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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.

I was a bit off: It’s in Sachse, Texas. (Sachse, which I’d never heard of, is a mere 47 miles from my hometown, North Richland Hills, Texas.)

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.

I never could color inside the lines.

I met with another book club last night — have I mentioned how much I love this? — and my host asked a terrific question:

“If the last page of your book were the first page of a different book, what would happen?”

Anyone who’s read 600 Hours of Edward would understand why I politely declined to answer. The open-ended conclusion allows readers to make their own choices about where the story goes, and I don’t want to intrude on that. This is the biggest reason — not the only one, but the biggest — there will be no sequel. Moving Edward into another story means moving him from that spot, and I don’t want to do that.

The whole notion of ceding control to readers fascinates me. Leaving wide-open areas for interpretation is tough to do — one need only look at all the horribly expository stories out there to realize this — but enormously satisfying for readers who don’t want to be spoon-fed.

Every time I talk to folks who’ve taken on my novel, I get a new insight into the story — some of them more surprising than others.

Last night, one of the book club members zeroed in on a scene midway through the book, as a flummoxed Edward fields increasingly angry e-mails from his online paramour, Joy-Annette, and can respond only by typing up his responses, printing them out and filing them away with his letters of complaint.

Here’s the passage:

Annette, or Joy, or whoever she is, writes three more times, and my green office folder begins to fill up.

Edward:
I was going to write and see if we could work something out but I think that it is better to let it go. I think at this point, any making up would just lead to more of the same kind of misunderstanding and “drama.” I think your substantial, kind-hearted, sweet, beautiful in your own way, and so much more you will never know. But I cant go into something this emotional. My last boyfriend, whom I dearly loved and completely supported through so much stuff, took it and them he slammed another girl just a few short months ago. Therefore, I am looking for a less dramatic deal right now.
Annette

Annette:
My head is swimming. You’re looking for a less dramatic deal? Somehow, I find that hard to believe.
Regards,
Edward Stanton

Edward:
I wish you would write back. I need to know what your thinking about all of this. Maybe there’s a way we could start over. I don’t know. Write me back and lets talk about it.
Annette

Annette:
I think it’s funny — not funny “ha, ha” but just funny — that I’m the one with mental illness.
Regards,
Edward Stanton

Edward:
Your an asshole. I pour out my heart to you and you say nothing. Goodbye, looser.
Annette

Annette:
Goodbye. And it’s “loser.”
Regards,
Edward Stanton

I put the green office folder called “Joy — aka, Annette” away for the last time. It’s nearly noon, and I’m headed back to bed.

We were chatting about the comedy of Edward’s frantically responding to Joy-Annette’s shrill messages but filing them away (a key aspect of the book is that Edward does not send his letters of complaint). Then my questioner says, “Yes, but he sent one of those messages.”

No, I say, he doesn’t.

She insists that he did, that Joy-Annette wouldn’t have kept writing if he hadn’t. She pulls out the book. She deconstructs the scene. “He sent a message,” she says. I’m smiling. She’s convinced. And you know what? Maybe he did. I certainly didn’t conceive it that way, but really, my intentions don’t matter. Her sense of it does.

So Edward sent one of those messages, okay? Unless, of course, you think he didn’t.

*****

Yesterday, I wrote a little ditty about literary fiction.

Turns out that mega-ultra-super-duper agent Nathan Bransford was doing the same thing. A robust discussion is taking place in the comments section, if you’re interested …

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