In this 5 On interview, Craig Lancaster talks about his surprise success, what he learned from his most memorable rejection, why he gets so personal on social media, and more.
Craig Lancaster is the best-selling author of the novels 600 Hours of Edward, The Summer Son, Edward Adrift, The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, and This Is What I Want, as well as the short-story collection Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. His work has been recognized by the Montana Book Awards, the High Plains Book Awards, the Utah Book Awards, and the Independent Publisher Book Awards. He lives in Billings, Montana.
5 on Writing
CHRIS JANE: You blogged in 2013 about having sold your 100,000th book, which is a milestone I think is safe to equate with achieving a certain level of success as an author. What (outside of NaNoWriMo, which is where your first novel was conceived) inspired you that first time to sit down to write not an article, not a short story, but something as daunting (to most) and as time-consuming and involved as a novel, and did you have any feelings early in your novel-writing pursuits about success—whether you would achieve it, what success would look like, or whether/how much it mattered?
CRAIG LANCASTER: Like most of the novelists I know, I have a past littered with manuscripts that never made it or never had a chance of making it. Somewhere in the recesses of my accumulated paperwork is an attempt I made at nineteen years old. It has all the marks of that particular age, all the mimicry of writers I admired, and all the indications that, while I was thinking of the writing life, I wasn’t the least bit prepared to embark on it. I’d taken the time to cultivate a stuffy name—C. Elliott Lancaster—but hadn’t begun to think about what I knew, what I didn’t know, or what I wanted to say. Suffice to say that it’s a manuscript best viewed by no one.
But in retrospect, here’s the important thing: I did have the ambition to write, and that never left me, even in the intervening years when I was busy building a career in newspaper journalism. I never let the idea of someday writing a novel get too far away from me. Over about twenty years, a few things happened that served me well when I tried again. I developed a voice that I could call my own (for better or for worse), I accumulated experiences and memories that I could draw on in my work, and I finally had the patience to see something that ambitious through to the end.
600 Hours of Edward, my debut, was the first novel I ever wrote to completion. I’ve come to believe that it happened not a moment too soon or too late. When I was ready, I wrote one that had legs. I had no illusions about publication and certainly no benchmarks for success, which partly explains its strange journey. Impatient with agent queries, I self-published it via CreateSpace in early 2009, figuring I really had no idea whether it was good or bad. That summer, Riverbend Publishing in Helena, Montana, reached out to me and acquired the publication rights, and it came out anew in October 2009. It was a Montana Honor Book and a High Plains Book Award winner. In 2012, Amazon’s publishing arm acquired the rights, and it came out a third time. In almost three years with the Lake Union imprint, it’s sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide.
All of these things were inconceivable to me when I wrote it, and a continual source of ongoing wonder. I’m grateful and stunned, and I try to remember that it all started with writing a book that was in my heart.
What piece of writing advice floating around out there do you most agree with, and what piece do you least agree with?
I’m not sure I can fixate on particular pieces of what I consider to be bad writing advice. Most of the mechanical stuff—write in the morning, write at night, draft feverishly, edit as you go, etc.—strikes me as fairly useless, because so much of it hinges on what’s been successful for the person offering the wisdom. And that, I’ve found, is an intensely personal journey.
I’ve discovered that I work best after a long period—sometimes months—of considering a character from every angle I can think of, getting close, developing a bond before I even sit down to the keyboard. So I’ll have weeks and weeks each year that look fallow, if all you’re looking for is words on paper (or pixels, or whatever). But those aren’t lost days. They pay big dividends when I finally do sit down to write, because I tend to move fairly quickly on first drafts.
As for good advice, Walter Kirn (Up in the Air) said something a few years ago that has stayed with me since: it takes hundreds of pages of reading to fertilize the mind enough for one tiny shoot of original writing. I read everything I can get my hands on, in every format imaginable. I can lose myself in a good day’s links at Facebook, or in any of the books in my house that I haven’t gotten to yet, or in that 99-cent Kindle novel I took a flyer on last year.
What inspired the following novels, both (1) at the surface level (where did the characters and their conflicts come from?) and (2) thematically (why do you write what you write?): 600 Hours of Edward, The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, and This Is What I Want?
The more I do this, the more I realize that memory is what I rely on most when I’m building characters and their stories. Not just things I’ve experienced or done, but reactions I’ve witnessed, encounters I’ve viewed from afar that have confused me or caused me to ponder the ranges of human expression. I’m grateful for whatever it is in me, nature or something nurtured, that made me a good observer and allows me to try to find motivation in myself and others. That wide view of humanity permits to me to go far afield in what I write, I think.
For example, Edward Stanton, the main character in 600 Hours, was built from a premise: What if I took a guy who was so devoted to his routines that the smallest of interruptions would begin to change his life in profound ways? That was the foundation, but his interactions with others—and the father-son story at the center of things—came from observation and contemplation. And memory. So much memory in that book, like his recall of a trip with his father in a tractor-trailer that was being converted into a drilling rig. I took that same trip as a four-year-old. The memories are sepia-toned and spotty, but they’re with me.
Hugo Hunter, on the other hand, is a love story. It’s chaste and rooted in the entangled friendship of two men, but it’s undeniably love. I drew heavily on memories of watching my stepfather, a professional sportswriter, at work, as well as my own love of prizefighting in my early teens. When memory—intimate knowledge of something—meets imagination, some really wonderful things can happen. I don’t know Mark Westerly, the sports reporter in the book, or the titular Hugo Hunter, the fighter. Neither one is a pure distillation of anybody in real life. But have I met them? Do I know them? Yes, I do.
After four novels written in the first-person point of view—all of which leveraged the attendant advantages of intimacy as well as suffered the limitations—This Is What I Want is something new for me, with the revolving third-person points of view of eight or nine major characters. Soon after I met my now ex-wife, we traveled to her hometown, a tiny little dot on the eastern edge of Montana, for the town’s annual old-timers reunion. I grew up in the North Texas suburbs; I’d never seen anything like this—a two-day celebration full of food, parades, downtown concerts, and public intoxication. I was enthralled, and true to my nature, I began to wonder about the lives that underpinned it all. I’ve traveled and lived widely in my own country, and I’ve come to the conclusion that what we really want, and what we’re willing to do to get it, doesn’t have a lot of variances. So I imagined a story and set it against a fictionalized town with the size and the general character of this real place that I came to know pretty well.
Who reads your rough drafts, and what does your editing process look like before you send the finished manuscript to your agent?
Nobody but me reads my first drafts. When I get done with the first round of writing, I print out the entire manuscript (FedEx Kinkos loves me) and work it over with a red pen. The amount of ink expended varies from book to book, but I try to really be hard on what I’ve done at this stage, and because of the quickness of my first drafts (generally no more than three months), there are often fairly major things that need reworking—names of tertiary characters that have changed between chapters, memories of dead relatives in an early chapter that yield to very much alive characters in a later one, etc. After that, I do rewrites, then repeat the process.
After a second round of revisions, I’m usually ready to let someone else see it. My friend Jim Thomsen, who’s been interviewed here, is always on the distribution list, because he has that rare ability to be both deeply trusted and loved friend and complete no-bullshit arbiter of literary merit. Other people get drafted into the duty on a one-off basis, but if I choose someone, it’s because I know that person (a) will give me something to work with in a way that doesn’t trample me (e.g., I prefer visceral reactions to what-if-you-did-this suggestions) and (b) won’t waste my time by blowing sunshine up my skirt.
After I accumulate that feedback and incorporate the useful stuff (and toss the rest), I take one more crack at it myself. By then, I’ve usually carried it as far as I can, until my agent or my developmental editor comes up with all kinds of new things for me to consider.
For what it’s worth, I love revision. It’s so much more fun and rewarding than the actual drafting, because I think that’s where I see potential become something much more tangible.
“Every writer should read ___________ at least once.” And: why?
I have no desire to tell anybody what he or she should read at least once. Who am I to say something like that? What I’d like to see, in a general sense, is more challenging of convention. When I was a young journalist, almost every mentor or wannabe-mentor I had told me that I should read The Elements of Style and commit it to memory. So I tried to, and just like so many of my peers, I would foist this same advice upon the up-and-comers who followed me. Later, when I grew weary of the arbitrary ways in which journalists try to corral a living, breathing language, I found much of what Strunk & White prescribes to be unnecessarily rigid, and at times simply oafish. There is good advice in the covers of that little book, but I think it’s helpful to take it in the sense of a guideline rather than an ironclad rule.
And some of it, frankly, is complete nonsense. The linguist Geoffrey Pullum has written the definitive breakdown of that. So if you’re a writer, read Pullum’s words, and stop promulgating such inanity.
5 on Publishing
You get very personal on social media, sharing intimate details of your life with not just your real-life friends, but also those who were brought to your feed through your books. Is this kind of open sharing something you’ve always done naturally, or was it something you decided needed to be done if you were going to engage on a meaningful level with readers? And do you ever have moments when you wish you could pull back something you’d revealed because it resulted in the unique kind of nausea that sometimes comes with a fear of having put too much out there?
I don’t think I can fake something like that. This is who I am, sometimes to the great consternation of those closest to me. (My father, for instance, has finally become numb to the idea that I’ll write about him.) I’m reminded of a story Pat Conroy told about his mother on her deathbed complaining that she found it difficult to die comfortably when she knew he’d run home and write down everything she said.
So, no, I didn’t decide to open up my life online just so I could find a way to interact with readers, or, more cravenly, to sell books. It’s just part of me, and it’s something that lends itself to interesting interaction in a social sphere.
All that said, there are certain things I won’t do. I won’t blast off on my ex-wife if I’m frustrated with her. (In fact, the opposite is true—I’ve held forth at some length on how I believe we’ve found a healthy relationship that works for us beyond the strictures of marriage.) I won’t embarrass anyone. And I won’t talk about the intimate things that belong to two people (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, knowwhatImean?).
What I’m after is the universal. Life. Death. Loss. The merits of happiness vs. fulfillment. We all think about these things. We all wrestle with them. I’ve found little downside to sharing them, even with strangers. Indeed, the communal experience online has been nothing but positive for me. All it takes is a good sense of propriety and some boundaries.
You ran the independent Missouri Breaks Press for a time (currently on hiatus) and took on projects or writers you believed in. I can think of a lot of writers who would love to run their own press even if only to introduce fellow authors or poets whose writing they think readers will enjoy but that, for whatever reason, isn’t finding homes with the traditional presses. What are the pros and cons of doing such a thing, and what was the biggest lesson you learned while acting as publisher that you couldn’t have known until you tried it yourself?
Missouri Breaks Press isn’t on hiatus; its mission has simply changed. It’s now the arena for possible future publishing ambitions for me, as well as the business under which I pursue some of my other interests, namely graphic design and manuscript editing. That’s quite a different approach from the one I initially envisioned, which was, as you say, helping writers I admired put out books they could be proud of.
A couple of things chased me off that course. First, given my own responsibilities to my own writing, I found that I wasn’t doing anything for those authors that they couldn’t do for themselves. There was nothing value-added for them that they couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. And second, the ongoing management of royalties—receipt and disbursement—was a nightmare that only promised to get more frustrating if I added more titles.
That was probably the biggest lesson I learned, and it’s one I’ve discussed at some length with friends of mine who are still holding on to the dream of running their own small publishing houses. The money matters are an enormous responsibility, in terms of time and import. You don’t want to get that stuff wrong.
What expectations does your publisher, Lake Union Publishing, have of you when it comes to your independent marketing and publicity efforts, and how much is done for you? What is most difficult for you when it comes to marketing yourself?
I’m fortunate to be with a publisher whose main goal is for me to write more books. That happens to dovetail with my own aspirations. I’ve been given no directives about how to market or what those efforts should look like, although I’m certainly aware that anything I can do to increase the visibility and sales of my books will be an ally the next time I ask Lake Union to consider a manuscript.
When I started out, I wanted all of the experiences: bookstore signings, library readings, literary festivals, book clubs. I put thousands of miles on my car and spent untold hours going to events, and some of that outreach led to relationships and contacts that continue to serve me well. Some, on the other hand, were wastes of time. In the years since, I’ve adjusted my approach accordingly.
The most difficult part, I find, is pitching an angle on my book, or on me, to professional journalists. I spent twenty-five years in that line of work. You would think that would aid me in crafting a better press release, but really what it did was convince me that most pitches are garbage. I try not to waste journalists’ time with stuff I know I wouldn’t have bitten on when I was in that job.
What was your worst/most memorable rejection as a writer, and how did you handle it?
Early in my career, before publication, there was a published author in my region who took a great interest in my work and looked as though he was going to turn into the kind of trusted mentor I needed at that stage of things. Soon, however, the relationship soured. At this juncture, you’d get two different stories about what happened, so I think it’s best to just skip the details and say this: We’re not friends. We’re not colleagues. We don’t speak. The end.
This writer was editing an anthology at the time we first met. He invited me to submit an essay, and then he assured me it would make the cut. I was enthusiastic; it was the kind of break I wanted and felt as though I needed.
You can probably figure out what happened next. Months went by, our friendship long dormant, and I got an e-mail that said my can’t-miss essay had, indeed, missed. I wrote back with some false bravado and noted that I was probably overdue for some bad news. And then I turned around and sold the essay to a magazine and pocketed $400, which was about $400 more than I’d have ever seen from the anthology.
It wasn’t quite fuck-you money, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
What was your greatest success as a fiction writer (whether an award, getting a specific agent, being mentioned in a certain publication), what did it take to achieve it, and how did you celebrate?
My greatest success as a fiction writer comes every time I’m able to cover my monthly bills. I’m dead serious about this. My only ambition when I started this was that I might someday be able to make a living on what I write, and I fueled that ambition by writing the best books I knew how to write at the time I undertook them. There are other ingredients, too. I try to be kind and helpful, as so many writers have been to me, and I try to live in a way that promotes gratitude for the fact that I’ve been able to do this. I don’t take it for granted.
My heroes among the literary set have a similar ethic. My friend Dick Wheeler, the great Western novelist, is eighty years old and turns out three or four books a year. He’s polished, he’s good on deadline, and he delivers the goods. What more could I want than to do the work I love, do it as well as I’m able, and to put myself in position to keep doing it?
I was able to make the leap into full-time writing in August 2013. That’s how I celebrated. I walked into my boss’s office at the Billings Gazette and told him I was done editing copy and designing pages, and I got the hell out of there. It was a good career for me for about twenty years, and a soul-sapping slog for about five. Once it was over, I never looked back.
Thank you, Craig.