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I love getting to know other writers, particularly those who work in a literary area other than mine. (That sounds really bad, doesn’t it? This is my area. That over there is yours. Stay out of here.) I love hearing about their work habits, the way they cultivate ideas, how they sharpen their stories. In general, I find more similarities than differences, although the differences can be stark.
Take today’s guest, Jamie DeBree. Like me, she’s an author who lives in Billings, Montana. Like me, she’s holding down a day job and pursuing her novel-writing dreams in her off-hours. Like me, she doesn’t sleep (very much). Unlike me, she writes sexually charged romances. In, uh, doing research for this interview, I read her novel Tempest and was impressed with how well she developed her characters (and, yes, she certainly brought the heat, too). Romance is not my preferred area of reading, but I enjoyed Jamie’s book very much. More than that, I had to find out what led her down this particular path, as a romance writer and the proprietor of her own publishing house, Brazen Snake Books.
Here’s her story:
What lit your fuse for writing? Do you recall an a-ha moment where you thought, “OK, this is what I want to do”?
I think I’ve always “felt” like a writer — it was back in high school that I first voiced my desire to write books. To which my parents very logically responded, “You’re gonna need a real job first.” Turns out, they were right. It was only a few years ago that I really decided to get serious and try to make some money with my writing, but I don’t remember any specific moment, because writing has always just been there, a constant in my life, even during the years I wasn’t writing anything.
You came into the business as a committed independent, even though your genre is certainly well-covered by traditional publishing houses. What was behind that decision?
When I was young and dreaming of being a writer, I always thought I’d self-publish my writing. I’ve always tended toward the control-freak side of things, and I’m kind of an outsider anyways, so doing it myself fits my personality. When I finally decided to actively work at publishing my books and joined the online writing community, I was hit on all sides by the “self-publishing is bad and self-publishers suck” stigma, and bought into it for a while. But the whole process of trying to write for a specific line, the hoops (that had nothing to do with writing) required to even get a manuscript on an editor’s desk and the fact that as a new author I wouldn’t be making much money anyways was just so overwhelmingly against the idea of building a successful career that I nearly quit writing altogether. It wasn’t what I wanted from my writing experience. That’s when I hit that question I think all writers eventually have to come to terms with: “Why am I doing this?”
I decided that the reason I wanted to write was simply to entertain people. And to do that, I didn’t need a publishing contract with a house, I just needed a venue. I started posting a draft on my blog, I got some nice comments, and at the same time, self-publishing was starting to be a more acceptable option (the stigma is still there, but it’s far easier to deal with these days). Excited that finally I could do it myself, I jumped into the self-pub pool and haven’t looked back since I made my first sale.
You and I have talked a fair amount about characterization. Why is it so important to your sexually charged stories?
Characters are the heart of any story, in my opinion. My characters drive the plot, and what they’re thinking and feeling at any given time is what keeps that all-important sexual tension high, and determines what happens next both in the story and in their growing relationship. To that end, I do my best to get deep into my character’s heads and pay attention to what they would logically be thinking and feeling from moment to moment and write from that, even if it doesn’t fit the plot I originally envisioned. I think this makes the entire relationship more realistic than if I try to make it fit a certain “box,” though it does get pretty messy sometimes as far as fears, insecurities and stubbornness go. Unlike real life though, the relationships in my books always work out in the end — usually without any extra help from me.
What’s your personal aesthetic for a sex scene?
Hot, but not crass, if that makes any sense. A sex scene without emotion is porn, and that’s not what I write. I like frank language and I want to feel what each character is feeling throughout. I think a lot can be learned about characters in the heat of a very sexually charged moment. I try to invoke a physical response in the reader, to bring them right into the story with the characters so they’re just as invested in the relationship. Emotions are often invoked or magnified by the senses — touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. I try to use all of those to make the scene very real, and show the reader the emotions that my characters are going through at that point in time. If it makes things more complicated when it’s over, all the better.
You and Carol Buchanan — two writers who are working entirely different parts of the literary universe — have teamed up to write a series of blog posts on sex scenes. How in the world did that partnership come about?
Actually, it was Carol’s idea. She e-mailed me last fall, having read one of the draft sex scenes on my blog, and asked if I’d like to collaborate with her on a comparison in styles for writing sex scenes. Naturally I couldn’t turn down an offer like that. It’s been a lot of fun to study the angle from our very different genres and perspectives. I think we’re both learning a lot from each other, and clarifying our own processes as we explore the subject in blog articles.
You’re a transparent writer, in that you post weekly your progress on a story. Why do that, as opposed to rolling it out when you’re done?
Motivation, mostly. I’m a writer who needs an audience — while many writers claim to write for themselves first, I write predominantly to entertain others. While I do occasionally work on drafts that aren’t serialized, I’m happiest when I know someone’s waiting for the next installment.
There are a lot of other benefits I get from it — my drafts, while still rough, have improved immensely because I’m very conscious that people read them as I go. I tend to plot on the fly (i.e., I don’t really outline), and serializing forces me to maintain a linear plot and pay very close attention to continuity while I’m drafting — which means less work for me on the revision side. I also have to re-orient readers quickly at the beginning of each scene, and entice them to come back for the next one at the end, so it’s helped me learn how to keep readers turning the page (or so I’ve been told, anyways). It’s basically my practice arena, and I invite readers to watch just exactly how a story is “born” in my world. I see no reason for it to be some mystical, secret thing we writers hide away. Nearly all creative endeavors are messy in the beginning, and I don’t think we should be afraid or ashamed of that.
Like many (most?) other writers, you have a day job. How do you balance your time among that, the writing, your husband and home life, etc.?
I like quiet when I’m writing, which means my normal writing hours are between around 11 pm and 1 am (2 am if the scene of the day is particularly frustrating), after the dogs and my husband are settled for the night. I can’t edit that late (the analytical portion of my brain tends to fade out earlier), so a lot of revisions/editing take place while I’m watching TV in the evenings and on the weekends. I’ve been known to load my draft on my Kindle and head to the break room at 10 am and 3 pm for 15-minute editing sessions at the day job too. Writing is basically a second job for me — in the evenings after dinner I’m writing blog posts, updating my web sites, socializing on various online platforms (ie, marketing), and watching TV with my husband. Luckily, I’m a very good multitasker and also very disciplined (I love routines and keep fairly strict schedules), so somehow it all gets done. Although I’ve been trying to remember to order more business cards for three weeks now … and please don’t stop by without calling, so I have time to vacuum and pick up the dog toys.
What do you read for pleasure?
Whatever I can get my hands on, really — I generally have 2-3 books going at any given time. My parents always encouraged reading widely across genres for a well-rounded experience when I was young and I’ve kept that habit. So while romance (all sub-genres), erotica and thrillers are the genres I read in most, I also read mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, westerns and literary novels as they come my way. The only genre I really don’t read much of is young adult — I have nothing against the genre, it just doesn’t hold my interest (and didn’t really even when I was young).
What’s next from you?
I’m nearly finished with the serial draft of The Biker’s Wench, the first book in my Fantasy Ranch series scheduled for release this coming July. Monica Burns is running from a forced marriage and ends up at a ranch outside Reno, Nevada, that specializes in making adult fantasies come true. Her father finds her there, but before she can run again she gets an unexpected offer of help from Harley Majors, the owner of the ranch. She reluctantly accepts, but her father turns the tables on them and dangerous chaos ensues as they work to outwit her father and win her freedom once and for all.
I’m also working on revisions to Her Private Chef, a novel I wrote a couple years ago about a split-personality food critic and a popular TV chef with the power to ruin her career. I plan to finish that up and release it sometime next fall. It’s a fun story, and I’m excited to finally be working on it again.
Jamie DeBree’s website: http://jamiedebree.com
Purchase links for Jamie’s books: http://brazensnakebooks.com
Jamie’s blog: http://varietypages.jamiedebree.com
Jamie’s page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NovelistJamieDeBree
Jamie’s Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/JamieDeBree
Jenny Shank’s winning debut novel, The Ringer, comes out this month, and readers will be treated to a fine book that uses baseball to delve into issues of family and class.
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about it:
Shank debuts promisingly with the dramatic story of two families upended by an accidental police shooting. Denver police officer Ed O’Fallon is wracked with guilt after he guns down a man during a drug raid; Patricia Maestas, meanwhile, is instantly made a widow and single mother. Their narratives are equally engaging: as Ed’s marriage buckles under the weight of his feelings of guilt, Patricia struggles to keep her 12-year-old son, Ray, out of trouble. What keeps Ray off the streets is baseball—the same sport Ed’s sons are devoted to. When an investigation reveals the warrant for the fateful raid had the wrong address, Patricia and her family become a symbol of the wrongs suffered by the Latino community. The novel comes to a full boil after Patricia and Ed discover one another’s identities through their sons’ baseball teams.
Shank, the book blogger for New West and an active reviewer, was kind enough to take a few questions on how her book came to be, America’s pastime and how her day job keeps her focused on her own writing dreams.
Where did the idea for The Ringer come from?
I enjoy novels that give the reader an inside look at a particular subculture—for example, you learn a lot about the atmosphere of an advertising agency in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End or you learn about John Henry memorabilia enthusiasts in Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. The intense world of competitive youth baseball is a subculture I knew well.
In 1999, when I was just beginning to contemplate writing a baseball novel, the Denver Police raided a house in north Denver on a no-knock drug warrant, and shot and killed Ismael Mena, the Mexican immigrant that they encountered inside. Later it came out that their informant had given them the wrong address of the house, and they’d killed someone whose house they had no business entering. I was shocked and moved by this incident, and I watched it all unfold. In the aftermath, there was a lot of racial tension in the city between whites and Latinos. The part of this story that interested me most as a novelist was the fact that the cop who killed the wrong man was not responsible for the mistake on the warrant—he was doing his job, carrying out orders. I imagined the guilt he felt must be incredible.
I was also interested in writing about Denver, because there aren’t many novels set in my hometown. So I combined these ideas of writing about baseball and Denver with this growing feeling that I had to in some way address the shooting of Ismael Mena by the Denver police, because it seemed to me to be an important, elemental story, one that could tell us a lot about Denver if we’d listen to it.
Once you had the basic idea, how much cultivating did you do before you started writing? In other words, what is your work process like?
I started to keep a folder with press clippings on the Ismael Mena shooting. I did a lot of research on police, studying what it’s like to be involved a shooting. I spoke to cops and families of cops that I happened to know or meet. My cousin is married to a police officer in Omaha, and he told me in smaller cities, patrol officers often train for SWAT work, and then are on call when SWAT situations arise. (Smaller cities can’t afford to have SWAT officers sitting around, because there isn’t a need for them every day.) So I decided to have this be the case for Ed.
Somewhere in the middle of this research, I started writing a draft, working forward from the scenes I could envision easily. When I realized I was beyond my depth, I’d do more research. I made an informal outline of scenes I thought should be in it, and I gradually refined it. It took years of rewriting drafts and getting stuck and getting unstuck to produce the final version. I rewrote the first fifty pages more than anything—it took me years to figure out the right tone and perspective.
The workshop of this novel happened in public, with it being an Amazon Breakthrough Novel and James Jones First Novel Fellowship semifinalist. How much did the feedback you got along the way affect the version that was submitted to The Permanent Press?
Actually, those contests didn’t involve much public workshopping, but they inspired me to continue working on this bear of a project. I entered the beginning of the book in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest in 2005. I hit a low moment of frustration and difficulty in drafting the novel about then, but when I heard it was a semifinalist, I thought, “Well, they saw something in it,” and that gave me the courage to continue. I entered it in the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in 2008. There were something like 10,000 entrants and my book made it to the final 100. They posted two chapters online, and I received all kinds of positive feedback, and some of it wasn’t even written by my relatives. Reaching the semi-final round in that contest gave me the final push I needed to revise it one more time, and after that revision I was able to find an agent.
The real workshopping of this book happened with my writing buddies. I traded novel chapters with my friend, the writer Paula Younger, and we helped each other through the process. Poor Paula has read so many drafts of this novel, she deserves combat pay. I also have a writing group I meet with once a month.
It seems to me that some of the characterizations in the book — a cop sidelined from coaching baseball because of an anger problem, immigrants — could have ended up being caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer. How did you manage to pull off making everyone, be they main characters or supporting ones, three-dimensional and real?
Thank you. And believe me, I am about as “lesser” as writers come. Early drafts were full of melodrama and caricature, but after you work on a book for eight years, it’s possible to beat those problems out of it. The plot of The Ringer is dramatic, and dramatic plots all sound like movie-of-the-week specials when you read a description of them. There were scenes I knew I had to write because they belonged in the arc of the story, but that I was afraid to approach for just this reason.
For example, in one chapter Patricia has to give a speech to a rally of supporters at the state capitol. There was so much potential for caricature in that—I mean, it just seems like a set-up for an eventual Jennifer Lopez Oscar clip. After worrying for a long time, I finally just wrote the scene, and it was bad, and I rewrote it, and it was still bad, and I took another angle on it, and it was still bad. I kept rewriting that chapter right up until the time I had to turn in the manuscript to The Permanent Press, and finally I think it at least seems plausible. I mean, real people do end up in situations like this. I told myself not to try to be cute, coy, or clever and just try to get the big drama of this story onto the page as clearly and honestly as possible.
Let’s talk a little baseball. What’s your background in the game? Your love and knowledge of it certainly came through in the book.
I was raised in a house of sports fanatics. My older brother was a great baseball pitcher and home run hitter. He was offered scholarships by many colleges and even was invited to tryouts for pro teams when he was in high school, and he was named to the all-state team for Colorado. But he hurt both of his knees, and three or four ACL surgeries later…he’s a fantastically successful sales executive for a software corporation. My cousin Tommy Hottovy is a left-handed pitcher. He played ball for Wichita State and he’s been in the Red Sox minor league organization for many years. He currently pitches for the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. So growing up I had an inside view of the feeder system for big league teams—the intense competition starts early, and there are many, many road trips. I also played a lot of softball. I was a catcher, not quite as good as my brother, though I wasn’t terrible—I made Denver’s all-city team several years.
I loved writing about baseball because I knew I didn’t have to worry about getting those parts right. A few parts of my childhood worked their way into The Ringer, such as how my brother would make me help him sort his annual complete baseball card set, the rules of our backyard baseball games, and the July trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the regional baseball tournament every season.
Books that have the sort of arc found in The Ringer generally need a means of bringing disconnected people together, and baseball certainly does that in your book. What were the challenges of using a game to illuminate racial divides and divergent viewpoints?
So far most of the fiction that I’ve written has been about race in some way. When I was growing up, Denver’s public schools had court-ordered busing for racial integration. Beginning when I was six years old, I rode the bus to schools that were thirty minutes or more away from my house, schools in which whites were in the minority. I spent part of my childhood attending schools that were mostly Mexican-American, and part of it at schools that were mostly black. I think because of this, it has always seemed natural to me to tell stories from two perspectives at once. It seems to me that all stories have at least two sides to them, if not ten!
I often write about situations in which people of different races are forced to be together, and sports are one area where that happens consistently. I played sports in school and because of that I made friends with people of all different ethnicities—people who didn’t play sports didn’t tend to mingle as much. I’ve also written stories about football, track, and basketball, stories that are really about race. Though the challenges in writing my book were gargantuan, I never worried about using baseball to write about race. That felt natural, maybe in part because the history of Major League Baseball is inextricable from the history of the Civil Rights movement.
The designated hitter: useful innovation or blight on the game?
Oh dear. I’ve got to say something either impassioned or witty! I guess I like the wackiness of how the American League has a DH and the National League doesn’t, and when NL andAL teams play each other they have to follow the rules of the home team. Because you think of Major League Baseball as being one entity, but it’s not really—it’s two halves that could not agree on something as seemingly simple as this rule. And anything wacky, I’m for. Also I like how having a DH allows some older, out-of-shape players to hang around for some more seasons. I’m fond of out-of-shape baseball players.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why?
Probably Ray. Although all of the characters are fictional, and I can’t say that any of them are based on real people, I went to school with a lot of kids who remind me of Ray, and I’ve always wondered what happened to them. Ray’s attractive, talented, and cocky and at this point his life could go either way, which is an interesting state to write about a character in.
In what ways has your job as the book reviewer/blogger for New West made you a better writer?
I’ve learned almost everything I know about writing from a combination of massive amounts of reading, analyzing what I’ve read by writing book reviews, and the chance to interview other writers. I wrote book reviews for the Rocky Mountain News for eight years, I’ve been covering books for New West for about four years now, and last year I started writing book reviews for the Dallas Morning News. So I’m a book-review-aholic.
Knowing that I’m going to have to write a review every week makes me an attentive reader. And I think I’m a positive reader—I read to find out what works, not to point out why something stinks. I had the chance to interview Francine Prose about her book Reading Like A Writer a few years ago. That’s one of my favorite how-to-write books of all, because she just tells you to read, read a lot and read widely, and if you’re stuck on a scene or the use of perspective or structure or anything, there’s sure to be a writer who has handled this problem before. Read his or her book, and it will help you figure out how to solve your own writing problem.
I kept two books on my desk as I worked on The Ringer—Richard Price’s Samaritan and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Whenever I was stuck I’d flip through these novels to see how these guys did it. Or I’d read another book for New West until an idea came to me.
I’m not one of those writers who abstain from certain kinds of reading to preserve the sanctity of my muse while I’m writing a book. I like my muse good and polluted.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to finish a short story collection, and I’m daydreaming and jotting notes for another novel, which I hope will have something to do with a graffiti artist.
In my first question to Alan Heathcock, the author of the forthcoming short-story collection Volt, I used the word “muck” to describe the messes into which he flings his characters.
Popular word, “muck.” Turns out that Publishers Weekly used it, too, in a starred review of Volt:
Heathcock’s impressive debut collection pursues modern American prairie characters through some serious Old Testament muck. If it’s not flood or fire ravishing the village of Krafton, then it’s fratricide, pedocide, or just plain ol’ stranger killing.
Volt comes out March 1st, from Graywolf Press. Heathcock, who lives in Boise, Idaho, and teaches creative writing at Boise State, was kind enough to field a few questions with thoughtful, incisive answers. Enjoy!
The stories in Volt send their characters into some pretty serious muck. What is it about harrowing adversity that is attractive to you as a writer?
The appeal is two-fold. First, I’m what I call an “empathetic writer,” which has kinship to a method actor. I try to become the character in full, think what they think, feel what they feel. The process of writing then becomes an exploration of imagination, intellect, and emotion for me, and putting the characters through the muck is confronting the things that scare and confound me the most. The process of writing has great value to me. It’s not entertainment, but something deeper. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s as honest an answer as I can give. Second, harrowing adversity simply makes for good compelling drama. Shaekspeare and Cormac McCarthy, two huge influences, put their peeps through deep, deep, DEEP, muck—I, for one, thank them for that.
One of the things that struck me in the stories is the sense of time. You provide small clues about the general era of each story, but most any of them could be dropped into any modern decade. Was that intentional?
It was intentional. I was trying to let the stories be as timeless as possible, not having the baggage of a certain period adhere itself to the stories. For instance, if a story is clearly set in World War II a contemporary reader might slap everything they’ve ever read/viewed/heard about that era, changing/warping the intended meaning of the story. I set the stories in a hard “now” time, while leaving the general sense of time open enough so that each story delivers the reader into as pure a thematic reading as possible.
Aside from that, I’m also proposing the simple truth that history repeats itself, that the pains of war and crime and grief must be felt again and again and again. In that respect, time period has no bearing on the truths of humanity.
I read an essay in which you wrote that your stories help you figure out the world around you. What did you mean by that?
Things have happened in my proximity that deeply altered my ability to understand the moral truths I’d been taught in school/church/home. For example, I used to visit a small town in Minnesota named Waseca. I had friends who lived there. It was a lovely little town, nice Main Street, beautiful lakes, kind people. In winter, I went ice fishing, which I loved. In summer, we’d take long walks down these country roads, looking out over the still fields, listening to the locust drone. Then, in 1999, a twelve-year old girl came home from school to find a man robbing her house. The man raped and killed the girl, and her parents found her dead body in the house. I visited Waseca about a month after this happened, and the town had changed. My friends, who used to leave their doors unlocked, now locked their doors and kept a rifle by their bed. Waseca felt changed, the air and water were changed. It touched everything. I couldn’t shake the desire to have Waseca returned to what it was, and wondered what could possibly be done to restore the peace. So…I wrote the story “Peacekeeper” as a means of unpacking some of my questions, a bit of grief, too, trying to see if I could find any answers and heel the troubled mind. Again and again I find myself drawn to questions that plague me, and use story writing as a means to root out any possibly insight that might settle my equilibrium just a bit.
The Volt stories are set in the fictional town of Krafton. Did you model it after any actual place? What does Krafton look like in your head?
Krafton started out as modeled after the small town where my mother grew up: Lynnville, Indiana. But I felt confined by having to abide their grid of streets and knobs and flora and fauna, so I started borrowing from places I’d been in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho… My goal with Krafton was always to just let it be a small American town. I’ve found, via the early reviews, that depending on the reader they place Krafton in different regions (the west, Midwest, great plains, southeast), which is fine with me. So it’s Krafton, America, which enables the commentary to not be bound by region, while adhering itself to whatever region the reader supplies.
Volt is your first book. Are you planning to write a novel-length book, or are short stories where it’s at for you?
I’m working on a novel now, though I’ll keep writing stories. My original idea for these Krafton stories was to write a comprehensive moral history of a town, a collection of 30 or 40 stories covering a town from its founding to its present. VOLT is like volume one of four in a series I hope to eventually complete.
You’re a Chicago guy who’s teaching creative writing at Boise State University. How have you taken to living in the West?
It was quite a transition. The west is vast. VAST. Time and distance are very different in the west. The people aren’t as direct as they are in Chicago. But I’ve grown to completely love the west. Boise, Idaho, is an absolutely amazing place to live. It’s growing like crazy and crackling with energy. In a small way, being part of the growth in Boise connects me with what the pioneers who founded the west must’ve felt, the feeling of being able to effect a place, to put your mark on a land and culture. And the west has some of the world’s most stunning landscape. Idaho is a wonderland of beauty, and beauty hardly touched when compared to everything back east. I’m loyal by nature, but I sincerely love the west, and I’m extremely proud to be a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho, and Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise. And everybody back in Chicago hits me up for Boise State football t-shirts and hats—ha. Go Broncos!
Let’s talk process: When do you write? How do you balance it against work, being a husband, being a dad?
We (my family and I) treat my writing like it’s my full-time job, which it is. It teach one or two nights a week at Boise State, and other than preparing to teach I’m working on my writing Monday through Friday, from the moment I get my three kids off to school to the moment they get home. It helps that I don’t have any hobbies (ha). I read, write, watch movies, follow my kids around to all their activities, sneak in a date night with my wife every now and again, and that keeps my life full and productive.
I grew up in a working class area in south Chicago, and I often think of my friends back home who are pipefitters or police officers or office stiffs, who have to go to a job every day, week after week. With them in mind, it’s easy for me to stay disciplined to doing my work—if ever I have the urge to put my feet up on the desk, I just think of them looking in on me, totally disgusted by how soft I’ve become, and that stokes me to get back at it.
What are some of the books that influenced you? Who or what lit your literary fuse and made you want to become a writer?
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, Taking Care by Joy Williams, Upon the Sweeping Flood by Joyce Carol Oates, Emergency by Denis Johnson, the stories of John Cheever, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt, to name a few. But, really, for me, there’s Cormac McCarthy and then all the rest. McCarthy’s books were a revelation to me, were everything in style and story I ever wanted. My top ten books would be dominated by his titles. His novel The Road is the one of a few books I consider to be perfect.
Your publisher, Graywolf Press, has released some great story collections — yours, Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy, Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy, among others. How was the publication experience for you?
Graywolf Press is the best publisher out there. Period. I could throw numbers at you to prove it, but if you talk to any author in the wolf-pack, they’ll echo my sentiment. The editors are extremely talented, the sales and promotions crew thorough and dedicated and charismatic. I hear authors published on other presses complain about not being a part of the process, or having quibbles about their book cover or lack of promotions or not being able to get answers from their publisher about this or that. I’ve really felt that with each step Graywolf has included me in the process, cherished my input, given me their best guidance, and championed my book in the marketplace, all with grace and great effect. My book is succeeding both critically and commercially in ways I hadn’t imagined, and I credit Graywolf for enabling that to happen.
As someone who nurtures young writers, what are you seeing from the next generation of storytellers?
I occasionally hear someone lament the lack of imagination coming out of writing programs, but I don’t see it in my classes. I have youngsters writing stories from a myriad of styles and genres, with great variances in thematic content, all with powerful execution. These young writers have grown up with great access to information, have been barraged with stories from around the world, and have been reared in a great time of war and turmoil. They’re filled with stories, brimming with great thoughts and intense emotions. It’s an amazing thing to witness as young writers find their voices and use drama to express their passions in the written word. Time will tell, but I think we’ll see some truly great books in the next ten years or so.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Learn your craft to the point you understand the values of quality. Then look inward, and be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to take yourself seriously, to look inward, you will stop imitating others and become original.
As I type these words, the release of my second novel, The Summer Son, lies just a week away. During the first couple of weeks of release, some friends and fellow book bloggers are going to be helping me get out the word about the new book. In exchange for their generosity in letting me hang around their sites, I’ll be giving away signed copies of the book at each stop.
Here’s the lineup. Please do these folks the courtesy of visiting their sites, now and during the upcoming appearances. My guess is you’ll find plenty to interest you at each one:
Monday, January 24: I’ll kick things off at A Word Please, hosted by author Darcia Helle, with an essay on the meeting of fact and fiction in The Summer Son.
Tuesday, January 25 (release day): Billings Gazette arts reporter Jaci Webb will host a Q&A with me at the 5:01 blog.
Wednesday, January 26: At The Book Inn, hosted by Natalie Wadel, I’ll write about fathers and sons, the major theme of the book.
Thursday, January 27: At Straight from Hel, hosted by Helen Ginger, I’ll write about the 20-month stretch in which I wrote and sold my first two novels, a burst of creativity that I’m not likely to mimic anytime soon.
Friday, January 28: The first week will wrap up with a visit to The Visual Side of Journalism, hosted by Charles Apple, where he’ll pitch some questions at a guy (me) who works in the production trenches of a daily newspaper but writes fiction on the side.
Monday, January 31: Cherie Newman, host of the excellent “The Write Question” on Montana Public Radio, gives me the keys to her blog of the same name and lets me hold forth on what it means to write in and of Montana.
Tuesday, February 1: This will be a little different. My friend Jim Thomsen will host a Q&A with me in the form of a Facebook note. But don’t worry: if you’ve so far resisted the siren song of the social network, the interview will be simulcast on two authors’ blogs: R.J. Keller’s Ingenious Title to Appear Here Later and Kristen Tsetsi’s From a Little Office in a Little House.
Wednesday, February 2: One Book at a Time blogger Page Eberhardt gives me the floor for an essay on where stories come from, as if I have any idea.
Friday, February 4: I wrap up at Coffee, Books and Laundry, hosted by Melissa Vasquez, where I’ll write about balancing readers’ expectations with following the muse wherever she leads.
So please (please!) make plans to follow along each day, and be sure to throw in for a chance at a signed book at each stop.
Last night at Parmly Billings Library, I presented a workshop called “Igniting the Novel Inside,” geared toward folks who’ve always wanted to write a novel but haven’t quite started or finished.
It’s a big topic. Any of the areas we briefly touched on — cultivating an idea, preparing to write, writing, staying on track, rewriting — would be worth a workshop unto itself. We had about 15 hardy participants who were generous with their enthusiasm. I thank them for forgoing “Survivor” and the Country Music Awards, and special thanks to assistant library director Dee Ann Redman for inviting me to do the session.
As we’re knee-deep into National Novel Writing Month, I have to ask: What are you working on? How’s it going?
Almost two years ago, fueled by little more than a faint story idea and my own volatile cocktail of mania, I started writing what would become 600 Hours of Edward. I finished the first draft in 25 days.
I know what you’re doing: You’re looking at the calendar and saying, “That SOB did National Novel Writing Month!”
Indeed, I did. It wasn’t the first time. But it was the first time I completed the challenge of writing at least 50,000 words in 30 days. (I actually wrote 79,175 words in 25 days. Actually, it was 17 days, because I took eight days off. But, really, who’s counting?)
In the hindsight of two years, I can now say with confidence that I couldn’t have written Edward in any other way. And now that I have a second, more conventionally written novel to my credit, the forthcoming The Summer Son, I can also say with confidence that I’ll never do NaNoWriMo again, at least not in the way that it’s intended (i.e., as a spawning ground for a fresh work of fiction).
To find out why, as well as some tips for tackling the NaNoWriMo challenge if you’re so inclined, check out my guest gig at Jim Thomsen’s Reading Kitsap blog.
Here’s the kicker:
Having written one novel under the auspices of NaNoWriMo and one in a more traditional way (three-month first draft, followed by nine months of revisions), I have to tell you that I’ll probably never again do the NaNoWriMo thing. Word count is a pretty flimsy construct in the first place; when someone asks me how long a story should be, my answer is: As many words as it needs, and not one more. To then squeeze those 50,000 words out under intense pressure no doubt leads to some irretrievably poor writing. If it’s the challenge you want, that’s one thing. But if you’re aiming for a writing career, you should ask yourself some hard questions about what you want from a month’s work. It’s entirely possible that NaNoWriMo won’t offer what you’re seeking.
I’ve been involved with Toastmasters for a couple of months now. I joined the group to iron out my public-speaking skills, now that I actually do a fair amount of it. I’ve never had a lot of trouble with structuring a speech or being entertaining (please refrain from offering a rebuttal of this second point), but I have a painfully well-developed penchant for littering my speech with “um” and “you know” and “whatever and stuff” and all manner of other fillers. For all-too-cringeworthy examples of this, check out the AV page at CraigLancaster.net. Or don’t. You’ll probably be happier with the latter choice.
In any event, today I presented a speech to my Toastmasters club called “The Accidental Novelist.” There was sufficient demand for it among my peeps at Facebook that I thought I’d go ahead and post it here:
Today I wish to tell you how the worst day of my life led me to the fulfillment of my biggest dream. But first, a little background on that dream …
I wrote my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, in 24 days of November in 2008, was finished revising it by February 2009 and sold it to the first publisher who looked at it. It came out in October 2009 and has since been named a Montana Honor Book and a finalist for a High Plains Book Award. Zero to published in less than a year. Man, I thought, this novel-writing stuff is going to be a cinch.
Then I wrote my second novel.
The differences were stark. I drafted The Summer Son over three arduous months in the summer of 2009, turned it over to my beta readers – a group of people I trust to give me honest feedback on my work (which is to say, none of them is my mother) – and watched them drive Buicks through the holes in the plot. So I wrote it a second time, rearranging pieces of the story, backfilling details, cutting out the useless bits and generally turning my work area into a bloodbath of narrative body parts.
I’d have given my second effort to my beta readers, but for one niggling fact: I hated it.
So back I went, through a third, a fourth and a fifth draft. The original manuscript, which checked in at around 79,000 words, lost weight and gained focus. Late in the fourth draft, I finally discovered what the story was really about – the beating heart beneath the prose – and my pace quickened as I saw the solutions to all the problems I’d put in my own path. By June 2010, I had a finished manuscript, at just a shade under 72,000 words. It promptly sold, and now I await a January 25th release date.
A 12-month, five-draft slog to Book No. 2. Man, I thought, this novel-writing stuff is going to kill me.
The truth of the matter is this: It was only after almost literally killing myself that I embraced my long-held dream of being a novelist. In July 2008, just a few months before I wrote 600 Hours of Edward in a literary frenzy, I cajoled my wife into letting me have a motorcycle, bought it in Sidney – because, you know, why not purchase a death machine 260 miles from home? – and began piloting it back to Billings. Thirty-seven miles from home, at 60 miles per hour on Interstate 94, I went down when a buck jumped in my path. I bounced through the passing lane and came to rest in the median strip. The damage, while not fatal (obviously), was plenty bad: I broke all the ribs on my left side, collapsed a lung, lacerated my spleen, wrenched my left knee and tore up my elbows with road rash. The impact blew off my shoes and wrenched my wedding ring from my finger. Recuperation came with a weeklong hospital stay, another month at home in a recliner (because of my ribs, I couldn’t lie flat on my back) and enough pain medication to turn me into a drug dealer, had I so chosen.
In the month that I was out of commission and unable to do much but sit and think, my mind wandered. I knew how fortunate I was; at that speed, on that terrain, one shift in the geometry might have done me in. I was lucky that Ang was following me in our Ford Explorer – not so wonderful for her to witness the wreck, but she was able to call in help immediately. In the days and weeks that followed, I endured nightmares about the wreck, nighttime visions that still occasionally visit me. But I also found my thoughts drifting toward goals I’d once had for my life, and notable among those was a desire to write books. Here’s the deal: I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, “I have a novel inside me, I just know it.” For years, I was one of those people. Do you know why most of those novels never get written? BECAUSE IT’S HARD. More than that, it’s because we all harbor dreams about what we want to do, but for many of us, the day-to-day demands of life crowd in, and those dreams wither on the vine.
Sometimes, it takes a powerful jolt to shake those aspirations loose, to remind us that we really do have only one life and one chance to pursue happiness. A motorcycle wreck, for example. On July 22, the day after my wreck, I might have spit in the eye of anyone suggesting that I’d received a gift, but that’s exactly what it was. It was a gift of perspective.
600 Hours of Edward changed my life; there’s simply no way to adequately capture what it’s meant to hear from people who’ve been moved by it. The Summer Son, a darker, more psychological, more personal story, promises to give even more lift to my literary dreams. The great Western novelist Richard Wheeler, in endorsing my new book, wrote: “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.”
Grace and love. That’s pretty heady stuff for a guy who was just trying to get home one very bad day in July and ended up crashing into a new way of looking at his life.
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.
Some online destinations for your consideration:
- I’m part of the lineup of editors at The Blood-Red Pencil. If you’re a writer or an editor (or both!), I highly recommend that you bookmark this site. Tips cover all the bases: grammar, plotting, dialogue, marketing and promotion, etc. Check out my latest post, on pet peeves.
- Today, I dropped in at another of my favorite sites, 1st Turning Point, and offered up an essay on self-promotion. The reality for most writers is that it’s promote or perish. Gone are the days of dropping a book out there and washing your hands of it — if, in fact, such days ever existed. 1st Turning Point consistently offers sound advice on thumping your work without being a raging pain in the ass. Unless, you know, that’s your niche.
- Are you a Goodreads denizen? If you love books, you should be. Think of it as a Facebook for readers. I’d also invite you to add my upcoming novel, The Summer Son, as a to-read item. (I can safely assume you’ve already added 600 Hours of Edward, right? Right?)
- Finally, thanks to the fabulous Christopher Meeks, I just discovered Janet Fitch’s blog. The White Oleander author has some superb stuff there, including this essay on creating dialogue. She writes: “It’s like a racehorse, it can’t just carry any old thing, the pots and pans and old tires. You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, all that yack. It’s just for the conflict between one character and another. That’s it.”
I think I just swooned.
My new novel, The Summer Son, comes out in January. Certainly, there is a lot of seemingly interminable waiting — to see the cover (finally did), to get proofs, to hear from marketing, etc. All perfectly normal, and frankly, my publishing story has unfolded at lightning speed compared with most. I’m not good at patience, but it’s something I’ve had to learn to develop. If you think writing and publishing books might be for you, learn to live with the waiting.
Behind the scenes, though, I’ve been plenty busy. Starting January 24th and continuing for two weeks, I’ll be on a virtual tour to promote the book, doing guest spots on a series of blogs related to books, writing, culture, etc. So for the past week or so, I’ve been writing that material — posts on building characters, finding a publisher, real-life inspirations for fiction, fathers and sons, writing in Montana. I’m about halfway through that stack of work, and still other appearances will be in a Q&A format, so I’m awaiting questions from my kind hosts.
The goal, for me, is to have my plate largely cleared by mid-October, three months before The Summer Son is released. Then, I’m bearing down to finish the first draft of the next novel, so the cycle can begin again. Wouldn’t have it any other way.