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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.

The week before Thanksgiving 1991, I piled my meager belongings — mostly clothes and a few electronic items, like an alarm clock — into a big blue bag intended to hold golf clubs. My parents drove me to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and, nearly a decade before 9/11 took such simple things away from us, sat with me in the boarding area while I awaited a flight to Seattle.

I don’t remember what we said. It doesn’t really matter. My emotions were all over the place. I was sad to be leaving the place I had called home for 18 years. (Odd to think that I’ve now lived elsewhere for as long as I ever lived in North Richland Hills.) I was thrilled to be heading off to my first real post-collegiate job, as sports editor of a small paper in Alaska.

In Seattle, I was joined by my grandmother, who had flight privileges on Alaska Airlines because my grandfather, by then 11 years dead, had been an executive with the company. She was coming north to help me get settled, and she ended up doing so much more than that, buying me a car. (It was an ’84 Escort wagon, if I recall correctly. Brown. Oh, yeah.) For three days, she stayed with me in a world gone white and cold. And then she went home to Washington.

That was on a Sunday. Four days before Thanksgiving. I’ve never felt such crushing loneliness.

So why am I thinking of this at 5:34 a.m., 18 years later, while I sit in the dark of my house, with those I love most sleeping a room away?

Strangely enough, it’s because I’m thinking of a friend I’ve never met who’s a world away from his loved ones on this day of giving thanks. Of the many ways in which life has changed since I sat alone on Thanksgiving in a studio apartment in Kenai, Alaska, perhaps none is more notable than the technology that binds us even as we seem more adrift than ever from one another in time and physical distance. I can read Charles Apple’s blog and see the things he sees in South Africa, know what he’s had for dinner, experience his frustration and his jubilation as he does hands-on work with a newspaper there. I can flip over to Facebook and read my friends’ most intimate thoughts about what they’re thankful for, all because they’re compelled to say it and the Web site can move it from their fingertips to my eyes in an instant.

Let me tell you, it’s pretty damned glorious.

Nineteen ninety-one was undoubtedly a simpler time. If I view it through the hazy lens of nostalgia, I sometimes yearn for those days, when I was younger and my world seemed more pregnant with possibility. That can be dangerous, I think. Eighteen years ago, I had to swallow my loneliness; even a phone call home, in the days before unlimited cell phone minutes and flat-rate long distance, had to be short and bittersweet.

Today, I can think about Charles Apple and write down my half-baked thoughts and beam them out to anybody who cares to read them. Charles is going home Monday, and I can only imagine how happy his wife and daughter will be to see him after his two months away. It seems to me that will be a day of thanksgiving, regardless of what the calendar says.

I’m back from Texas, where I saw a lot of friends, had a lot of fun and sold a not-insignificant number of books. Pictures and such will have to wait; today, I’m back to work. But some quick hits from the long weekend:

  • The highlight, easily, was Saturday night’s open house. Over the course of the night, we saw more than 100 people stream in, stick around for conversation and food and enjoy 600 Hours of Edward. Big ups to Mom’s Catering (that is, my mom and her stellar party-making skills) for making the evening a big hit. I saw former classmates, former teachers, friends’ parents, people I didn’t know (but now do). It was a great time.
  • After Friday morning, I had a greater appreciation for the difficulty teachers face in trying to deliver a lesson, knowing full well they aren’t reaching everybody. I spent four hours with English classes (three at a time) at my alma mater, and I really appreciated being invited in by Richland High School and all the good questions about writing and life beyond high school.
  • Thursday morning, I spent time with English classes at Harwood Junior High in Bedford, Texas. The organizing teacher, Donna Baumgartner, was my third-grade teacher back in 1978-79. Wonderful to see her, and wonderful to see so many kids who clearly love reading.
  • After Harwood, I dashed out to the North Richland Hills Public Library for a reading and a Q&A. A lot of nice folks — many of whom I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years — came out for that. I’m looking forward to the next event at that beautiful new building.
  • Off-topic but near and dear to my heart: My wife, Angie, surprised me with a tour of Cowboys Stadium on Friday evening. The Cowboys’ opulent new home is absolutely stunning and far more impressive than the actual team.

I’ve been gone from North Richland Hills long enough and have lived long enough that visits tend to hit me in squarely in my nostalgia. On this trip, it seemed there was a memory around every corner. I had a lot of fun showing Angie the places I wandered when I was a kid, pointing out houses where my friends lived, plots of ground that used to be open space, etc. The Dallas/Fort Worth area has grown with such vigor in the past couple of decades that much of the background of my childhood has been left behind. I suppose that’s progress, in its own way. To me, though, it often just seemed like the erosion of the place I knew.

At any rate, we stumbled home to Billings on Sunday night. As is always the case after some time away, it’s good to be here.

AND ONE MORE THING …

600 Hours of Edward received a lovely — and long-awaited — review from the LL Book Review. The site originally planned to review the self-published version of the book several months back and graciously agreed to delay the review until the book re-emerged.

A snippet:

I could go on and on about all of the really fine points of this book, to the point where I might rival the 80,000 words of the novel itself. The bottom line is this is a book which should be experienced.

Thank you, LK Gardner-Griffie.

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