Like many people, I've come to loathe Facebook in as many ways as I find it an indispensable means of keeping up with close friends and loved ones. Perhaps it's the indispensability that I loathe most.
I also post things there deliberately, knowing that I'll be shown them again, year after year, so I can remember certain days with some degree of precision. Two years ago, March 30 was just such an occasion.
On this day in 2020, the moving trucks showed up at our house in Boothbay, Maine, and whisked away our stuff. By then, it wasn't even our house anymore; we had closed on its sale a few days earlier and were just extremely short-term renters.
We loved that house. We liked Maine. But neither love nor like was enough to hold us. That's old ground that needn't be gone over again.
What's hard to remember now, even two short years later, is just how frightening the whole thing was. The world had closed up. We had moving guys tromping through the house, and we—Elisa, me, the dog, the cat, my dad, his dog—kept our distance and hoped they weren't sick. Hoped we weren't sick. Wouldn't be entirely sure how to know if we were or they were. There was a lot of taking things on faith. There was a lot of handwashing and surface disinfecting. There was a lot of uncertainty about what awaited us on the road.
That first night, we stayed at a hotel in Portland. I, wearing rubber gloves and a paper mask, fetched dinner for everyone and brought it back to the two rooms (guys and dogs in one, woman and cat in another). Same drill for the subsequent nights, in Buffalo and Chicago and Minneapolis and Bismarck. We limited our points of contact. I did all the gassing up for the two cars, which were similarly subdivided with occupants. I wrangled all the meals, meeting Doordash and Uber Eats in hotel lobbies. In the East, where the pandemic initially hit hardest, we stared in wonder at empty turnpikes and rest stops. The farther west we drove, the more lax people seemed about what was happening. In Janesville, Wisconsin, I turned on my heel and left a store after seeing scores of unmasked people there. In North Dakota, a convenience store clerk poked fun at my mask. In Ohio, I asked a guy to move down a urinal, and he reacted with anger: "I'm not sick." "Fine," I said, "but maybe I am."
When we got to Billings, it was more of the same. We were diligent, about our hands and our faces and our surfaces. We were scared. We sequestered ourselves away for two weeks and hoped we wouldn't get sick. The unknown was a menace. We weren't alone in feeling that.
It's two years hence. We're just back from a two-week vacation. We saw loved ones. We hugged old friends. We gathered with thousands in a sports arena in downtown Dallas. We crowded into a banquet hall and said goodbye to a friend.
The pandemic remains with us, of course, but it's different now, too. We're vaxxed and boosted, and soon to be boosted again. In recent weeks, we've begun stepping out again. Our first sitdown meal in a restaurant happened a few weeks before we traveled to Texas. Our first evenings out to see plays (masked), too. We carry the vax cards and the masks, in case they're needed. I imagine I'll wear one forevermore in airplanes and on trains and in crowded supermarkets. I'm cool with that. It's not a burden.
We've been through two flu seasons now without the flu, a first for either of us. Credit the masks. Our doctor surely does. And yet, with the specter of omicron and whatever new variants might emerge, we worry about a scratchy throat or some mild congestion. Just the other day, we broke out a test for Elisa, who was feeling a little poorly. Negative. We've been lucky. No doubt about that. But we've also been diligent. We'll try to stay so, even as we dip further into what used to be normal life.
The point of all this? There is no point, really. Gratitude. Caution.
We've had a hard two years, all of us. We've lost people we shouldn't have lost. We've grown isolated and angry. We've missed things we shouldn't have missed.
May we find grace. May we offer it, too.
Elisa and I are just back from a two-week vacation, one spent doing all the things one should do when granted such a release from ordinary life. We saw our favorite basketball team (a loss, but whatever), we ate good food, we hugged loved ones and old friends, and we explored a bit of the Texas coast. A damn good time.
And then, to finish it off, we headed to Santa Fe and said goodbye to Jon Ehret. Somehow, the world has kept on spinning since he left us on Aug. 21, 2021. He's often on my mind, always in my heart, and badly missed by everyone who grew to love him. On a late-March day in New Mexico, we raised a toast. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. And it made me wish, again, that he could have been at the table with us, noshing on good food and reveling in good memories.
I met Jon when I was 20 years old. I lost him when I was 51. We packed a lot into those 30-plus years. Just not enough. It would have never been enough.
Saying goodbye, though painful, was a gift. His celebration of life brought out two men I knew at a crucial point—at the same point, roughly, that I met Jon—when I was a youngster who needed some direction and role models in a career I'd chosen but didn't quite know how to get myself into. In 1990 and 1991, I was working as an agate* clerk in the sports department of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jon, just out of grad school, was an editor on the sports desk, particularly gifted at page design, the discipline I fancied for myself and yet had never really done**. Frank Christlieb was a copy editor on that desk. Steve Waggoner was a copy editor and layout man. All three of them were heroes to me, along with an entire crew I can still mostly name, all these years later. Hille and Ed and Darrell and Dano and Doug (RIP) and Bullet and Sven and Lisa and Susan and Joe Mac and Joe and Coach and Tod (also RIP) and Brian (yet another RIP) and even my stepfather, Charles Clines, though we never made much of our connection while at work; we were too circumspect for that.
So, there I am, Saturday afternoon, waiting outside the venue where we're to say our goodbyes to Jon (dammit, I still cannot believe it), and Frank is the first one I see. It's been upward of 30 years since we've lain eyes on each other, but thanks to social media, it's instant recognition and a hug. Waggoner comes, too, and it's the same thing. Thirty years gone, but time, for a few moments anyway, has stood still and let us greet each other. Ana, his wife, same thing. She was there all those years ago at the Star-Telegram, and she was there Saturday, and it was nothing short of wonderful to see all of them.
And it was the next day, on the first leg of a two-session drive home to Montana, that I realized how Jon had blessed me with another gift. I got to hang out with those folks, to hear their stories and to tell mine, and maybe to impart in some way how much I was affected by being around them when I was a little pissant editorial scrub. Not because they condescended to me (they did not) or because they were especially nurturing (they sometimes were, but they had jobs to do that didn't involve nursing me along), but because they provided an example: Here's how the work is done, here's how you take it seriously, here's the difference between being diligent and being lazy, and here's what it looks like when you've done well. I carried that stuff with me to other states and other newspapers and other jobs***, right up until 2013, when I left the print business. I hucked those lessons onto my shoulders when I resumed my career as a journalist****. I was lucky, indeed, to have such role models at such an age.
And we were all lucky to have a friend like Jon.
As for the celebration of life itself, it was bittersweet, as such things tend to be. Jon was well loved by many, and they came out to toast him. Elisa has a really nice remembrance of him at her blog. You should read that. I gave one of the eulogies, which I'll mostly leave to the air that carried it, but there's one part, at the end, that I need to remember for the next loss that takes me to my knees. You live long enough, and they come:
I could rage against the fates that took him so young—when he had a son to see deeper into life, and a wife who loves him so and with whom he made common cause, and birds to tend to, and veterans to honor, and talents yet to be mined and developed, and chicken wings yet to debone.
And yet, I don’t. I’m not angry at the universe for calling him back to stardust, no matter how unfair the timing might seem. How could I be angry, when it’s the universe that gave him to us in the first place? He is my brother. He has been that since the first day he and I looked at each other and mutually acknowledged, yeah, OK, I’ll take a few spins with this wacky bastard. That was our call, our decision, and the vagaries of life and loss have no say in it.
Jon's still here. He's not accessible in the way that I would prefer, but he's with us. And we are with him. Always.
* — Agate, dears, is the small type you see in newspaper box scores and the like. At a major metro paper like the Star-Telegram in the early '90s, it was a full-time job to compile agate, set it, take call-ins over the phone, make a dinner run for the editors, etc.
** — I ended up winning some nice page design awards in my newspaper career, and I've done the design work on an esteemed quarterly magazine for nine years now. It's nice when aspiration meets opportunity.
*** — I went into all that in a Substack post.
**** — See this.
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
Let me tell you a little something about this boy …
As of tomorrow, January 25, he’ll be 3 years old. And because I’m nearly 52 and have learned how fast time seems to go, I have to check myself sometimes against pre-emptively mourning what will happen if the actuarial tables are true for both of us: I’ll have to say goodbye to him and let him go. Most of the time, I can get my head straight, tell myself to enjoy the time I have with him, but sometimes I get fixated not on the past, as is my wont, but on the future. This is one of those times, because he’s hit this milestone.
Contrary to the old saying, he's not my best friend. That is and always will be my wife, as she should be. But he’s my best buddy. I’ve lived to an age—and lived through a pandemic, so far—that has calcified my lack of interest in spending great scads of my time with other people. I’d rather stick to my house and my patterns and our tight little circle here, two people and a cat and a dog. I say again: He is my best buddy. He goes where I go. He hears my thoughts. I check in with him, and he checks in with me. We move around each other like an old married couple, which we're not, but it speaks to the familiarity.
So, anyway, three years ago …
It was Jan. 27, 2019, and Elisa and I were about to step into a movie theater in Brunswick, Maine. Before we did, I checked my email via phone. I had a message from Doxy Den in Mechanic Falls, a breeder (I know, I know—I wanted a dachshund, and this is not a mill; it's a family that loves their dogs):
“The puppies arrived on Friday! We had 5 boys! I have 3 black/tan long hair males available! There are pictures up on our Facebook page. Groot, Drax and Rocket are the puppies that are available. Rocket is tiny but strong and doing well. Groot has a little bit of white on his chin and the tips of his toes.”
I went to the Doxy Den Facebook page, looked at the pups, and made my choice: I’d take Groot (but not the name).
Over the weeks that followed, I watched him grow, from a distance. Because I had a trip back to Montana planned for March, I didn’t pick him up until April 9. He was the last of the five boys to go to his permanent home. The Doxy Den owner’s granddaughter cried because she had to give him up. I cried when I got him to the car on a wintry day, for the long drive home. I'd been waiting on him, and he was finally with me. He spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to crawl from his bed into my lap while I tried to drive. Finally, late in the trip home, he hit the wall (see below).
I’ve had many dachshunds, and I’ve loved them all. Just get me going on Sniffer and Mitzi and Zula and Bodie. I loved them equally, but they came to me at different times in my life, and thus their impacts have been different. Fretless’ importance to me has, perhaps, been a little outsized. My world has gotten smaller these past three years. He’s filling more of it than he might have in another time.
Fretless came to me at a time when we lived in a beautiful place that didn’t feel much like home, and we were still struggling with what to do about that. Fretless and I, almost immediately, began taking long walks in the woods, and he helped me make my peace with Maine. In hindsight, I can see how much I needed that.
Long may he be with me. We're not near done yet.
This is not a résumé.
Nearly fourteen years ago, I drafted my first novel in twenty-five days, in manic bursts of activity—late at night, after I’d come home from my swing shift at the Billings Gazette, pouring coffee down my gullet, then returning to it in the late morning and early afternoon, before work beckoned again. I was at a small desk jammed into a corner of a small loft condo, my back to the door (bad feng shui!), and for those nearly four weeks, I did little other than work, write, sleep, write and take the dogs out. I liked to joke, after that book (600 Hours of Edward) came out, that it was the month my wife and I test-drove divorce, something that wasn’t nearly as funny after we did divorce some years later. But this isn’t about that.
I wrote my second novel (The Summer Son) in the same physical space but in a different headspace. The writing bursts weren’t bursts at all; rather, they were hard, slow-going, bear-down-and-get-it-done sessions—still late at night, for I was still at the Gazette, but not so much in the other hours, and over a much longer stretch than twenty-five days. I rewrote it three times, major revisions, over the course of nearly a year, and it remains the one I’d write again if I had a crack at it. I don’t, thank God.
Novels 3 and 4—oh, man, that was the life. I had a basement office with its own full bathroom in the bungalow my then-wife and I bought when the marriage was simultaneously dying out and still worth the effort of trying to save. Novel 3 (Edward Adrift) played off the re-release of Novel 1 by a new, bigger publisher, and Novel 4 (The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter) was supposed to be my breakout (it wasn’t, but that’s not what this is about).
I was making enough money writing to not have to do the daily journalism grind, so I granted myself release and wrote Novel 5 (This Is What I Want) back in that one-bedroom loft condo, my desk still jammed in that corner, my back still to the door (bad, bad feng shui), because the marriage was over—the kind of over that hurts at the time, as it should, but everybody’s happier now, no hard feelings, and there are occasional friendly notes or chance meetings somewhere. It's nice to say it's all good and mean it. I finished that novel in a hotel room in Missoula, Montana, where I’d gone to lick my wounds and get away from my upstairs neighbor, my father, who, well intentioned as he was, couldn’t have understood the way my heart at the time was afflicted and inflicted, no matter how many ways I might have tried to tell him. But this isn’t about that, either.
Let’s get through this quickly now:
Novel 6: Edward Unspooled, the companion to Novels 1 and 3, was written in a new office with its own full bathroom, in a new house, with the support of my wife, who did me the service of turning my desk around to face the door (good, good feng shui). I published that baby myself, and it saved our bacon that year.
Novel 7: Julep Street, also written in that new office in the new house, also published myself, saved considerably less bacon the following year. I wrote it in fits and starts, for my responsibilities had shifted. I had been inspecting pipelines on the side, and that became more of a center-stage endeavor. I was taking on more freelance, trying to keep the ends coming together every month. Of all the many things Elisa and I imagined for our lives, the coincidental collapse of her writing earnings and mine wasn’t among them, which is when the universe laughs and says “OK, watch this.” But this isn’t about that, either.
Novel 8: You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky, cowritten with Elisa, here in Montana and across the continent in Maine, where we lived for two years. There, I had another office (without a full bathroom, though one was within goose-stepping distance), and again, I put my back to the door because I’m apparently just not very bright. Those were hard years for writing. When Elisa insisted on moving my desk, I got moving on Novel 9 (And It Will Be a Beautiful Life) and wrote most of a play (still unproduced), so maybe there’s something to the unlocking powers of the whole feng shui thing. But nor is this about that.
No, this is about how I write, and to a much lesser degree about where I write, and as I stare at the corner of my desk—back in our house in Montana, back in my office with the full bathroom and the desk facing the door—I look at the printed-out manuscript for Novel 10 (now titled Dreaming Northward, but who knows?), and I realize that I’m envious of anyone who has a set place and a set time to do the work.
Don’t get me wrong: I love stories about process and place. I love seeing pictures of my author friends’ writing spaces. I love matching those pictures up with the work of theirs that I so admire. When I was a boy and thinking that I might like to grow up and write books, I saw a picture of Steinbeck’s Joyous Garde at his house in Sag Harbor, and I had office envy before I even knew what office envy was. But do you know what I envy more? Anyone’s ability to consistently protect their writing time.
I would say, now, that I’m much more like the guy who wrote Novel 1 than the one who wrote Novel 4. I’m back on the swing shift five nights a week, doing journalism (and happy to be doing it, I might add). I design a quarterly print magazine, which is only my favorite gig ever. I take on freelance editing jobs, as many as I can handle, and I'm happy to have them. Up until recently, I ventured out to the pipeline from time to time, and I might well go back to it. I look after an elderly parent. I write when I can, not when I’m scheduled to, because what’s a schedule and how do I get one? I sacrifice sleep on one side or the other sometimes, just to move the plow down the field a little ways. I’ve begun to think there are more doing it the way I do it than not.
Here’s the funny thing, only I’m not laughing: The guy writing Novel 10 is way better at the job than the guy who wrote Novel 1, and that’s indisputable in every measurable way other than the marketplace. But this isn’t about that, either.
The work abides because I do. Because I get older, just like anyone else, and because I ache more than I did fourteen years ago, and because I wouldn’t dare write a book in twenty-five days now even if I thought I could (and I don’t, and it's only through sheer audacity that I ever did), and because my life is incalculably more complicated now than it was then, and it’s also incalculably better now than it was then. I’m better now than I was then. Older, yes. More broken down, surely. But better nonetheless.
And let me tell you, there’s nobody in the world more qualified to write Novel 10—to harvest the memories that inspired it, to ride the imagination that’s driving it, to peel away the story that lies within it—than the guy who’s writing it. This guy. If it gets picked up and edited and published and read, man, I’ll be thrilled. That’s great. That’s what I’m after. But that’s not what this is about.
This is about showing up. This is about doing the work.
That’s how I write. I grab the moments that are available to me, and I do it.
Hello, 2022 ... and all of you here to see it. It's been a trip, huh?
Just before Christmas, in a final furious week of drafting, I finished the first pass at a new novel, which I'm calling Dreaming Northward. It is, as I expected given the brisk pace of my finishing kick, both a fully satisfying arc and a manuscript that needs a lot (A LOT) of work. That's how these things go, at least for me. I write them to see I can get from here to there, then I spend a lot of time cogitating on what I've done, then I rewrite to more fully expose the story I think I'm trying to tell, then I revise, revise, revise to really hone whatever it is that I have. (Followed, of course, by even more editing if—knock wood—the thing gets published, followed then by a beautiful, finished book that I immediately wish I could have another crack at.)
Anyway, I hope to share it with you ... sometime. Probably 2023. We'll see. A lot left to do.
I mention this because my friend Jeff Deck reminded me of something on Facebook today. Here are Jeff's words, which are much more eloquent than mine:
I'm Random Penguin House author Jeff Deck, and I have an important message for you today:
Getting published by a major house will not make you rich.
It will not pay your mortgage. It will not clear up your skin. It will not get rid of those love handles.
It will not make you a bunch of friends, nor will it get you laid. It will not make your distant parent say they're proud of you.
It won't relieve you of the onus (and cost) of marketing your book yourself, either.
What it will do is get your book into physical bookstores. And potentially improve your chances of getting a second book traditionally published. But mostly it's the distribution thing.
Many people fix their eye — and their hopes, and their self-validation — on getting published by a major house. My wish for you is to recognize the value in your work no matter how it ends up being published, whether via the Big Five (Big Four?), a mid-size or small press, or self-publishing.
Recognize the value in it BEFORE it's published, too. The work you put into your story is real. The time you spent improving your own skills along the way should be recognized, and celebrated.
Goals are important for motivation. But you are "worthy" *right now*. And you will continue to be worthy every step of the way.
Writing is a long journey, even (especially) after publication. No matter which publishing route you choose. Belief in your own value — and a daily celebration of your own work and words — will sustain you along the way.
Every word is absolutely true, by the way. I often tell folks that they should celebrate having done the work as much as they celebrate anything that flows from that work. Sometimes, they think I'm bullshitting them. I'm not. The work is sustaining. The rest is ... the rest.
Received some lovely news yesterday. And It Will Be a Beautiful Life was the bestselling book for 2021 at my local independent bookstore, This House of Books. I'm grateful to the bookstore—where I'm a proud member-owner (it's a co-op)—for being such a wonderful supporter of not just my work but of the many, many fine regional writers who are doing such important work here. And I'm grateful to the folks, near and far, who bought a copy from THoB and kept the oxygen flowing to an independent bookstore. The cultural life in my town is much the richer for its presence.
If you'd like a signed copy of the book, THoB will be happy to fulfill that desire. Simply order online and mention in the comment field that you'd like it signed, and I'll hop into my trusty blue Toyota, drive downtown and sign it for you.
And, hey, if it's a paperback you want, I have good news:
The paperback version releases in May, and you can preorder through THoB (I'll be happy to sign those, too, once they come in), through your local independent bookseller (please!) or wherever you get books.
Dispatches from the staying-in-touch department ...
Will the pig run again?
I've written before about my occasional life in pipeline inspection — an association that inspired an entire novel — and had been looking forward to getting out there again in the spring, after the usual wintertime slowdown. Well, maybe, but also looking like probably not. The company for which I did work recently shuttered, and there's an industrywide slowdown, so I may be on the obsolescence end of progress (or regress).
I can't say I'm particularly heartbroken. Pipelines are a destructive, invasive way of delivering extractive sources of energy, and for the future of the planet, it's high time we develop alternatives that are well within our grasp but beyond our political will. On the other hand, there's a practical consideration: We already have the damn things, and we're using them. The job I did was essential to the safety end of matters. Let's hope that continues until we can pull those things out of the ground and return the land to those from whom it was stolen.
I will miss the travel to exotic (read: remote) locales and the chance to meet people in their natural habitat. But that can be enjoined in other ways, obviously.
I recently did something I should have done a long, long time ago: I joined the Authors Guild.
So here's where I cop to self-interest: I began to consider the possibility earlier this year when, quite apart from any involvement from me, my former agency descended into founder-vs.-founder contretemps and my meager royalties from long-ago books started showing up late or not at all. My former agent, also caught in the crossfire as her old shop melted down, was a champion and an ardent defender of my rights, it should be pointed out, and she got my situation squared away, for which I'm eternally grateful. But it occurred to me—again, when my self-interest was compromised, an entirely human condition that I'm trying to rise above—that in this whole solitary business, you have to grab a little solidarity where you can get it and stand strong with those who do what you do.
I'm also reminded of something wise I once heard said by A.W. Gray, a well-regarded crime novelist but better known to me as the father of my boyhood best friend: "The people who need unions the most are those who don't have them."
The rustling around of some of my writer friends tells me November is coming, and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). And sure as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, someone (or several someones) in my circles will openly disdain the whole exercise.
If I wished to be casually dismissive of someone's point of view—to suggest that they haven't legitimately arrived at their thinking—I could certainly do that, but I think not hearing each other has caused us enough problems. My own view is that a communal writing experience, in which thousands upon thousands of people set aside some time and try to create something, is very much a good thing. Perhaps the attendant expectations often get wacky—no, you're probably not going to write a finished novel in a month, and no, laying down 50,000 words and "winning" NaNoWriMo doesn't ensure publication, and no, the act of drafting is not what it's all about—but the expectations aren't the toil or the making of art. You want to spend November trying to pull a novel out of yourself? Bully! Do it!
I won't join you, though, for reasons I'll get into below. And my getting into them might just illuminate what a NaNoWriMo participant can expect from the experience. On the other hand, what do I know and who am I to say? Well ...
1. I've Been There and Done That
In 2008, prompted by my friend Jim Thomsen, I committed myself to a month of writing and had what has turned out to be a dream trip. I drafted my first novel, what eventually became 600 Hours of Edward, in those 30 days. (Actually, it was 25. No, no, wait, it was 17 on account of the off-days; see the breakdown below.)
This, a bit regretfully for me, has become a sort of boilerplate in any account of my subsequent fiction-writing career. It shows up in reviews, gets asked in interviews, etc.: Here's the guy who wrote his first novel in 25 days and got it published and it eventually became an international bestseller and it's just that easy!
It's not just that easy. I've written nine books since then, not a one of them as commercially successful as the first, all of them better pieces of writing (in my estimation), and I've come to view what happened in November 2008 as a one-off, a writing project never to be replicated by me in quite that way again. I had an idea, I gave in to the mania of writing it as quickly as I could because of the format, and I had the good fortune of writing something that has connected more broadly than anything I'd written before or am likely to write again.
I'll take the win and say I've already played the game.
2. For Me, It's About Not Writing as Much as It is About Writing
NaNoWriMo's pitch to prospective participants is pretty irresistible: They say we all have a novel inside us. Commit yourself to finding out.
As far as it goes, a fine idea. And every November, people find their people, fellow writers who are trying to meet the challenge. There are supportive text exchanges and writing get-togethers and coffee klatches, and these are all wonderful things. Writing can be such a solitary, doubt-filled endeavor. NaNoWriMo brings community to the fore.
The thing is, writing novels has helped me learn to embrace the solitude. It's also made me realize that some of the best work I do happens when I'm not at the keyboard, pushing my word count ever higher. It's in the quiet consideration of things, reflecting on the characters and worlds I'm trying to create. It's in feeling the rhythm of the world around me and participating in it. It's in letting the well refill.
All of which is to say that ginning myself up for a writing dash in November is far less important to me than listening inward and doing the things I need to do to stay engaged with my work and with the larger life I have that supports it.
3. The Whole Word-Count Thing
OK, look, I get it: NaNoWriMo is selling "get that novel out," so there has to be an attendant metric by which you measure how successful you were in meeting the challenge.
Word count is just so lacking in so many ways because it puts the wrong objective forward. I can't speak for professional writers who disdain NaNoWriMo—by now, I should be on record as very much pro-the-spirit-of-NaNoWriMo-if-not-necessarily-the-way-it's-sometimes-applied. But many people who've spent a lifetime developing craft, absorbing rejection, trying again, getting better, breaking through will view word count as one of the least important things they do, far less vital than getting the arc right (which will, by its nature, produce the words), clarifying theme, achieving empathy, sharpening the prose, etc. That NaNoWriMo considers 50,000 words success can just feel a little thin when you know just how hard it is to write something worth publishing.
For what it's worth, here's how my word counts proceeded in 2008 (first number is the cumulative total, and the parenthetical is that day's work):
I look at those totals now and feel sheepish that I felt compelled to keep the record and to commemorate it. Why? It wasn't the total that was driving me; it wasn't the prospect of "winning" NaNoWriMo so I'd have a cool pixelated badge I could post here 13 years later. I wrote like mad because I had inspiration on the hook, and having never written a novel previously, I didn't trust myself to let it come to me in a more moderated way. I cannot conceive of an 8,000-word writing day now. I'd probably collapse if I tried it.
But here's the truth: I'm no less excited about my current project than I was about the book that became 600 Hours. I just don't feel the need to sprint. Thus, NaNoWriMo's appeal is lessened.
4. So What To Do?
This ain't a hard question. Do NaNoWriMo, if that's what you're jazzed about doing. Don't if you're not.
Whatever the choice, I'd urge reconsideration of what success is, in literary terms. Success is writing that story, in whatever way you do it and in whatever time it requires. That's it. It's a singular success that stands alone from getting an agent, getting a publishing contract, seeing your story in print, selling a hundred gajillion copies. Success is doing the work. Period. Full stop.
My buddy Jonathan Evison, one of the most talented and generous writers I know, wrote some number of novels and buried them in his backyard long before he broke through to publication. They weren't wasted effort; indeed, Johnny would tell you that work was foundational to everything he does today.
The man speaks the truth.
First thing: I'd be gratified if you'd go to this link, where my wife, Elisa Lorello, keeps her newsletter. She's written eloquently and emotionally this week about her pullback from social media: why she did it in the first place, ways in which she has come back, and why she'll never return to what her presence used to be.
She gets at a lot of the things I've wrestled with, and she's been far stronger than I have as far as making some of her resolutions stick. If you like what you read there, you might consider going to her website and signing up for the weekly (sort of, kind of) dispatch. A little Elisa in your in-box is a day brightener, and we all need those.
The truth is, we've been grappling with social media and its impacts on us, on how we congregate and communion and deal with each other, for as long as we've been becoming friends with Tom and booking staterooms on the S.S. Zuckerberg. It's just that the more pernicious aspects of an online life have been slower to come to us, and by the time they do, we're already addicted to the cat pictures and the easy reconnection with high school friends and the ready microphone for whatever is on our minds. (On mine, mostly: breakfast.)
Every time I'm about ready to declare social media, on the whole, a net negative, I can feel a "yeah, but" bubbling to the surface. Over the weekend, I shared a table with Tom Harpole (author of Regarding Willingness, a great book you should read posthaste) at a library book sale, and we had a humdinger of a time building a genuine human rapport out of a friendship that had, to that point, been nurtured entirely online. So, if I'm ready to bag social media—and I am, baby, I am—am I also ready to foreclose the possibility of future Harpolian friendships?
What about the genuine, deep love I've come to feel for people from my hometown I didn't know that well the first time around (I went to a big-block-store of a high school, so it was mathematically impossible to do it any other way)?
What about the book club in Virginia who'd all be my besties if we lived closer?
What about a dozen other examples I could rattle off without even contemplating it?
I think the greatest disappointment of social media, for me, is that I thought (naively) it would be a tool of greater connection and empathy, and in its worst iterations, it's been precisely the opposite. I cringe when I look back on something like this interview, in which I extolled the virtues. They're so much harder to see now.
And look, I don't think the problem is the technology, per se. We've leveraged new tools in our communication since human history began, from grunts to cave wall drawings in ochre, from plumes to pencils to printing presses to pixels, from phones that share party lines to phones with long-distance tolls to phones that aren't even used, primarily, as talking devices.
But connection was the point, right? And now, in ugly and pervasive ways, the point is division.
Harp said something while we were together, a grand occasion that I think will leave us demanding more like it to keep oxygen flowing in the friendship, and I haven't been able to shake it since: "The world is getting to a place where an empathetic person will find it impossible to live here." (I hope that's near enough to a direct quote. I wasn't taking notes, just reveling in the fellowship.)
I think that's it, in large measure. Empathy is lifeblood for me. I can't imagine getting through my days without it. I can't imagine living in a way that I don't strive for it. I can't imagine wanting to be here without it. I'm going to try to live where kindness lives, to plant it where I am and where I'm headed. I'll fail sometimes, of course. That's part of the human bargain.
But that ideal has to be the north star, or what are we doing here?
(And, yeah, I get the irony of having pounded this out on a website, the link to which I'll distribute on Facebook and Twitter. We're hardwired for hypocrisy.* All of us.)
(* — Credit to the great Barry Eisler for highlighting the Niebuhr passage.)
Quick programming note
Novelist Jamie Harrison and I are doing this online conversation, hosted by the Montana Book Festival, about fiction and families. I think it's going to be a lot of fun with some interesting insights, and if you have some time Saturday (Oct. 16), I'd be well pleased if you joined us. The event is free, but you have to register here to get a spot.
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.
If you like what you see here, please consider a donation (one-time or ongoing, your choice, there's gratitude for everything/anything). It will be used to keep the website aloft, supplies, hardware/software. The necessities that keep a working writer going. Thank you.