Details on how you can enter to win a signed copy of Craig’s new novel, The Summer Son, appear at the end of this post. -RJK
Their friendship was forged in the world of daily newspapers, where Craig Lancaster works as a chief copy editor at the Billings (Mont.) Gazette and Jim Thomsen, until recently, held a similar job at the Kitsap (Wash.) Sun.
When it comes to books and writing, they are literary wingmen – good friends who push each other to do better work and who share occasional miseries and successes. Below, Jim pitches some questions to Craig, the author of 600 Hours of Edward and the recently released The Summer Son, about writing and publishing. Sit back and take in the conversation.
Jim Thomsen: What in your personal history fed into “The Summer Son”?
CRAIG LANCASTER: A lifetime of struggling to understand and get close to a distant father, certainly. This is where I always have to include a disclaimer: Anyone who thinks that I’m Mitch Quillen, the story’s protagonist, or my dad is Jim Quillen, Mitch’s father, is heading down the wrong road. Their issues and protracted distances from each other are much more violent and severe than anything I’ve experienced with my own father, which is what makes their story one worth turning into a novel and ours mostly fodder for quiet reflection.
That said, it’s undeniable that I brought things and places I know into the narrative. Jim is an itinerant well digger; so was my dad. Mitch spends the summer of 1979 in Milford, Utah; so did I. But those really are surface details, chosen because I happen to be familiar with them.Where the story goes, the secrets it unravels, the collision of violence and innocence — it’s all fiction.
JT: Your stories are about the West, but less the Louis L’Amour, cattle-range, Clint Eastwood West than a West that has room for Target stores AND tumbleweeds. How well do these Wests work together, both in your fiction and in the Billings you observe today?
CL: They have to work together, and for any writer working in the West who chooses to write about a contemporary time, there’s no ignoring the fact that Costco, to use just one example, affects those of us in the urban areas and the folks who live in more traditional Western settings. Seriously, if you go to the Billings Costco on a Saturday and look at the license plates in the parking lot, you quickly realize that good chunks of northern Wyoming and eastern Montana have come to the big city to load up on provisions. And what about those odious bull testicles that hang from the trailer hitches of some trucks out here? Those things have to come from somewhere. A city, I’ll bet.
Billings has long had a less-than-stellar image in some other parts of the state, a view I don’t happen to endorse, being a happy resident of the place. I recall reading Ivan Doig’s “The Whistling Season” and one of the characters referring to Billings as the place where the banks and the car lots are. Well, it’s hard to argue with that. But there’s also much to recommend it. I’m quite at home here.
I think part of the reason I’ve been able to be fluent in the suburbs and the earthier locales is that my childhood straddled the two. Nine months a year, I lived with my mother and stepfather and siblings in a garden-variety North Texas suburb, complete with themed subdivisions and fast-food restaurant rows. Once summer came around, I’d decamp for Montpelier, Idaho, or Baggs, Wyoming, or Sidney, Montana — wherever my dad happened to be working. I’d contend that beyond the cosmetic details, life in all those places has more in common with the ‘burbs than it has differences. People work. They raise their kids. They look for something to do on Friday night. They try to get ahead. They go to church. They live. They die.
JT: Obviously, you can’t write worrying about who your audience is or how they’ll receive what you write, but do you believe that there is room in Montana for works of fiction that aren’t patriarchal ranch sagas set on horseback? That allow for fast food and suburban living?
CL: Certainly. It’s been happening for a long time. Kevin Canty’s most recent novel, “Everything,” is a brilliant portrait of life in Missoula now. Larry Watson has plumbed those themes many times. In the wider West, scores of writers — Annie Proulx, Alyson Hagy, Kent Haruf, Sherman Alexie, Benjamin Percy, Jim Lynch, C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, to name a very few — are putting out fantastic books that reflect a more modern view of the West. That’s not to denigrate a good horse opera at all; there’s room for the many, many facets of Western life.
In a recent New York Times profile, Thomas McGuane said he used to bemoan the fact that he hadn’t read a book set in Montana that included a pizza delivery. This is a bit audacious, but I mailed him a copy of my first novel, “600 Hours of Edward,” in which that pedestrian event actually occurs.
JT: “The Summer Son,” at heart, is about a father and sin separated for decades by secrets and stubborn pride and hair-trigger sensitivities. Play armchair shrink for a moment. Why can’t people just talk their shit out? Why do people tell themselves, and each other, that it is actually better not to?
CL: I’ll give you an answer from my experience as a guy who didn’t have a substantive conversation with my father about his life until I was in my thirties: When one party has gone deep into adulthood without a decent model of love and kindness, who grew up having the shit beat out of him by those who were supposed to nurture him, those scars radiate to everyone who tries to get close. I lived in fear of what my father’s reaction to those conversations might be — not so much that he would become violent with me, because he never did, but that asking him to relive those memories might wound him somehow. The problem was, by stifling my natural curiosity, I didn’t deal very well with his inadequate parenting when I was too young to understand what contributed to it. Fortunately, I have a wonderful mother and a stepfather who showered me with love and encouragement, and I can thank them for raising me to be a reasonably decent man. But I still wanted that validation from my dad, and it was only after I stopped holding him to a standard he couldn’t meet that we began to make some inroads to each other.
One of our big breakthroughs came about a decade ago, when I unraveled the mystery of what happened to his father, who dropped out of his life for good when Dad was about seventeen. Thanks to some Internet sleuthing, I tracked Fred Lancaster to his resting place on a hill in Madras, Oregon, and even came into some contact with people who knew him in his later years. I was able to bring Dad some answers, some pictures of his own father, and perhaps some closure. Dad’s not effusive enough to show it, but I think that moved him, that I would go to those lengths to understand him. Since then, he’s begun to open up about things.
JT: You were fully prepared to self-publish “The Summer Son,” as you originally did your debut novel, “600 Hours Of Edward,” when AmazonEncore came calling. Knowing you well enough to know that you wouldn’t just grab on to any traditional-publishing deal — that you don’t see such deals as validating you as a writer — I know you wouldn’t have signed on with the world’s biggest mover of books if you didn’t feel it was the right fit. In a time of shrinking advances, shrinking royalties, shrinking print runs and shrinking faith in traditional publishing, why was this the right move for you?
CL: The things I look hardest at, in terms of book commerce,are marketing and distribution, because even with social networking and the democracy of e-books, these are the hardest things for a lone author to mount.I can find good editing, good design, good book-building, but my get-out-the-word skills are passable, at best. With AmazonEncore, ciphering out marketing and distribution was a pretty simple equation. It’s part of an organization that has more data on consumer behavior than perhaps anyone else in the world. Add to that the fact that Encore is publishing some tremendously interesting titles and making a name as an author-friendly place, and I didn’t have to spend much time deciding whether to cast my lot there. And now that I’ve experienced the care that went into this book and held it in my hands, I think Encore has trumped me even on the elements that I thought I had under control.
I made a similar decision, on a different scale, with my first book. I’d found some minor success lugging it around in the back of my car, but turning it over to the folks at Riverbend Publishing gave it a reach here in my home region that I simply could not have replicated. Would it have been a Montana Honor Book and a High Plains Book Award winner when I was its sole champion? Perhaps. But I kind of doubt it. In both cases, I’m confident I made the right decision for me and for my book.
JT: You’ve been an unusual success story so far because you’ve had two publishing contracts without the services of a literary agent. I gather that this wasn’t by design, so talk about how this came to be — and how you’d like ideally to proceed in the future.
CL: Well, it’s damned hard to get a literary agent, even for established authors. And I didn’t spring into this thing as a guy with a lot of patience, although I’m slowly learning that life will be easier for me if I develop a bit of it. I had a few nibbles and kind encouragement with “Edward,” but I didn’t find an agent. With “The Summer Son,” I didn’t even look for one. While I’m not an adherent to Ayn Rand, I will admit to a bit of a Roarkian streak that mostly serves me well. I simply decided, well, the hell with it, I’m going to do what I do, and if I do it well enough, representation will work itself out. Eventually. Maybe.
Now, this is important: I am not one of those strident I-don’t-need-an-agent types. I’ve met a few of those, and often they’re similar in stripe to the I-don’t-need-an-editor types who proliferate in the publishing dystopia we seem to be entering. Those people, in my opinion, are delusional. I have a pretty clear-eyed view of the considerable benefits that a good agent delivers, and nothing would please me more than finding a partner as I continue on what I expect to be a long career. But there was no way I was going to put two good novels in the trunk simply because I couldn’t find an agent.
JT: We’ve talked a lot privately about promotional strategies for authors on shoestring budgets. Can you share some of your observations and experiences about what’s worked best — and what hasn’t been so effective?
CL: It’s a wired world, but one of the beautiful things about the book business is that it’s still built on relationships. It’s wonderfully, charmingly low-tech in that way. I’ve certainly cultivated some readers through being available online, but I don’t think my shilling had much to do with it. I’m a human first, whether it’s on someone’s Facebook page or at the library in front of a group of engaged readers. You connect with them, learn a little something about them, share a little something about yourself, and you see the extrapolatory effect as they become advocates for you and your work.
Almost everything I’ve done of a promotional nature has included something in the way of a personal touch. The earliest pre-orders of “The Summer Son” came with a little bonus book called “I Gotta Tell Facebook About This” that was basically a distillation of the wackiest stuff I’ve posted online. I once received an order for “600 Hours of Edward” through my website, and less than 20 minutes later, I was on the guy’s doorstep, handing him his book. He’ll remember that, and I’ll remember him. This stuff is important.
As my first book gained some traction here in my hometown, book clubs started inviting me to come and break bread with them and talk about the book. I absolutely love those invitations. It increases the value of the experience for the people who were kind enough to read my book, and it certainly gives me a terrific sense of validation and some cool new friends.
As far as what hasn’t been effective, I hate to say this because I absolutely love getting editorial reviews, but I haven’t received a published review yet that created a noticeable spike in sales. Word of mouth is the coin of the realm.
JT: Talk about the community of writers, readers and book-industry people that an author must gather to be as successful as possible. What do you ask of them, and what do you volunteer in return? How does one go about building this village?
CL: You are much more qualified to answer this than I am, as you’re the king of gathering in friends from across the industry. I think it goes back to what I said about relationships:
Readers are the lifeline; without them, there is no reason to do the work. And the energy generated by really connecting with folks who are passionate about your work specifically and books in general is drug-like in its potency.
Other writers can commiserate with you, give you advice, create huge breaks for you (I am a Jonathan Evison fan for life for the unbidden kindnesses he’s shown me), show you how to conduct yourself. I’ve been awed by the generosity of some of the people I’ve met, and it has solidified my resolve to be as helpful as I can to anyone who approaches me. On the flip side, I’ve been crushed by the cruelty of a couple of people I’ve met — an extreme minority, thank goodness — but, then, there are lessons in that, too.
Finally, a word of advice to anyone who expects to sell books in bookstores: Know your booksellers. Become their friends. You should do this first because they are, across the board, fabulously interesting people with a boundless love of books. You should do this second because a bookseller who puts your book in his/her customers’ hands is a godsend. So write a kick-ass book and make some kick-ass connections.
JT: Given the unorthodox way you broke into this racket, what advice would you have for writers hoping to fast-track their way to publication? What would you urge them NOT to do?
CL: The term “fast-track” kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies. I know that’s odd to say, given the speed with which I wrote, sold and published my first two novels, but bear with me. This is a fascinating time in publishing, in that the ability to quickly get an e-book on the market has created something of a gold rush among prospective authors. Certainly, if you read the blog of someone like J.A. Konrath, the attraction of rushing a book into the marketplace is powerful. That guy is making money hand over fist, and so are a lot of other people.
But here’s the danger: If you’re in love with the idea of being published but not so much with doing the hard work of publishing a good book, you’re doing yourself and your prospective readers a real disservice. Konrath, for one, talks about publishing almost exclusively in numbers: how much he’s making, how quickly he can write a book, how many books he can write in a year. There’s a seduction in those words, and they perhaps unintentionally reduce book writing to something no more magical than the mass production of widgets. I’ve never found it to be that pedestrian, and if it ever felt that way to me, I’d probably quit. So while coveting publication and all the trappings that come with it, prospective authors should never lose sight of this: It’s all pretty pointless if you’re not writing a good book.
JT: One of the hard realities of being a published author today is that one can’t expect to be successful just writing books — one must also write short stories, novellas, essays, reviews and journalistic articles, among other forms of writerly achievement, to keep the checks coming and their name constantly out in front. Talk about what you’ve seen others do that you’ve admired, and what you’re doing.
CL: I’m not sure it’s just today. Most of the writers I know, even the ones who are unqualified successes, do other things to move the financial chains, whether it’s teaching in an MFA program, setting up writers’ workshops, manning the night shift at a convenience store or, like me, toiling on the copy desk of a newspaper. I admire and envy the writers who have steady gigs teaching in writing programs; I think that would be a marvelous way to keep one’s head in the game, help shape up-and-coming voices and maintain a creative edge on one’s own projects.
What I’m doing these days is writing a lot of short stories and really being attuned to ideas that lend themselves to the shorter form. The way things are looking now, I’ll probably have a collection of stories to pitch before I’ll have Novel No. 3 ready to go. And the nice thing about short stories is that they can be sold to literary journals first, generating a little coin before being gathered up into a bundle. Despite my art-for-art’s-sake answer to the previous question, I like coin as much as the next guy. Maybe even a little more.
JT: Ready for a drink yet? What’ll you have?
CL: Yes, please. The polite drinker in me would like a Jack and Coke. The rest of me, the one trying to cut some pounds, would prefer some Crystal Light. Raspberry, if you don’t mind.
You can enter to win a signed copy of Craig Lancaster’s new novel, The Summer Son, simply by leaving a comment below. The winner will be chosen randomly tomorrow, Wednesday February 2, by noon EST. – RJK