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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.
UPDATE: I’ve taken the price lower. See below for details …
UPDATE NO. 2: It’s now available for the Nook. Go here!
Something new for you e-book devotees:
(The bundle will eventually work its way to B&N Online and the Apple store, but that rests with factors beyond my control. When it’s up in those places, I’ll post an update.)
Here’s the lineup:
This Is Butte. You Have Ten Minutes.
A traveling salesman, stranded by a broken-down car, hops a late-night bus home and learns hard truths about himself and his life as he rides along with a motley group of fellow passengers, among them a woman with a mysterious past.
A teenage runaway lands in an unforgiving city far from home and finds an unlikely friend in a homeless, self-styled vigilante.
Star of the North
Ray Bingham subjugated his own dreams when he beat a man to death. Imprisoned for twenty-three years, he imparts hard-won lessons of living with regret to a young fellow inmate, until his act revisits him in a most unexpected way.
These stories are part of a larger collection that I hope to release in the next year or so. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them linked; a better description is that they have relationships — some casual, some direct — with each other. All try to dig at the central notion that we’re not alone. Even if we deserve to be. Even if we want to be.
I hope you’ll take the opportunity to check them out.
Thanks for your consideration.
Some reading that’s well worth your time: A New York Times profile of author Thomas McGuane, who at age 70 is a literary lion and a damned fine rider of cutting horses.
I enjoyed this bit:
Mr. McGuane himself sometimes appears torn about which West he belongs to. “There’s a view of Montana writing that seems stage-managed by the Chamber of Commerce — it’s all about writers like A. B. Guthrie and Ivan Doig,” he said, referring to two authors of historical novels about a rugged, frontier Montana. “It used to bother me that nobody had a scene where somebody was delivering a pizza.”
I don’t want to toot my own horn (yeah, okay, just go with me on this one), but allow me to direct your attention to the bottom of Page 257 of 600 Hours of Edward:
I’m watching Dragnet almost three hours early and might even watch another episode, if I feel like it. I’m also munching on thin-crust pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut. I didn’t go to the grocery store today. I decided I didn’t have to. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow. Or maybe not.
I’ll do whatever I feel like doing. You live only once.
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.
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.
Tuesday afternoon, I pointed the nose of the family SUV north, toward Fort Benton, for a long-planned visit with the Chouteau County Friends of the Library. And, I’m sorry to say, I made a huge logistical blunder.
Twenty miles into the trip — too far to turn back but still 200 miles from my destination — I realized that I had exactly one CD. The one in the player. The one I’d been listening to for weeks. The one with at least two songs marred by skips.
What could I do? I pressed on.
At Eddie’s Corner, the junction known to all who venture into central Montana, I stopped for bodily relief and provisions. And I found this:
Oh, HELL, yes! Schlock rock would be my salvation.
Here’s the track listing, with my mini-review of each song:
1. “You’re No Good,” Linda Ronstadt. Every day, and twice on Saturday.
2. “Jackie Blue,” Ozark Mountain Daredevils. I have no beef.
3. “That’s the Way (I Like It),” K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Skip.
4. “Must of Got Lost,” J Geils Band. Meh.
5. “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” War. Once is enough.
7. “Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John. A big, fat yes.
8. “Black Water,” Doobie Brothers. A nice slice of the seventies.
9. “Love is a Rose,” Linda Ronstadt. I’m always in favor of Linda, but this isn’t a particularly strong example of her work.
10. “How Long,” Ace. Sure. Yeah. Okay.
11. “Dance With Me,” Orleans. Acceptable in strict moderation.
12. “Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s become a parody, but it’s good southern-friend stuff.
13. “You Are So Beautiful,” Joe Cocker. A keeper.
14. “Feel Like Makin Love,” Bad Company. Heard it too many times.
15. “Lady Marmalade,” LaBelle. Funk yeah!
16. “Pick Up the Pieces,” Average White Band. Skip.
17. “Island Girl,” Elton John. This song, which I’ll listen to in full any time it comes on because of John’s hooks, pisses me off in more ways than I can possibly describe. Another blog post, perhaps.
18. “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Grand Funk. Eh.
19. “The Hustle,” Van McCoy. Absolute garbage.
20. “Let’s Do It Again,” The Staple Singers. Yeah, okay.
You may have noticed by now that one song is missing — song No. 6, the best on the album, and yet a song so affected by two flaws that I think of its missed potential rather than the considerable sweet spot that it absolutely occupies.
The song: “Sister Golden Hair,” by America.
You know the song:
This tune, an earworm if there ever was one, is so close to being the perfect soft-pop gem that it kills me to deny it entry into the pantheon of greatness. Listen to that clip, if you haven’t already. The tuneful intro, the earnest vocals, the deft changes in tempo. It does everything a great song is supposed to do; it moves you around the emotional spectrum, and it hooks like a one-armed boxer. Like I said, it’s almost perfect.
But perfect it ain’t. Two big reasons:
First, the title is just horrible, and it’s made worse by adding the word “surprise” in the body of the song. “Sister Golden Hair Surprise” sounds like a misadventure in baking, man. It sounds like a surprise I don’t want. “Would you like another slice of Sister Golden Hair Surprise?” “No, thanks, I’ve had plenty.” And it’s not like those words really mean anything or have some sonic value that couldn’t be replicated by better-chosen words. I don’t care how spot-on the rest of a song is. When you screw up the title and two parts of the lyrics, you’ve devalued the work.
Finally, the extended shoo-bop outro is a poor-fitting add-on, like a wooden outhouse behind a steel-and-glass office building. It sounds, to these ears, that Gerry Beckley and the boys didn’t know how to end their song, so they just do this weird jam thing. End the song! Just end it. You have a near perfect song and you’re spoiling it by not knowing when it should come to an end. You see this a lot, in all kinds of artistic endeavors. It’s like people don’t know how to edit anymore. They just keep going and going, assaulting your ears or your eyes with nonsense, until finally you scream, “Please, for the love of all that is holy, just bring this to an
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 a quick post today, folks. The agenda is brimming.
This is a good one, though. The Denver Post is running a photo blog called “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943.” The 70 images were taken by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Absolutely breathtaking stuff. For those of us who weren’t alive at that time, the era is represented mostly in black and white. These photos bring it alive in living color, so much so that you almost feel as though you could step into the frame and join the scene. It’s that powerful.
Take some time and savor scenes from our past.