Welcome to the first installment of what I hope can become an occasional series here: You pose a question, and I answer it.
Today's question came unprompted from a Facebook friend, and the answer illuminates an interesting little side story to the Edward series of books. Let's dig in:
Q: I started reading 600 Hours of Edward yesterday, and in one edition I have he mentions the Billings Gazette, but in another it's the Billings Herald-Gleaner. Since this is a rare occasion when I can ask an author a question I have about a book when I have it, why is that?
I don't know that I've ever addressed this in a wide-open public forum before.
To grasp what happened here, we must go back to the writing of 600 Hours of Edward. That's a long time ago (late 2008) and far, far away. (OK, not really. I wrote that book about five miles from where I sit right now.)
In late 2008, when I was writing the first draft of 600 Hours, I was working nights at the Billings Gazette as a copy editor. I saw no problem with using the actual name of the paper in the manuscript. The paper was a small part of the story, and the invocation of the paper's name was benign. Nobody got impugned.
Also, at that point, I had no way of knowing that this one story I was sort of writing on a lark would ever be published. The idea that it might someday grow into what it became, spawning two subsequent novels, would have been preposterous to allow into my head.
So ... let's fast-forward to 2012 ...
600 Hours has been out for a few years, and quite unexpectedly, it has become a little underground success story. It hasn't sold many copies, but it has received a couple of nice awards and some good press. The original publisher, a small press here in Montana, has decided to sell the publication rights to a much larger publisher with an international footprint. This larger concern acquires those rights with the idea that it will release a brand-new version of the book in August 2012, followed by the sequel, Edward Adrift, in 2013.
Edward Adrift, as I don't have to tell anyone who's read it, features the Billings newspaper as a much bigger plot player. And the references are far less complimentary. My problem: At this point, I still work at the Billings newspaper. Not good. Not comfortable.
So I reach out to my new publisher with a suggestion: How about we change the name of the newspaper in the original story to something entirely fictitious (that right there is what we call plausible deniability!) and carry that new name through the sequel? Thus was born the Billings Herald-Gleaner (because if you're going to put a fake name on your newspaper, make it a funny one).
I did realize we would leave some readers confused, but frankly, it's a pretty small number. I think the original version of 600 Hours of Edward sold fewer than 1,000 copies, and the 2012 re-release has sold upward of 200,000 across all of the languages in which it appears. For the vast preponderance of readers of the Edward books, the newspaper is and has always been the Billings Herald-Gleaner, not the Billings Gazette.
Meanwhile, changing the newspaper's name meant I could continue to go to work without fear of having insulted my employer in a way that would have harmed either of us.
A couple of final takeaways: My career at that newspaper ended just a few months after Edward Adrift was released, so I don't think changing the name of the paper in the book had any real effect, other than making me feel better about things. But there's a larger lesson here, one I've applied in the writing of subsequent books: It's fiction, so why not be fictitious? Business names, particularly, tend to be transient anyway. In an odd way, a piece of fiction can remain a lot more timely with invented references than it can with references to real-life things that might not survive a shift in fortunes or consumer habits.
Friendships are funny things.
Sometimes, they exist in a fixed place and time, sturdy and strong for a particular period in our lives. A counselor of mine, Jane Estelle, once told me that human relationships are often like cab rides. They have beginnings and ends. That was wise. It's true.
Sometimes, though, friendships are a ride that never ends. You don't reach a station and get out of the car. You keep going, through years and locales and jobs and other relationships and seasons of your life.
And sometimes they are both. They are fixed in time and endless. Those are the best friendships.
Dan Gensel was that kind of friend to me.
Dan Gensel is gone.
I moved to Kenai, Alaska, in November of 1991. I was 21 years old, and I didn't know anybody there. I'd come from my hometown, North Richland Hills, Texas, and had taken a job as the sports editor at the Peninsula Clarion newspaper. Why? Why not? I was 21 and unencumbered. Alaska was far away. I wanted to go and could go, and that's a combination I wasn't always going to be able to put together. Now, for example. Couldn't do it. Won't do it. Want-to isn't even a factor.
Years ago, I wrote a piece for the radio program Reflections West about that time in my life and the factors compelling me to move north. You can listen to it here.
My first week in Alaska, I covered a Kenai Central High School-Soldotna High School girls basketball game. It featured two of the best players in the state, two of the best players in the history of the state: Stacia Rustad of Kenai and Molly Tuter of Soldotna. On one sideline was Coach Craig Jung of Kenai, a man I'd come to greatly admire in my brief time there. On the other sideline was Coach Dan Gensel. He and Craig were great friends and ardent competitors. Stacia and Kenai were coming off a state championship; Molly and Soldotna would win one a year later.
I didn't know any of that. I was just a new-in-town sportswriter, trying to figure things out.
The photo above, of Dan and Melissa Smith, one of the kids I covered that season, isn't from the game in question, but it's a good approximation of the Dan Gensel of my memories. After the game, which Kenai won, he sat in the bleachers with me and just talked. Where you from? How'd you come to this job? What's your background? Getting-to-know-you stuff. I liked him, right from the start. Later, I met his wife, Kathy, and his daughter, Andrea, and liked them, too. In time, it became love. But it was like, from the get-go.
Those were lonely days for me, 4,000 miles from home, alone, barely scraping by, driving an on-the-verge Ford Escort and living in a one-room apartment. Dan and Kathy took me out for my 22nd birthday, just a few months later. Dan gave me seats on school buses to far-flung tournaments and let me sleep on his hotel room floor sometimes when that was the difference between my being able to cover something and not.
He also gave me a basketball education, one I tucked away, then unveiled when I wrote a short story about a wunderkind basketball player and a coach and a town that loses all sense of proportion. Here's an excerpt from Somebody Has to Lose:
“Mendy, it’s like this.” He squared up to the basket, squeezing the ball between his hands and planting a pivot foot. “First option: jump shot.” Into the air he went, releasing the ball at the peak of his jump and watching it backspin softly into the net. Cash, her face red, gathered the ball and rifled it back to him.
“Second option: drive.” Paul took two dribbles into the lane and then fell back to his spot on the periphery.
“Third option: make the next pass.” He slung the ball to Victoria Ford, directly to his left on the wing. “You know better than to just throw the ball over without even looking.”
Paul turned to the players clumped on the sideline. “Shoot, drive, pass. When you get the ball in this offense, that’s the sequence. I don’t want anybody not following it, you got that?”
Yes, sir,” the girls answered glumly.
"You get the ball. If the defender has collapsed into the middle, you shoot the open shot. If they’re crowding you, drive around them. If you’re covered, make the next pass. This is not difficult. Run it again.”
That right there, in just a few paragraphs, is the Dan Gensel philosophy of basketball. It inverts the conventional wisdom of the time—pass first, shoot later—into a kinetic, high-scoring, fun way of playing.
And, man, was he ever successful. Won a lot of games. Won a state championship. Made the hall of fame.
But that's not what I remember most about him.
I remember that he and Kathy and Andrea became family, particularly after I came back to Alaska in 1995 for a three-plus-year stint at the Anchorage Daily News.
I remember that I was a regular guest on their downstairs couch, so much so that it developed an imprint of me.
I remember that they tolerated movie nights when I'd make them watch Ed Wood and Pulp Fiction, fare that was decidedly not up their alley.
I remember later visits in California and Las Vegas.
I remember Andrea's wedding in the early aughts down in San Diego, when Dan asked me to give the speech before the father's speech. Predictably, I went for funny and warm, extolling my love for a family and a young woman I'd watched grow up. Dan, after me, had everybody in tears with his love for his little girl. Later, in a quiet moment between us, Dan said, "I knew you'd take them one way and I'd bring them back the other." Teamwork, baby.
I remember Dan's closing out the wedding reception by climbing atop a table and lip-synching "Don't Stop Believing." I hate that song, but I love that man.
I remember, a few years later, Dan's serving as the best man at my first wedding. The marriage didn't last. The friendship endured.
I remember all the times we talked about getting together over the past decade or so. I remember that we didn't make it happen. That'll be the only thing I regret.
It's like I said: It's a friendship fixed in time and eternal. I'll carry it now, for however long I'm around. There's been a lot of that these past few years. Too much.
It's been a long while since Dan was a basketball coach. In his final years, he was a sports radio guy--a damned good one—and a grandpa, a role he made his own in an inimitable way.
He and Kathy became community stalwarts in Soldotna. Andrea and her husband, Lee, are right there. It's been a good life. It will continue to be a good life, I'm sure, but those who love Dan will have to live with a big hole in it.
It's a testament to the community Dan helped me build thirty-odd years ago that one of his former players, someone with whom I've been close since I was a 21-year-old green sportswriter riding a school bus, contacted me with the news. I spent just six months in that job at the Peninsula Clarion. My Facebook page is full of people I knew then and still know now, and I'm a lucky boy, indeed.
Dan was 34 when I met him and 66 when he died, and that's both a long time and not nearly enough of it. I'll miss him.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.