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This will be a clearing-the-decks post. That’s what happens when things go silent for a couple of weeks. My bad. I’d say it won’t happen again, but … well, you know.

ANYWAY …

Last week brought the excellent news that 600 Hours of Edward, a book that I wrote more than two years ago and one that continues to find new fans all the time (for which I’m very thankful), has been selected for the One Book Billings program this spring. The book will be talked about at a series of community conversations the week of April 11, and I’ll be giving a presentation at Parmly Billings Library at 11 a.m. on the 16th. I’m really looking forward to this.

For more information, you can call the library at 406-657-8258.

But wait! There’s more!

The Western Writers of America recently released the results of the Spur Awards voting, and I’m proud to say that Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, the first book published by my little literary house, Missouri Breaks Press, was a finalist in the long-novel category.

This honor, of course, is Carol’s alone, as everything that’s good about her book — and that’s a whole lot — is entirely the result of her own industry and talent. I’m just glad I was able to be associated with such a fine work and such a fine person.

Also worth noting is that Richard S. Wheeler also won a Spur, in the short-novel category for Snowbound. It’s his sixth. That’s a record. A wonderful honor for a true gentleman.

And finally …

The aforementioned Missouri Breaks Press will be releasing its second book-length work this summer, a collection of essays and stories by Ed Kemmick. It’s called The Big Sky, By and By, and it tells the stories of some ordinary/extraordinary folks who give this wonderful place flavor and light.

I’m thrilled to be working with Ed to bring this book to the marketplace. I think it’s going to find a lot of eager readers among Montanans and the many people who love this great land from afar.

More details coming soon …

Endorsements of The Summer Son have begun to roll in from authors and critics whose work I deeply admire.

Among them:

“Lancaster has crafted a novel that offers readers the most valuable gift any work of fiction can offer: an authentic emotional experience. The Summer Son will grip you with its pathos and insight, propel you mercilessly forward with its tension and suspense, and then wow you with an ending you won’t see coming. And when the experience is over, The Summer Son will stick with you.”
Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here and All About Lulu

Jon is having the kind of career I can only dream of. His first novel, All About Lulu, won rave reviews as a funny, deeply felt coming-of-age story. His latest, West of Here, will release on Feb. 11, 2010, and is already being hailed as one of the great books of the coming year. Chuck Adams, Evison’s editor at Algonquin, has called it the best book he’s worked with in four decades of publishing. I’m lucky enough to have an advance reader copy of it, and I can tell you that the multigenerational sweep, the sense of place, the writing all are beautifully rendered.

*****

“Lancaster’s characters drill into the earth in search of natural gas, and so too do they burrow into their pasts, hunting for the pockets of explosive angst that define who they are today. A compelling dose of realism and a vicious reminder that ancient history is always close enough to kiss us.”
Joshua Mohr, author of Termite Parade and Some Things That Meant the World To Me

Josh is the kind of writer who makes me wonder if the rest of us simply don’t have sufficient imagination. Consider the premise of his latest, Termite Parade: Three narrators — a woman, Mired; her boyfriend, Derek; and his twin brother, Frank — carry us through a story that starts with Mired’s being pushed down stairs, intentionally, by Derek (who, by the way, believes he’s being eaten from the inside by termites). And his much-heralded debut, Some Things That Meant the World To Me, centered on a 30-year-old man named Rhonda who is led through his troubled past by his own inner child. Some Things, published by tiny Two Dollar Radio, was selected by O Magazine as one of its “10 Terrific Reads of 2009.”

*****

The Summer Son is a superb and authentic exploration of family ties and the delicate relationships between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and the past and present. Lancaster writes from the heart in clear and powerful prose, exposing his characters flaws and strengths in heartbreaking detail and giving readers exactly what we want from contemporary fiction: characters we believe in from the first page, laugh and cry with throughout, and, finally, deeply understand at the end.”
Kristy Kiernan, author of Catching Genius and Between Friends

In a book world that demands that everything be classified, Kristy’s work often gets labeled as women’s fiction. While that’s certainly not a knock, it also misses half the picture. What she really writes is human fiction — beautiful, complex, redeeming, heartbreaking human fiction. All of her work — Matters of Faith, Catching Genius, Between Friends — probes relationships and choices and consequences with a deft eye and a hopeful heart. Fabulous stuff.

*****

“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.”
Richard S. Wheeler, author of Snowbound and a six-time Spur Award winner

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Dick Wheeler, for my money, is our greatest living writer of Westerns, and along the way, he became simply a fine novelist, no qualifications necessary. He’s also a man after my own heart: a former newspaperman who stumbled into a literary career. (That he is married to one of the finest people on the planet, Sue Hart, essentially makes Dick the most enviable man I know.) Check out his latest, Snowbound, for a terrific example of Wheeler’s exhaustive research — the tale centers on explorer John Fremont — and his elegant prose.

*****

The Summer Son made me laugh, made me feel and even made me love a scoundrel.”
Kristen Tsetsi, author of Pretty Much True …

I love when great things happen to deserving people. Kris’ self-released debut novel, Homefront, was loved by nearly everyone who read it, and after years of shopping it to publishers, she’s found one who sees the possibilities for the book that all of us who’ve read it so clearly grasped. It will be re-emerging soon as Pretty Much True … and you pretty much should read it when it does. Check out her blog here.

*****

“Part family saga, part mystery, The Summer Son will grab hold of you and not let go.”
R.J. Keller, author of Waiting for Spring

I love when great things happen to deserving people, Part 2. R.J. originally released her debut novel through CreateSpace, priced it to move on Amazon’s Kindle platform — and reaped the rewards of her own good work and readers’ word of mouth. Waiting for Spring — women’s fiction for women who don’t live Carrie Bradshaw’s existence — has consistently been one of the best-selling novels on the Kindle, and sure enough, AmazonEncore took notice: It will re-release the book to a much wider audience next spring. A success story well-earned.

*****

“In this novel of power, psychological insight, suspense, and healing, Lancaster takes the reader on Mitch Quillen’s search with courage and emotional honesty. Moving and unforgettable!”
Carol Buchanan, Spur Award-winning author of God’s Thunderbolt and Gold Under Ice

What can I say about Carol? She’s one of my best friends among the Montana writers I’ve met, she’s a whip-smart writer and possibly even better editor (The Summer Son benefited greatly from her advice), and she wrote a self-published debut novel (God’s Thunderbolt) that won a Spur Award. She’s such a gifted writer that it was a no-brainer for me to team up with her and launch her follow-up, Gold Under Ice, as the first release of my small literary imprint, Missouri Breaks Press.

*****

“Craig Lancaster really knows how to tell a story. And in this deeply felt, keenly observed, beautifully structured novel he tells one older than Sophocles, about the tensions between fathers and sons and the secrets that shape — and threaten to destroy — their lives.”
Charles Matthews, former books editor, San Jose Mercury News

Charles and I go way back, although it would be a stretch to say that we really knew each other before the advent of Facebook. We worked together at the San Jose Mercury News several years ago, but that was back in the days when that newspaper had 400-some editorial employees (as opposed to the 120 or so it has now), and so I’m not sure we ever even had a conversation. But no matter. Charles knows his stuff, and I’m greatly pleased that he liked what he read from me. Check out Bookishness, his brilliant blog.

So there they are — eight testimonials that I hope will persuade you to give The Summer Son a try. But even better: I just gave you at least a dozen good reading recommendations. Check these authors out. You won’t be sorry.

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.

(The NFL is upon us again, and so I am a happy boy. Thus, the football-referencing post title. You’re welcome.)

In lieu of any pressing news, let’s do this baby roundup-style:

I’m throwing in with the gang of bloggers over at The Blood-Red Pencil, a wonderful site for writers and editors. My first post as a new member is scheduled to appear Aug. 19 (topic: promotion), and you can be sure I’ll link to it here. If you’re wrestling with a manuscript, wandering into the wild world of independent publishing, flogging your own work or minding your hyphens, The Blood-Red Pencil is an excellent daily stop. And I would have said that even before I wore the pledge pin.

Richard S. Wheeler’s blog has quickly become must-read stuff for me. Here’s his take on Dorchester Publishing’s decision to abandon mass-market books, particularly as it pertains to the Western genre.

A snippet:

It is tempting to suppose that one less publisher in the mass-market western field will strengthen the rest, but it doesn’t work that way. It means less rack space will be devoted to westerns, and they will be harder to find and the genre will be even farther from sight and mind.

People who traffic in the things-ain’t-what-they-once-were trade are simultaneously dead-on and off the mark. The problem: They’re dead-on in a no-shit kind of way (things are never what they once were) and off the mark in the sense that change is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. So it is that a writer at the New York Observer sees no Mailers or Updikes and thus concludes that fiction is culturally irrelevant.

I’m sorry about Theodore Dreiser being dead and all, but he had his time. Let’s allow Carlton Mellick III to have his. I’m not saying The Baby Jesus Butt Plug is a work of comparable merit to An American Tragedy (I’m also not saying it’s not). I’m saying it doesn’t have to be. When we have so many books that speak to so many constituencies — and so many ways to enjoy them — that’s precisely the opposite of cultural irrelevance.

Finally, this is about as entertaining as Glenn Beck gets. I cannot believe I just wrote that sentence.

Last night during a meeting with a book club — fast becoming my favorite book-related activity — a woman asked me the following question: “What did you think of first in the book?”

I’d never thought of it before. The answer, of course, was clear and easy: the character. Always, always the character. We chatted some about Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours of Edward, and the process of giving him a personality and a point of view. That was fun. Long after the meeting, though, the question stayed with me, and I wondered how other writers come to a new story. Though I’d never contemplated it before, it seemed plausible that some might first imagine a conflict or a setting, then begin populating that vision with the people who will carry it forth. I don’t read a lot of whodunits or suspense novels, but it seems to me that the crime or the menace is, in essence, a character unto itself. Viewed through that lens, it certainly makes sense that a writer might first flesh out those aspects of a story, at least in his/her own mind, before moving on to the human elements.

My pleasure reading is mostly fiction with a literary bent, and thus character tends to drive most of the narrative. The question of what constitutes literary fiction can be difficult to answer (though my friend Richard Wheeler does an excellent job of it here). For purposes of casual conversation, let’s just say that it emphasizes character more than plot. That being the case, it’s rather difficult to imagine a literary writer — an Ivan Doig or a Mark Spragg — not spending the bulk of his effort on giving those characters a richness and depth not necessarily demanded by genre fiction. (A quick aside: In plenty of literary fiction, the landscape is the star of the story, and the deep characterization occurs there.)

And, of course, the stories that speak to both constituencies — those who want a literary experience and a crackling good read — are often the most satisfying. I find myself nodding vigorously in agreement with Michael Chabon, an undeniably literary writer who has been direct in his desire to see more genre elements in serious fiction.

From the interview:

Q: Where did this bias against work created for a popular audience come from?

A: In all fairness, it came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It’s impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 — Sturgeon’s Law said that 90% of everything is crud.

"Snowbound," the latest novel from Richard S. Wheeler

On the blogroll at left is a new entry: A Curmudgeon’s Diary, by Montana author Richard S. Wheeler.

One would not have to expend much effort to make a case for Wheeler’s being our greatest living writer of Westerns. In a long career, he’s written around seventy novels, including the popular Skye’s West/Barnaby Skye series. He’s won a boatload of Spur Awards, which are handed out by the Western Writers of America. And I daresay he’s married to one of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, Montana State University Billings professor Sue Hart (herself an accomplished writer and the keeper of a vast repository of Western literary knowledge). While that last bit doesn’t necessarily make him a more celebrated writer, it certainly speaks well of his good sense, which is just as important.

You could lose the better part of a day reading through the archives of Wheeler’s blog, but it’s his most recent post, on a long-ago rant, that I want to highlight here. He relays a story from 20 years ago in which he inveighed against Bill Kittredge’s assertion that the genre Western should fade away. Wheeler has had a change of heart.

An excerpt:

In truth, I eventually came around to Professor Kittredge’s views about genre western fiction, and think that the world would be better off if it simply withered away. It had its day, and maybe even formed American manhood, but now it is a feeble part of contemporary publishing, and bought mostly by geezers and buck privates. It is afflicted with terminal sameness, each story derived from a hundred previous ones. The publishers offer no wiggle room to authors, who are doomed to write yet another tired story about cowboys, or Texas rangers, or outlaws, or the Indian wars. Worse, as weary westerns affect readers less and less, body counts rise, violence rises, and what was once a knightly literature sinks into irrelevance. The frontier is gone. Professor Kittredge was right: there is a golden regional literature of the West blooming, and worthy of our esteem, and the old horse opera only gets in the way.

I haven’t read a lot of genre Westerns (but, strangely, I love Western movies). Though my taste in literature definitely bends West, it’s in the direction of Steinbeck and Doig and Stegner and Proulx and Watson and countless others. The writing I admire most goes deep inside its settings and characters and explores the human condition (bad news: We’re all terminally human). In that sense and under those circumstances, I would contend that there is territory yet to explore. Of course, as Wheeler rightly points out, such writing veers outside the rigid strictures of genre Westerns and into a more literary realm. (A good example of this is my friend Carol Buchanan, whose Gold Under Ice was just released.)

*****

One more Wheeler post to highlight. This one hits a little closer to home.

The novel he’s writing about here is my forthcoming The Summer Son. He ended up writing a lovely blurb, for which I am unyieldingly grateful. But I was most interested in his thoughts about the study guide I included at the end of the book. (This ends up being a moot point, as Wheeler read the version of the book that was going to be released by my Missouri Breaks Press; AmazonEncore ended up moving in and acquiring the title.)

The reason I included a book club guide is that a fair number of book clubs here in Billings have taken on 600 Hours of Edward, and many of them have inquired about the existence of such a guide. I figured that including one with the book, along with a banner on the cover highlighting it, might prove a worthwhile marketing device. As I conceded to Wheeler in an e-mail, I’m probably the least-qualified person in the world to write a study guide about my own work. Part of the magic of the author-reader relationship lies in giving the reader the latitude and the responsibility for forming his/her own opinion of what the work means. I’m not entirely comfortable with guiding that conversation. When I chat with members of a book club, I’m apt to ask them as many questions as they ask me.

*****

Finally, a last note about The Summer Son, this one a blatant teaser: I know what the cover will look like. Soon, you will, too. But not today.

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