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.
How to Keep Falling in Love
I. On the Feeling
My tenth novel, Dreaming Northward (Gramarye Media), comes out on June 27, 2023. I’m no more impervious to big, round numbers than anyone else is, and the imminent publication of a tenth novel—particularly when I once had serious, serious doubts that I’d ever write, much less publish, even one—is a good occasion for a bit of reflection.
I’ve learned a lot about how to do this, enough that sometimes I’m even prepared to believe I’ve gotten good at it.
I’ve learned a lot about humility, which forecloses any chance that I’ll linger long on “gee, I’ve gotten good at this.”
I’ve learned a lot about what’s fleeting and what’s durable.
I’ve learned that it’s all about love.
What that last bit looks like, for me, hinges on memory and imagination, the crucial elements of fiction, in my estimation, but also fairly punchless without love.
It’s loving the work. Loving the characters who get conjured in the work. Loving each new project with the whole of your heart, even if—and especially if—you must love it enough to let it go. There has been a lot of this, more than I ever imagined there could be. When I get down to diagnosing why an idea didn’t take off the way I hoped it would, I almost always land on a memory to which I’ve insufficiently connected, which bogs down the imagination that is supposed to turn it into fiction, which subsequently demands the love that makes me say “this is not for me.” (If I were as good at that in my beyond-the-page life as I am in my writing life, I wouldn’t bruise so easily. But I digress.)
Conversely, the idea that soars, that becomes something I see through to completion, is almost always built on the back of a memory, slathered with imagination, that becomes something else again. It’s almost magical, that feeling, even as it remains hard, word-rock-busting work to bring it forth. I love (that word again) that feeling.
I chase it. Again and again and again.
II. On Memory and Love
A couple of years back, in an interview with Montana Quarterly (where I’ve been on the masthead since 2013), the great Larry Watson said something so profound that my greatest wish was that I’d said it first. Failing that, I cite this quote endlessly, with all due credit to Mr. Watson:
I write from memory, not observation. Yet my memories are formed from observations, and then memory and imagination distort those observations into something useful for fiction and something that’s also truthful in its own way.
That’s the ballgame, right there. Unsaid, but screamingly evident to anyone who has read Watson’s work, is the part where love comes in. That manifests in doing the work, in riding the work out, in achieving empathy with your characters, in knowing when to make the gradual turn from I’m writing this to engage my own need for the work to I’m writing this for someone to read someday, and thus I must be attentive to what it needs to be.
Love is showing up faithfully. Love is holding at bay the world that will threaten your enthusiasm, your want-to, your ability to separate those things over which you have control and those that are mysterious variables. Love is having a standard for the work. Love is absolving yourself when, say, a pandemic swallows up your work like it never existed in the first place. It did exist. Your love made it manifest.
Love is also forgiving yourself when you could have done better and somehow didn’t. Love is believing that you’ll do right by it the next time. Love is faith, and you’re gonna need a lot of it.
Arthur Miller—I borrow only from the best—knew something about the staying power of the deeply imprinted memory. Perhaps nothing is as creatively propulsive as the blown chance, the missed boat, the shameful moment, the deep regret, the thing you ache to understand, the love you couldn’t hold.
Here he is: Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
If you’ve had a bit of therapy—and only about eight percent of us have, which means ninety-two percent of us are in deficit—you’ve probably been told that regret is a feeling wasted on the unsustainable belief that you should have been perfect. Insofar as it applies to our lives and how we face up to them, I’m inclined to concede the point. But for the author who mines memory for stories, regret—particularly the right kind, which Miller doesn’t identify and thus is open to personal definition—is creative fuel.
As I look back on ten novels, I see work and characters suffused with what I could give them through my grappling with memory and regret. Neurodivergent Edward Stanton (600 Hours of Edward, Edward Adrift, Edward Unspooled) and his fights with an illogical world. Mitch Quillen and his intractable father (The Summer Son). Hugo Hunter and his clay feet as a fighter and a father and a friend (The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter). The Kelvig clan and their town and the pulling apart of what binds them (This Is What I Want). Sad-sack Carson McCullough and the demise of the newspaper business (Julep Street). Jo-Jo and Linus and the vagaries of attraction (You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky). Max Wendt and the status quo he doesn’t see crumbling (And It Will Be a Beautiful Life).
And now, Dreaming Northward, perhaps the most personal work of them all, one that required me to find the memory—and, always, the love—and enough imagination to make it something more than a transcript. So much more. So surprising in the end. So familiar that it could have kissed me.
I’m in love. It keeps happening.
III. On Imagination and Love
How does this memory-fortified-with-imagination-backed-by-love thing work, in practical terms? I have an object lesson for that, drawn from Dreaming Northward and its ingredients.
If I’m prompted to give a short-hand accounting of who I am and how I got here, I say that I grew up in Texas and found my way to Montana as quickly as I could. The truth is a bit more nuanced. I wasn’t that quick. I got here when I was thirty-six years old, time enough for a dozen places in the interim that I tried, to varying degrees of success to make home.
My first home, in fact, after I was born in Washington state and adopted by my parents, was in Mills, Wyoming, a little bedroom community north of Casper. For the first three years of my life, I lived in tiny clapboard house on an unpaved street, which sat across the road from one of the town’s water towers. After my mother left my father and moved us to Texas, I was largely absent from Mills save for occasional summer visits to see my dad. But the image of that water tower embedded in my psyche. Whenever I would see one like it, particularly in my suburban Texas town, I would feel the pangs of separation from my father.
The imagination, in excerpt form
Ronnie goes down to the floor with his boy for a close-up view of the gas station in miniature. He watches as two round-headed figurines in a car, into which they fit like pegs, ride the elevator up to the top floor and the door opens and the car rolls out and careers down the ramp to the carpet beneath them.
“Ain’t that something?” he says, and the boy squirms happily.
“I got it for Christmas last year,” Nathan says.
“I remember,” Ronnie says, a harmless lie, he thinks. “Hey, I saw that kid Richard, your friend, the other day. He says hello.”
“He’s nice,” Nathan says.
“Yeah, he’s a good kid.”
Nathan bounces up and grabs his father’s hand. Ronnie clambers to his feet.
“Come here,” Nathan says, tugging him.
Nathan pulls him to the window that looks out upon the suburban expanse. “See that?”
“Yeah,” Ronnie says. “Buildings.”
“No, that.” Nathan points, insistent.
“The blue thing.”
Ronnie stares down. “What blue thing?”
“No, there.” The boy redirects his indicator, trying to get his father to follow the line.
“The water tower?”
“Yeah, I see it,” Ronnie says.
“That’s where you live.”
“Yes. I live here. You live over there.”
“No.” Ronnie makes a quarter-turn, facing the wall. He points at the blankness of it. “It looks the same as our water tower, but I live a thousand miles that way. North. Where you used to live.” He turns back to the window and points again. “That over there, that’s east. Understand?”
“Well, come downstairs, Sport, and I’ll try to explain it, OK?”
It starts with what I feel, and have felt, for my father, a love that’s been constant but ever changing, ever shifting depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. The unquestioning adoration I had for him when I was a little boy got replaced by an exasperated pity the more I learned about him and the more I witnessed. That, in turn, got supplanted by the responsibility I take for him in his dotage, the insistence I have of seeing him off this mortal coil and keeping fear, terror, and pain as far from him as I can. As his infirmities grow and he lashes out, I find myself with more and more days when I love him and simultaneously hope I can find a way to like him again. It’s not for wimps, this love thing.
The water tower the boy points at insistently was, and is, in a Mid-Cities suburb between Fort Worth and Dallas, a town called Hurst. I used to climb into the tallest tree of my neighborhood in an adjoining town and find it on the flat horizon and try to convince myself that it was Mills, Wyoming, and that my father might be there at the base of it. I didn’t know north from east in those days. I couldn’t have envisioned the magnitude of a thousand miles. I just knew blue, cylindrical water towers and that one was in proximity of a man I missed. I tucked it all away. Years later, it came out through my fingertips.
IV. On the Things That Aren't Love
Soon after my third novel, Edward Adrift, came out in 2013, I was making enough money in royalties to grant serious consideration to trying to make a go of it as a full-time novelist. I had the big-time New York agent, a slew of foreign translations, a full calendar, and novels-in-progress lined up on the runway. My then-publisher had feted the onset of our relationship with “we want to be in the Craig Lancaster business.”
That’s something—indeed, I suspect it’s something that most any author not in the one percent craves—but it’s not love. It’s validation, it’s success, it’s the fruits of one’s efforts, it’s unadulterated luck, but it’s not love.
Love is what you give yourself when the royalties dry up, the big-time New York agent moves on from you, the foreign translations are harder to attract, the calendar is empty, and the ideas are taking on rust. When your publisher doesn’t want to be in the you business anymore.
These are all things that can shoot your horse right out from under you. I’m not suggesting that you—or anyone—should just buck up and get through it, as if it’s not there, in your path like a boulder you can’t circumnavigate. Lean on your supports. Get your ass into therapy if you need it (ninety-two percent of us do!). Divert yourself with a hobby or a road trip or whatever. Take some time off, if that’s what’s calling to you. Don’t stop pushing, if pushing is what’s demanded.
And while you’re doing all of that, remember the love.
The love of a memory, an idea, an approach. The love of the work. The love of the characters and the settings and the structure of what you’re trying to create. The love of revising it and honing it until it’s just what you want. The love of taking the finished thing—the first or the tenth or the hundredth—and offering it up with a hopeful, open heart.
I made this. I fell in love. Again.
If this were a streamlined operation—with a social-media team that optimized content for maximum impact—this post would be going up on the last day of the year or the first day of the next one.
But this ain't a streamlined operation. It's one guy in a basement office (sitting at a brand-new desk, though!) who has to work the swing shift on the last day of the year, so this is getting written now.
If something materially affects what I write hereafter—say, I win the lottery—I'm gonna be so disappointed.*
(*—No, I'm not. Send the checks to me directly. I'll be super happy.)
All right. Here we go: Looking back on 2022 and ahead to 2023, in categorical form for easy reading ...
Proudest moment (books)
Easy pick: Hearing the words And It Will Be a Beautiful Life called out as the 2022 High Plains Book Award winner in fiction.
There's a lot to unwrap here, so briefly: I was proud because I came home to Billings almost three years ago, and this was the first novel published (and so far the only, but more on that in a bit) since I reestablished myself here. The love I felt for and from my town that night, and really the entire time I've been back, was such a rush.
It had been 12 years since I won my first HPBA, when they were a much smaller-scale affair, and I was, and am, awed by the caliber of books that get that recognition these days. The HPBAs are, simply put, one of the preeminent regional literary awards out there. I'm honored that my book was found worthy of one.
I got a lovely note from a friend the day after the awards ceremony, asking if I ever thought I'd win another, after the 2010 Best First Book designation for 600 Hours of Edward. Quite truthfully, I did not. It would be audacious to think such a thing, anyway. It's all gratitude here, not swollen heads.
Proudest moment (work)
An imprecise classification, for sure (books are work), but how else to account for what most writers have to do to keep writing? I'm speaking here of holding down a job.
The thing is, a job—at least for me—can never just be something I do. On some level, it has to be something I am, which is why I've made my way since I was 18 years old as a journalist (initially and again), a pipeline safety worker (much to my surprise), and a freelance editor. All of these things have spoken to the pragmatic desire to pay the mortgage and feed the mouths, but they also have reflected what I really enjoy doing and a broad set of skills that I've accumulated over a long career.
I can't say much about this yet, but early in the new year, I'm changing careers. It's a line of endeavor that came into my life as a bit of a surprise, but I've both excelled at it and found myself feeling deep affinity for it, and in my experience that's the combination that leads to high job satisfaction and high performance. I can't wait to get started.
In the meantime, you may admire my reconstituted office. I'll be spending a lot of time here in the new year.
Scary moment that turned out OK
In July, Fretless the Dog and I bounded into the car and headed south to Colorado. My stepfather had taken ill on a vacation in the Denver area, and the doctors needed a bit to figure out what was wrong with him.
All turned out well. And I got a bonus visit with my folks and my nephew Asher. Plus this beautiful shot of the Wyoming sky near Casper as I drove through just before twilight.
Scarier moment that turned out OK
In December, just a few weeks ago, another medical emergency, another southerly drive, this time to Texas. My stepfather—a remarkably healthy man, but also almost 81 years old and subject to the rigors of the age—suffered the widowmaker heart attack and was one of the lucky few who survive it. Everything was in place for a successful outcome: nearby paramedics, a responsive ambulance, a quick-working team at the hospital, and a skilled cardiologist who was able to get him unblocked and home within a few days.
If you've read And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, you know that my main character, Max Wendt, also suffered a widowmaker and lived to tell the tale:
“Your left anterior descending artery. It was blocked.”
“And that’s why—”
“That’s why you collapsed, yes.”
The man’s matter-of-fact demeanor irritated Max. Another day at work for him. The biggest damn deal ever for me.
“So I’ve got a plugged ticker?” Max asked.
McFeely—Bradshaw!—looked surprised by the question. “Well, no. Not now.”
“Don’t you see?” he said. “You’re here. You survived. We’ve dealt with it.”
“A stent. You’ll be taking Plavix for a while, or maybe forever. Who knows? Not much damage to the muscle.”
“To prevent clotting.”
“You see, Mr. Wendt,” Bradshaw said now, drawing nearer the side of the bed, “the survival is the thing. Without that, the rest is…unnecessary.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
“I guess not,” Max said.
The doctor knelt now, eye to eye with Max.
“The widowmaker. That’s what we call what happened to you.”
“Funny,” Max said. “I’m almost divorced.”
So, again, Fretless and I hit the road, a much longer trip this time. And coming back, we got caught in the jaws of a winter storm in Kansas (where we were stranded for a night in a motel straight out of 1978) and endured a bizarre same-day-care visit earlier that same day. (You really, really don't want to know, so all I'll say is that I didn't know that could happen or that it could bleed so much. BUT THAT'S IT!)
Again, all was well that ended well, and I got to tag a bonus visit with my family (and some dear friends, including my junior high basketball coach, Buddy Hamm, at left) onto the end of the year. But still: scary, scary.
Best I never saw that coming
What a treat to have a table read of my full-length play, Straight On to Stardust, performed by the troupe from Yellowstone Repertory Theatre at This House of Books in Billings.
It was a wonderful showcase, and I received some invaluable feedback on how to make it better. Still hoping for a full production. Fingers crossed.
Want to see the reading? Go here!
Best trip (overall)
It seems like a long time ago now, but Elisa and I went to Texas on vacation. It was a long time coming, as we emerged from the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic (although one of us—nods at her—caught it about a month later) and grabbed some moments of normalcy. We saw the Dallas Mavericks play. We went to the coast. We saw family and friends. We needed it, every single moment.
The trip also included a swing out to New Mexico to say goodbye to a friend. I miss him, every day. We celebrated the man we love and mourned the one who left us too soon.
Best trip (with a dog)
Fretless and I took three trips together this year (four if you count the one above), and two of them were missions of medical need, so those don't count.
Our June trip to North Dakota—seriously, North Dakota—was a much-needed getaway for me and a reconnection with a job I used to do and was missing terribly. I was able to figure out what, exactly, I missed. (Hint: It was the travel. It is the travel. However much I'm doing, I need more.)
I'm grateful that I got to enjoy that time with my little buddy. At left, he scopes out the city park in Sidney, Montana, as we made our way home.
Best general gratitude
I alluded to this earlier, but nearly three years after I returned home, I feel as fully connected to my community as I ever felt in version 1.0 of living here. I know who has my back. I know whose backs I have. I have friends in abundance (and am making more all the time), I've repaired ruptures, I've been granted grace, and I've extended it.
I can't remember when I've looked forward to a coming year with such clear-minded hope. I'm not Pollyanna. I'm Craig. And for the first time in a long time, I'm totally cool with being that.
Thanks for being here. I mean that sincerely. And may the year that's coming see you through your hopes, your dreams, and your challenges and deliver love and memories.
As for 2023 ...
This being the blog of an active writer and all, yeah, I hope you'll enjoy the books I have coming down the pike for you. There are two of them: the paperback version of And It Will Be a Beautiful Life (same great story, less lethality if someone smites you with it), which is coming out in late April, and the hardcover release of my new novel, Dreaming Northward (please contrast the beautiful Monte Hurlbert painting on the cover with that shot of the Wyoming sky earlier in this post and marvel at the man's talent). The new one drops on May 9, and we'll have a launch party in Billings on May 13, so keep an eye on my events calendar for more details. You're invited.
I'll play you out with some praise for Dreaming Northward. So grateful to these fine writers for their endorsements:
“Sheer reading pleasure; at turns funny, heartbreaking, suspenseful, and cathartic.”--Jonathan Evison, bestselling author of Small World and Lawn Boy
“With Dreaming Northward, Lancaster taps his rich Texas roots of poverty, displacement, and tangled family troubles in the story of a man who road trips to Montana with nothing left to lose. ... Lancaster’s exquisite attention to his characters’ bad choices makes readers feel seen, chronicled by a tender biographer—even a little redeemed.”--Carrie La Seur, award-winning author of The Home Place and The Weight of an Infinite Sky
“Craig Lancaster gives us the eternal mystery of family and the tangled webs across generations, with a cast of disparate yet wholly realized characters whose various struggles, questions, fault lines and quiet triumphs quickly become our own. Poignant, big-hearted, and as always, beautifully rendered.”--Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses and Cloudmaker
“There is something true and honest on every single page of this right hook of a novel. Craig Lancaster’s Dreaming Northward follows the entwined lives of people who’ve never known anything but hard times and who’ve never known the word quit.”--Giano Cromley, author of The Prince of Infinite Space and The Last Good Halloween
“‘Wyoming is a lonesome poem whispering through the past.’ Dreaming Northward combines superb storytelling and stellar writing—another winning novel from Craig Lancaster. Read this book!”--Cheryl Unruh, author of Gravedigger’s Daughter: Vignettes from a Small Kansas Town
Books for Our* Kids
It's Tuesday, November 8, the first snow day of the season in Billings. Ordinarily, I'd have stayed in, but today I went out, and I'm glad I did.
I delivered 40 fresh new copies of my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, to Skyview High School in Billings. That was the last of four deliveries I've made to Billings schools, for a total of 150 books. And the beauty of this is that I am merely the messenger, the delivery driver. These books—to replenish previous (and tattered) copies of the novel that have been in the schools for around a decade—landed where they did because of a community that answered the call. I asked for donations, enough to purchase those 150 books at a steep discount from the publisher, and my community funded the campaign inside of 12 hours.
And when I say community, I mean Billings—so many people in Billings—but I also mean the larger community I'm privileged to call my own. Teachers in Virginia kicked in donations. A coworker in Ohio ponied up. Friends in Texas. People I didn't know until some cash landed.
They did this because I asked for help in putting books in kids' hands. In this strange time in America, when we hear so much about taking books away from kids, these generous donors put books in front of them.
It's a beautiful, radical act.
As I so often do when the subject turns to the ties that bind us, I give thanks to teachers for doing what they do even as a significant slice of the population wants to fight them, deny them what they do well, castigate and smear them. This is shameful, yes, but it's also not new, and we can either let these angry, outsized voices have the floor, or we can meet them with a different set of values.
English teachers where I live were instrumental in getting 600 Hours on the approved curriculum reading list for the high school level here in Billings. They saw a contemporary story of a neurodivergent character, one set in the town where their kids live, and they did the heavy lifting to ensure that they could teach that book in their classrooms.
As I said in the Billings Gazette article about the first book delivery—thank you, Gazette—those teachers' dedication puts a responsibility on me that I'm only too happy to carry.
“They’re the ones who pushed for this book because they know how to reach these kids. And if they’re the ones who are making sure of that, I’ll be the one making sure they have the books.”
A word about the asterisk up above.
Yeah, they're our kids. I sometimes get a lot of pushback on this—"they're not my kids"—and I really wish someone taking the opposite view would spend just a little bit of time thinking expansively about the idea and the implications of abandoning it.
My trip through public education was, in many ways, a disaster. It was also one of the most important factors shaping who I became and how I see the world. Certainly, public education is not perfect, and certainly, reasonable people can disagree on how to shape it, fix it, whatever.
But we cannot, must not lose our responsibilities to ourselves and each other and the generations coming up behind us. Public education is a compact, an agreement that we will provide our kids with a basic education, as a community, knowing full well that our investments in those kids now are really an investment in our own future as a society.
If we lose that, I'm afraid we lose everything else.
So, today, I finished delivering some books. Backed by my community. Hopeful that the fight can be won. Determined to keep fighting, either way.
The Past's Presence
Even though it's been a lively few weeks, Elisa and I have been feeling the pull of something peaceful. We scuttled our anniversary plans at the beginning of the month because Spatz the Cat was ailing, then a calendar filled with wonderful things—the High Plains Book Awards for me, a new novel launch for her—conspired against just-the-two-of-us time.
Today, we grabbed a little of that, heading off on a day trip to one of our favorite places anywhere, Chief Plenty Coups State Park. There, less than an hour's drive from Billings, is a place both sacred and accessible to all, a preservation of the great chief's words and artifacts and vision. Every time we go, we take a lunch, then we visit the museum, then we take the long, looping walk around his home and his orchard, basking in the quiet and the peacefulness.
A visit truly is a salve.
On the drive back home to Billings, just outside the town of Pryor, I stopped for one more picture. You can't see much; the gate at the property was closed and locked, and my little iPhone camera couldn't do much with the scene.
Out there, though, is a house that once belonged to a rancher named Herman Hamilton, who is long dead and even longer not the owner of the spread. And somewhere on that patch of land where the house sits once sat a tiny little trailer home, way back in the early 1960s. It was there that my mother and father lived for a short while as Dad helped Herman tend to his ranch.
The time that they lived there far predates me. They've been divorced for nearly 50 years—almost the entirety of my life—and probably haven't been in each other's presence more than a dozen times in all those years. When I'm with them in the same room, it's less a case of the gang is back together and more a case of my looking at them and wondering, "How the hell did this pairing ever happen?" (Answer: Youth and beauty and mutual desire. Move on, Craig.)
Anyway, this isn't about that, not so very much. It's not even about this place that sits mere miles from somewhere Elisa and I regularly go. No, this is about the adage that gets fixed to Montana sometimes when it's described as one small town with really long streets.
Herman Hamilton, you see, not only was my dad's long-ago employer but also was my best friend Bob's great uncle. Bob, whom I've known only since 2013 or so. Bob, who became friends with my dad because they both owned condominiums in the same development and were chatting one day and Dad mentions Herman Hamilton and Bob says, "Holy crap ..."
The world really does shrink sometimes.
(Herman was also a bank robber of some repute in the 1930s, but I suppose that's another story for another time.)
A Boy and His Town
And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, the novel that came out last year, won the 2022 High Plains Book Award for fiction last night. It's an honor that has left me gobsmacked and very, very proud, but this is only tangentially about that.
Here's the tangent: As part of the High Plains Book Awards festivities, finalists in the 12 categories were offered two nights at a Billings hotel. When that offer was extended a few months ago, Elisa and I looked at it and said "hey, much-needed staycation." By the time the dates rolled around, our cat had reached a point where she needed more hour-to-hour attention (she's fine, really, much better than we thought she'd be a couple of weeks ago), so Elisa and I spent time together during the days, then split at night. She came home, and I took the hotel room. "Staycation" became "mecation." It happens.
The hotel was close to a neighborhood in Billings where I once lived, in a different stage of my lifetime. Both mornings, I got up and took a long walk through North Elevation, a downtown-adjacent enclave of historic homes and wide streets and mature trees. It was less nostalgia—although there's nothing wrong with that—and more pure peace and beauty. Billings' signature park is there. A damn fine coffeeshop is, too. I had every reason to go and no reason not to.
At the end of the first day's walk, I posted a Barenaked Ladies video on Facebook, along with this: "How it feels whenever I come to the North Elevation neighborhood ..."
I'm going to say now that I didn't quite capture the sentiment. "This is where we used to live" applies in a limited way, but the factors that make it past tense are more nuanced. The person with whom I lived there lives there still, from all appearances much more happily, and when you care about someone—as I do, still—you want only happiness for them. There's not a thing in those many blocks that is a heartbreak now, not even the memories of the pets I've loved who have crossed over. It's all good. Better than that, it's all beautiful.
Plus, I still live here. Not there, but here. The distance between the two is only a few miles and a good chunk of a lifetime.
When I heard the name of my book called out Saturday night, this is exactly what I thought of first: I'm home.
Not on a stage. Not standing next to two writers I consider wonderful friends. Billings, where I live. I said as much in my acceptance speech (if you can call it that; I was entirely unprepared, having not allowed myself to think my book might win): After nearly two years away in Maine, I came home to Billings in April 2020. I didn't know for how long. I still don't, as far as that goes. But this is where I used to live, and it's where I now live, and it's as home to me—all-the-way-in-my-bones home—as any place has ever been or is ever likely to be.
That's what I thought of on those walks through an old neighborhood. That's what I thought of on that stage. That's what I'm thinking of now. And you know how it is when you're home: You know where you are.
When we headed out for Maine in 2018, I described the leaving this way in an interview with Ed Kemmick and the late, lamented Last Best News:
"There’s going to be that moment when I have to come to grips with the fact that I’m leaving the most important home that I’ve ever had and going somewhere else."
So it did. But the leaving didn't take. I came back.
The other thing I couldn't help thinking about Saturday night was a similar time, 12 years earlier to the day, when I was a much younger, much more ignorant man. In 2010, just months after my first novel was released, it won a High Plains Book Award. I might have been forgiven at that moment for thinking it would be forever thus: release a book, collect a prize. I might also have been gently prodded to see the bigger picture around me, because I was spectacularly screwing up some pretty basic parts of my life with neglect back in those days. I might have listened, adjusted, flown right.
Then again, I might not have done any of that. Being headstrong is its own affliction, cured by only one thing, if you're lucky enough to survive the medicine.
My prescriptions were coming, about the writing life and about life, delivered in amazing highs and crushing lows, all the pain and pleasure I could ever want. Need another song? Try this one:
The joy is not the same without the pain.
My mistakes are here in Billings. My regrets. My glories. My aspirations. The erstwhile friendships I hope I can repair. Still others I wouldn't even attempt to, mirages that they are. What's behind me and what's ahead of me, all of it ready to be examined and experienced.
Most of all, the one I love, who has her own definitions of home, who is striving to be of it and in it. Together, we will honor those answers and those places, be they physical or emotional or both.
So, before I go off on a burst of happiness, I should do this: In the interest of consistency and intellectual rigor, I must adhere to my basic sense that happiness, as an emotional state of being, is highly overrated. It's too reliant on current circumstance to be trustworthy, and the factors that spur it—good news, fortuitous coincidences, pure serendipity, and the like—are too transient to be relied upon. My aim in saying this isn't to knock happiness—if you have it, brother or sister, be thankful for it and keep it as long as you're able—so much as it is to cast a vote for its more durable cousin, fulfillment. If you're fulfilled in where you are, whom you're with, what you're doing, where you're headed, you have something to hold tight to when the transience of happiness is with you and when it's against you. That's my theory, anyway.
That said, I'm pretty (burbly-happy curse word) happy these days. Let me count the reasons ...
1. One night in Big Sky
I'm just back from Big Sky, about three hours from where I live. The board of the Big Sky Community Library chose And It Will Be a Beautiful Life as the community read (One Book Big Sky) for the fall. Tuesday night was sort of the capstone of the event. I drove out, had a wonderful chat with folks who read the book, spent the night, and came home.
It was a soul restorer in all the best ways. When writers and writers gather, it can be a lovely thing (see below), but it can also be a release of the pent-up frustration that only writers know and thus are in position to help each other through. When readers and writers gather, it's straight-up love. How lucky was I to spend an evening with a bunch of people who read my book, read it closely, had such interesting things to say about it, and wanted to come talk with me? The luckiest. No doubt about it.
I rode those good feelings all the way home. The drive from Big Sky to Bozeman is one of the most visually arresting things you can see anywhere in these United States, so there's that, and believe me, I drank it in (figuratively). I made stops at libraries in Bozeman, Livingston, Big Timber, and Columbus, planting seeds for more days and nights like the one I'd just enjoyed. Here's hoping.
2. The blessings of good friends
I think I'm only just now getting my considerable arms around how emotionally bereft the pandemic has left me (and so many other people, judging from what I'm reading and what I'm hearing). Honestly, I thought being chased inside and away from gatherings was a small blessing amid a horrible event, but it wasn't that at all. Now that I can see and meet the people I want to see and meet—while still being careful, of course—I'm realizing how much I craved it.
Just in these past few weeks, I've gotten to hang in Butte, Missoula (thank you, Gwen Florio and Malcolm Brooks), Livingston (thank you, Amy Zanoni and Maggie Anderson), Bozeman (thank you, Betsy Gaines Quammen and Kryssa Marie Bowman), and Big Sky. I've had the fellowship of brilliant writers and thinkers, genuinely good people, and people who lovingly tend to the cultural life writ large. Man. I've needed that so much. So much. Happy? Yeah, I'm happy. But grateful most of all.
3. The work is going well
OK, look, here's where I keep it honest: If my publisher had said, sorry, kid, but your manuscript stinks and I'd received a lot of hate mail and my dog was snubbing me, would I be Mr. Happy? I would not. This, of course, underscores my point about fulfillment vs. happiness. I work to a standard I set so I can know I've done my best regardless of what a gatekeeper says (or, at least, so I'll have the gumption to try again if I find the door closed). I try to approach the world with an open heart because I believe that's how we get past at least some of our divisions. I engage with my dog so he knows I'm his, and he's mine. That's fulfillment. The happiness of it comes and goes.
But I can't deny that I'm really, really enjoying every side of the work right now: The creation of it, when it's just me and an idea and the challenge of getting from here to there. The production of it, where I interact with the publisher I wanted to be with and who wants my work on his list. The carrying it to readers and interacting with them, which can be such an incredible validation of the work put in. The awards, both realized and potential (talk about transience). I'm as energized for all of it, the whole arc, as I've ever been.
In Missoula, while waiting to eat lunch, I happened upon a meeting with a well-regarded poet and fiction writer and a genuinely good human. I don't know him well, but I like him, and even so, in the worst of my do-I-want-this-anymore crisis a few years ago, I deleted him (and a whole lot of other writers) from my social contacts, in a clumsy, flailing attempt at ridding myself of reminders of an endeavor I wasn't sure I wanted anymore. So there I was in Missoula, nonexistent hat in hand, apologizing for something I'm sure he didn't even notice, telling him I was in a dark place. He was kind and compassionate, as I expected he would be. I still appreciate the grace. I hope, the next time I'm on the other side of that conversation, I extend it to someone who needs it.
I'd like to think I've learned something. Certainly, I appreciate that the want-to came back to me, and I'm going to nurture it as much as I can. But what happens when rejection arrives (as it surely will), or awards don't (ditto)?
I don't know. I'll try to remember now and then and remind myself that I can be in both places. Just not at the same time.
3b. That was a lot. Here's an anecdote.
So I'm driving home from Big Sky and I'm talking on the phone—hands-free—with Elisa and I'm saying much of what I said above, only differently, and I'm telling her how energized I am, and I'm hearing how energized she is, and we come around to You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky. It's the novel—a romantic comedy that goes deeper, as Elisa's work does—she and I wrote together in 2018 and 2019. We released it ourselves ... and pretty much let it flop around out there. Our crises of confidence coincided. Those were hard, broken days. We had no energy for much of anything, and certainly not for getting out and trying to introduce a book to the world. We were too adrift in our personal lives to have the fire for the professional. Frankly, there were times I wasn't sure we'd make it.
But we did, and we have, and we're going to. Elisa is back, too, and she said, you know what, we should put a new jacket on that old novel we never really got behind. Freshen it up. It's a story of brightness and hope, and it has this dreary cover that doesn't fit it. Let's give it some love.
OK, she didn't say that exactly, but that was the gist.
And here it is, dressed to meet the readers we hoped it would meet.
Elisa didn't join me in Big Sky because our cat, Spatz, has been ailing. The most recent health issue was one that had a small sliver of hope for resolution and a rather wide, grim likelihood in terms of what we'd have to do. I had an appointment I had to keep, and Elisa decided to stay behind and tend to our girl.
And our girl, not for the first time, has proved resilient. Her issue has resolved itself—or, at the very least, has recessed into a place where she's her old self again for however long that lasts. She was a surprise when she came into our lives, and we've resolved to enjoy her for as long as we have her. That horizon, delightfully, has widened. We're thrilled.
As Elisa is given to saying, she's our Rushmore, Max.
Life has some funny cycles. As I write this, I'm just a handful of hours home from a couple of days in Great Falls, that visit coming on the heels of another Great Falls trip the previous week. Before that, I think the last time I was in Great Falls other than just passing through was ... 2010? 2011? A long time ago. I hope this means I'll be going back sooner rather than later. I like that town.
I was there to take part in a panel discussion of Montana authors, sponsored by the Great Falls Public Library as part of the Big River Ruckus festival. It was a blistering-hot morning, and my planet-sized melon sizzled. As is often the case for literary events, we didn't have a big crowd (I believe the applicable adjectives are "small" and "appreciative"), but we had good times in abundance. I joined poet Dave Caserio (a Billings denizen, like me) and writer Kristen Inbody, and we had a rollicking good time talking about writing in the West, ideas, how place figures into our writing, and much more.
Whenever I do an event, I'm put in mind of a line from a Pernice Brothers song: It doesn't matter if the crowd is thin / we sing to six the way we sing to ten ...
It's a funny line, of course, but the sentiment is dead-on. I've seen everything there is to see at readings, book signings, and the like: small gatherings, no gatherings, full houses, whatever. Whatever you get, you deliver as best you can to whoever was kind enough to show up. It's a charming business in that way. Every hand that's there to shake—or the only hand that's there to shake—is another chance to make a connection. And connections are everything. One person showed up? Great! Take that person out for dinner or a drink. The whole town showed up? Fantastic! Now you've got a party.
Love is love, and we love the stage ...
Before heading home Sunday, I drove out northwest of Great Falls to see the dairy farm my father grew up on. It was only the third time I've been there, and the second was just a drive-by, but I remembered the route just fine. I drove down the long driveway to where the house is, but nobody came out, and I wasn't about to go knocking on doors, so I took a quick look, then slipped out of there quietly.
Here's a nice shot from atop the bench, about a mile and a half from the farmhouse. Sorry for the telephone pole bisecting Square Butte.
When I talk about writing and where it comes from, as I did during our discussion Saturday, I'm apt to talk about how we are born with stories. We're not blank slates. Going to a place that was formative for my father (in mostly devastating ways, unfortunately) is a good demonstration of what I mean. It allows me to put eyes on his life, to process it, and to make sense of my own. Because of the way his life was shaped by his early experiences, he had a story to transfer to me, one that I would start to carry when I came into the world, along with the one I would live out in my own days. The same is true, of course, with my mother, and her parents, and his parents, and their parents before them, and on and on. The stories are inside us, already coded. We draw them out, interpret them, weave them with imagination and memory (in the case of fiction), give them purpose. It's a beautiful thing. Even when the underlying material is made up of mostly terrible things.
"Before you climb the mountain, first the foothills must appear."
It was a long, hot, empty drive home for Fretless and me. He mostly slept. I mostly sang along with the random shuffle of iTunes, something I can get away with when I'm alone. (I certainly wouldn't subject any human to my singing voice.)
On the final stretch home, I received a particular delight when iTunes served up one of my favorite songs but also one that doesn't often swim to the top of the heap. I suppose most songs remind us of something, someone or some point in time. Certainly, this one does that for me. There's a tinge of melancholy, though, because it's a reminder of a friendship I miss. It's been many years since it went by the wayside, and I've come to embrace something I was told a long time ago when I was seeing a counselor while in the midst of divorce: Some friendships are like cab rides. They have a beginning and an end. Indeed, they do.
Anyway, it was nice to hear the song at that moment, with my head where it was (reeling in other memories), to recall good times with someone who was a good friend, and to put out a silent wish: I hope the good life has found you where you are.
It certainly has found me. Coming home—to Billings, to Elisa, to Spatz the cat—is the best arrival I've ever known. It makes the leaving worthwhile.
Great Falls, Adequately
Come October 1st, it will be six years of marriage and about seven and a half years of togetherness for Elisa and me, and let me tell you: That's long enough that most of the stories have been told, mine to her and hers to me.
We scooted away for an overnight trip to Great Falls this week. I had an event at Cassiopeia Books and an overdue acquaintance to make with owner Millie Whalen, and it was nice that Elisa and I could get away, just the two of us, for a little while.
On the trip home, one of those untold stories spilled out ...
Great Falls is where a lot of my family lore resides—my father, born in Conrad, grew up around there, and he and my mother married there long before I showed up—but it's not somewhere I often go. In nearly sixteen years of living in Montana, I've been only a handful of times, far less often than I've been to Missoula or Bozeman or Livingston or Helena or, heck, Miles City or Glendive.
But in 1992, I almost moved there. That's the story that had gone untold.
Now, when I say "almost," some qualifiers are in order. I wanted to move to Great Falls (or thought I did). The sports editor at the Great Falls Tribune at the time, a wonderful guy named George Geise, wanted me to move to Great Falls. The man who could make it happen, a senior-level editor at the paper I'd just as soon not name (but whose name I've never forgotten), made it clear I wouldn't be welcome there.
The reason: I didn't have a college degree, and he didn't think I was qualified for the job without one. (I still don't have a sheepskin, but that's another story.)
Now, let's be clear: This guy was flat-out wrong. I could handle the job I'd applied for (sports copy editor/page designer). I was handling it at a paper of similar size in Texarkana, Texas, and I would go on to handle it at progressively larger, more prestigious papers. I would, in time, become well-decorated and well-traveled. I would lead workshops in editing. I would direct a large sports department at a large West Coast newspaper.
I would ... but I hadn't yet. Not in 1992. Then, I was a 22-year-old kid with some talent and, in fairness to the Executive Who Shall Not Be Named, some cockiness that was a bit out of proportion to the skills I'd honed to that point. And that imbalance, I think, would have been a perfectly valid reason for him to say, "Sorry, kid, not going to happen here."
But that's not what he said. He fixated on the degree I didn't have. I didn't get the job. George Geise was disappointed. So was I. There was personal history to unearth in Great Falls, and I was already well in love with Montana, an affair that goes on and on. I thought I was missing out on something important.
So, stuck for a while longer at a job in Texarkana I no longer wanted*, I made a resolution, one that has stuck for 30 years:
No way was a guy like that going to be right about me.
I made sure of it.
*—In Texarkana, the single most appalling moment of my journalism career, now more than three decades old, happened. When Magic Johnson rejoined the NBA after his HIV-positive diagnosis, I played the story big on the front page of the sports section (as did just about every paper in America). The next day, a copy of the page was in my mailbox, the story circled in red pen, along with a note from an executive at the paper: "Magic Johnson is an immoral HIV carrier, and none of our readers care about him." I should have quit on the spot. It's to my eternal chagrin that I did not. I did, however, start looking for a new job immediately.
Did I miss out on something by not finding my way to Great Falls in 1992? Well, yes. Something. But not everything, and not the most important things.
I didn't make it to Montana and stick here until 2006, when I was 36. Within a couple of years, I was writing books, something I'd have not even attempted 14 years earlier. By the time I got here, I'd already dug into the personal history that was faintly compelling me in my early 20s. I'd found my grandfather and closed an open question. I'd begun to talk to my dad about his life and his memories, so I could find ways to get closer to him. In subsequent years, I'd help, in whatever meager way I could, to put ghosts to rest.
The headstone pictured below on my grandmother's grave (in Great Falls) went in just 15-plus years ago, well after her death, as my father began to forgive her for the ways she'd wronged him, a thawing of feelings that came about because he and I started digging in the hard soil of his past.
On some level, I'm just guessing, but I doubt any of that would have happened the way it did if I'd shown up in Great Falls at the callow age of 22 and burned through that job the way I burned through others during that time in my life. Montana might have been over and done with before I could have gotten to know her. I might have missed the best years I've enjoyed here. The very best years of my life, as it turns out.
So far, anyway.
This is a story of a bookstore. It's a story of a bookstore that was baked from scratch, with not a lot of ingredients, by a lot of people who'd never baked a bookstore before, trying a method that, if not unprecedented, certainly is uncommon.
The bookstore is This House of Books, in the town where I live, Billings, Montana. Its name is a nod to perhaps the most famous work of perhaps the most famous Montana author, Ivan Doig. What we call it is one of my favorite things about it, but not my very favorite. No, my very favorite thing about it lies within the many people who love it and sustain it, and then that smaller set of stalwarts who ensure that it keeps going, who dig deep into their own pockets to give it an occasional transfusion, who pour their sweat equity into its needs, which are both predictable and unpredictable. Who are there for the biggest moments in its life. Like when it moves, as it did this holiday weekend, going from one lovely downtown space to another.
Elisa and I offered some modest help with the move, just a few hours and just a few dolly loads. We're part of the larger support system, the people who shop there, who invested early in its co-op model, who take advantage of its generous policy of holding events for local authors. Today, for example, I dropped in for an hour and helped stock shelves (including my own, below). A small contribution. The stalwarts, they'll be there into the deeper hours, as they have been all weekend. Bless them. We would not have this community pillar if not for them.
And it is a pillar, a status the bookstore has achieved against what Alex Chilton, in another context, called "unbelievable odds." It's the brainchild of author Carrie La Seur, whose admirable tenacity ensured that we didn't just talk about having a bookstore in Billings but also got it done. Its funding model was suggested by former Billings mayor Chuck Tooley. It wobbled into a standing position on underfunded legs, but it found a way to walk, and it's walking still. That's thanks to talented and selfless folks who volunteer their time and energy. And, of course, it's thanks to the people who shop there.
The continued existence of This House of Books feels personal to me, and not because of the money Elisa and I have sunk into it (not all that much, relatively speaking) or the labor we've done (ditto). No, it feels personal because the bookstore exemplifies the promise and the attraction of where we live. It feels like a stand for the homegrown, the funky, the only-in-Billings, the same as the non-chain restaurants and the little shops and the independent coffee bars here. It feels like something the billionaires and the hedge funds can't get their claws into, if we don't let them, if we consider where we buy and why and act on those values. Downtown Billings was a moribund place for many years, and it's not anymore. I'd like to think our little bookstore has something to do with that.
If you've got one—an independent bookstore—cherish it. If you've always dreamed of owning one, feel free to claim a piece of mine. Ours.
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.
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