I've been fortunate enough to have had some terrific honors bestowed upon me. Fifth-grade spelling bee champion. Sixth-grade student council president. I mean, do I have to go on? We're talking biggies here.
It was just about this time of year in 2017 that, perhaps, the one that means the most to me came around. The Billings Education Association—the union for public school teachers in the place I call home—honored me as its Friend of Education.
It was deeply meaningful to me for several reasons. One, I'm a child of public education (thank you, Birdville Independent School District and Smithfield Elementary, Smithfield Junior High (now middle school) and Richland High School). Two, public school teachers have had a profound effect on me at every stage of life. They've been mentors and influencers and friends. I was born to one. I married one. Three, I truly believe that public education is a compact we must hold with each other, no matter how fraught things get (I'm not terribly optimistic about how things are going in that department, but I still believe in the compact). Public education is the ultimate investment in our future, together.
I could go on and on. I have, in fact.
Whatever the teachers in my town felt in calling me their friend five years ago, I send it back in triplicate to them. English teachers at West High School here in Billings were instrumental in getting 600 Hours of Edward on the approved curriculum list at the high school level, and for years now, some of them have been teaching it. It blows my mind, still. And the bargain I've made, straight along, is that if you want me to visit the classroom, to talk about writing and creativity and life beyond high school, tell me when and where and I'll be there.
The pandemic, as you might imagine, took a bite out of that bargain.
And yet, there we were last week, a handful of English classes at West—juniors and seniors—and a creative writing club, and we were working through one of my favorite writing exercises, The Word (I am not its inventor, by the way, just an enthusiastic adopter). Each class, I'd have the kids tell me their name and give me a word. We then ran a random-number generator to choose a single word that the entire class had to use as inspiration for a short story. Writing time: 20 minutes.
It's a hell of a thing, I'm sure, to show up one day at school and hear that some dude you've never met before wants you to spend most of a period writing. But these kids did it, and their enthusiasm, generosity, and talent leave me hopeful for their futures and my own. For every period, I wrote alongside them, ending up with nearly 3,000 words of material, by far a busier day than I usually have.
I'll spare you the whole passel of short stories (unless you really want to read them), but here's a taste:
When we got the dog—a 48-pound, 40-inch-long, 14-year-old basset hound—I named him Lightning because, among other things, I was into irony.
Lightning’s name was Dexter when he was stuffed in a kennel at the humane society, on account of his previous owner, an 84-year-old woman named Mildred, up and died one day and Dexter was found sleeping in the small of the back of her tumbled-over carcass, and Mildred’s kinfolk didn’t want him. And you might say that if a dog has borne a name, any name, for 14 years, he ought to be allowed to keep it for the rest of whatever time he has left. And, OK, that’s a fair point, but Dexter is a crappy name and no more fitting the hound he was than Lightning was. So I changed it. My prerogative.
We didn’t get off to a good start, Lightning and me. First night, I put him up on the bed, and he walked around behind my shoulder, I thought he was snuggling in, and he lifted a leg on me. New house, new bed, new people—I guess I can’t blame him, but come on, man. He pooped on the rug the next day—the good rug, that was the problem, not that frayed thing in the den—and I thought, well, Lightning, you ain’t long for us if you don’t straighten up and fly right soon.
I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. I’ve come to believe, in the looking back, that the speed of him—opposite the name we’d hung on him—was the secret to his longevity. That dog just wasn’t in a hurry for anything, which kept his heart rate low and his blood moving agreeably. “Lightning, dinner,” we’d say, and we’d wait for the lumbering, this long dog who could have two feet on different sides of a corner, and he’d come into view and he’d eat at a luxurious pace, like a cow working its cud. “Lightning, let’s get in the car!” Same thing. That dog moved in a way that would make a sloth say, “Damn, that’s one slow-moving animal.”
Ironic, then, that the event for which he gained his fame around our house, the reason Judy would grip him by those jowls, unbidden, and say, “You’re the best dog ever, yes you are,” was a moment of alacrity. Megan, our youngest, just a baby, crawling for the curb and the traffic beyond, we’re bound up in watching Mitchell show us his batting stance there in the front yard, and she’s nearly to the asphalt, and here’s Lightning, moving at his bah-doop-dee-doo pace and he snags her diaper in his teeth and pulls her back.
That’s a good boy.
We said goodbye to him last night, the fadeout that we’d seen coming and were still flabbergasted by when it arrived. Lightning, staring up at us, our expectant faces in his, our tears surfacing, and here’s that old floppy-tongued kiss, the one we’d had a thousand times and would never have again, and he’s gone, gone, gone, not so much a flashing discharge of electricity but a shattered star lighting up our days and nights.
After writing and sharing—the kids were great about that, too—we talked about what I like so much about this exercise, that in the letters and meaning of a single word, there's a fuse that can be lit and burned down into a burst of creativity. It's one of the most magical things I know of, how you can tap into memory, word association, imagination and pull a story right out of yourself. It's entirely egalitarian. You don't need permission. You don't have to wait for someone to judge you worthy. You just need time and inclination. You need a pencil and a piece of paper and the willingness to get busy.
And the thing is, long before I ever thought about these things, long before I ever knew what a writing prompt was, long before I ever imagined trying to build a life around words, I had teachers who pushed me, who had lamplight and were willing to show the way, who truly and honestly believed that each child in their care had purpose and something to offer. On the surface, I don't have much in common with those kids I met last week—I'm older than their parents, in many cases, and from a generation that must seem decrepit and dated to them. And yet, the successors of those teachers I remember with such fondness and admiration are in the classroom now. Still pushing. Still guiding. Still believing.
How lucky we are. What a shame it would be if we lost it.
Here's a hard life lesson that writing has taught me: patience. It's a quality I don't naturally have in reserve, and that struggle to find it has benefitted and afflicted me in equal measure in what I do, how I relate to people, how opportunities have come to me, and how I've blown things by being too over-eager.
Writing, it turns out, doesn't much care whether you're patient or you're not. The actual act of it comes at its own pace, and sometimes you have to be patient in the extraction. You have something out on submission? Wait. You want an agent's attention? Wait. An idea isn't quite working the way you hoped it would? Set it down and wait. You think you don't have time? Sorry. You do. Wait.
So let me tell you about Straight On To Stardust and how it came to be whatever it is now ...
Back in 2017, I had this idea for a novel I wanted to write: The basic premise—and that's all I ever have at the outset, which often results in a half-baked unfinished thing that validates Stephen King's idea that writing a novel is like trying to sail a bathtub across the ocean—was a guy with his father's lifeless husk in the bed of his pickup, his father's dog in the passenger seat, and a trip from Montana to New Mexico for the burial.
What happened from there is ... well, a lot of stuff that I'd rather not say here, because I hope you someday see the play. That's the real story, anyway. I started with an idea for a novel and ended up with a play. That's the arc. But the color and light of the story lie in the turns in between.
The novel idea died. As dead as the father in the back of the truck. I didn't get enough of it down to harvest the wreckage for a short story, which sometimes happens. Dead, dead, dead. Doornail. D-E-A-D.
So then a lot of stuff happened. I set it down. I worked on something else with my wife, Elisa. I went to a lot of plays, which is just about my favorite thing to do. I saw The Glass Menagerie, and then I read it, and tried to stare deep into the craft of the thing. And after a while I saw a different narrative approach to my dead story about a dead father. I was living in Maine now, and I started to recast the thing, straight dialogue and stage direction. I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing, and I loved it.
That died, too. Or at least went into convalescence.
We came back to Montana. I finished a manuscript that had been languishing in Maine, something I felt good about but couldn't summon the energy to attack back there. Those were tough days on the East Coast, where we'd moved with great hope but hadn't found a way to make home. Coming back to Montana unlocked a lot of things. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, certainly, but also my willingness to pull a half-finished play born of a quarter-finished novel out of the drawer and have another go.
This time, I finished it.
And my good friends at Yellowstone Repertory Theatre, god bless them, having seen a pandemic wipe out a season, did a table read on Zoom. That was a fun night, and there were many fine things said about my play, and also many on-target comments about how it could be improved. Notable among these was that it felt more like cinema than stagecraft, an assessment echoed by my Tony-winning high school friend, so I, of course, accepted that, even if I wasn't exactly sure how to address it.
So ... patience. I put it away and let it be for a while. I pushed down the road on two manuscripts that I hope to finish one day, then started and finished a third. We moved into our second year of being back in Montana. Life opened up. Delta and omicron came crashing in. And then, finally, in January of this year, my wife and I, for her birthday, attended a play for the first time in nearly four years.
Christian O'Reilly's Chapatti is a wonder. Two actors. One stage. Nineteen unseen cats. One unseen dog. The vast preponderance of the dialogue directed at the audience. Exposition out the ying-yang. The fourth wall taken down before the first curtain comes up. I loved every blessed word of it. And nestled among all those words were some ideas about what was ailing my play.
Earlier this month, I took a mighty swing at it and did a major revision. What happens now? I'm not sure. There's talk of a public table reading. I'm hoping for a production. That would be beyond any dream I had when I began writing it. I sure enough know I'm going to want to write some more plays, if I can find some properly propulsive ideas.
What have I learned? Quite a lot, actually. The most important thing: This doesn't happen without patience. I'm not naturally imbued with it, but man, I do appreciate what comes from being forced to find it.
One day, several months ago, I was parsing through my email and came across something sent to me through this very site (a low-traffic way of reaching me, for sure). It was from a man named Howard Marc Chesley, and it was a friendly request that I read his novel Free Marcus Katz!!! and offer an endorsement if I was moved to do so.
(A slight deviation before I go on: Requesting endorsements—blurbs—is one of the most humbling things any author goes through. In essence, you're asking for hours of someone's finite life and words that you can then use for marketing purposes. I hate asking, but I love being asked, probably because I know exactly how hard it is to make the request. Still, you have to like what you read enough to attach your name to it, and there have certainly been instances where I've had to apologetically decline. My point being: I very much wanted to grant Howard's request. And I hoped I'd love the book.)
Non-spoiler alert: I loved the book.
This how I ended up endorsing the book: "Booker Prize nominee Howard Marc Chesley's new novel is a charming, insightful, moving, funny tale. In many respects Marcus' life is quotidian, and in others it's extraordinary. A portrait emerges of a man who wants something more ... and just might get it."
But forget what I said. Look at what Temple Grandin--Temple Freaking Grandin—had to say: "The clever format of creating a book in the form of Yelp reviews for businesses will make the reader think about serious abuses of people with disabilities. This book opened my eyes to the use of the legal system to abuse individuals who are fully capable of making their own decisions."
Bottom line: I'm glad I said yes. I'm glad Howard has become someone I truly consider a friend. I hope you'll buy his book. I hope he has every success in the world with it. And I'm pleased to be able to host this interview with him here.
Let's get to the questions ...
You've had a long career as a writer. Fill us in, please.
I graduated from Johns Hopkins in writing and then drove west to UCLA’s film school with plans to be a filmmaker. After several years making documentary films, I settled into writing screenplays as a path to someday directing dramatic feature films. Along the way I got married, had a dear child, bought a house and found that I had become very content with the sweet life of tapping on my Selectric for a living and hanging with family and friends at the beach in Venice. In retrospect I don’t think I was a boy genus, but I had early success, working for the studios, often with big-time directors as I learned my craft. It was a heady time, but after the 1988 writers’ strike the movie studios learned they didn’t need to pay writers like me as employees to develop scripts- they could just buy the spec scripts that they liked. I transitioned to TV, became a journeyman writer of hour-long dramas, working on Crime Story, Equalizer, Chicago Hope among others. In 2006 I co-created, produced and wrote Three Moons Over Milford, starring Elizabeth McGovern for Disney. Although it only lasted a season, it was the closest I came to seeing a personal vision on the screen. Once, after handing in a too-smart-for-the-room teleplay for a popular network TV drama, my exec producer told me (not in a nice way) that I should really be writing novels. At a career lull, I thought I might try. That was Some Books Aren’t for Reading, which was very well received and nominated for the 2019 Booker Prize. It was exhilarating not to have a boss of my writing anymore, and I became a novelist.
Did you learn any lessons from the writing and publishing of your first novel that you've applied to the second?
I learned that no matter how good the book you can’t depend on a small publisher to market it to the world. Having a public face doesn’t come easy to me. I’m a social media straggler, but I’m very proud of Free Marcus Katz, and I’m determined to do a better job promoting the new book. I’m grateful to you, Craig, for your willingness to help show me the way. You may not know it, but you are a beacon.
I'm always interested in origin stories. What was the initial spark of an idea with Marcus, and at what point did you think, OK, I have to write this thing?
The seed was my 2016 trip with my grown son to Butte, Montana, where I met the original Aspie model for Marcus, teen-age Josh. We met him on a viewing platform for the Berkeley Pit—a defunct, historic open-pit copper mine. Josh was there with his mother and three siblings, speaking non-stop in an Aspie monotone, mostly about the minute details of copper mining, and it was clear they were weary of him. I, however, was hungry to learn more about the mine and the place, and I asked him a few questions which brought on a stunning cascade of history. He was, in fact, brilliant and had a lot to impart if one listened. He finally wore us out, but, with heartfelt gratitude, I pushed a ten-dollar bill on him. He showed it to his mom, who walked up to me and tried to return the money, apologizing if her son had bothered me. When I told her honestly that I thought she had a brilliant and wonderful son and I had gotten full value and more, a mother’s tears immediately started streaming down her cheeks. The next day my son and I stopped in to say goodbye to Josh at his job washing dishes and peeling potatoes part-time in the cellar of a local restaurant. His manager looked at us with surprise that anyone would actually seek out Josh. The whole episode really stuck with me although it didn’t occur to me at the time to write about it.
Novels are often about more than one thing. The struggling of a sweet, smart Aspie was the first element. Later, I read an article by Rachel Aviv in a 2017 issue of the New Yorker in which she described in grim detail the horrors of an abusive, court-mandated conservatorship for an elderly couple in Las Vegas. I was deeply moved and angered by that account, and later it occurred to write about conservatorship with an autism spectrum hero like Josh. I back-burnered it, still feeling I needed something else to make it a special novel. That turned out to be the Yelp reviews.
I'm fascinated by the structure of the Yelp reviews. We really get to know Marcus intimately through what he thinks about the service at a restaurant, for example. How did you settle on that as a vehicle?
Being a long-time foodie, a Yelper and an admirer of the late Pulitzer-winning food critic, Jonathan Gold, I love going to hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, street stands, or food trucks, sometimes posting reviews to Yelp after. I have had Baja-style fish tacos in every corner of my beloved Los Angeles. If you ever come here, I’d be delighted to take you to Tacos Baja Ensenada (reviewed in the book) and show you the magic of the real item. About a year ago it just hit me like a bolt of lightning that it would be cool to use Yelp reviews as a storytelling device in an epistolary novel.
Conservatorship has been in the news lately with the Britney Spears case. What kind of feedback have you heard from people who have up-close experience with that system?
Although I believed fighting an abusive conservatorship presented a strong conflict for a story, I worried it wasn’t something on most people’s radar. Britney’s court case came up just after Roundfire picked up my book and as a result they decided to move up the publication date several months. I have been in touch with some of the originators of the #FreeBritney movement and they are transitioning into helping others with conservatorship abuse issues. In writing, I worked closely with a few organizations that fight conservatorship abuse and they have been helpful and supportive of the book.
You landed an endorsement from Temple Grandin. How the heck did that happen?
The question makes me smile because when, prior to publication, my publisher asked me to supply endorsements for the book (no, they don’t get them for you!). I thought of Temple Grandin, but had no connection to her. I asked around to no avail and someone said I should just write to her. I said don’t be silly—she gets a million requests and I didn’t even have an email address. Anyway, I found her website which had a contact form and I described the book and clicked “send” without any expectation of a reply. How many emails does she get? A lot. A few days later, the phone rang when I happened to be napping and I gave a groggy hello. The caller said she was Temple Grandin looking for Howard Chesley. Temple Grandin is an idol of mine and even though I have met my share of celebrities in the film business, I was gobsmacked that it was she on the phone. I suspect she was just calling to check me out. A few weeks later she sent me a lovely note saying how much she loved the book and appended a wonderful, strong endorsement, including the phrase “It opened my eyes,” with permission to use it as I liked. The endorsement is on the back cover of the book. I am humbled. I should also say that as a “neurotypical” I was concerned about how the autism spectrum community would regard the authenticity of what I wrote. I circulated the manuscript a lot in the community before sending it out for just that reason. One of the greatest pleasures I have gotten is the more-than-enthusiastic support I have gotten so far from so many in that community.
I can’t resist mentioning, in my researching for Free Marcus I found 600 Hours of Edward, just loved and admired it, and it was proof to me that a first-person novel with a narrator on the spectrum could work well. As you know, I wrote to you cold, sending a PDF of the book, and since then you have so graciously been a more-than-generous supporter of my book. I hope you don’t mind me thanking you publicly before we actually conclude. Oh—and I just read And It Will Be a Beautiful Life and I thought that it was a deep and mature work. And at the end I was quite moved.
(Thank you, Howard.)
You're an experienced and accomplished TV writer. What's the difference between that and, say, writing a novel? How much is transferrable, do you think?
The obvious response is that screenplays and teleplays tend to be very tightly structured. It’s a strong discipline that I had to learn over time and is useful in all storytelling. Most, but not necessarily all great novels, are narratively well structured and the challenge is to make them relevant and artful within the confines of a classical layout. Beyond that, my specific talent coming from having been a screenwriter is that I am good at closing my eyes, inhabiting a character and letting the character speak through me. In a way, it’s an author’s disguise and relieves me of being critiqued on what would inevitably be attributed as my personal speech in a third person book. Marcus Katz, through his Yelp reviews, is the first-person narrator of the book. My first novel, was also written in the first person. I remember clearly the voice of the young man in Butte. I have several good friends who I believe are undiagnosed, but on the spectrum, and I know the diagnosed children of friends as well.
Marcus has a full, satisfying arc, but there's certainly a way to imagine his life going on beyond the final page of your novel. Any thoughts of revisiting him?
We shall see. I’m broadband as a writer and am inclined to move to something else, but if people take to Marcus (as I have) my arm could be twisted.
Boogie-boarding, pickleball, cruising for food and, pandemic permitting, travel. There is a hint of a movie deal for Free Marcus but I am too experienced to bank on that. I have started two other novels, am not pleased with either so far, but I’m used to the process and write every day. I love all of it and consider myself a lucky guy.
FREE MARCUS KATZ!!!: A CURATED COLLECTION OF YELP REVIEWS
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.