Meet the Author: Craig Lancaster, Literary Mastermind

Okay, so I added the “literary mastermind” – that wasn’t Craig’s doing, so don’t hold it against him. Craig writes what I like to refer to as “accessible literary fiction” – literary work that is thought-provoking and beautiful, but it doesn’t require a dictionary and a professor to decipher it. He’s also a local author, and sets his stories right here in Montana, our home-sweet-home. I recently had the pleasure of reading his new short story collection, This is Butte. You Have Ten Minutes, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Craig was kind enough to answer a few questions and share an excerpt from The Summer Son, so grab a snack and settle in. Let me introduce you…

In the title story from This is Butte. You Have Ten Minutes., the main character has an interesting way of creating “character templates”. I identified strongly with that, since it’s very similar to my own method. Is that how your characters are created?

The main character – “the man with the BlackBerry” – watches people and then writes himself notes about who he believes them to be – names, ages, backgrounds, sexual orientation, line of work, etc. In a bit of a twist, the idea for making him this sort of detached guy came to me after I conceived of the plot, which is precisely the opposite of how I usually work. I grew fascinated with the idea of someone who goes through life but never really takes the time to live it. It struck me as a very early-21st-century construct.

Usually, though, the characters that come to me are informed by people I’ve met, known or heard of – or they’re a conflation of several such people. In almost everything I write, I start with the character and then let him or her find a way into a story.

When did you know you were “destined” to write in a literary style?

I don’t know if it was destiny so much as just a byproduct of what I grew up reading. I won’t say that I never read genre books; that’s not true. I had a phase in my teens where I absolutely mainlined Stephen King (who, at his best, is one of the greats, no qualification necessary), and I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next guy. But the most serious reading – and the stuff that stuck with me the most – usually highlighted not a caper or a horror, but the human condition. Despite the ease with which we can be turned into caricatures, we humans really are fascinating creatures, in our mythologies, our motivations, our rituals. I want to understand all of that, and writing is my way of trying to do so.

Several years ago, a co-worker was chastising me for some bit of obtuseness (I have so many such instances, it’s hard to remember the exact scenario). She said, “You get people more than anyone I know. So why are you being so dumb about this?” It took me a long time to figure out how to leverage my natural tendency to delve below the surface of people into the writing of stories and novels. Until I was 38 years old, I figured that was just another dream that would never be realized, like playing for the Dallas Cowboys or being president.

Your short stories are very much “slices of life”, albeit fictional slices. What is your main goal in sharing these dramatic scenes with your readers?

I have two hopes for the people who are kind enough to read my stuff. First, I want them to have an emotional experience that comes across as real. I want them to connect with my characters, connect with my stories, and for the duration that they’re inside that book, I want them to disappear into the pages.

The second is that they’re able to apply their own sensibilities to what they’ve read. It doesn’t really matter to me if they understand why it was important to me to write the story. But I do hope that they come away with some insight into their own lives, or the lives around them, by projecting what they’ve experienced against the story on the page.

What is it about Montana that entices you to set your stories here?

It’s home. Even though I didn’t grow up here, I’ve built a life in this place, and I know it better than I do anyplace else I’ve lived. (That’s a lot of places, by the way.) But the fact that this state is so vast and hard to categorize does pose some challenges for me. I’ve been here only five years, so I don’t know all the small towns and community narratives as well as I should or hope to. What this has forced me to do, in many cases, is to paint my characters as outsiders, to one extent or another. Edward Stanton, the protagonist of “600 Hours of Edward,” is a middle-aged man with Asperger syndrome, which keeps him distant from even the people who love him. Mitch Quillen, the narrator of “The Summer Son,” was born in Billings but grew up elsewhere, and he describes it as a place that’s simultaneously familiar and foreign. That’s a pretty good description for what much of Montana is to me.

Tell us a little about your writing process. How do you get from idea to completed draft?

Ideas tend to have a long gestation period. Once I’ve hooked onto something, I’ll turn it over in my head for weeks, sometimes months, before I sit down to write it. (This, incidentally, was not true for “600 Hours” – that went from idea to first draft in less than a month. I’m finding that it was the exception, not the rule.) Once I’ve noodled it out to my satisfaction and it’s dying to get out, I tend to write quick rough drafts. This, to me, is something akin to building the frame of a house. All of the stuff that makes it complete – the Tyvek, the sheetrock, the shingles, the windows, the paint – gets done in rewrites. For a short story, this might happen in a single afternoon. For a novel-length project, much longer. Finally, I polish and polish and polish. I love revisions and editing, and I tend to be brutal with my own stuff, so a lot of good things happen after the first draft is written.

What are some of your favorite authors to read?

Fiction: Hemingway, Steinbeck (“Travels With Charley” gets read once every few years, and I always discover something new), Ivan Doig, Larry Watson, Benjamin Percy, Jonathan Evison, Stephen King, Wallace Stegner, Alyson Hagy, others too numerous to mention. Nonfiction: I’ll read just about anything, but I’m particularly partial to biographies, and Scott Berg and David Maraniss are pretty tough to beat in that arena.

Some writers use music to inspire them. Do you have a soundtrack or “playlist” that you used or think of with your latest novel, The Summer Sun?

I definitely did with “The Summer Son.” Half of the book takes place in 1979, so I had reacquaint myself with some pretty bad late-’70s pop music to put myself in a mind of that era. It’s funny, though: I can mark the years of my life by what I was listening to at the time, but I can’t say that music is a particular guidepost for my writing. I’m thinking about other things, most of the time.

How do you balance writing with the other aspects of your life?

Balance is something I’ve had to work hard at achieving, if I’ve achieved it at all. When I’m in the throes of a story, it’s all too easy to let it dominate the other areas of my life – my family, housework, basic hygiene, answering phone calls, whatever. Particularly in the beginning, when I wrote and sold two literary novels in 20 months, I was in danger of letting people who are important to me – not to mention my health — spin away from my orbit. But I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at reining in those tendencies. I work smarter now; where I used to feel as though I had to put down a lot of words every day, I take each day as it comes now. If it’s 1,500 words, great. If it’s 600, that’s fine, too.

Who is your favorite literary character or couple?

This is an easy one for me: Jick McCaskill, the main character in Ivan Doig’s “English Creek” and “Ride With Me, Mariah Montana.” In those books, I got to see Jick as a youngster and an aging man, and Doig did a brilliant job of portraying him with consistency and humanity. Great character, great stories. Those two books, as much as any I’ve ever read, made me want to become a novelist.

Here’s a stretch of “The Summer Son,” where the protagonist, Mitch, tries to sort out his feelings after learning something his dad has hidden from him for years:

I began to peel back through the years, pulling out scraps of memory and holding them to the light to see if I could spot lost truths hidden in the scenes and sounds I’d stashed. The images and the moments had my fingerprints all over them, so commonly were they retraced by me, and still I flipped them over and looked at them from new angles, hoping that I would see something that had eluded me before.

Were I inclined to rationality, I would have conceded that it was pointless. I could find little instructive in what had gone before, at least as it pertained to my life. I also knew that I couldn’t trust the pictures in my head. The moments weren’t frozen in time; they changed, sometimes imperceptibly, as the years dragged on and my sensibilities shifted. Whatever came to me as I put down my time on earth affected my inward and outward views of the circumstances of my life and the lives around me. I was older, wiser, less tolerant, less motivated, more distant – and so was my lens. I could no longer trust my interpretation of long-past events. I could only try to do my best with what came at me now.

My thoughts turned to my mother, and to Marie. Did they know what I now knew about Dad’s life? Had they, too, carried his secrets? If they had, what difference did it make now? Neither one could tell me so, or tell me what to do.

The move was mine, if I dared make it. I was pretty sure I had it in me, but first, I had to get rid of something. Before I was ready, the tears came, and as I sat there, my chest and shoulders heaving for this man – this beautiful, fucked-up survivor of a man – I knew that my tears fell also for me. I had wasted so much time in anger, holding a grudge for what he had done to me. It’s not that I didn’t have reasons, but my reasons didn’t make much difference at such a distance.


Purchase Links: This is Butte. You Have Ten Minutes. | The Summer Son | 600 Hours of Edward

Connect with Craig: Website | Blog | Twitter

Special thanks to Craig for joining us today. I hope you’ll check out his books, and connect with him elsewhere as well.

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5 comments on “Meet the Author: Craig Lancaster, Literary Mastermind

  1. Susanne Lee

    Jamie – thanks for the post and the two new books that I have got to read – fascinating!

  2. Susanne Lee

    I mean 3 new books!

  3. India Drummond

    I love the idea of this main character… he intrigued me… and what a great first line in this excerpt.

    Thanks for sharing this author with us, Jamie!

  4. Jamie DeBree

    You’re most welcome, ladies – you won’t be sorry for checking him (uh, his work) out. 😉

  5. Tiffany

    Great interview! Slowly but surely I’m starting to get more familiar with Craig, and it’s becoming more a good thing. God, I wish I had more to say than ‘great interview.’ lol.

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    – Tiffany Cole