A few days ago, a nice woman named Lynne wrote to me and said how much she enjoyed 600 Hours of Edward (always wonderful to hear) and that her book club was reading it (ditto). I wrote back and asked where her book club is, expecting to hear Billings or someplace else here in Montana.
While I won’t be able to make an in-person visit to Lynne’s club, we’re working on piping me in via conference call. In the meantime, I invited her to send me a list of questions to answer via e-mail. Here’s a look at those, and the answers I sent back:
1. Since this is your first book, has the idea been in your head for a long time?
The funny thing about this story is that it wasn’t until my head until a couple of days before I started writing it. A friend of mine, Jim Thomsen, asked me in late October of 2008 if I’d try National Novel Writing Month with him (NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, happens every November, with the challenge being to put down 50,000 or more words in the month). At first, I declined; I’d tried NaNoWriMo before and never gotten very far with it. Then, a couple of days later, an idea sprouted in my head: What if I took someone who lived his life in a very rigid way, almost as if he were ruled by the clock, and then I started kicking the legs out from under him? This idea had two big advantages: First, it had built-in drama. Second, by using someone who lived his life in patterns, I could write quickly, thereby giving myself the best possible chance at succeeding at NaNoWriMo. I took a couple of days to sketch out a story outline, and at midnight on Nov. 1, I started writing.
2. Was it based on personal knowledge of someone like Edward?
Edward doesn’t have a real-life model. A lot of the surface things — the bands he likes, the Dallas Cowboys fixation — he has in common with me, but that was really only because I could write those things quickly. I could have made him a Washington Redskins fans, I suppose, but that would have made me physically ill and I would have had to research the particulars, which would have cost me time.
I did only a cursory amount of research on Asperger’s — just enough to feel confident that I had the traits down. Again, this was more a function of time than anything else, but in hindsight, it was a fortuitous thing. Had I known then what I know now about Asperger’s, I might well have gotten bogged down in the sort of clinical details that are blessedly absent from this book. One of the things that readers seem to find charming about it is that Edward’s condition is just part of the tapestry; it’s not THE story. The larger themes of fitting in, of not traveling the road alone, of fellowship with others — those things end up carrying the day, not the fact that Edward is an Aspie.
3. How long did you work on the book?
So, I mentioned earlier the NaNoWriMo aspect … Well, I succeeded at the goal: I wrote 50,000 words in November 2008. Actually, I wrote nearly 80,000 by Nov. 24, finishing the first draft. I spent December and January polishing it, but it was a book that needed little revision. Mostly, I went through and struck the phrases that sounded like me rather than like Edward. But on the whole, it was the easiest second draft I’ve ever dealt with. Contrast it with my second novel, The Summer Son, which took three months to draft — and nine months of subsequent drafts to get it right.
4. How long did it take you to get it published?
I self-published it almost immediately, in February 2009. I was blissfully ignorant; after it had been praised but rejected by two literary agents, I figured, hey, I just want it out there. I knew my mom would buy it. I was pretty sure my brother would, especially if I gave him the money. I literally had no concept of whether it was good, bad, commercial, not commercial. To me, the achievement was having completed a novel. So I started thumping it around my home region — talking to civic groups, going to arts festivals, that sort of thing. A funny thing happened: People started reading it and liking it and telling other people. In August 2009, Chris Cauble, the owner of Riverbend Publishing in Helena, Mont., sent me a note and said he liked the book and wanted to acquire it. I was thrilled to let him have it.
He gave it a new name (the original title was Six-Hundred Hours of a Life), a new cover, a new life. With Riverbend behind it, the book was picked as a Montana Honor Book and is currently a finalist for a High Plains Book Award. It’s getting wider notice. I’m pretty sure a book club in North Texas wouldn’t have taken it on when I was selling it out of the back of my car.
5. What is the best writing advice you ever received?
I’m going to cheat and give two pieces of advice, one old, one recent.
The first is simply that you have to do it. I can’t tell you the number of people I meet who say “I have a book inside me, I just know it.” Then they spend the next 10 minutes giving me all the reasons they can’t find time to write. Well, if you can’t find time to write, guess where the book is going to stay? I don’t mention that to be flip or self-important. I’m sympathetic to the idea of busy lives; I have a full-time job, a wife, a needy, elderly father. I have things on my plate. But I make time for writing. The only way to do it is to do it. Sounds simple. But it’s difficult.
The recent piece of advice is something Walter Kirn (the author of Up in the Air) said in an interview with Montana Quarterly:
“I believe there’s a ratio between reading and writing; you have to read 200 pages to write one paragraph. Minimum. Reading is mulch for writing; you have to lay down layer upon layer of organic material to get one tiny tender shoot of plant life.”
That struck me as incredibly prescient and profound. The reason I became a writer is that I loved to read, loved words, loved sentence structure. A lifetime of reading prepared me for this novel-writing business. Believe it or not, I do meet writers who say they aren’t big readers. I always wonder how that works.
6. What is the worst writing advice you ever received?
I find most mechanical advice — outlining vs. not outlining, time of day to write, how to do revisions, etc. — to be basically useless if it’s couched in “you must do this” terms. When people ask me about these things, I tell them what works for me, and then I caution them that their mileage may vary. Part of the journey of being a writer is finding what works for you, then playing to that.
7. Can you give 2 or 3 tips for aspiring writers?
Always make time to write. The only way you get better is by doing it, again and again and again.
Some writers have made it big by chasing trends, but there’s also great danger in it. Trends, by definition, change. Writing that comes from the heart, though, is timeless.
Develop a thick skin. If you’re writing for publication, you’re going to be rejected. A lot. Better get used to it now.
8. What were your inspirations for writing 600 Hours of Edward?
I think I’m far enough away from the writing of the book to be able to analyze why it was successful when so many other attempts at writing a novel previously failed. In July 2008, I had a terrible motorcycle accident on Interstate 94 — a deer jumped out in my path, and I laid the bike down at 65 mph. I broke half my ribs, collapsed a lung, lacerated my spleen, road rash on my arms … just bad, bad, bad. In the aftermath of that, as I recuperated, I started thinking about things I’d always wanted to do but hadn’t, for whatever reason. So I was motivated in a way that I’d never been motivated before.
9. Can you tell us a little about your next book, The Summer Son?
It’s coming out in January 2011 from AmazonEncore (shameless plug: Amazon has an AMAZING price on it right now, and it’ll be delivered the day it releases). It’s quite a different story from 600 Hours, one whose emotional themes hit much closer to home for me. I’m really proud of it.
The story is told from the point of view of Mitch Quillen, a guy on the edge of 40 whose whole life seems to be unraveling: bad marriage, on the skids at work, etc. He’s suffered a lot of losses in his life, and he blames most of them on his father, a man he’s seen only two times in 30 years.
One day, his father calls, then bails out of the conversation. Then he calls again and does the same. This goes on for about a week, until finally, Mitch’s fed-up wife, in part for her own reasons, pushes him out of the house and says “go settle this thing.”
“This thing” is the crux of the story. Something happened to Mitch and his dad in the summer of ’79, and it’s been a wedge between them since. The story moves in two directions: forward, in present day, as Mitch and his dad start hacking away at the considerable enmity between them, and backward, to the summer in question, as Mitch deals with his feelings and begins to become aware of things that weren’t obvious to him when he was a boy. And then the two narratives collide …
I was fascinated with the idea of point of view. First person, while intimate, is also incredibly limiting, but that served my purposes in this story. Mitch views his father in certain terms, and those terms are based on what he’s seen and experienced. I would imagine that any of us, given the same information, would develop a similar view. But Mitch’s viewpoint doesn’t take in the whole story, and it’s the things he can’t see that rock his world when he finally becomes aware of them.
More shameless plugging. Here’s what novelist Richard S. Wheeler said about The Summer Son:
“Craig Lancaster’s magnificent novel, THE SUMMER SON, travels straight into the realm of broken hearts and hurt souls only to discover miraculous things at the core of each of us: grace and love. This is one of those rare novels that will live from generation to generation, offering sunlight to those who think the human race lives only in a stormcloud.”
If you want to get an idea of where my head was when I started writing The Summer Son, check out my blog: https://craiglancaster.wordpress.com. There’s an item up now about my own father-son story, one that certainly informed the writing of this book.
10. Are you working on the next one?
I’m about 16,000 words into Novel No. 3, but I’ve taken an extended hiatus from it while I ramp up promotional efforts for The Summer Son. In mid-October, I’m going to clear out a few months and dive deeply into the book in the hopes that I can finish a first draft before The Summer Son releases. Once I’m in full-on promotional activities, I won’t have a lot of time for anything but revising.
11. Being a good Texas son, how did you end up in Billings? What is your favorite part of Montana?
I grew up in Texas, but I wasn’t born there. Montana has always been a place where we’ve had family. My mom and dad met at a party on the Rims above Billings back in 1963, and I always had aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandma here, so Billings was a regular destination on family vacations. When I met and fell in love with a Montana girl in 2006, I took the opportunity to move from California and come to this place that had always held such wonder for me.
My wife is from far eastern Montana, so we spend a lot more time on the prairie and in the badlands than we do in the mountains. The Montana I’ve come to love is actually the one that isn’t in most folks’ imagination of the place. And that’s fine — it keeps the interlopers and the real-estate speculators on the other side of the state.
I’ll say this, though: You’ve never seen a sunset until you’ve been on a windswept plain, with the fading rays sparkling off the buttes in the distance. It’s magical.