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* — Incomplete in the sense that, at various points, I forgot to take pictures. I did manage, however, to make it to Missoula and back safely, which was my prime objective.
Tuesday, April 19, I left Billings for the 345-mile drive to Missoula, where I had a reading scheduled for Fact & Fiction that night. The next morning, I headed back home. In between: visits with friends, road food, inclement weather and alcohol.
Join me, won’t you?
What did I leave out? Lots of stuff: pictures from the reading in Missoula, hosted by Fact & Fiction’s wonderful owner, Barbara Theroux; my reunion with old friend Robert Meyerowitz, the new editor of the Missoula Independent; my kind hosts, Lisa Simon and Jason Neal and their wonderful home in the woods; cats Maynard and BeBe, who tolerated my intrusion. During the best parts of the trip, I put the camera down — which says little for my photojournalism skills but does commend my ability to fully live in the moment. I’ll take that trade.
* — The world being significantly downsized, what with the price of gas.
Tomorrow — Thursday, April 7, for you calendar clutchers — I’ll be giving a speech to the combined conference of the Montana Library Association and the Mountain Library Association, right here in Billings. (See, I told you it would be a small world, after all.) This happens at 2:15 p.m. at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center.
I was told that I didn’t have to prepare a speech on any particular theme, which frankly is an alarming and possibly dangerous amount of latitude, but I’ve managed to celebrate libraries and librarians without even noting the time that my college roommate had an amorous adventure in the Fort Worth Public Library. In any case, I think that sort of thing is entirely inappropriate, especially considering it didn’t happen to me.
Tomorrow’s gig launches a flurry of activity on the whole be-out-in-public front. Here’s the rundown:
Saturday, April 16: I’ll be at Parmly Billings Library, 510 N. Broadway, at 11 a.m. for a talk and presentation on 600 Hours of Edward as part of its selection for the One Book Billings program. This will be the culmination of a week’s worth of conversations around town about the book, so I predict a spike in drivers making right turns and spaghetti-eating in greater Yellowstone County. If you’re interested in taking part in any of the community conversations, please call the library at 406-657-8258. The library is providing copies of the book.
Tuesday, April 19: I need no good excuse to visit Missoula. Luckily, I have a great one: I’ll be at Fact & Fiction, 220 N. Higgins, at 7 p.m. to read from my new novel, The Summer Son, and sign copies of it. Please come.
Thursday, April 28: I point the car west again and head out to the University of Montana Western in Dillon for a reading as part of the school’s Dances With Words program. I’ll be reading selections from both books, taking questions, doing rope tricks and all kinds of other fabulous stuff.
Monday and Tuesday, May 23-24: I’ll be in New York, baby, for Book Expo America. Forty-one years into my life, I finally visit the only city in the world worth seeing, to hear New Yorkers tell it. I’m expecting an interesting collision of literary and tourism-intensive pursuits. In other words, I’ll be the first person in history to wear an ascot and a fanny pack simultaneously.
Friday night, 600 Hours of Edward was honored with the High Plains Book Award for best first book. I won’t bore you with the story behind the story; it’s been covered many times. I’ve taken to calling Edward the little book that could, and Friday night, it did.
That the honor happened right here in my adopted hometown of Billings, on a night when so many other works were similarly recognized, was nothing short of wonderful. My “dates” for the evening were my father, Ron, and my mother, Leslie. They’ve been divorced for 37 of my 40 years, but we all enjoyed a night out, something I have no memory of from our brief time as a nuclear family. That was beyond cool.
It’s a wonderful thing to look out across a room and see a couple hundred people who absolutely love books, and every one of us — William Notter (poetry), Linda Hasselstrom (Zonta Best Woman Writer), Steven Grafe (nonfiction), Kent Meyers (fiction) and Margaret Coel (emeritus) — paid particular tribute to them. (I did so perhaps a bit too colorfully, expressing the wish that I could multiply them — and realizing only after I sat down that my entreaty could have been interpreted as a come-on.)
All in all, it was a lovely evening. Big thanks to the Parmly Billings Library and the many, many volunteers who make the awards happen; Riverbend Publishing for sending Edward out into the world; and especially to the readers who have spent a few of their hours with Edward.
I announced the news of AmazonEncore’s acquiring The Summer Son a while ago. Today, the publishing company announced its Spring 2011 list, and sure enough, the new novel is right there among some provocative offerings.
From the release:
“The Summer Son,” by novelist Craig Lancaster, explores the complexities of family dynamics and two men’s turbulent journey toward healing. Mitch Quillen is nearly 40 and facing the quintessential midlife crisis: a career going nowhere, a marriage slowly dying and a tumultuous relationship with his father. When he is beset by mysterious phone calls from his father, he travels to Montana to face the man that he holds responsible for much of his discontent. Lancaster, a journalist and novelist, is the author of “600 Hours of Edward,” named a Montana Honor Book. He lives in Billings, Mont., with his wife and two dachshunds. “The Summer Son” will be published on Jan. 25.
The next few months will be exciting as the book lands in the hands of reviewers and pre-readers. I’ll have my fingers crossed for some nice buzz as the Jan. 25 release approaches.
For more information on The Summer Son and the other AmazonEncore titles, check out this link. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Amazon has the new novel priced at a 32 percent discount. Pre-order today and it’ll be on your doorstep on the day of release.
By the way: If you go to my website, CraigLancaster.net, and click the cover image for The Summer Son, it will carry you to a page where you can read the first chapter.
Back in February 2009, as I approached my 39th birthday, I had this idea of writing an essay a week leading up to my 40th birthday. I thought maybe I could capture some elements of that living-on-the-cusp year and perhaps turn them into a collection. Like a lot of seemingly good ideas, this one ran out of gas fairly quickly, and I squirreled the two essays I completed away in a folder deep in the bowels of my computer. I re-read them tonight, for the first time in a year and half. The first essay was not ready for prime time, as they say. But the second provides an interesting glimpse into what I was thinking about that winter — thoughts that led me directly to the writing of The Summer Son, my forthcoming novel.
I hadn’t remembered all of that until just tonight. It’s worth sharing:
February 16, 2009
My father lives upstairs from me, in a condominium whose physical structure is identical to mine, and that’s an odd bit of conformity when you consider just how different we are. He’s a man who has seen hardship and pain that I can’t conceive. He made his way in the world with his hands, while I’ve made mine, meager though it may be, with my head. He makes friends easily and keeps them for decades. I make acquaintances easily and release them like leaves in the wind.
And those are just the broad strokes.
Yet I find myself now wondering what I’m going to do with my thoughts on the man. At this late date, when he’s on the cusp of 70 and I’ve just rounded the last number between me and 40, he has dropped a surprise on me.
In my birthday card – Dad always picks out something verbose, letting the card maker carry the words that he cannot – he wrote something that left me thunderstruck, standing right there in his kitchen.
When I could speak again, I made him hug me, and for the first time in a long time, I wrapped both of my arms around his back and squeezed him tight.
A couple of days ago, on the social-networking site that is taking over my life, I debated with a friend the reason that our new president would self-identify as black when his racial makeup is equal parts black and white – and it’s the white folks who cared for and nurtured him.
She wrote: “But really, ask yourself how you would feel if you were Barack’s or Halle’s (Berry) mom: ‘I got them away from their father and I raised and sacrificed everything for them and now they identify with their non-present, purposely abandoning sperm donor …’ ”
It’s a provocative notion, and one I can confront in my own circumstance, the racial component aside. It was my mother who, when I was three years old, recognized that life with my father was untenable, that if I was going to have the best opportunity to grow up in a stable, supportive household, she was going to have to extricate herself from a bad marriage and start anew. Of all the gifts I’ve ever received, two stand above the rest: the decision by my birthmother to give me up to someone who could better care for me, and the decision by my mother to pull us out of Casper, Wyoming, and into life in Texas with Charles Clines – her new husband, my new stepfather and the great male role model in my life.
So, using my friend’s question, I’ll frame my own: Why, given Mom’s sacrifices, have I spent a good deal of my adulthood trying to corral a relationship with and an understanding of Dad?
Part of the answer lies in my response to my friend, given to her in an apologetic note after our words in a public square of Facebook grew too sharp: “I just got done writing a book (Past-Due Pastorals, which I’ve since taken out of print) that focuses largely on my father, a man I don’t know half as well as my mother and someone who hasn’t been half as good to me as she has. That doesn’t mean I disregard my mom. As I told her, it’s the things you miss in life that leave you searching, not the ones that are there for you.”
Put another way, my relationship with my mother is hard-wired into me. I can talk to her about anything, I can rely on her without question or fear of being let down. She was and is a constant, nurturing presence in my life. I never wanted for anything that matters where she is concerned.
Where Dad is concerned, I’ve always wanted.
When I was a child, that constant striving for Dad’s approval led me into some blunders of judgment. For years, I idolized him on superficial grounds: He was strong and tough, he drove trucks and wielded tools, and in the absence of parenting skills but awash in money, he gave me anything I wanted if he thought it would keep me quiet and out of his hair.
And so it was that I would go home to Texas from summers spent with Dad, fat and sluggish from all the food I wanted to eat and all the pop I wanted to drink, and I would have to learn to live again in a house with rules, where love was not a new motorbike but a well-balanced meal, where discipline was not a handful of quarters for the video arcade but an expectation that I would work hard in school and interact with the family.
I have a very specific memory of being seven or eight years old and telling my mother that she wasn’t as nice as my stepmother Linda, Dad’s second wife. It’s hard for me to write that now, knowing how wrong I was. In the years that followed, my opinion of Linda changed. I viewed her as an opportunist, a user and someone who leveraged her position as a wedge between my father and me. At one point, my mother wrote to Dad and told him that he wasn’t sufficiently active in my life. (This was not a plea for money, which he also owed, but for time.) Linda sent the note back and scrawled atop it: “Leave him alone.”
How it must have pierced my mother’s heart to hear me compare her unfavorably with that creature.
In later years, I stopped seeing Dad’s absences as something that made him mysterious and worthy of my yearning, and I just walked in my own direction. When he had a series of heart attacks in 1993, I was hundreds of miles away, in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I didn’t go out to Albuquerque to see him until the following spring, well after he had recovered. Our calls grew infrequent.
In the mid-’90s, he committed his heart to a woman for the fourth time. (Linda was Marriage No. 2 and Marriage No. 3; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.) His final attempt was his most successful. Mildred Leahy was the right person at the right time – a sweet, loving woman who could handle my rapidly slowing down rascal of a father. And it was Mildred who asked, point-blank, the question that was right in front of our noses: Why were Dad and I so distant?
On the side of that question where she could exert some influence – my father’s – Mildred went to work. I started receiving weekly phone calls, at her behest initially and then because we both found that we enjoyed them. On one of my visits to Albuquerque, Mildred asked me why Dad and I had been so estranged, and I very honestly told her. She urged me to take a fresh look at the man, and so I did. Here’s what I saw: a doting partner who would set out her breakfast every morning, along with a napkin upon which he would write “Good morning Sunshine. I love you.”
Just a few months before Mildred died, when she was dealing with the excruciating pain of the cancer that was killing her, she insisted that Dad and I take a long-planned driving trip through Montana, to visit the spaces and places of his early life. It was her last great gift to our relationship. After she was gone, I wrote a typically bad but heartfelt poem:
Hours from now I’ll be racing the weather south
To a place that should feel like home, much as I’ve been there
And yet confounds me each time
To a man I’ve known all my life
Whom I know less than a man I met last week
Closeness could never be counted in warmth or words
Just proximity, and only sometimes
But as my tread wears away I find
That none of that matters much
We come together for the right reasons
And stay apart because we’ve always done it that way
She never quite understood that
And she made him do it better, out of love
And made me do it better, out of shame
But she’s gone now
Pancake makeup and strident hair
Are my memories
But his are different
He needs me now
There’s nobody left
For as long as I can remember, my father’s friends, upon meeting me, would say something like this: “Your dad is really proud of you.”
Last year, as I acted on Dad’s behalf to buy his condominium here in Billings, his Montana-based mortgage banker said, “Your dad just goes on and on about you.”
These are wonderful sentiments, of course, and anyone would be proud to receive them. But please understand that the words come with a tinge of melancholy when I hear them from someone other than him, when I have to come to terms with the notion that he can say them, just not to me.
But perhaps I should be fair about this, as I’m guilty of the same thing. He brags to other people. I share my thoughts with a keyboard.
Before Past-Due Pastorals came out, Dad sat upstairs with a proof copy and read it over the course of an evening. His eyes are fading, shot through by macular degeneration. His reading level is low, the result of a childhood in which farm work was given more currency than book learning. No one seems to know just how much schooling Dad had. My mother figures that his day-to-day education ended around the fourth grade. A cousin says that he was in school off and on up until junior high. Whatever the case, reading is not pleasure for him; it’s work. And yet he dedicated himself to reading my book one night, and he bore my at times harsh assessment of him without complaint or recrimination.
He’s a big man, my father.
And I’d like to think that he recognized in those pages something that I badly needed to hear, something that he gave me for my 39th birthday in the words he wrote on my card: “The gift thats meant the most to me has been the joy of watching you grown into a special man I’m proud to call my son. With love, Dad.”
Just lined this one up last night:
I’ll be at Hastings in Billings, 1603 Grand Ave., on Saturday, Dec. 12, from 2 to 4 p.m. If you’re around and doing some Christmas shopping, please drop by.
A couple more that are imminent:
Today (Dec. 5), I’ll be at the Shrine Auditorium in Billings from noon to 5 p.m. for the Writers Roundup, part of the Festival of Trees fundraiser. The Shrine is at 1125 Broadwater. If you love books — and especially inscribed books — this is the place to be. The lineup includes Marion Cadwell, Cara Chamberlain, Fred DeFauw, Hap Gilliland, Barbara Graham, Tami Haaland, Sue Hart, Brooke Jennings, Craig Johnson, Janet Muirhead Hill, Harley O’Donnell, Bernie Quetchenbach, Lela and Harry Schlitz and Dick Wheeler. Sale proceeds benefit Sigma Tau Delta at Montana State Billings, and go to support textbook scholarships for English majors, the annual outstanding English major award, a campus poetry contest, conference attendance and other academic activities. It’s an excellent opportunity to pick up some Christmas gifts and support literature, language and writing.
And tomorrow (Dec. 6), I’ll be at the Hastings in Great Falls, 726 10th Ave. South, from 1 to 4 p.m. for a signing. My dad, who grew up around Great Falls, is making the trip with me, which will be fun for both of us.
I’ll be out and about with 600 Hours of Edward on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Stop by, say hello, get a book:
- Friday, Dec. 4: In front of Thomas Books, 209 N. 29th Street, from 7 to 9 p.m. during the annual downtown Billings Holiday Stroll.
- Saturday, Dec. 5: The annual Writers Roundup, in conjunction with the Family Tree Center’s Festival of Trees, noon to 5 p.m., Billings Shrine Auditorium, 1125 Broadwater Ave. The Writers Roundup is the annual fundraiser for Sigma Tau Delta, and there’s a wonderful lineup: Marion Cadwell, Cara Chamberlain, Fred DeFauw, Hap Gilliland, Barbara Graham, Tami Haaland, Sue Hart, Brooke Jennings, Craig Johnson, Janet Muirhead Hill, Harley O’Donnell, Bernie Quetchenbach, Lela and Harry Schlitz and Dick Wheeler. It’s a chance to visit with authors and buy signed copies of books for the holidays.
- Sunday, Dec. 6: At the Hastings in Great Falls, 726 10th Ave. South, from 1 to 4 p.m. to sign copies of 600 Hours.
Moved a few books, made a few friends. A worthwhile couple of hours …