Last Friday night, I spoke at the opening dinner of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Montana’s annual gathering, held this year in Great Falls, Montana.
When Nancy Hanford, the president of the Montana GFWC, asked me several months ago to talk to her group, she suggested talking about my recently re-released debut novel, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD. When I began looking into what the GFWC actually does, I was inspired to go in another direction. Name just about any progressive undertaking, and these clubs — which exist nationwide — are likely to be at the forefront. In Montana, specifically, they have built and funded libraries, worked tirelessly on behalf of children’s literacy, supported the Montana Talking Book Library (a particular passion of Hanford’s) — heck, even promoted white lines on the highway. If you live in a town with enough population to be concerned about general welfare and good things are happening there, it’s a good bet a women’s club is behind it.
So this is what I said …
This is my dad, Ron Lancaster. He was born on June 14, 1939, in a house in Conrad. He spent most of his formative years on a Fairfield Bench dairy farm, about 20 minutes from where we are right now.
He’s not smiling in this picture, although I can report to you that he was plenty happy. We were at the Alpine Casino in Billings, about to have fish and chips on a Friday. It’s one of Dad’s small pleasures in life.
Life has been long for Dad—much longer than he ever expected it would be—and it’s been hard, and on that count, he and I don’t have much in common. Mine has been a happy life in which I’ve been encouraged to run hard at my dreams, and he deserves some of the credit for that, along with my mother and my stepfather. And while I appreciate that about him, I often fret about the ways in which we find it nearly impossible to connect. I can’t talk to him about the books I read as a child that filled my heart. I have difficulty explaining to him what I do or how I do it. We never got close over throwing a football around or talking about sports teams or father-and-son campouts. Most of my relationship with him has been forged in the past 20 years, when I’ve been an adult.
But every now and again, I find my way to him. More often than not, it’s through the power of story. I want to tell you about that.
The matter of Dad’s schooling is a bit of a mystery. My mother, who married him in 1964 and divorced him nine tough years later, thinks that he received no more than a fourth-grade education. A cousin who knew him as a child thinks it’s closer to eighth grade, but in any case, school was an infrequent factor in his life. He is, in all likelihood, dyslexic, and I can guarantee you nobody in his young life recognized that. Reading has always been an unpleasant, unsatisfying chore for him, one made all the more difficult now because his eyes are nearly gone thanks to the macular degeneration that started working on him 20 years ago.
And still, Dad loves a story.
Like most of us, he’s interested in his own tale, but in many ways it’s one of such infinite sadness—a father he barely knew, a mother who withheld love, a stepfather who beat him viciously—that he’ll speak of it only in certain circumstances. Liquor is sometimes good at loosening his tongue. So, too, was a trip we made to the Fairfield Bench a few years ago so he could lay eyes on that dairy farm for the first time in 50 years.
It’s one of life’s poetic twists that he ended up with a son who has boundless curiosity and a penchant for language. For much of my life, I’ve been accumulating the dribs and drabs of narrative that he’s provided, seeking out people who knew him and mining their memories, and, now, in an Internet age, seeing what public documents have to say. Some years ago, I was able to find out what happened to Dad’s father, Fred Lancaster. I tracked him to a little hilltop cemetery in Madras, Oregon. I found a house he once lived in, occupied by the son-in-law of the woman Fred married late in life. That led to pictures of the grandfather I’d never seen and the man his own son barely remembered. The Social Security Administration gave us a copy of Fred’s application, filled out in pencil by the semi-literate hands of a working man. I took these things to my father and said “This is your story.” It brought me closer to him, something for which I yearned then and still yearn today.
After Dad left the Navy in the early sixties and settled down with my mom, he became an exploratory well digger, a line of endeavor that proved to be both the fulfillment of his greatest promise and the collapse of his fortunes. The child who’d known poverty and abuse became a self-made man in the most glorious manifestation of the phrase, a man who succeeded beyond any dream he’d ever had through the power of his own work ethic. Drilling gave him a community of peers and a means of identifying himself to the world, and few people needed that as badly as my father did. He also lived as the nouveau riche so often do, never saving, always accumulating, with the unspoken certainty that he would be dead before his spendthrift ways mattered. Life tends to be cruel to those who hold such delusions; at 73 years old, he’s lived far longer than his brother, sister, mother or father ever did, and most of his friends are long gone, too. Dad goes on, with his little pension in a little condominium in Billings, with his dog, Sausage, his memories, and his bewilderment at what life has become. And I’m there with him, nearly every day, maintaining our connection and cultivating another story, the one that belongs to us.
When my folks split in 1973, I was 3 years old, and I was an unruly child, one whose desires were pretty much indulged by a father who was rarely there and a mother who wanted out of her marriage and out of a crappy, cramped little existence in Mills, Wyo. A new man in her life, my stepfather, Charles Clines, whisked us away to his home in Texas, and at long last, stability set in. For nine months a year, I lived with Mom and Charles in a leafy, tree-themed subdivision, a bucolic world of school, friends, family dinners and intellectual curiosity. Every summer, I would fly to some outpost in the West where my Dad was working, so he could see this boy who was rapidly being formed in the image of another man. I would live on the periphery of Dad’s life—rough and tumble, nomadic, alcohol-soaked—but never really in it. Whatever I saw, whatever I experienced, would be packaged up and packed away into my memories at the end of the summer, when another plane would take me home to Texas and its crushing suburban normalcy.
I didn’t know it then, but all the while, I was gathering string—bits and pieces of memory and perspective that would come screaming to the forefront of my brain in my 30s, when I began writing fiction and honoring Hemingway’s timeless wisdom of writing what you know. I used to judge my father harshly for all the things he wasn’t, for all the ways he left me wanting his time, attention and wisdom. I know now that he was giving me an unconventional gift. He was helping me to understand how different people can be, how our backgrounds and our tragedies can shape us but not ultimately define us. One of the great aspects of our human sovereignty is this: The power to be what we want rests largely in our hands. My father has far exceeded the quality of the men who gave example to his young life. He’s kinder than they were. He’s wiser than they were. And he’s tougher, much, much tougher, than they were. He’s still here, still taking his swings at life every day.
Dad has given me stories, and in return, I’ve tried to give stories back to him. The work your clubs do on behalf of the Montana Talking Book Library specifically, and on behalf of literacy and children’s welfare in general, is vital and life-giving, and it hits home in a particular way for Dad and for me. As I said before, reading is a chore for Dad, but thanks to the Montana Talking Book Library, it doesn’t have to be. When he tires of my stories, or his own, he can listen to an almost limitless number of other tales. The ability I have to download a book and carry it to my father for his own listening enjoyment fills my heart. It’s given us another pathway to each other, another thing we can share as the two of us—he in his dotage, I in my middle age—try to bridge the gaps that time and circumstance put between us.
So thank you, so much, for all that you do for people like my father, and for letting me tell you my story, and his story, tonight.
After that, I read the first chapter of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, which hints broadly at the father-son story to come, a major theme of that book and the forthcoming sequel, EDWARD ADRIFT. The audience laughed at all the right places, a nice counterbalance to the more somber notes that preceded it. And that’s life, you know. It’ll break your heart and build it back up again, sometimes in the course of a single evening.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
In the past week or so, no big news has come down the pike — YET — but the small developments are starting to add up.
THE SUMMER SON, released in January 2011, is going to have an audiobook version released on Sept. 18. You can pre-order it here. When AmazonEncore acquired the book in 2010, one of the most exciting prospects of the deal was the chance of seeing the audio rights exercised. I’m glad to see that’s happening now.
Speaking of audio editions …
As part of the Aug. 14 re-release of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, Brilliance Audio will also be putting out the audio version of that title on the same day. Edward has been in my head for several years now, but at last I’ll be able to actually hear him. I can’t wait. If you’re interested in getting that, it can be pre-ordered here.
There’s more news on the horizon, something I’m dying to share. Soon. Very, very soon. I promise.
Today–Tuesday, December 6th–is the official release date for my new book, a collection of short stories called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.
Truth be told, the book has been available in print and e-book form for a couple of weeks now, but a book needs a release date, and this is mine. It’s my third book, following the novels 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, and I’m incredibly proud of it. Part of that lies in where the stories came from and the time in my life that spawned them (there will be more on this down the line). Part of it lies in the fact that this is a full production for my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press, and a fully realized manifestation of my artistic and professional interests, not to mention my tendency toward being an autodidact. And part of it rests in the same sense of pride and apprehension that accompanies the release of any book. Author Scott Nicholson does a nice job of explaining that here. It takes something–gall, perhaps, or bravado or delusion–to write something and decide that people not only want to read it but also will be willing pay for the privilege.
As for the money part, I’ve tried to make that as pocketbook-friendly as possible. The trade paperback version of the book retails for a competitive $14. The e-book version, available in Kindle and Nook and everything else, is set at $1.99, an eminently fair price for ten good stories.
Back in August, I wrote a series of posts highlighting the ten stories and offering some insight into how they came to be. You can see those here if you missed them the first time.
As for the book, I hope you’ll check it out. I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Vacation’s over. Also, how ’bout them Cowboys? Wait … don’t answer that.
Pass it on to your friends. Also worth noting: This is the final week to get an advance print copy of the book (which releases Dec. 6) at the low, low price of $10.50. Details here.
If you’re in Montana, please check out the latest issue of Montana Magazine, which includes a feature story about my books (written by Chèrie Newman of Montana Public Radio) and a wonderful review of Ed Kemmick’s “The Big Sky, By and By,” which I published. The magazine is on newsstands now.
Finally, a travel advisory: Tuesday, I’m headed to Fort Benton, where the next morning I’ll meet with the Friends of the Library to talk about The Summer Son. Just a little more than a year ago, I was there with my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, and it was a great group of people and a great town (my first trip there).
We continue today with the story behind the story on the fifth piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.
QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE
Backstory: The title story of the collection (obviously). A reader could be excused if, upon digesting this story, he/she assumed that it, too, sprang from the turmoil of late last year that I’ve talked about previously. Actually, that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure this is the oldest story in the collection, written nearly two years ago as a palate cleanser between my first and second novels. It does reflect my fascination with the politics of our most intimate relationships — the ways in which we use coercion and leverage, whether it’s subconsciously or with reckless abandon. The main character in this story, a man named Ross Newbry, shows up later in the collection as an adolescent.
Here’s an excerpt:
Her drunken lovemaking was, by turns, fierce and haphazard. She licked his face and slithered her tongue in his ear. When she moved to the other side, he reached up and swabbed her spit away. She lay back and invited his mouth to find her, and he did so by rote. The most preposterous memory stepped to the front of his mind. Sam Kinison, the manic comic, had a routine about oral. “Lick the alphabet,” Sam the Man said. So he did. She writhed and grasped at his head, and then, as the moment neared, she turned him on his back and rode him until it was done.
As she draped across him, he looked for patterns in the ceiling.
“It was good?” she asked.
“It’s been a while.”
“I think we should do it again.”
He said nothing.
She reached for him and found him flaccid. “Oh.”
“Tomorrow,” he said.
She turned away and ground her backside into him. He patted her shoulder and waited for her snores.
(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)
Trivia: When I was writing this story, the house that Ross and his wife, Laura, share was modeled on a place my wife and I lived in before we got married. Interestingly enough, that same house served as the model for Edward Stanton’s home in my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. In the novel, I simply moved the house one street away from where Ang and I lived.
Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.
You might not recognize the name, but surely you remember the face and the voice:
“You can take it and shove it up your ass with a poker, a red-hot poker!”
“I intend to squeeze you, Mr. Corleone.”
Turns out, Gervase Duan Spradlin, who died Sunday at age 90, was far more than an imminently employable character actor. He didn’t even break into Hollywood until his mid-40s, having been an oil company lawyer and a millionaire as an independent oil producer before that. But his sharp, hawklike features and rich Oklahoma accent made him a natural for the stage and screen once he stumbled into acting.
From the Los Angeles Times obituary:
“Being rich changes surprisingly little,” Spradlin told The Times in 1967. “You’ll still have to have an absorbing interest in life, something to do to make you feel alive.”
For Spradlin, that was acting.
In late 1963 his daughter Wendy, a member of the children’s classes at the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, wanted to audition for a role in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
To give her moral support, Spradlin accompanied her to the theater and wound up auditioning for — and landing — a role in the play, the first of three local productions he appeared in.
He also appeared in three episodes of the late-sixties revival of Dragnet, mostly playing morally suspect characters, the kind he excelled at.
My favorite of these is the rule of Arthur Leo Tyson in the episode “Baseball,” from the 1970 season. This is where Spradlin’s artistic life intersects with mine.
Here’s a passage from my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, where Dragnet-loving main character Edward Stanton gives his assessment of that particular episode:
Tonight’s episode of Dragnet, the 25th and penultimate (I love the word “penultimate”) of the fourth and final season, is called “Burglary: Baseball,” and it is one of my favorites.
G.D. Spradlin, an actor who appeared in three episodes of “Dragnet,” plays a man named Arthur Leo Tyson, and he cracks safes for sport. He’s an ex-convict who is on parole, and it turns out that he misses being in prison. This is a condition called “institutionalization,” and it sounds awful to me. And yet Arthur Leo Tyson has much to look forward to when he gets back in “the pen.” The inmate baseball team at San Quentin expects to have a good season, and he wants to be a part of it. This amuses Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon, who take a liking to Arthur Leo Tyson even though he is an unrepentant criminal. It’s nice to think that police officers can be a little human.
G.D. Spradlin is one of the more recognizable actors on Dragnet, and he went on to be a character actor in many shows and movies over the years. He has a very distinctive face: It’s kind of round, and he has crinkled eyes and a perpetually pursed mouth — the kind of mouth that “looks like a chicken’s asshole,” as my Grandpa Sid used to say. He has a raspy Southern accent, the kind that Grandpa Sid had, too. If you ever saw the movie One on One, starring Robby Benson as a basketball star, then you know who G.D. Spradlin is. He played the coach, and his mouth looked like a chicken’s asshole for most of that film.
I would have liked to have written to G.D. Spradlin about his experiences on Dragnet, but he was well-known enough that I never found out his address. I looked him up on the Internet a couple of years ago, and he seemed to still be alive, although he hasn’t worked in a long time. He would be old now — 88, according to the Internet.
That’s how old Grandpa Sid would be, too, if he were still alive.
Time flummoxes me.
R.I.P., Mr. Spradlin, and thank you for the memories.
Welcome, again, to the land of incremental progress:
The official release date of Ed Kemmick’s book, The Big Sky, By and By, is a week from today, and I now have books in hand to ensure that select bookstores around the state receive copies. I’m happy to say that pre-sales have been very brisk indeed, as I knew they would be. If you’re in Billings and/or receive The Billings Gazette, be sure to check out Sunday’s books page, which will feature a review of Ed’s book by Montana Public Radio’s Chérie Newman. (Also, it’s worth pointing out again: If you have a Kindle or a Nook, Ed’s book is also available in those formats.)
I’m continuing to plug away on a new project. It’s still far too early to say anything of substance about it, but I’m very happy that the day-in, day-out writing experiences have been brisk. For whatever it’s worth, I’m seeing the road pretty clearly as I move through the first draft.
I’ll be in Joliet, Montana, on Saturday for the Joliet Jamboree, a fundraiser for the public library. I’m looking forward to that, and to sharing a panel with fellow Billings authors Russell Rowland and Nancy Brook, among others. Details here.
Just saw the sad news about the demise of Borders. Here in my town, that means the loss of what has been a very good bookstore, and that diminishes the entire community in a cultural way. Jacob Tuka, the books manager in Billings, has been terrifically supportive of local authors and was always cheerful about lining up signings for me. We had a bit of bad timing with The Summer Son, which was released in late January, just as a book-buying moratorium kicked in at Borders. The Billings store has been a reliable seller of 600 Hours of Edward, however, and so I’ll be sorry to see it shuttered.
It’s been a light week. And, dammit, I deserved it.
A few things:
- Finally, the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, is for sale in advance of its official July 26 release date. If you’d like a signed copy, please jet over to Ed’s site and make a totally safe PayPal transaction. If you love Montana and Montanans, this book will not disappoint you. I’m damned proud to have it as the second release from my little literary house, after Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice.
- I’m hitting the road this week, heading up to Ronan, Montana, to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. Ronan was a great host last year when I was thumping 600 Hours of Edward, and I’m really, really looking forward to talking to my friends about my new novel, The Summer Son. This, I suppose, is the unofficial kickoff to my summer book season. Check out my calendar for the other stuff I have on tap.
- My collection of short stories, tentatively titled Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, is in the hands of a trusted editor before I move it along to my publisher. Really, really excited about these. Really, really hoping the publisher will be, too.
And now, a personal note:
Today is the 72nd birthday of my dad, Ron Lancaster (shown above with my dogs Bodie and Zula). (By the way, them’s my legs behind him.) I’ve written some about his difficult life, and my occasionally difficult dealings with him. I’ve never shied away from the fact that The Summer Son is, on some level, both a vehicle for working out my frustrations with him and a love letter to him.
But I’ll be telling him today — as he will never see it here — that I love him very much and am blessed to have him in my life.
Happy birthday, Pops.
I remember reading this New York Times article back in March and finding myself amused at the various ways authors spoke of novels-in-progress that never see the finish line:
- Michael Chabon eventually published his in McSweeney’s 36, complete with the page annotations in which the great novelist assailed his own work.
- Stephen King acknowledged the failure rate directly: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”
- Joshua Ferris refused to acknowledge whether he’d ever left one naked and quivering on the floor: “I won’t even cop to whether or not I have abandoned novels.”
Of those three approaches, I find myself most comfortable with King’s. Yes, I’ve abandoned novels. A half-dozen or more in my twenties, one just a few months after I finished 600 Hours of Edward, one late last year … and one last week. One I’ve written about in this space. You see now why I was loath to reveal many details. Until the moment a novel is finished — and I mean finished and ready to be delivered to the publisher — its efficacy is never certain.
What went wrong with the story I was writing? Fundamentally, nothing. It’s just that I realized, nearly 14,000 words in, that I had quite accidentally set myself on a course to write a story that would be forever compared — unfavorably, I imagine — with a much-beloved work that mines much of the same territory, albeit in a different way. I’m not going to say more than that about the similarities. I was horribly, horribly aghast at the realization, and after thinking about it over the course of 18 hours or so, I saw no viable way to continue. I had to pull the plug on its prospects as a novel-length work.
But there is a bright side to all this.
The Times story tells how John Updike successfully extracted several short stories out of an unrealized novel called Willow. As I considered what I could do with several thousand words I was proud of, I realized that I could do something similar. So I went to work, trimming and shaping and amplifying, and I was able to turn that work into a short story that will fit nicely into the collection I’ve been working on for the past year. In fact, it ends up completing the collection. Not a bad turn for a story that, in its envisioned novel-length form, had a fatal flaw.
I was also able to rework sections of the project that stalled last year and turn them into three other stories in the collection. In other words, as a novelist, I’m turning into a pretty decent recycler.
I still haven’t found a good way to repurpose the project I abandoned back in March 2009, just after I finished 600 Hours of Edward. And there’s a good reason:
Still coming out of my post-New York coma, so I’ll be (relatively) brief …
- Copies of the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, have been bundled up for reviewers and will go out this week. Release date is July 26.
- I’m plug, plug, plugging away at the new novel project. This is all a little inside baseball, so if that’s not your cup of tea, go here for something more interesting. … OK, still here? I’m trying something new with this book. I have a basic idea of where it’s going to go, but I’m outlining only a few scenes at a time — four or five. Once those are written, I assess where the story is and consider new threads that have emerged — those always happen — and then sketch out a few more scenes. With 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, I plotted a bit more aggressively at the outset, and while I’m happy with both books, they perhaps missed a little bit of the spontaneity that I’m experiencing with this project. It’s kept the slogging — that awful point in a first draft where you’re several thousand words in and have many thousands yet to go — from being a total drag.
- I hope you’re keeping up with my weekly project, The Word. I’m having a ton of fun with that. You can also see the stories at my page on Fictionaut.
Earlier this week, I was chatting with a friend about — here comes an awful-sounding phrase — my rate of production.
His observation: “You really crank it out.”
He meant it admiringly, and I didn’t take offense, but I’m not particularly fond of the word “crank.” Something about it suggests automation rather than craftsmanship, and I can assure you that while I may be a quick writer (sometimes), I’m never on autopilot.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think of it as cranking. I think of it as doing the work in small but consistent increments.* In other words, I show up every day at this desk and move something along, whether it’s a short story, a novel in progress, a book I’m publishing, a speech, whatever.
A piece of writing builds up the same way a bank account does, through a series of deposits. While I’ve never been particularly gifted at the latter, I can testify to the former. Let’s say you commit yourself to writing five days a week,
twenty-six fifty-two weeks a year. Consider a bit of math:
- 250 words a day, on average, will bring you
32,50065,000 words a year, a good chunk of a novel.
- 500 words a day will bring
- 750 words a day will bring
- 1,000 words a day will bring
Now, these are just words, and words are worth little in the abstract. They have to be good words, and the good news is that consistently applying one’s self to the work leads to better work, just the same as practicing makes a better ballplayer.
It really is that simple. If you want to write, sit down and write. Otherwise, you’re just a dreamer.
* — 600 Hours of Edward being the obvious exception. There’s nothing small and incremental about writing a first draft in less than a month.