Writing – Craig Lancaster http://craig-lancaster.com Novelist Sat, 11 Nov 2017 22:13:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 http://craig-lancaster.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/cropped-new-website-600-32x32.jpg Writing – Craig Lancaster http://craig-lancaster.com 32 32 THE SUMMER SON: The Book That Came Back http://craig-lancaster.com/the-summer-son-the-book-that-came-back/ http://craig-lancaster.com/the-summer-son-the-book-that-came-back/#respond Sun, 25 Jun 2017 16:41:14 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2546 The Summer Son, Craig’s second novel, came out in early 2011 and has been a hardy book, indeed. It was a Utah Book Award finalist, has been translated into French and German editions, and has been a steady seller for most of its life.

And now, it’s out in a newly edited second edition. The new release, put out by Craig’s imprint, Missouri Breaks Press, includes a hardcover version, in addition to the paperback and Kindle versions.

Below, from the foreword of the new edition, Craig talks about the book and its new life.

The Summer Son front cover


It would be giving too much credit to publishing to call it a journey. In my experience, it’s more like a gantlet, an endurance test, the often unpleasant but necessary thing that happens once you’ve written a book and have the audacity to believe that someone not related to you might want to read it.

Some years ago, this book—my second—got published. Some very nice, accomplished people at a big, worldwide company saw some merit in it and invested the time and money to bring it into the marketplace. Press releases were written. Authors I admire were kind enough to say nice things about it. Book review outlets told their readers about it.

In its sixth and seventh months of release, when I might have expected The Summer Son to coast on that initial burst of attention, it instead tanked. In two months, it sold twenty-six copies. Total. All formats, all territories.

I figured my career, barely even begun, was a goner. I was quite certain there would never be another book. That’s what publishing can do to you. It makes you crazy with this notion that you somehow can or should take responsibility for things that are clearly not your province. Writers are healthiest, I think, when they’re doing the work to the best of their ability, interacting with their readers, and living their fuller lives outside the bubble. Publishing, on the other hand, is the bubble.

As it turned out, the summer of 2011 didn’t have the last word on The Summer Son, or on me. The book has been like a journeyman infielder; it’s persisted, done its job, and carved out a place on the team. At this writing, it’s sold upward of 70,000 copies worldwide, a respectable number. And now, in this version you’re holding, it’s coming around again.

Earlier this year, I asked the original publisher of The Summer Son, Lake Union Publishing in Seattle, to revert the English-language rights back to me. It’s a mature book, one that doesn’t really fit Lake Union’s editorial mission anymore, and I think it may yet have another chapter, so to speak.

Of all my books—there are eight now—this is the one I always thought I might do a bit differently if given the chance. Nothing big. The story is strong enough, the structure is sturdy enough, and readers have responded emotionally to it. I didn’t want to mess up anything good. I just wanted to do some scalpel work. Call it a director’s re-cut, if the cinematic metaphor works for you.

So allow me to present The Summer Son, the remake. If you stick around past the ending, there’s an essay about my family, which might give you some insights into how fact informed fiction here, and where it deviates.

I give my workshop students the following equation: memory + experience + imagination = fiction. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to wonder about the proportions.


Craig Lancaster
Billings, Montana
June 2017

Want to get your copy?

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Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy in your preferred format.

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My old Kentucky home http://craig-lancaster.com/my-old-kentucky-home/ http://craig-lancaster.com/my-old-kentucky-home/#comments Sun, 11 Dec 2016 18:06:58 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2469 In January 1993, I threw an overnight bag into the backseat of my Chevrolet Citation and set out from Texarkana, Arkansas, where I lived, for Owensboro, Kentucky, where I hoped to be living soon.

I was 22 years old, on the brink of 23, into my third year as a newspaper copy editor, cocky as all hell, and pretty damn depressed. The job back in Texarkana had been sliding sideways for a while, had never really been much fun to begin with (outside of some co-workers whom I loved), and was coming to its end, one way or another.

The general look of me in the early 1990s. I'm glad the mullet is gone. I wish it hadn't taken the hairline with it.

The general look of me in the early 1990s. I’m glad the mullet is gone. I wish it hadn’t taken the hairline with it.

The previous summer, I’d butted heads with the editor and the general manager. On a slow news day, I’d built a sports-section centerpiece around Magic Johnson and his impending return to the NBA after an abrupt retirement in December 1991. The next morning, the general manager had left a clip of the centerpiece in my mailbox along with a note: “Magic Johnson is an immoral HIV carrier and our readers don’t care about him.” The editor hadn’t backed me up. I began looking for a new job almost immediately, while hanging on as best I could to the one I had. Some months of waiting and hoping had led me to that long car ride to Kentucky.

The Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, where I’d be interviewing, was at the time one of the finest small newspapers in America—well-written, formidably staffed, beautifully designed. Pretty much everything the paper back in Texarkana was not. I was up for a job that split my duties between copy editing the sports section and the local/state section. I wanted it. Bad.

I was also hedging my bets. The same day I interviewed in Owensboro, I drove to Carbondale, Illinois, and talked to editors at the Southern Illinoisan about a job in sports. I was near certain I’d be leaving Texarkana expeditiously. I just wasn’t sure where I was headed.

Within 24 hours of my return to Arkansas, I had offers in hand from both papers. The Messenger-Inquirer offered $380 a week, the Southern Illinoisan $410. Both were well above what I was making in Texarkana, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. In a display of wisdom I wouldn’t always replicate in my career, I accepted the offer in Owensboro. Never have I been so happy to tell a boss I was leaving as I was that day in Texarkana. My recollection is that he wasn’t terribly broken up by the news, either.


I’m a third-generation newspaper journalist, so I know a little something about this. It’s a hard way to make a go of it in life, and it’s getting harder all the time as the business model for advertising-driven journalism dries up. I left the business in 2013, happy that I could do so of my own volition but fretting almost daily for the future of well-reported news. My hopes haven’t exactly been buffeted in the years since; see our recent presidential election and the flourishing of propaganda for a sad reminder of the fix we’re in.

Here’s what good newspapers demand of their journalists:  a broad education, the ability to absorb and aggregate information, to ask pointed questions and receive informative answers, to write well quickly, and to do all of that within the strictures of daily deadlines. It’s not easy, and the pay for those skills—any one of them being much more lucrative in the open market—is historically bad. For a long time, newspapers have counted on employees having a certain love, a certain sense of duty, that supersedes the crappy pay.

For a long time, I obliged.

In Owensboro, Kentucky, as much as anywhere I ever worked, it was easy to do so.


The Ohio River at Owensboro.

The Ohio River at Owensboro.

I lived and worked in Owensboro for about 18 months, before a (comparatively) big paycheck called me up to a bigger paper where I had only a fraction of the enjoyment.

Owensboro, you see, was special.

On the copy desk alone, there were a half-dozen colleagues right around my age, single like me, hardworking and hard-playing, the best and the brightest in that town. For most of my stay, I shared an apartment in a subdivided old mansion with one of my night crew buddies. Another one lived across the hall. Still another downstairs, directly below our unit. The one non-journalist in the place, an older lawyer, hated us. Hated our hours and our exuberance. Now, 23 years on, I’d probably be more inclined to agree with his take on things. Then? Fuck him. We were having a ball.

In a Facebook age, all of those friendships I made back then have been nurtured and recalled. Heen. Lovett. Cindy. Biv. The Toddler. Noelle. Newton. Hunter. Ben and Berry and Keith, old man riverpark, the one who keeps on keeping on.

You ever dream of returning to younger days? I do. And when I do, I usually dream of Owensboro.


julep street front coverI tell my fiction students that there’s a formula for good novel writing. It doesn’t have anything to do with plot twists or the introduction of tertiary characters or unreliable narrators.

Here it is: memory + experience + imagination = story.

When I started writing Julep Street, back in 2013, I was thinking a lot about my memories of my time in Owensboro and the experiences I had there. In Carson McCullough, the abruptly turned out newspaper editor who follows some of his darkest impulses, I had a vehicle for my imagination. What if I’d stayed in Owensboro? I liked it there, the city and the job, and I might have hung on at the paper long enough to meet someone, settle down, buy a house. And what if I’d stayed long enough to see the newspaper business sour there, same as it has most everywhere else, and I’d felt trapped by all the things I’d been too lazy to pursue when times were better? What if I’d found myself at the end with nothing much to show for the journey?

I don’t know, man. It might have been a hell of a story.

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High Plains Book Awards http://craig-lancaster.com/high-plains-book-awards/ http://craig-lancaster.com/high-plains-book-awards/#comments Thu, 02 Jun 2016 16:02:03 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2374 The news came out yesterday that This Is What I Want is a finalist in the fiction category of the 2016 High Plains Book Awards. It’s my third finalist designation—the previous ones were for Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure in 2012 (short stories) and 600 Hours of Edward in 2010 (winner in the First Book category)—and I’m as flabbergasted and grateful as I was the first time.

Lancaster-ThisIsWhatIWant-20166-CV-FT2Perhaps even more flabbergasted this time, since This Is What I Want came out last July and promptly…well, did not much of anything. It got some nice reviews, colleagues said some lovely things—and, again, I’m nothing but grateful—but the book just sort of settled into a corner. My wonderful friend Richard S. Wheeler, the six-time Spur Award winner and epitome of grace, gave me some advice years ago that serves me well every day. Write the best book you can, he said, and then surrender your expectations.  If you’re at it long enough, books that you expect to fly will, instead, fall, and books that confound you will soar.

Damned if he isn’t right. Neither This Is What I Want nor its immediate predecessor, The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, has found readers the way I hoped they would. But I’m at peace because they were the best books I could write when I wrote them, because they’ll be around a long time and still have the chance to connect, because I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate by any measure, because I’m not owed anything, because I still get to do this thing I love, because there will be another book, and because I’m blessed to have this book in the company of the 36 other finalists across the High Plains Book Awards categories.

The winners will be announced October 8 at a banquet in Billings. I’ll be in New England on my honeymoon.

I’ve already won.

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Landscapes http://craig-lancaster.com/landscapes/ http://craig-lancaster.com/landscapes/#comments Thu, 18 Feb 2016 02:22:19 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2336 We were maybe twenty miles west of Billings, Montana, when we topped a hill and the land fell out before us, plains running in a soup bowl to the next plateau, the purple-blue sky a canopy fastened to the horizons at 360 degrees. Elisa drew in a breath and said, “I never get used to it. It never gets old.”

I knew what she meant. She’s been looking at the American West for a few months. I’ve been looking at it my whole life. And now I was taking her through it on our way to meet her future mother- and father-in-law.

“You know what?” I said. “It never gets old for me, either.”

I wanted to tell her more, about the hundreds of miles yet to come. About the Bighorn Mountains that would grace our next gas stop, the great emptiness of Wyoming, the Front Range, Pike’s Peak, the Spanish Peaks. Colorado, a corner of New Mexico, and then the vast maw of Texas, on to the suburb I’ll always call home.

But there would be time enough for that, an unfurling at 70 or 80 mph.

I held her hand. She looked out the window. I watched the road. And everything else.

Sunset in Wyoming. Photo by Elisa Lorello.

Sunset in Wyoming. Photo by Elisa Lorello.


As we peeled off the miles, we did talk about it some. She told me about growing up on Long Island, how vast space made her look for the water, because that’s the only place she ever saw it. Montana, she said, seemed unfathomably huge: the open space, the snow-streaked Crazy Mountains, the distance of the horizon. And the sky. Always the sky.

Her boundless wonder at this place that she has startlingly come to call home made me smile. I tried to tell her I had an equivalent in her part of the world, when I’d climb the stairs out of the darkness at Penn Station and alight on the sidewalk and New York—at once so familiar because of pop culture and so foreign because, well, just because—would assimilate me. Breathtaking, every time.

We batted those concepts between the seats of my Toyota, deconstructed them and examined the individual parts, and then we settled on a way of looking at our disparate perspectives.

“They’re the landscapes of our minds,” I said, borrowing and repurposing the subtitle of Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky. “Mine is here. Yours is there.”

She nodded and smiled at me knowingly. And we get to share them with each other.


We approached Casper, Wyoming, after dark. An hour earlier, in the waning light, I’d helped her find antelope beyond the fencelines. But now, the city twinkling, beckoning at the foot of Casper Mountain, we rode quietly even as my mind stormed. Memories—some clear, some faded, some composite—came to me, and I wondered how I’d construct the stories for Elisa and make the case that I’m both a son of this place and a fugitive from it.

I showed her my first home, a little cracker box in the roughed-up town of Mills. I lived there till I was three. I returned to it every summer through age eight. It’s a place of nostalgia and youthful longing. I’m also dead certain, as sure of this as anything ever, that the greatest gift I ever received was removal from it. I’m the son of an oil man, and a good deal of my self-image is tangled up in that. I’m also the son of a suburban mom and stepfather, and almost everything that informs who and what I am and what I do is touched by that. Casper is genesis. North Richland Hills (and all points beyond) is realization.

It’s hard to explain. I’ve been trying all my life, and I haven’t figured it out yet.


I’m trying to collect these runaway thoughts from a hotel room in Trinidad, Colorado, as Elisa lies next to me and unwinds by watching The Odd Couple. One more day of driving awaits us. More to see. More to talk about. More to take apart and put back together.

It occurred to me, as we covered the final few miles before calling a night, that these sojourns into the West are essential to how I maintain contact with the past and how I shape the dreams I send out ahead of me. I rarely feel so alive, so a part of the world, so connected to my country as when I sit quietly and take it in.

What a privilege to see it, through my own eyes again and through hers for the first time.

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Duaine’s Last Rites http://craig-lancaster.com/duaines-last-rites/ http://craig-lancaster.com/duaines-last-rites/#respond Tue, 09 Feb 2016 18:05:53 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2319 This article originally ran in the Winter 2015 edition of the Montana Quarterly, a magazine with which I’ve had a long association, first as a frequent contributor and now as a member of the masthead (design director). If you’re a Montanan (present or in absentia), love Montana, or are simply interested in the culture and issues of the American West, I highly recommend that you become a subscriber. It’s a great magazine.


IT’S MID-OCTOBER 2014, and in my grief over a love gone bad, I’ve pointed my car west, toward Seattle. I’m headed there because my best friend has told me to come, using the kind of language you reserve for someone you care about when you don’t recognize him anymore and are scared of what he might be thinking. “Goddammit, just get in your car and come here,” he’s told me, and so that’s what I’m doing.

It’s late morning, and I’m west of Spokane, about to lurch into the hypnotic sameness of central Washington, when I remember the name of a town I’ve only read about, the resting place of an uncle I never knew, a connection to the father whose story I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to reconstruct.

I pull over, and I punch “Creston” into my GPS program, and the satellites tell me I can get off at the next exit and start working my way north and east. A few miles ahead, I leave the interstate and make my way into the lonely corners and igneous-rock outcroppings of northern Washington.

The Lancaster children in the early 1940s. From left: Delores (1937-2000), Duaine (1936-1972) and Ronald (1939-).

The Lancaster children in the early 1940s. From left: Delores (1937-2000), Duaine (1936-1972) and Ronald (1939-).

DUAINE LEROY LANCASTER was born March 8, 1936, in Conrad, Montana. He died December 22, 1972, in Spokane, Washington. The basic facts of commencement and benediction are easy enough to discover. It’s everything in the middle—who he was, what he sounded like, whether he was generous or mean, if he preferred dogs or cats—that’s harder to get at.

His younger brother, my father, likes to tell of the time he smashed Duaine in the face with a two-by-four, a stealth attack undertaken while Duaine’s hair was being cut by their mother. When I ask Dad why he did it, he says, matter-of-factly, “Because he rubbed cow shit in my face.” It’s a funny story only if you imagine it as a cartoon, and only if you don’t know the larger context. The young lives of Duaine and Ron Lancaster, and of their sister, Delores, were unspeakably harsh. Their stepfather, Dick Mader, kept them in line with beatings. I’ve heard the story from a cousin about Dad showing up on her doorstep, his back flayed by Dick’s whip, on one of his many unsuccessful runaway attempts. Duaine, she says, had it even worse, being the oldest.

I have one photo of the siblings together, taken in the early 1940s. There is no mirth in their faces, no childlike wonder. It’s haunting, and over the years I’ve learned enough about their lives to know why.

Duaine and Delores are gone, and Dad, now 76, doesn’t part with words or emotions easily. When I ask him what he remembers about his brother, he says, simply, “Duaine was all right.”

I take the same question to my mother, whose life has been untangled from those of the Lancasters (save me) for 42 years, and I get an answer steeped in violence.

“I remember that when we went to Kalispell for Dick’s funeral”—this would have been 1966, four years before I was born—“Ron and Duaine got into a fistfight during the wake.”

ONCE I REACH CRESTON, I’m there perhaps a half-hour. I see not a single soul. The cemetery sits on gently sloping hillside, and there the interment directory tells me that if I walk a few yards down from where I’ve parked, I should find Duaine’s plot.

Instead, I locate the neighboring headstones and an unmarked patch of yellow grass where Duaine’s resting place is supposed to be. My mind flashes on a picture I have somewhere at home, a pile of graveside roses. Dad took that, or maybe Mom did. After Duaine was struck by a panel truck while working on a survey crew in Idaho, Dad had shut down his drilling business, and he and Mom had traveled from their home in Wyoming to Spokane to keep vigil at the hospital. Weeks went by—“I learned to love crossword puzzles, sitting in that hospital,” Mom says, 43 years later—and then Duaine died. A few days after that, my folks went to Creston to see him into the earth on December 28, 1972. Near as I can tell, nobody on our side of the family has ever been back.

Now I’m here, and no one passing this spot would have any evidence of Duaine’s life, and I’ve never felt so alone.

DUAINE HAD FIVE CHILDREN—sons Ricky, Russell and Robby, and daughters Melinda and Shelly. I’d known their names for a long time; my curiosity about this unconnected family of mine far predates my spur-of-the-moment swing to their father’s gravesite. But try as I might, in this Internet age when you can learn seemingly anything about anybody, I hadn’t been able to track them down. By the time Duaine died, his family had scattered. The boys and Melinda were in Oklahoma City with their mother, Myrna. Shelly, married young and with her own life and new last name, was in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado.

And then, in a single afternoon, what and who I know changed. My Aunt Delores’ daughter Vickie came to Billings to see Dad, and we compared our meager family notes. A single surname—that of Duaine’s widow, Myrna, after her second marriage—emerged from deep in Vickie’s memories. A short online search led to Myrna, back in Montana after decades away, and a line on all of her children. My cousins. That Myrna didn’t recognize my name when I introduced myself hardly seemed notable. I knew hers and I knew Duaine’s, and thus we had a place to start our conversation.

I have much to tell these people. About how pulling at strings on the Internet has led me to other people who knew Duaine. About what I know of his family of origin, the bits and pieces I’ve put together over the past 20 or so years, and the large gaps that remain in the puzzle. About the old man who lives upstairs from me, the last living sibling of their father.

About how I’d like to know them, because they connect to Duaine, and Duaine connects to my father. About how I’m desperate to find those links, because I know that when Dad’s gone, I won’t have my father anymore, just as they haven’t had their father for most of their lives.

AFTER A THERAPEUTIC WEEK IN SEATTLE, I come home to Billings with the idea that I’ll get a headstone placed for Duaine, that perhaps I can do this one small thing to mark that he was here and he mattered. A nice man at Strate Funeral Home in Davenport, Washington, pulls the record and tells me that I can get a free headstone from the government on account of Duaine’s Marine Corps service, which I don’t even know about.

I put in the paperwork with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, claiming Duaine on behalf of Dad, and weeks later I have more fodder for the paper trail. Duaine went into the service on November 13, 1953, as a 6-foot-tall, 165-pound private and was discharged under honorable conditions a little more than three months later, on February 27, 1954, for an undisclosed medical reason. It’s not much of a service record, but it’s enough to get him a grave marker and a certificate of commendation from President Barack Obama. The present-day events roll out slowly, as we head into winter and a new year. The headstone is ordered, and etched, and placed, and in spare moments here and there, I keep talking to Dad and digging away online.

I’VE HAD A CRINKLED, yellowing copy of Duaine’s Great Falls Tribune obituary for a couple of decades; it sits in a photo album along with the two grainy, at-a-distance shots I have of him from his adult years. It wasn’t until I received a different obituary, from someone who knew Duaine at the end of his life, that I came across a revelatory detail about our family. Among the listed survivors are the ones I always knew about and one whose story was a long time in completing. The obit I was given lists a Fred Lancaster—father to Duaine, Delores and Dad—as a survivor, but there’s no other information, like where he lived. That’s because no one knew the answer.

Fred Seath Lancaster's grave, in Madras, Oregon.

Fred Seath Lancaster’s grave, in Madras, Oregon.

Fred last shows up in the family story in the mid-1950s, after Dad ran away from his mother and stepfather’s dairy farm near Simms, Montana—this time for good—and reconnected with him. Fred saw Dad into the Navy and then went on his way, and it wasn’t until I did an online search of the Social Security Death Index in the late 1990s that we discovered what happened to him. He moved to Oregon, married a woman named May Belle, and died in June 1970. In December 1972, Fred was listed as a survivor of Duaine, but he wasn’t. He was already more than two years gone, and no one knew.

This kind of casual grasp of relation shows up again and again in our family. We know names, but we don’t know each other, or we know different stories. When Dad’s mother, Della, died in 1978, I felt nothing. I didn’t know her. Dad didn’t love her, except, perhaps, for the way any boy wants to love his mother, even when she shuts him out. I’ve learned enough about Della to know that she didn’t mitigate Dick Mader’s violence toward those kids, and in some cases she even abetted it. Hardship and pain bind some people; in the case of Dad and his siblings, they simply ran away from each other and toward their own destinies once they got the chance. Sentimentality wasn’t a luxury they could afford.

But then I talk to my newfound cousin Shelly on the phone, and she has warm memories of Dick and Della Mader and none of her own father. She tells me to keep her father’s certificate from the president. It wouldn’t mean anything to her, she says.


Duaine Lancaster and Roberta Bonnalie. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Henson)

Duaine Lancaster and Roberta Bonnalie. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Henson)

IT’S JUNE 26, 2015, and I’m in Spokane again, sitting at a table in Arend Hall on the Whitworth University campus. The woman I’ve found online, Debbie Henson, works here. She’s the daughter of a woman named Roberta Bonnalie, who’s six years dead. Roberta was Duaine’s girlfriend at the end of his life.

I’ve talked to Debbie on the phone a couple of times, trying to explain who I am and why I’ve come calling about this man she knew when she was 12 years old. In person, she’s friendly, if a bit nervous, same as I am.

I ask her if Roberta loved him, and if she thinks they’d have married had Duaine lived.

“I think so, yeah,” she says.

I ask Debbie if Duaine was good to her and her older brother.

“He spoiled us,” she says. “He bought us a pool table. It’s still in my house.”

She gives me a CD, her fulfillment of my request for pictures of Duaine and Roberta. I thank her, and after some more small talk, I leave. I’m due in Creston that afternoon, to see Duaine’s place of rest one more time.

It will be late that night, hours away in Olympia, Washington, when I pop the CD into my laptop and see my uncle in a way I never have before—in full color; asleep; shirtless on a couch; opening presents with Roberta at Christmas. The moments are candid, revealing. They show a human being, not a concept.

In Duaine’s face, though, I still see the little boy from the old photograph. I see my father. I see their sister. I see their mother.

I see everything I know about them, and I’m left with gratitude for that and frustration for the fact that so much still eludes me.

WE ALL WANT CONNECTION. It’s a human desire. And in my case, with an aging father whose life has been so heartbreaking in so many ways, I feel a powerful compulsion to learn what I can while he’s still here. So many people are already gone and have taken their stories with them that I can be frantic about preserving what’s left. I try to delude myself sometimes into thinking that the effort is for him. But it is, at its heart, a selfish endeavor. I want stories that I can touch when I can no longer slip my arm across his shoulders.

I know that time is coming.

But it’s more than mere desire for connection. I try to honor my father and his family because so little is known to me, and because the vagaries of chance are so strong with us. I’m a Lancaster not because I was born naturally into it. I was adopted at birth, placed with my parents because a scared University of Washington undergrad saw no way to keep me, because Ron Lancaster and Leslie Johnson happened to be at a party on the Billings Rimrocks on the same night, met, ran away together, married, were unable to conceive a child and, late in a marriage that wasn’t very good, tried to mend their torn lives with a baby.

The Lancasters aren’t my blood. But make no mistake: they are my people.

duaine graveI ROLL INTO CRESTON at midafternoon, and at once I’m turned around. Part of this is circumstance, and part is intention. Nine months earlier, after a snap decision to come here in the throes of despair, I was pulled in from the west by my GPS application, and by chance I was deposited where I wanted to be. This time, I’ve come with purpose, direct from Spokane, and I’m turned around. I’m looking on the wrong side of town for the cemetery, and at last I have to stop in at the post office. I’m happy to see a friendly face on this bright day, and I’m eager to see Duaine’s resting spot with a fresh perspective—on him, on my father, on my own life. The words “life goes on” are hackneyed; the actual going on is profound.

Once oriented and back at the cemetery, I take my girlfriend’s hand, and we walk down the row toward Duaine. Even now, I can see it, the simple new marker with the concrete bunting.

I stand there and gaze down at the spot. I clench Elisa’s hand ever tighter. I wish for inspired words, but they come out banal instead. “Well, Uncle Duaine, here you are.” I look around. There’s no more loneliness, no more heartache. It’s a beautiful day, clear and hot, mountains hugging the horizon in the distance. If he must rest, this is a good spot.

Elisa and I walk back to the car, hand in hand. A working vacation awaits us in Olympia and Seattle and Portland. Several days later, we’ll be in Madras, Oregon, and I’ll see Fred Lancaster’s grave for the second time in my life. The story I’ve been trying to unearth will have a little more heft now. There’s still so much to discover, and I can hope for time enough to get to it.

But right now I also have my own living to do.

duaine thumbnail

To see how this story looked in printed form, click here.

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The education of a charmless man* http://craig-lancaster.com/the-education-of-a-charmless-man/ http://craig-lancaster.com/the-education-of-a-charmless-man/#comments Thu, 21 Jan 2016 18:01:50 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2314 A women’s group here in Billings, one dedicated to education and scholarship, invited me to speak at their gathering this week. Here’s what I had to say:

My name is Craig Lancaster, and I’m a proud resident of Billings—it will be 10 years this June—and an active member of the community that groups like yours seek to strengthen. So I would like to say, first, thank you for inviting me here today, and second, thank you for all of your efforts toward bolstering education. As I tell you a bit about myself and my work, I hope you’ll see that we have many interests in common.

Thanks to my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, being used in lesson plans here in Billings, I get invited a fair amount to talk in high school classrooms. When I open things up for questions, invariably this one pops up: How did you decide to write novels? And this is always a hard thing to answer, because I think the person asking it hopes that I’ll be able to identify one key mentor or one galvanizing moment that set me in this direction, and that’s simply not the case. Who I am—professionally and personally and psychologically—is the sum of my experiences and influences, along with dashes of such untamed things as serendipity and loss. Every time I write a novel, and I’ve published five now, I mine experiences, conversations, things I’ve pondered, losses I’ve suffered, my imagination. I couldn’t tell you in what proportions or how it all comes together. Indeed, it’s always a surprise when it does work. And when it doesn’t—when some idea I had simply doesn’t have the legs to blossom into a fully realized story—I’m usually not terribly upset. If anything, I’m baffled that failure to materialize doesn’t occur more often.

So this is what I say to the student who asks me the question, in a less artful way because I’m answering off the cuff rather than reading from prepared remarks. And then I add this next little bit, because I think it’s important:

Portrait of the author as a young man. Also, his sister.

Portrait of the author as a young man. Also, his sister.

I grew up in a house that had shelves, and on those shelves sat books. And I had parents who read those books, and who encouraged me to read any book I could get my hands on. From the time I was born until I could take over the chore myself, I was read to. I was shown things. I was taught how to do anything that interested me, and if something interested me that my parents couldn’t teach, they could find someone who could handle the job. Perhaps my DNA is arranged in a way that made me naturally curious, but the safer bet would be that my parents’ nurturing encouraged and rewarded boundless fascination. And I can think of no better basis for an engaged life, let alone a career as a novelist, than that.

That, my friends, is education where the rubber meets the road. It has nothing to do with getting up, eating your breakfast and carrying your books off to school. It’s being geared toward lifelong learning. There’s not a day that I fail to be thankful for having the parents I did, who pointed at the horizons and told me I could chase any of them.

Now …

In my mid-40s, while still being buoyantly grateful for all of that, I’ve also had a hard reckoning with how privileged I’ve been. I was born into a middle-class, educated family that was able to pass those benefits on to me. I’ve never wondered where my next meal is coming from—obviously!—and never dealt in any serious way with poverty. I was born white and male, which in this country is pretty much two-thirds of the cultural trifecta. None of this requires my apology or guilt, but it does command my attention to the fact that I’ve had a relatively easy go of it. When I moved into adulthood, I did so with an education, career prospects and a built-in support system, and thus my inevitable failures have been mostly fleeting and easily recovered and learned from.

When I think about education today, I wonder about and worry for those who start from a disadvantaged place. Our history as a nation tells us that education is the great leveler and the most reliable means of movement from one economic class to another. So how do we get access to education for those who need it most, those who didn’t grow up surrounded by books, who aren’t sure what they’re eating later today, whose families don’t support their dreams—indeed, those who might not have families at all, or who might not even see in their lives a reason to dream? When I was a child, I took a big bite out of the public education that my community provided. My time in college was spent in an era when I didn’t have to mortgage my future earnings to attend a university. I don’t have the expertise to advise anyone on how to improve education and expand opportunity; I’m not in that arena, fighting that good fight. My participation is at the resident level. I vote for school levies. When an English teacher here in town asks me to come talk to her kids, I do it. Because you either support the culture you wish to live in or you don’t. There’s no in-between.

My interest in this isn’t purely civic-minded, mind you. There’s a lot of selfishness involved. I write books as my primary source of income. I hope to write more, and I hope to see them published and read. And while I have artistic notions about what I do, I also have purely financial ones. A diminished reading public would, at some juncture, translate into a diminished appetite for what I do, and I would have to find something else.

So, please, allow me to say something on behalf of what I do and why I do it. From the earliest age I can remember, writing was something I knew I wanted to do, in some form or another. I’d be loath to call myself a natural—the more I do this, the more I see my flaws rather than my strengths—but the orderliness of words and sentences and paragraphs always made intuitive sense to me. The rhythms of language, the inexplicable ways of American English spelling—these things enchanted me.

As I grew up and moved outside my comfort zones—other cities, other states, other friends—I began to see the power of stories. This happened first as a journalist, where I took seriously Finley Peter Dunne’s observation that newspapers “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In my late thirties, I embarked on my career as a novelist, where I try to capture everyday people in crisis or transition, where the suggestion of future change is perhaps more important than the actual demonstration of it. Destinations bore me. Journeys, on the other hand, thrill me. And what I learned from writing fiction is that I could take my own questions and hesitations—whether about relationships or the better manner of living or God or anything else—and work them out on the page. That other people could then read those words and find their own stories or provoke their own questions. This is powerful stuff. And it has happened, fundamentally, not because I write, but because I read. Because I’ve always read, or always had someone who read to me. That’s where it started. That’s where I find fuel even today. And it’s where I’ll replenish myself tomorrow.

*—thanks, and perhaps apologies, to Blur.

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Onward into 2016 http://craig-lancaster.com/onward-into-2016/ http://craig-lancaster.com/onward-into-2016/#respond Fri, 01 Jan 2016 15:00:58 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2303 Most years at this time, I write a little piece in this space about the year gone and the year ahead. Call it a natural byproduct of the job; putting things into some kind of perspective—good, bad or otherwise—is what I do.

The problem today is that 2015 was just too big, too transformative, to distill into something appropriately compact. So I’d like, instead, to focus on a singular moment that I think was both the undeniable low point of the year and the point at which it all began to turn.

It was early March, and I’d gone to my regular appointment with my counselor, Jane, whom the world would lose just a few months later. The depths to which I’d sunk were evident on my face, and I brought along a dear friend as a witness, someone who could tell Jane that I really wasn’t as crazy as I felt.

Jane didn’t need any such affirmation. She took one look at me and said “This is a very big day for you.”

Indeed, it was. That afternoon, all the things we’d been working on together began to fall into place. I started to see how the boundaries I’d always eschewed could actually bring order to my life and funnel me toward the outcomes I valued. (For more on boundaries—what they are and how they work—allow me to commend to your attention this article by Mark Manson. It’s powerful stuff.) I learned how to speak up for the things I need, and how to keep from steamrolling other people and their boundaries. Some weeks later, when the better tools for living were firmly entrenched, I said to Jane, “How stupid am I that I couldn’t have figured this out on my own?” And she said something I’ll never forget: “Given what society demands of men, you couldn’t have possibly known until you were in your forties.” In other words, when I’d had the wreckage of a career and a marriage behind me and finally came around to the notion that maybe there’s a better way.

There’s something deeper, for all of us, than work and productivity and the overt roles that get imposed by social order. Jane helped me find that deeper something, and things rolled out from there. I stabilized my life. I found love again. I began to envision what I’d like to do in the days I have left, while leaving plenty of room for the vagaries of life that make it so interesting. I’m certainly not saying that I’ve found the secret to flawless living. Shit, no. I make a lot of mistakes. In the past year, I torpedoed some friendships as I tried to find my footing after divorce. I wish I hadn’t been so clumsy and stupid. But I also needed to be clumsy and stupid as I tried to find my way. It’s a hard thing to untangle.

handhold for blog

Still, as I bid you a happy New Year, I’m tacking in the right direction. I see the road more clearly. I’m trying to live in gratitude and generosity.

Thanks for reading.

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A glimpse into ‘A Post on the Prairie’ http://craig-lancaster.com/a-glimpse-into-a-post-on-the-prairie/ http://craig-lancaster.com/a-glimpse-into-a-post-on-the-prairie/#respond Tue, 29 Sep 2015 14:00:22 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2280 Gage banner

From Craig: This is a big deal. A piece by a Billings playwright, Ryan Gage, is being staged at the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts as part of its main program. Gage, a government teacher at Billings Senior High School, has tapped into his love of post-apocalyptic art to bring about this two-character play set on the Montana prairie. I can’t wait to see it (Oct. 4 matinee, baby!). Gage was kind enough to offer a behind-the-scenes look at how the play, and his nascent writing career, came about. Read on:

* * * * *

I started writing plays around 2007. However, theatre was not something new to me. I spent many hours in the audience watching my sister and other friends grow as people and as actors on the stages around Billings.

I was mostly an athlete growing up, following the footsteps of my father. He was an Olympic hammer thrower, having made the team in 1968 and 1972. His father died right before the 1968 Games in Mexico City so he withdrew from the competition, but he did make the team in 1972, finishing first out of the Americans in Munich a week after the Games were almost canceled due to the PLO-Israeli wrestlers hostage crisis. For me, it was always soccer. Regardless, my dad’s competitive athletic spirit was passed on to me and I spent a lot of my youth and earlier adult years playing and coaching soccer.

Ryan Gage with son Monte.

Ryan Gage with son Monte.

I found myself unexpectedly drawn to the theatre in 2007. I was working at Hastings and one of my co-workers, and later good friend, was a local actor and playwright. His name is Dan Paul Schafer and he invited me to participate and become a part of the wonderful world of live theatre. He had been writing in the One-Act Festival at Venture Theatre for several years and he told me I should come check out his show that year. It was a moving piece about 9/11 and more importantly a woman’s struggle with her place in life. Although I knew watching his piece that I wanted to write too, it was another piece that really inspired me to actually do so.

There was a piece that was historical fiction and, being the history teacher I am, I was really disappointed in it. I liked what the writer had tried to accomplish with it but both the style of the piece and the representation of history in it left me yearning for something more from it. It wasn’t bad. I just felt like I could do better. Part of that competitive spirit so engrained in me, I suppose.

The next day at work, Dan Paul and I were talking and I mentioned the “feeling like I could do better”, even though I knew nothing about writing plays myself, and he basically said, “Why don’t you?” And my experience in writing plays began. Sort of…

Dan Paul knew I had no clue what I would be doing and offered to assist me in my first script. We teamed up on a script called “La Mano del Diablo” for the next year’s One-Act Festival and he showed me the ropes. How to create story arcs, how to develop complex characters in those arcs, how to control and use stage direction, how to create subtext behind what was actually being said on the stage. You name it. It was largely a learning process for me even though I had come to him with the basic premise for the show.

Without that experience, I wouldn’t be writing this today. The past eight years have been a wonderful adventure of writing one-acts, participating in 24 hour play festivals, developing original pieces at the school I work at, getting on stage myself, and even dabbling in some directing here and there.

But my first draw has been the crafting of stories for the stage. And it remains my number one interest today.

On Oct. 2, my newest play will debut at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts. It is titled “A Post on the Prairie” and it is the most challenging, complex, and rewarding piece I have ever written. I’d like to tell you a little about its history and development.

First and foremost, this play has gone through numerous live readings and critiques from other established playwrights. The first live reading was of the first scene only. The biggest question I had for the audience that night was, “Do you want to see more?” The answer was a resounding  “YES!”  followed by a wonderful talkback session of likes, dislikes, what worked, what didn’t, and so on. The next reading, a year later, was of the full play in its first completed draft. Again, the response was immensely positive followed by another great round of discussing art, theatre, Montana, and everything in between. Another year of revising and retooling the script along with some critique by trusted friends and artists and here we are!

Let me tell you how this particular idea and play all began.

To a small degree, I suppose the idea was born shortly after my dad died. He dad died very suddenly from a heart attack in 2010. It’s not a story about him, or myself for that matter, but there are some things about him, me, and my relationship with my father that influenced my thought process and, more importantly, my desire to see this thing to through to the end.

Above all, it started with an idea that appealed to me the most and that I used as my inspiration. That idea? One final beer around a campfire with my dad.

To another degree, the idea is revisiting a setting in the first script I ever worked on. Stories and interactions around a campfire on a dark night in a prairie landscape. Many ideas start but never going anywhere in writing plays. I have several stories uncompleted. Some may be revisited, others will not.

That’s it. An idea. A simple idea.

I think that’s how any script or story takes root. A little itch needing to be scratched. Something seemingly insignificant stuck on the brain that begs to be explored.

Over time, that itch grew into something bigger and inspired me to come up with the most compelling and engaging story idea I could think of to write.

A post-apocalyptic tale. Set in Montana. Around a campfire. And yes, there is beer.

It was very important for me as writer and an individual to not make this about me in the end. A good writer friend of mine, Craig Kenworthy, once gave me some of the best advice when I was struggling in those early years of writing. I was struggling with the development of a play I had written or perhaps with coming up with a new idea. I honestly don’t remember the exact problem. What I do remember is what he wrote to me. He said, “Distance yourself from your plays. Branch out into material that isn’t about personal experience.”

It’s some of the best and simplest advice a writer, especially a playwright, can follow. It is hard to create new stories or write a play if it’s something too directly experienced by the writer in their own life. As much as my first two one-acts, “In Dog Years” and “For One Day”, made me feel great as a writer, they also left me wanting for something not nearly as emotionally invested. Overall, they were well received even though people cursed me for making them cry. They were largely based on my own experiences and were the easiest stories to tell as a new playwright. However, I also wrote myself into a box. Plus, being so emotionally invested to a script can be brutal to your soul.  And that was when I struggled and Craig gave me that great advice.

The next year’s One-Act Festival, I surprised everyone with a farce that was nothing but comical and had absolutely no connection to my own life experiences. It was the best exercise in writing I had partaken in to that date. It also gave me the confidence that I could write about anything and in any style I chose as long as I wanted it bad enough and worked hard enough.

“A Post on the Prairie” challenged me because while the idea began around a very personal desire of mine, I knew for the script’s success that I had to move further and further away from that idea and into something unrelated in order to really create a quality full-length play.

Eventually, the idea became about a post-apocalyptic encounter between two strangers surviving in that landscape who meet around a campfire on the Montana prairie. One individual, a cowboy, has been there for three years. The other, a man, wanders into his camp one night.

Post-apocalyptic stories have intrigued me for years. I think what I love about them the most is that they seem to force us to examine ourselves, the world around us, and how we interact with one another by pitting us against a seemingly impossible what-if scenario. Aside from Stephen King’s “The Stand”, most post-apocalyptic never really even addresses the “what happened” component, but rather focuses on the “what now” factor. From Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” to “The Walking Dead”, the most important question to be answered is how do we survive, how do we interact, and how do we become human again? That’s the part I love and the part I chose to focus on when writing “A Post on the Prairie”. If you’re expecting zombies, deadly viruses or comets, you’ll be disappointed.

The hardest part of writing this script was the concept of a two-man play. I had never written a show for a cast of two and it offers huge challenges I had never faced to that point. Unlike in larger cast pieces, a two-man show rarely sees either character leave the stage through its duration. If they do, it’s generally not for long. The problem then becomes how to write a compelling story and engaging dialogue between two people that keeps the audience’s focus and desire for more for up to two hours. Fortunately, I’ve had a few great examples to lean on for inspiration.

The first was “The Sunset Limited” written by Cormac McCarthy. This script was loaded with drama, action, comedy, and suspense that made you forget it was two men in an apartment the entire time. Having read the script and seeing the HBO adaptation, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, my interest and desire was definitely geared and excited towards trying to write one someday. However, later I witnessed two amazing two-man shows back-to-back right here in Billings that immediately sent me to my notebook and computer to get to work.

One was titled “A Steady Rain”, a story about two cops, and the other was “Red”,  a story about an artist and his apprentice. Between the compelling stories, the dialogue that drew you in, and the intimacy of such a small show in a single setting, I knew that was the challenge I wanted to take on with “A Post on the Prairie”. I could’ve easily expanded the cast, and I even fought back the temptation at times, but I knew in the end that this story had to be about these two men and their time together and effect on each other.

The other challenge was how to make a truly authentic post-apocalyptic tale. One that hasn’t been done before. Maybe I’ve succeeded there. Maybe I haven’t. It’s hard to create a truly unique idea. One could even argue it is impossible. And there are a lot of influences on me that are present in this play. However, I think there will be a lot of things in this show that will surprise you and remind us that the post-apocalyptic landscape doesn’t necessarily have to be that far from our own current one as we know it. Remember, in the end the genre is largely an examination of who we are in the here and now anyway. The question and the challenge is how to make those elements fit. Without out telling you too much more, I’ll just invite you to come and see for yourself and enjoy the show!

None of this would be possible without the support of some key people. First and foremost, my wife Liz. Without her love and support I may have wanted to quit along the way and go back to my comfort zone as a writer. She always pushes me to keep going and test myself. To feed that competitive side of me that is rooted so deep. Next, Patrick Wilson and Shad Scott for creating Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Co. and providing artists a place to play and develop new ideas. Without that venue and forum to workshop “A Post on the Prairie” it wouldn’t be the script it is today. Furthermore, NOVA Center for the Performing Arts for taking a chance on my script and putting it on their season and supporting us along the way as we get it on its feet. And finally, Dan Paul Schafer and Craig Kenworthy for helping me with scripts through reading and providing feedback and showing me how to become my own worst critic and evaluator.

The list goes on and on. I could write about every single person I’ve encountered on my journey as a writer in the theater, as each person and experience has helped me develop into what I am today as a writer. If we’ve crossed paths, you can bet you’ve left a footprint on me as an artist and a writer.

See you at the show!

If you’re in the Billings area and would like to see “A Post on the Prairie,” you can buy tickets here.

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Beat Slay Love: a collaboration http://craig-lancaster.com/beat-slay-love-a-collaboration/ http://craig-lancaster.com/beat-slay-love-a-collaboration/#comments Thu, 24 Sep 2015 14:32:22 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2276 From Craig: One of the things I love about where I live is the vibrant arts scene. So many writers, visual artists, actors, photographers, right here in a fairly isolated corner of the world. Author Lise McClendon is one of my friends who’s doing interesting work. I’ll let her tell you about her new collaboration:

* * * * *

Lise McClendon

Lise McClendon

Get any five writers in a room together and something combustible can happen. Also drinking. Cocktails, wine, you name it, your writer friends have imbibed.

Writers or not, we all love food (and drink – sensing a theme?) So when four of my writer friends and I started writing a novel together our love of sustenance, of American food, of regional specialties, came roaring to the surface. From lobster in Maine to weird, color-themed meals in California, to Texas barbeque, American food is fabulous and varied. Lots to discuss there, and salivate over. (What is a Montana specialty food, you ask? Could it be a tiny purple berry perhaps? More on that below.)

But first, why the hell write a book with four colleagues who live all over the country? We have an authors co-op and had already done a short story anthology. Since we’re novelists the logical (or nut-ball) next step was a collaborative novel. It wasn’t easy. Just coming up with a theme, some kind of sketchy general outline, was difficult. The momentum didn’t start rolling for, oh, years. At any point along the way we could have thrown up our hands and said, Well, actually, no.

But you may have heard something about persistence. It’s one of the keys to being a novelist. You must finish what you start if you ever want to get a book out there in the world of readers. So we persisted. We had google groups and email rounds. We came up with an idea of bumping off reality TV chefs, a silly notion that fell from the cosmos into our brains possibly because we’d like to do it in real life. Fiction is so cathartic.

Beat Slay Love_Filbert_Front CoverDespite the craziness of the idea, it was fun. Lots of fun actually. We built a villain, developed a protagonist or two, learned some dark secrets about each other, and just went a little nuts. We fed off each others’ ideas and whipped them into shape. (And used just about every cooking metaphor known to writer.)

We decided to pattern the title at least on the iconic nonfiction book, Eat Pray Love. Initially we were going to call it Beat Flay Love. We couldn’t come up with anything better for ‘Love’ so left that but we realized ‘Flay’ was a little close to a real-life chef’s actual name. Unwilling to court defamation suits we changed it to ‘Slay.’ And we were off.

Like a herd of turtles.

Three years, much hair-pulling and, well, drinking later we finished Beat Slay Love: One Chef’s Hunger for Delicious Revenge. To celebrate we’ve put together a cookbook of party recipes called Thalia Filbert’s Killer Cocktail Party. To get a copy send a quick note to Thalia (our pseudonymous five-person author) at thaliapress@gmail.com.

As a long-time Montanan I wrote a special section in the novel set on Flathead Lake, involving a bison roast and huckleberry pot au crèmes. Also one particular drink, a Berry Drop, made from huckleberry vodka. In the book it has a special ingredient that you won’t want if you make it at home. I’ve left the puffer-fish poison out of the recipe in the Killer Cocktail Party book. The secret ingredients? Ginger-infused sugar for the rim and a sweet Montana huckleberry in the bottom.

With our sincere apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert, we offer up a slice of mayhem and laughs on October 1.

Beat Slay Love: One Chef’s Hunger for Delicious Revenge

by Thalia Filbert

Thalia Press

October 1, 2015

•    To pre-order the book for Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B015BQUZCK

•    To add it to your Goodreads shelf: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26258450-beat-slay-love

•    To request a paperback at your local independent bookstore: ask for ISBN: 978-0-9819442-1-0

•    To buy a paperback online: https://www.createspace.com/5737186

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The great man smiled on us all http://craig-lancaster.com/the-great-man-smiled-on-us-all/ Thu, 20 Aug 2015 16:00:39 +0000 http://craig-lancaster.com/?p=2260 Tuesday night in Bozeman, in one of the singular honors of my writing life, I helped pay tribute to Ivan Doig at the Country Bookshelf. I’ll point you to the story I wrote for Last Best News if a nuts-and-bolts recounting is what you’re interested in.


For me, the moments of wonder came after the seven of us—Mary Jane Di Santi, Russell Rowland, Malcolm Brooks, me, Paul Wylie, Carrie La Seur, and Jamie Ford—had spoken, as we mingled with the full house of Doig admirers who came out on a lovely night, as past and present collided all around me, and the depth of the great writer’s impact on us played out.

I couldn’t help but think of just how much of my own life has been marked off by his books. How I fell in love with Dancing at the Rascal Fair after a thrown-together trip to Montana from Texas when I was nineteen years old. How the books kept coming and I kept going and the years kept rising and falling. I took newspaper jobs in Texas and Alaska and Kentucky and Ohio and California and Montana. I marched through my twenties and thirties and into my forties, and Doig kept returning to the Montana of his forebears, of his childhood, of his middle years, of his sunset. And I kept falling in love, over and over again.

What else and who else, family aside, had seen me through from a pimply teenager to a graying, balding middle-ager? Nothing and no one I can think of.

And there I was, introducing my Aunt Linda and Uncle John to my present-day colleague and friend Scott McMillion, and they told him stories of my little-guy years, things beyond the boundaries of my recollection. How I memorized facts and figures and spat them out indiscriminately, regardless of the interest of my chosen audience. How my harried mother would set me in the car in our driveway in Casper, Wyoming, and let me pretend just for a while that I was a driver, so she could buy some precious time with her own thoughts.

It was the second time during the evening that I was reminded of the awesome power of memory. Paul Wylie, who knew Doig when they were children, talked of Doig’s patiently sitting in a pickup on Main Street in White Sulphur Springs, waiting for his father, Charlie, to return from some errand. Doig, he said, was already sharpening the memories he’d return to throughout his career, taking note of how the buildings sagged and how the light struck them just so. That invocation of the past moved through me like a ghost. In a different, later time, I was that kid, sitting on a bar stoop, waiting for my own father to reach his limit, or watching from the cab of his water truck while he chased down just one more test shot in some far-flung Western locale. I marveled at this idea that Doig and I had both partaken of that thrilling loneliness, consuming some for sustenance and stashing the rest in the recesses of our minds, to be pulled out decades later and repurposed into fiction. (And that, by the way, is the only comparison with Doig I’ll ever allow myself to be pulled into. In matters of memory and letters and everything else, he is my greater.)

Everybody who spoke Tuesday brought some different aspect of Doig out for the appreciative crowd to consider. In totality, it covers a wide, deep field—past and present, identity given and assumed, the land as both character and anchor, and always, always an optimism that didn’t flinch in the face of darkness. It was quite a night. And while none of us is ready to let Ivan Doig go—not four months ago, when he died, not today, and not ever—I’d almost be willing to accept that he’ll never write another sentence if we could just sit down again, whenever we need to, and commune around the memory of all that he gave us.