Novelist

Writing

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

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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.


What changes may come

Can’t say that Ang and I will be drinking huckleberry milkshakes every day, but much more time together will be welcome.

As I begin writing this, it’s 12:27 in the morning. I’ve just come off my regular night shift at the newspaper, one of six remaining in my long career—it would have been 25 years in November—as a full-time journalist.

You see, aside from a fill-in shift here or there, I’m leaving the only line of work I ever thought I’d do. The reasons are myriad—personal, professional, perhaps even foolhardy. I always hoped I’d know when it was time to go, and it turns out that I did. So there’s that.

What will I do from now on?

Well, first, I’ll write a lot more novels and stories. When you have a full-time job and a family and, you know, all the many elements that constitute a life, writing time is the first thing that gets crunched. That can’t happen anymore. I’ve managed to write and publish four books these past few years, but increasingly, my available time to go deep into my imagination had begun to erode. So, too, had my energy. I had to make a choice. The only way I’m going to do the things I wish to do with the remainder of my life is by making the conscious decision to put them first. I should have done it a long time ago.

Given the distinct challenges faced by newspaper companies, and by the publishing sector in general, I’ve read the parting words of plenty of colleagues who’ve said that they didn’t quit journalism, but rather that journalism quit them. I’d love to hide behind that reasoning, but it would be a lie. Without a doubt, the workaday life of a production editor at a daily newspaper has become increasingly difficult in recent years, with staffing stripped to the bone, a news environment that values quickness rather than curation and the seeming inability of corporate overlords to deal with technology that has simultaneously made their product more widely available and less reliable at delivering the revenue required to support a large newsgathering operation. To work on the inside of most newspapers these days is to be wracked with uncertainty about what the future holds.

And yet, that’s not why I’m quitting.

Some profound things happened between the age of 18, when I first settled into a newsroom chair, and 43, as I prepare to take my fat ass out of one for good. Where once I looked for excuses to be in the newsroom and took every extra assignment (and every bit of extra pay) offered, in more recent years I’ve valued nothing above my time away from the job. Workweeks seem excruciatingly longer with each passing year, and days off, once they finally arrive, seem ever shorter. I’ve found that my tolerance for top-down management, ridiculous canards like “do more with less” and a creeping acceptance of mediocrity were turning me into the sort of bitter soul the younger version of me would have avoided (or mocked). I don’t want to be that guy. I’m not gonna be that guy. And as much as I’ve liked the actual work—and I have, right up to the end—I realize I have to kill the old me to let who I am now run free.

The other big development in my working life has been an entrepreneurial spirit I didn’t know I had and a rekindling of my love affair with work, this time unbound by the whims of newspaper company stockholders and quarterly reports. When I was 39, my first novel was published. Now, at 43, I have three novels in print, a fourth being written and a short-story collection knocking around. I’ve won some awards, built an international readership, found a publisher who loves what I do and is willing to let me do it freely, and at long last I’m making enough money at it that I can step from one career to another and continue on happily.

Let’s be clear: I’m not retiring. In some ways, the hardest work of my life is yet to come, as I try to be more ambitious in my writing and fill in the margins with the occasional bit of freelance work. I’m going to design a quarterly magazine. Lead some writing workshops. Do some manuscript editing and book design. And, yes, write fiction. It’s all hard, honest work. The important part is that what I do from here on out will happen on my terms, by my choices, and in the service of my life and the lives of those I love.

There are things I’ll undoubtedly miss. There’s no place quite like a newsroom on a big news night, and no group of people quite as whip-smart and funny as a bunch of newspaper hacks. The work I do now will be more solitary, less collaborative, quieter, more contemplative. And that won’t necessarily be easy for a big, bombastic guy like me.

But somehow—when I’m able to linger over dinner with my wife (something I never get to do on a night I work), or take an impromptu vacation, or say “the hell with it” and retire to a baseball game for the afternoon—I think I’ll manage to warm up to this new life I’m building.

Thanks for riding along.


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.


Introducing PRETTY MUCH TRUE…

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

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

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

*****

Kristen J. Tsetsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much of Pretty Much True… is true?

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

Buy Pretty Much True… in paperback

Buy Pretty Much True… for your Kindle


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)


Edward, again

I’ve been waiting for today for a long time.

My debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, is making its own debut, as a newly published paperback, Kindle edition and audiobook under the auspices of Amazon Publishing. For a long time now, I’ve been living with Edward Stanton, the middle-aged man from Billings, Montana, whom I created four years ago in twenty-four fevered days of writing, and he continually surprises me. Today is no different.

If you count the original self-published version of this novel, and I do, this marks the third iteration of his story, and this one leads to new horizons: at the end of the new book sits the first chapter from Edward Adrift, the sequel coming next year. I can’t wait to share where Edward’s story goes, but first, the challenge is to introduce him to a whole new audience. Amazon Publishing, which also put out my sophomore novel, The Summer Son, is primed to do this.

So today, I feel nothing but gratitude for this novel and this character, both of which have allowed me to chase my dreams as a novelist. It all seems amazing to me still that the story could begin as a lark and turn into the work I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for the people who’ve believed in Edward along the way–starting at home, with my wife, Angie, and extending out to Chris Cauble and the team at Riverbend Publishing, who gave my book a chance back in October 2009, to my editor, Alex Carr, and the team at Amazon who’ve been such cheerleaders for this book, to all the readers who’ve had so many nice things to say about the work (including one from Belfast, Northern Ireland, just this past week!) and the many writers I deeply admire who’ve shown me kindnesses along the way. I’m so thankful.

But this isn’t a valedictory, not by a long shot. With time and luck and hard work, there will be many, many books to come.

Thanks for reading.


Worlds of fiction

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

But first, some backstory:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


Barry Eisler: Attacks on Amazon Don’t Stand Up to Facts, Logic

By Jim Thomsen

Amazon has become the piñata of the publishing world. Or, at least, of those who believe the opposite — that publishing has become the piñata of the world’s biggest online bookseller.

The New York Times and its top media writer, David Carr, went on the offensive just a few weeks ago, as did august authors like Richard Russo and Scott Turow. In Seattle, the backlash has been particularly bombastic. The Seattle Times recently took some whacks in a series of news stories that specifically zeroed in on Amazon’s perceived bad corporate citizenship: a lack of brand-name philanthropic activity, sweatshop conditions in book-packaging warehouses, bullying book distributors and publishers into terms that erase their margins. Paul Constant, book editor for The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, has weighed in (“It’s never been this popular to be this critical about Amazon,” he wrote last week), and a recent column by Seattle bookseller and publisher Chad Haight tied together many of the critics’ concerns. And J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has made it clear that Amazon-published books won’t darken his Pioneer Square doorstep.

The simplest way to describe their distaste: these folks feel that Amazon’s heavy-handed discounting and distribution strategies put brick-and-mortar booksellers — and the “rich literary culture” they say these places foster — at a risk that many of us are not emotionally prepared to accept.

Amazon and its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, haven’t directly addressed the latest controversies over its perceived power-grabbing. The most recent: a Department of Justice finding that several top New York publishing houses colluded with Apple to fix prices on e-books — a finding that some suspect bears Amazon’s fingerprints.

Barry Eisler

But one person who is talking is an author who, a year before, fired what became known as “the shot heard ‘round the publishing world.” His message: There’s another side to the Amazon story. A side, he says, that benefits authors and readers — the people that he says matter most in the literary ecosystem.

Until March 2011, Barry Eisler was just another midlist genre author, publishing a well-selling, well-regarded series of international political thrillers based loosely on his years as a covert CIA operative in Tokyo. Then he catapulted to book-industry fame — or, more accurately, notoriety — when he turned down a half-million-dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press, electing to continue his John Rain series through self-publishing. Said respected industry analyst Mike Shatzkin at the time: “This is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk assessment.”

Eisler’s reasoning: he thought he could make more money and reach more readers on his own. It was a sentiment that many found unthinkable. How, they said, could Eisler spit on the system that put him on the New York Times bestseller list?

And scarcely had the echo of the reverberation from that announcement completed its global revolution than Eisler made another move that surprised many: he signed with Amazon’s mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer (one of five Amazon publishing imprints, it’s named for the streets that flank the company’s headquarters). Some accused Eisler of hypocrisy, but as he has made clear in numerous interviews and guest blogs, he’s a publishing agnostic, not an atheist or an apostate. He simply wanted the best deal as he defined it.

Last fall, Eisler published The Detachment, his first Thomas & Mercer novel. He’s also self-published a couple of Kindle singles and nonfiction books, and plans to keep a hand in self-pubbing. And he’s maintained his higher profile with dozens of interviews and guest blogs over the past year, sometimes lacing his commentary with incendiary language that sends the debates off the rails (some authors suffer from “Stockholm Syndrome” when it comes to their publishers, he’s said; and in one misstep for which he apologized, he used another writer’s words to say that some authors are “house slaves” for their publishing plantations).

Married to literary agent and author Laura Rennert, Eisler splits his time between homes in Menlo Park, Calif., and Japan. He’s also a regular on the writers’ conference circuit, and will be the keynote speaker this Saturday at the annual Field’s End Conference on Bainbridge Island, Washington (appearing alongside local literary luminaries Bruce Barcott, Jonathan Evison, David Guterson and Susan Wingate). The topic of his Field’s End talk: “The New World of Publishing: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t, and What It All Means for Us Writers.”

Eisler agreed to field some questions on that topic in advance:

You, along with your friend, author Joe Konrath, seem to have become the de facto spokesmen for independent-minded book publishing, if not independent publishing itself. Why you, and not any of a zillion other (often struggling) genre midlist authors out there?

I think turning down that half-million-dollar St. Martin’s Press two-book offer made for a powerful sound bite — “Author turns down $500,000 to self-publish instead!” — and the right sound bite can powerfully propagate a message.  Also, I think the news felt like some sort of milestone on the road to the digital publishing future (publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin said as much).  And I’ve been pretty vocal online and at conferences in sharing my thoughts about how the book world is changing and how those changes will affect readers, authors, bookstores, agents, and publishers—starting with a long dialogue with Joe announcing my decision to eschew the big advance in favor of self-publishing, instead.  No one has been more vocal (or, in my opinion, more insightful) than Joe about the new world of publishing, and he and I have done enough joint posts on his extremely popular blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing that I think some of his “spokesperson” status has rubbed off onto me.

I should add that although the flack is not insubstantial, the positive feedback I get from authors who’ve found my commentary useful far outweighs it, quantitatively and qualitatively.  It’s gratifying to know that along with authors like Bella Andre, Blake Crouch, Lee Goldberg, J.A. Konrath, M.J.  Rose, and many others, I’m helping to blaze a trail I believe will ultimately be a big boon to all authors.

 

Why was Amazon and its Thomas & Mercer imprint the right choice for you over self-publishing or a Big Six publisher?

When Amazon heard about my decision to self-publish, they got in touch and said they thought there was something interesting we could do together that would represent the best of both worlds, indie and legacy.  For more on that decision, I recommend a free, downloadable book I wrote with Joe Konrath called Be The Monkey: A Conversation About The New World Of Publishing. It’s based on that initial long online conversation Joe and I did announcing my self-publishing decision, incorporates two other long dialogues we did about publishing generally, and has chapter headings and links to make it a little easier to use as a reference. (Whatever you do, don’t click on the links to the monkey/frog videos, which many people find offensive!)

When I announced I was turning down the SMP offer, I gave three general reasons: 1) a better digital split than the 17.5 percent all legacy publishers currently offer in lockstep, with resulting increased long-term profits; 2) control over business decisions, including packaging and pricing; and 3) faster time to market for digital (that is, no more slaving the timing of the digital release to the timing of the paper). Those were my objectives, and I believed self-publishing was a better way to achieve them. But then Amazon approached me with what I judged to be an even better way to achieve those objectives, so I went with Amazon (and I have to say, my experience with Amazon has been overwhelmingly positive, both the process and the results; it hit #1 in the Kindle Store and #6 on both the Wall Street Journal digital list and combined list).

As a pragmatic businessperson, I thought the switch in tactics made perfect sense. As I’ve said many times, publishing for me is a business, not an ideology, and when I find better ways to achieve my objectives, I’ll use them. I should add that I now have four self-published works that are doing very well for me, so despite having published The Detachment with Amazon, I’m still self-published — just as I’m Amazon-published and legacy-published. Authors are not living in an either/or world, nor, in my opinion, should we be.

There’s also a more general reason Amazon made sense for me, and one I think it’s important that all authors understand — especially authors like me whose sales are booming in digital and shrinking in paper.

Unlike in paper, where an author needs a distribution partner to cost-effectively reach a mass market of readers, in digital a lone author has exactly the same ability to distribute as any New York-based, multi-million-dollar multinational conglomerate. This is a huge, foundational change in the publishing business, and, surprisingly, one I think is not yet adequately understood. For digital distribution, legacy publishers offer zero value (I’m not talking about editing, marketing, and other value-add services, only about distribution, which is the core value-add of legacy publishing). In digital, an author can distribute 100 percent as effectively alone as she can with a legacy publisher.

What all this means to me is that, in a digital world, the primary value a publisher can offer an author is direct-to-consumer marketing. And this is why Amazon is so strongly positioned to succeed in digital publishing: its book business is built on its ability to reach tens or even hundreds of millions of readers directly by e-mail. Amazon marketing is both exceptionally focused (book buyers) and exceptionally broad (tens or even hundreds of millions of customers).  Entities that can offer authors compelling direct-to-consumer marketing value will be in a good position to take a cut of the profits.

Interestingly, there’s one particular group of companies that lacks any meaningful direct-to-consumer marketing ability. That group is New York publishing. Draw your own conclusions.

 

Can you give an example or two of how dealing with your Amazon team has been a markedly different experience than dealing with a Big Six team?

Well, Amazon was comfortable with letting me decide on all packaging decisions—cover, title, jacket copy, everything. Not that we didn’t confer on all of it, and when we did, that was different, too, because the Amazon people added a lot of value to those conversations. And though price and format were up to Amazon, they consulted carefully with me on these, too, and their philosophy was refreshing. They wanted to go with the format (hardback, trade paper, whatever) and the price that would produce the greatest revenues overall, and there was no concern about “devaluing books” or protecting the primacy of paper by overpricing and holding back the digital release.

 

In a recent interview with novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde, you shared an anecdote about a high-powered literary agent approaching you at a writers’ conference and telling you that she and her fellow agents “hated” you. Being annoyed with you is one thing, but what do you think accounts for such a personal, visceral response?

Not just her fellow agents—the word she repeatedly used was “everyone!”

I think it’s just a classic “shoot the messenger” reflex. A lot of people in the industry react to my take on what’s happening in the industry the way a patient reacts to a doctor who’s just made a cancer diagnosis. That’s never welcome news, but here, it’s even worse, because many people feel on some level that my diagnosis is actually causing the cancer—as in, “If this guy would just shut up, everything would be fine!” If that’s how you feel, then of course my speaking out is going to feel intensely personal. It’s not logical, but it’s a human reaction and I get it.

 

Many of your biggest critics have been authors. It seems surprising that they would defend a business model that caps their earnings at 17.5% of every digital book sale, when you’ve labored hard to make clear that there are alternatives that allow them the opportunity to earn a lot more money. What is the psychology behind this reflexive protectionism?

It’s a great question and I talked about it in the interview with Catherine, too. For me, more choice is an inherently good thing.  It’s just intrinsic and axiomatic to my personality—I want choice because it gives me greater flexibility, increased power, and a better likelihood of achieving the outcomes I want. And my fundamental message to authors has been pretty simple:

“Hey, for the first time, we authors have real choices. We can stay with the legacy model, we can self-publish, and we can go with the Amazon hybrid or ‘new’ publishing paradigm, which is based more on direct-to-consumer marketing than it is on distribution.  We can publish some of our works via one route, and other works via another. We have more choice, and that’s giving us more power. Isn’t that awesome?”

But obviously not all authors share my take. Primarily I think this is because with choice comes responsibility, and many people are comfortable with a lack of choice precisely because that lack confers the luxury of avoiding the responsibility that comes with choice.  So when I say, “You have a choice!”, many authors hear, “Now you are going to be responsible for the outcome!” And they don’t like that.

Other authors who think they disagree with me might not understand what I’ve been saying.  Sometimes I get called a “cheerleader for Amazon” and things like that, but as I note above, I think it’s more accurate to say I’m a cheerleader for more author choice.  But passions run pretty high about these topics, and I think for some people it’s just easier and more comforting to dismiss me as an Amazon or self-publishing shill than it is to listen to and respond to what I’m actually saying.

 

One point that Authors Guild President Scott Turow and other defenders of traditional book publishing and bookselling keep coming back to is the idea that the status quo fiercely supports “rich literary culture.” What is “rich literary culture”?

What’s really going on is just a dodge. People like Turow and Richard Russo can’t deny that by offering lower prices, unmatched selection, and unparalleled convenience, Amazon is serving readers. And they can’t argue that by offering Amazon-published and self-published authors anywhere from a 35% to 70% digital split—meaning twice or even four times the 17.5% legacy publishers offer—Amazon is serving authors. They can’t argue these things, and so they try to change the subject. One way of changing the subject is to make bizarre claims such as “Amazon is destroying bookselling!” Another is to refer to amorphous but important-sounding concepts like Rich Literary Culture (because, come on, who could be against that, whatever it is) and to suggest that Amazon is destroying that, too.

As George Orwell said in his essay Politics and the English Language, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” When people avoid real argument in favor of bloviatation about Rich Literary Culture and the like, I always see a spurting cuttlefish.

 

J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has been outspoken in his insistence that his store won’t stock titles from Amazon imprints like Thomas & Mercer. His position can be summarized as “Why should I stock books from a company that is hell-bent on destroying my business?” What would you say to him?

The first thing I’d say is, J.B., I miss you guys! The Seattle Mystery Bookshop is a great store and enjoyed all the signings I’ve done there. After that:

“J.B., I think the ‘hell-bent on destroying my business/bookselling generally/all bookstores/all publishers/all merchants/Rich Literary Culture/etc’ is a hyperbolic straw man that obscures what’s really going on. Which is actually pretty simple: the legacy publishing world of which you are a part is about preserving the position of paper through high prices and an inefficient system of heavily controlled distribution. The Amazon model is about lower prices and greater efficiency. Of course I have my opinions about which system better serves readers and authors overall, but that’s not the point. The point is, no one’s waging a vendetta. It’s just different players trying to implement different business strategies.

“Now, I get that you don’t like the Amazon model any more than a record store owner liked the advent of digitally delivered music. And while I don’t think it’s generally a good business move to boycott items your customers might otherwise want to buy from you, I also appreciate that not all decisions have to be financially sound. I get that you feel what’s going on in the book world has ethical and other dimensions that go beyond business, and I respect that you might be boycotting Amazon-published books in spite of the impact on your business because you feel ethically bound (however misguidedly, in my view) to do so.

“If you’re boycotting Amazon-published books knowing that doing so is bad for your business but believing doing so is correct ethically, I respect your decision even though I don’t agree with the basis for it. But if you think the boycott is a sensible business move, I wish you would reconsider. I like your store a lot and would like to see you roll with the changes.”

 

You’ve talked a lot about what traditional publishers need to do to survive this paradigm shift in their industry. Any thoughts as to what brick-and-mortar booksellers can and should do?

Almost a year ago, Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch wrote a five-point business plan for indie booksellers. They offered to sell their books direct to indies at low wholesale prices.  No one contacted them. It was an excellent plan and I wish someone had taken them up on it.

 

Also locally, Northwest “Book Lust” icon Nancy Pearl has been castigated by Seattle book-industry folk for making a deal with Amazon to revive out-of-print titles she touts as essential reading—even though every other publisher turned down her idea when she shopped it to them. The attitude seems to be: “It’s better to keep readers from seeing these books at all than to deliver those books to them through Amazon.” What do you think fuels that mindset?

Have you ever seen the cartoon of the mouse flipping off the swooping hawk in one last gesture of futile defiance?  I think there’s some of that going on.

But it’s also a consequence of the “Amazon is the devil” arguments people use in place of actual thought. Once you demonize an opponent, whether in business or in politics, you’re then bound by the human desire for consistency to never admit anything positive about the demon you’ve insisted on. Amazon’s low prices? Not a boon to readers but an insidious assault on other booksellers! Amazon’s higher royalties?  Empowering authors today only to set them up for emasculation tomorrow! Publishing books that everyone else had turned down and that therefore without Amazon never would have been as widely received? Perfidy!

Or something. Some of these arguments get a little hard to follow.

 

You’ve read The Seattle Times’ recent series of stories about Amazon. What did you make of those stories?

I found them incredibly tendentious and biased to the point of parody. To use just two examples—and there are many, many more — rather than praising Amazon for its support of Washington’s gay-marriage legislation, the reporters criticized the company because it wasn’t the very first to do so. I mean, everyone knows that corporate support for critical progressive legislation is rendered irrelevant if another company supported it before you. And without doubt, had Amazon failed to support this legislation at all or indeed had the company come out against it, the reporters would have praised Amazon for doing so (insert sarcasm emoticon here).  Also, weirdly (weirdly because, what’s the relevance?), she criticized Amazon for not placing its corporate name and logo on the buildings of its new downtown campus.  But does anyone doubt that had Amazon put up such signage, the reporters would have written an article chastising the company for arrogantly plastering its name around as though it owned Seattle, or something to that effect?

For related examples, check out Salon reporter Alexander Zaitchik and publisher Bryce Milligan, who rather than praising Amazon for its substantial underwriting of independent literary festivals and literary translations, suggest instead that Amazon is a ‘Trojan Horse” offering ‘“blood money’” intended to buy off critics.  But I don’t think there’s much doubt that if Amazon decided instead to withdraw its million-dollar annual support, Zaitchik, Milligan, et al would lambast Amazon for failing to support and in fact for attempting to destroy Rich Literary Culture. It’s so easy to imagine the lede: “Those Cheap Amazon Bastards, They Won’t Even Throw A Few Dollars to the Festivals?”

Why are these tendentious arguments worth noting?  Because they reveal a fundamentally meaningless position: in this case, Amazon is evil no matter what it does.  Anytime someone claims that opposing sets of data — indeed, all possible data — proves the same point, you know you’re dealing with someone who has reached her conclusions by other than logic, evidence, and relatively objective thought.  And it’s impossible to take someone like that seriously.

 

What’s your take on the recent finding by the Department of Justice that Big Six publishers colluded with Apple to fix the price of e-books?  If it’s a win for Amazon, does the action position Amazon to become its own monopoly in need of federal intervention, or will the free market sort itself out in a different way?

I’ve long been curious about why so many people are frightened of a potential future Amazon monopoly while simultaneously so sanguine about the real existing monopoly run by the Big Six. And it’s been interesting for me to see people try to explain away the clear evidence of blatant collusion between the CEOs of the major publishers as set forth in the Justice Department’s suit against these publishers and in the equivalent suit brought by sixteen states.  Have a look yourself, if you haven’t already, and imagine the reaction if these sorts of meetings and discussions were happening instead among, say, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, and Larry Page, or among the heads of Bank of America, CitiGroup, and Morgan Stanley. There would be a five-alarm conspiracy freak-out.

Of course, we shouldn’t rely on Justice Department allegations alone to conclude that legacy publishing is a cartel (after all, this is the same Justice Department that hasn’t prosecuted a single high-level US official for torture or a single banking executive for fraud, and that argues President Obama has the power to execute American citizens without recognizable due process).  We can also look to the results of the legacy model:  high book prices, most recently enforced via the so-called “agency” model; “windowing,” whereby consumers who want cheaper paperback or digital versions are forced to wait until long after the release of the high-margin hardback; digital rights management regimes that annoy consumers and do little to inhibit piracy; increasingly draconian rights lock-ups in publishing contracts; lockstep digital royalties of only 17.5% for authors.

If you ask legacy publishing’s defenders, “Which is the monopoly: the entity that charges high prices and pays low royalties, or the entity that charges low prices and pays high royalties?”, you’ll be told by those defenders (tortured logic to follow) that of course it’s the former.  If you’re a customer of Amazon, novelist Charlie Stross wants you to believe that in fact Amazon has you in a “death-grip.”  If you love books and like to buy them from Amazon, Authors Guild president Scott Turow argues that in doing so you and Amazon are “destroy[ing] book selling.”  Enjoy your Kindle?  More legacy insiders than I can count will accuse you of participating in the degradation of “literary culture,” an Orwellian euphemism for “current literary establishment of which I am a member and with which I identify.”

Now, will Amazon break up the current publishing cartel only to become a monopoly itself? I doubt it. The company’s DNA is all about serving customers, for one thing; for another, unlike in the analogue world, on the Internet the competitor who wants to eat your lunch is always just a mouse click away, and with competitors like Apple and Google, I expect Amazon will be forced to stay true to its customer-centric roots rather than attempting to rely on the kind of monopoly rents that have poisoned legacy publishing’s willingness and ability to compete.

In the meantime, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day charging higher book prices, the establishment has to charge you higher prices today. Or, to put it another way, “Hey, you might get robbed if you carry all that cash around, so I’ll just save you the trouble by taking your wallet right here.” This isn’t an argument; it’s a con job. Consumers ought to recognize it as such.

 

Jim Thomsen, a former newspaper reporter and editor, works as a freelance book manuscript editor. He lives in Seattle and can be reached at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


New writing digs

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

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

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

Here’s a quick tour:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Or one of these!

 

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

 


A birthday gift

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


Read it. Absorb it. Live it.

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

Terrible Minds

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

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

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

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

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

7. Start Discovering What You Know

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

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

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

11. Start Cultivating Your Sanity

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

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

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

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


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.


How are you? It’s been a while …

Here’s what’s been going on:

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

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

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

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

Finally …

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

Happy holidays!


Quasi-NaNoWriMo 2011: Day 3

Here are the grim numbers:

  • Date: November 3
  • Number of words at the start of writing today: 4,828
  • Number of words at the conclusion of writing today: 5,291
  • Words written today: 463
  • Words written in November: 2,623

Blame modern convenience for the paltry total. I came home from work at midnight, wrote most of a short scene, then checked the DVR for new shows. Turned out I’d recorded Seven Days in May, a terrific political thriller from 1964. Burt Lancaster (no relation). Kirk Douglas. Ava Gardner. Fredric March. Martin Balsam. Choice!

So I lay down on the couch to watch it, and promptly fell asleep.

My new rule: Sleep trumps all.

I’ll try to play catch-up tomorrow.


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.


Awards and other jazz

Lots of great literary news from the weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to all!


Off to Missoula and other adventures

I told you I’d be back.

A few quick things …

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

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

A few programming notes:

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

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

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

****

Speaking of The Summer Son

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

****

Speaking of e-readers and e-books …

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

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

To purchase for the Kindle, go here.

For the Nook, here.

See you next week!


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

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

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

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

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

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


The Word: Mercurial

The drill: Each week, I’ve asked my Facebook friends to suggest a word. I then put the suggestions into list form, run a random-number generator and choose the corresponding word from the list. That word serves as the inspiration for a story that includes at least one usage of the word in question. This week’s contribution is courtesy of Lisa Roberts, and it’s the 21st and final installment of this series. For previous installments of The Word, click here.

I don’t much care for people who don’t come out and say what they mean. You want to come at me, come in a straight line. Roll your thoughts out there, in simple terms with precise meanings, and I’ll meet you in the middle and hash it out some way—even if I hate you for what you’ve said, even if I disagree with you to the ends of the earth. I’ll respect you. At least I’ll do that.

Uncle Forrest, I don’t much care for him. Here we are, at my grandma’s house—his mother’s house—for her ninetieth birthday, and here he is, thinking it’s the time and place to try to figure me out. He’s lived no more than a mile away my whole damned life, all eighteen years of it, and has never shown much interest. Why here? Why now?

“You’re a mercurial fellow, aren’t you, Everett?” He shoves a slice of German chocolate cake into his hole as he says this. How I detest him.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know what ‘mercurial’ means, Everett?”

The son of a bitch (no offense, Grandma).

“I want you to define your terms. Is your context elemental? Are you saying I’m a poor conductor of heat? That I’m a heavy metal? That I don’t react with most acids? That I’m good at forming amalgams? I just want to understand you.”

Forrest licks chocolate from his fingers.

“Or maybe you’re speaking in mythological terms. I’m a messenger with wings on my feet. I stole Vulcan’s net to catch a nymph. Is that it, Forrest? It’s your dance. I’m just trying to understand the rules.”

The party has stopped now, and everyone is looking at us. Grandma has full eyes that look like, God help me, mercury. Mom is standing on the other side of the table, fists on her hips, crimson-faced. Aunts and cousins and neighbors are staring at us, agape. And I keep going.

“Or perhaps, Forrest, you’re just relying on the common, Webster’s definition. You think I’m subject to sudden or unpredictable changes.”

He’s edging away from me, smiling stupidly, unwilling to say what he means.

“What is it, Uncle Forrest?”

“Let’s just drop it.”

“No.”

Mom comes into it now. “Yes. Drop it or leave, young man.”

So I do the thing that requires integrity. I kiss grandma on the cheek—she’s full-on crying now—and I leave.

I stand on the porch, and I tremble. I am not Mercury. I don’t have the speed. I don’t have the cunning. I am a boy who doesn’t fit in. But I am strong. Stronger than Forrest, for sure. Stronger than all of them. I am Mars.

I am going back inside.