In all of my books, I have stretched myself to the breaking point and arrived in territory I never could have imagined before. I’ve gotten to the stage of life where I want the results of this work to be available to anybody who is interested. That’s all. For whatever it’s worth. I am going to re-issue Hunger In America, my first book, and if my agent is unable to sell Eastern Front in the next six months or so, I’ll publish that as well. I also have a collection of short stories I’ll bring out.

I have done a lot of different things as a way of making a living and living cheap. My wife has been a great partner in this adventure. I suppose the variety of things I have done have helped me get glimpses into the human condition–what are human beings?–which I think is the only question I am interested in writing about. How do we find meaning and dignity when the only certainties are suffering and death? I’ve done very few things deliberately so I could then write about them. I’ve done things because I needed to or wanted to do them. I’ve lived my life according to my passions. What do I want? What do I need? That sounds selfish–but it doesn’t have to be. Because I want to love and I need to take care of the ones I love. I’ve never had another career besides writing. I’ve had lots and lots of jobs, but nothing that could get in the way of writing.

How do I manage my ideas? Most of my ideas I quietly and repeatedly flip off. I say, “Bugger off, please, I don’t want to be disturbed.” The books I have written–and the stories–are the ideas that just keep coming back, that do not go away. In that way, the ideas are not chosen by me–on the contrary, they seem to chose me. Writing is so hard that I am unable to do it unless the idea is terribly powerful and will not leave me alone.

Last week I read for the first time Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton and I re-read The Fall by Albert Camus. I’m going to read for the first time Stay Away Joe this week. My wife and I are going to Mexico for five months beginning in September, and I’m going to re-read The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace, and I’m going to read Proust for the first time and a couple Roberto Bolano novels for the first time. I am into reading and re-reading the classics. They never disappoint. They always blow open windows and doors in my mind that I didn’t know were there…..and they inspire me to write something as beautiful.

David Allan Cates’ website

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (paperback)

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (ebook)


Worlds of fiction

Now that 600 HOURS OF EDWARD is about to be unleashed in a new edition, I have a confession to make.

But first, some backstory:

Almost four years ago, when I sat down to write what became 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, things were a lot different than they are now.

For one thing, the words 600 HOURS OF EDWARD hadn’t even entered my consciousness. The working title of the novel I wanted to write was “Six-Hundred Hours in a Life That Will Get Only 630,270, Assuming It’s a Life of Average Length, And I Don’t Like Assumptions,” as seen below on the original manuscript.

 

Second, as you may have gathered from the working title, I had no expectations that I would (a) finish the novel or (b) get it published.

So as I wrote about Edward Stanton and his world, I picked something I knew well–Billings, Montana, where I live–and dropped him into it precisely as I see it. His Albertsons exists. So does his Home Depot. And his golf course. And his downtown. His street address isn’t real, but the street he lives on is.

One of the places in the original version of the book, published in 2009 by Riverbend Publishing, is the Billings Gazette. It’s a crucial, feel-good part of the story.

When I was writing Edward, I gave absolutely no consideration to the fact that, a few years later, I might write a sequel. I certainly didn’t consider that there would be other books, other writing about Billings, a whole world that would take shape from my keyboard. And so I made the Billings Gazette, well, the Billings Gazette. Easy-peasy.

But here’s the problem: In the second book, which is coming out next year, the newspaper in Billings also figures into the storyline. But it’s not so feel-good. And here’s an even bigger problem: I work at the Billings Gazette. The one here in the real world, not the fictional world where Edward exists. I get paid and everything. It’s a significant factor in my daily life, to say the absolute least, and one I’d just as soon not compromise.

So here’s how I handled the delicate position I wrote myself into:

Because Amazon Publishing acquired the rights to publish a new edition of 600 HOURS, the original publisher, Riverbend, was contractually obligated to pulp the remaining copies and stop selling it. In a commercial sense, that means the original no longer exists (obviously, several thousand copies exist on people’s shelves and in readers’ heads). This represented the best chance I was ever going to have to make a material change to the book.

So, in the manuscript I submitted to my editor at Amazon, the Billings Gazette vacated the stage and a new newspaper, the Billings Herald-Gleaner, stepped in. Subsequently, I made the same change to the manuscript of EDWARD ADRIFT, which I was preparing for submission. With a few keystrokes, I changed Edward’s world — and made mine a lot more comfortable.

This also had the nice side benefit of tying together my work a little better. In my short-story collection, QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, the story called “Paperweight” concerns an aging reporter at a newspaper called the Herald-Gleaner. That character, Kevin Gilchrist, and Edward Stanton are now connected, as are Edward and the father character from my novel THE SUMMER SON (Edward’s dad was Jim Quillen’s boss). The sum is a fictional world that has threads connecting my Montana-set stories, which blend real and imaginary places and, I hope, give depth to what I’m trying to do.

This idea was clarified for me in an elegant way several months ago when I interviewed Emily M. Danforth, the author of the wonderful debut THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. Here’s what she had to say about using the real setting of Miles City, her hometown, in her book:

“In terms of setting, specifically, anyone who has any familiarity with Miles City will recognize some of the local attractions — the swimming hole, the Bucking Horse Sale, the Montana Theater, etc. — but each of those locations has also been fictionalized. I understand that this might be disappointing for some readers who want every street name or video rental place, whatever, to match exactly to reality — though businesses close and re-open all the time, right, so there isn’t a ‘fixed’ reality that a novel can capture and hold ever, because ‘the real world’ will always keep changing.”

 


The worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever received

I had another idea for a blog post today, but a few of my colleagues were taking a rip at this topic, so I thought I’d join the fun. There’s always tomorrow for my own idea.

Here’s the thing: No single piece of bad advice sticks out. But if I were to gather up and stack the advisories with the least merit, I think I could fit them all under the general heading of “the mechanics of writing.”

You see, I don’t want to hear orthodoxy about outlining or not outlining. Of buffing and polishing each sentence to a high sheen before moving on to the next one. Of vomitous first drafts. Of writing at nighttime. Of writing during the day. Of listening to music. Of writing immediately after a shower. If it works for you, great. But that’s as far as it goes. My patience runs thin with writers who, however well-meaning, think only their experience has merit.

In a box buried in my office sit 18 sheets of yellowing paper, the beginning and aborted end of a novel I tried to write when I was 19 years old. I purported to write about lives I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine, of experiences I hadn’t had or heard about, and I did so without a net–no notes, no outlines, just me and a word processor. In retrospect, I’m fortunate to have made it as far as I did.

There were other attempts, too, ones that I didn’t save, for whatever reason. They died of other causes: neglect, lack of hope, a wandering eye, inconsistent discipline. I wasn’t ready to finish them. A novel is a test of your ideas, your willingness to submit, your longevity, your tenacity. I wasn’t prepared to pass that test.

I can’t tell you why, at age 38, I was finally able to finish a novel–and finish it well enough to get it published. I finally tried outlining, and it served me well, but four years clear of it, I think the idea would have forced itself onto the page no matter what. I was a little older. I’d been through some shit, as they say. I was ready. I wrote my second novel with an outline, and as I look back, I think I was impeded a little by it. I’m proud of the book, yes. But I can do better. My third novel–coming next year–was stream of consciousness, baby, and I think it’s my best one yet. So am I now off outlines where once I swore by them? No. I’m off hard-and-fast rules. That’s what I’m trying to say. It ain’t the method. It’s the result.

Now, when someone asks me how to write, there are exercises I can offer and experiences I can share that might help dislodge some ideas. But I cannot take my method, whatever it happens to be, and apply it to you. I won’t insult you by saying that I can.

My advice is, simply, this: write. Keep writing. Find that reservoir within yourself that makes your ideas come alive on the page, drill deep down inside and draw on it for the rest of your life.

Here are some other posts on this topic:

Stant Litore (author of The Zombie Bible series)

Vincent Zandri

Steffan Piper


New writing digs

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

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

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

Here’s a quick tour:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Or one of these!

 

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

 


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.


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.


Quasi-NaNoWriMo 2011, Day 2

Here are the latest tabulations as I keep myself accountable on a novel project I’m tentatively calling Rayfield:

  • Date: November 2
  • Number of words at the start of writing today: 3,738
  • Number of words at the conclusion of writing today: 4,828
  • Words written today: 1,090*
  • Words written in November: 2,160

* — This is why I’m calling this Quasi-NaNoWriMo, because 1,000 words represents a very productive writing session for me but is far short of the mark if one wants to put down the 50,000 words necessary to be a “winner” at National Novel Writing Month. To turn that many words in a single month, you have to write an average of 1,667 daily words.

So I’ll say this once and be done with it: I’m not interested in 50,000 words in November. I’m not interested in a daily minimum. I’m interested in a solid month of progress, and that’s it. To those of you striving for the NaNoWriMo benchmarks, I give you a hearty salute, because I’ve been there.

In 2008, when I wrote the entire first draft of the novel that became 600 Hours of Edward — all 79,175 words of it — my daily counts looked like this (the daily totals are in parentheses):

Nov. 1, 2008: 5,763 (5,763)

Nov. 2, 2008: Off

Nov. 3, 2008: Off

Nov. 4, 2008: 11,183 (5,420)

Nov. 5, 2008: Off

Nov. 6, 2008: 13,721 (2,538)

Nov. 7, 2008: 16,963 (3,242)

Nov. 8, 2008: 20,439 (3,476)

Nov. 9, 2008: Off

Nov. 10, 2008: 23,085 (2,646)

Nov. 11, 2008: 27,293 (4,208)

Nov. 12, 2008: 30,744 (3,451)

Nov. 13, 2008: 34,558 (3,814)

Nov. 14, 2008: 39,886 (5,328)

Nov. 15, 2008: Off

Nov. 16, 2008: Off

Nov. 17, 2008: Off

Nov. 18, 2008: 43,846 (3,960)

Nov. 19, 2008: 51,811 (7,965)

Nov. 20, 2008: 54,816 (3,005)

Nov. 21, 2008: 60,837 (6,021)

Nov. 22, 2008: 63,957 (3,120)

Nov. 23, 2008: Off

Nov. 24, 2008: 73,208 (9,251)

Nov. 25, 2008: 79,175 (5,967)

I don’t know what that looks like to you, but to me, it can only be defined as insanity. I’m glad I did it, glad what came of it, but I don’t ever want to do it again.

Happy writing!


NaNoWriMo: I’m in! Kinda. Sorta.

As I write this, National Novel Writing Month — known by adherents as NaNoWriMo — is sixty-four minutes old. Hundreds of thousands of would-be, never-will-be and most-definitely-are novelists are taking to their keyboards and trying to pound out a minimum of 50,000 words over the next thirty days.

I already have the only NaNoWriMo badge of courage I need: I wrote the entirety of 600 Hours of Edward in November 2008 — nearly 80,000 words — and watched as that mania-fueled manuscript changed my life. I have no desire, and probably no ability, to relive that experience. And yet, the idea of setting aside thirty days to write with abandon, to dump the contents of the mind onto the table and see what possibilities are there, has a great deal of appeal. So I’m using NaNoWriMo 2011 in an unofficial way to jump-start a novel project I’ve been contemplating for weeks now. I started it several weeks ago, then set it aside for more brain seasoning. I think — think — it’s ready to go back in the cooker now, and I’ll be using my blog here as a way to keep myself accountable over the next month.

So, for those keeping tabs at home, here’s the scoreboard on a story I’m tentatively calling Rayfield:

  • Date: November 1
  • Number of words at the start of writing today: 2,668
  • Number of words at the conclusion of writing today: 3,738
  • Words written today: 1,070
  • Words written in November: 1,070
  • Chapters completed: 1

 *****

At long last, I have final copies of my new short-story collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, in hand. They’re sporting a couple of nice cover blurbs: one on the front from Craig Johnson, the bestselling author the Walt Longmire series of novels, and one on the back from one of my favorite people, Megan Ault Regnerus, the managing editor of Montana Quarterly, where a couple of these stories have been or will be published.

Here’s what these good folks have to say:

“Have you ever felt in your pocket and found a twenty you didn’t know you had; how ’bout a hundred dollar bill, or a Montecristo cigar or a twenty-four-karat diamond? That’s what reading Craig Lancaster’s Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure is like — close and discovered treasures.” — Craig Johnson, author of The Cold Dish and Hell Is Empty

“Craig Lancaster understands the human condition, all of it. The funny, the absurd and the fault-ridden awesomeness that is each and every one of us — or at least someone we know.” — Megan Ault Regnerus

The book will be in Montana bookstores soon, and if you’re a Kindle or Nook person, it’s available now for just $3.99.

Thanks for reading.


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

On May 2, 2011, with this post, I began everyday blogging around here (well, Monday through Friday, anyway). For nearly five months, with the exception of a legitimate week’s vacation, I made sure something new was up every morning at 8. On Fridays, I even posted off-the-cuff short stories, inspired by words suggested by my friends.

I did this … why? To be sure, no one was clamoring for it. I did it because new authors — and I’m certainly one — endure this barrage of advice about building a platform, self-promoting, cutting through the muck and the mud of the publishing world and making a name. Daily blogging is one of the pillars of the author platform, or so we’re told. So I blogged. Even when I had little to say. Even when I needed the ample muscles of a friend.

And then, last week, I stopped. I did one last short story, big turd that it is, and that was that.

I’m done. Which isn’t to say I’ll never be around, never have something to say. In particular, the opportunity to bang the drum for other books and other writers is appealing to me — because of how interesting those folks are and because my daily wankery is not on display. Expect to see much more of those things and much less of the other, lesser stuff. This note aside, I’m tired of listening to myself, tired of reading my own facile words in this forum. It’s time to step back, shut up, and get busy doing what I’m here to do, which is to write stories. Social media, for all its wonder, has its hooks in the wrong parts of me, and the tweets and Facebook posts and blog posts and other nonsense have come to take up far too much of my time. I have a full-time job and a going-blind father and a sideline publishing business and a wife who’d like to see me once in a while, and I have books to write, too. There’s not room for everything, every day, and mine is not the sort of personality that can easily impose moderation, so we’re going to give this austerity thing a whirl.

Interestingly enough, I’m going be on a panel discussion about the role of literature blogs during the Montana Festival of the Book later this week.  I promise, this screed aside, I’ll have something cogent to say.


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: 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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 10

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

COMFORT AND JOY

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 8

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

SHE’S GONE

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

“What are you so angry about, Ross?”

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

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

“Shut up.”

“Listen—”

“Shut up.”

“Ross, about me and your momma—”

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

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 7

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

STAR OF THE NORTH

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 6

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

THE PAPER WEIGHT

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

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

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

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 5

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

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

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

“It was good?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s been a while.”

“Yes.”

“I think we should do it again.”

He said nothing.

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

“Tomorrow,” he said.

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

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

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

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


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 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.


Publishing: pleasure and pain

Welcome to Day 4 of Honesty Week.

Look, I don’t know how I feel about self-publishing. Back when I first did it, in those yonder days of early 2009, it was in the most rudimentary way possible. I uploaded my book to CreateSpace. I used one of that service’s horrible pre-fab templates for my cover. And then I tried to get people to notice I’d released a book, all the while slowly refining the book’s appearance.

When a Montana publishing house, Riverbend Publishing, came calling for the book in August 2009, I happily signed it over, and I’ve never regretted that decision.

With my second novel, The Summer Son, I cast my lot with Amazon Publishing, and I’ve been happy with those results, too. Despite the scraps of carping you’ve seen during Honesty Week, publishing has been very, very good to me. But it still sucks. More on that in a second.

In between those two books, I started writing a bunch of short stories. A couple of months ago, I pulled them into a collection. I wrote earlier this week that story collections are the red-headed stepchild of the publishing world. So rather than facing a protracted and frustrating period of pitching these stories to the handful of publishers who actually appreciate short fiction, I’ve opted to release them myself under the auspices of Missouri Breaks Press, a publishing house I founded a couple of years ago to release under-the-radar literary fiction and nonfiction that interests me. I’ve been pretty damned successful with it, too, if you don’t mind my saying so: My first release, Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, was a Spur Award finalist. My most recent release, Ed Kemmick’s The Big Sky, By and By, is getting some grand notices. So, yeah, I’m self-publishing, but what I’m doing today bears almost no resemblance to what I did two and a half years ago.

With Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, I did it the right way. I engaged the services of a top-notch editor, one who is thorough and honest and hard-nosed. (Let me know if you want the name; I can’t recommend him highly enough.) I engaged the services of a good book designer (that’d be me, someone who has spent the bulk of his professional career as a designer of publications). The marketing piece, the toughest for any writer and one nearly every writer has to bear to one extent or another, will be mine, too.

So, am I now a dedicated self-publisher? Probably not. I always figured my career would be a patchwork of things: some traditionally published novels, some magazine pieces, some small-press stuff, some self-publishing. At the end of each project, I try to figure out the best route. Betting on my own publishing house seemed like the right choice for this one.

Now, about publishing: It sucks, except when it doesn’t. The economic model is a mess. Giving millions of dollars to vapid entertainers for their memoirs and novelty novels (Kardashian sisters, anyone?) while shunting workhorse midlist novelists to the sidelines is a dumb thing and bad for the culture. Returnability is a financial killer. Royalties really suck. A lot of people have figured out how to make a good living at self-publishing e-books, and now that distribution is no longer the sole province of the big publishers, more people will have that opportunity. The digitization of books has been a great equalizer. Some think this marks the end of the world. Others think the possibilities are just beginning. Count me in the latter group.

There are plenty of places you can go that will outline the whole self-publishing revolution for you. This guy, for instance, really knows his stuff. I won’t even attempt to explain all of that.

My assumption is that readers want good books. That’s what I’m trying to deliver, regardless of imprint. Which brings us to the interactive portion of today’s post:

How often, if at all, does the publisher of a book influence your decision to buy? Tell me in the comments.


Another Page: ‘Woe Is I’

I’m going to spend the next two weeks on conversational, common-sense usage and grammar guides. For one thing, I pay the bulk of the bills as a professional copy editor, so these issues are important to me. For another, perhaps the most troubling things I see in new writers — and in far too many veterans — are sloppy uses of words and a fleeting grasp of grammar.

As my friend David Otey once pointed out (probably more eloquently than I will here): Writing that adheres to the conventions of grammar is not unoriginal and boring; it is, instead, a service to those who read it. If you’re a professional writer, or want to be one, lucidity is a noble aim.

First up is a fine book by Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

The brilliance of this book rests with O’Conner’s style, which is conversational and, at times, wickedly funny. Moreover, she does every reader a service by not only outlining the proper approach to style and grammar but also by taking dead aim at those hoary prohibitions that seem to persist, generation after generation.

I’m speaking here of split infinitives, split verb phrases, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition, none as a plural, etc. In my line of work, far too many of the bosses who brought me up were slavish to these and other such bugaboos. (I once had a supervisor who said, with a straight face, that every word in the English language should mean only one thing, to cut down on the confusion.) They ran pieces through weird sets of filters that were partly rooted in established style and partly in pet peeves. What O’Conner tries to do is cut through the nonsense and arm writers and editors with solid information that will truly make a difference in how their work is presented. And she succeeds.

The beginning writer or editor will find this book a good primer on the basics. Someone with a few more years behind the plow will find clear-eyed backup and, perhaps, some new discoveries.

It’s highly recommended.

Next week: My second style and usage recommendation. Hint: It’s not Strunk & White. Indeed, I subscribe to the notion that The Elements of Style does far more harm than good, especially for beginning writers. But that’s a post for another time.