Helen Smith, Author of Alison Wonderland, Interviews Craig Lancaster
Helen Smith: You have lived in various locations around the United States but it wasn’t until you moved to Montana that you started writing novels. Is there something about the place that unleashed your creativity?
Craig Lancaster: I think it's partly the place and partly the time in my life. This is something I'd always wanted to do, but in my twenties and thirties, it seems like other concerns--building a career, etc.--got in the way of it. In 2008, a couple of years after I moved to Montana to be with the woman who became my wife, I had a terrible motorcycle accident, one I was lucky to have survived. In the aftermath of that, I started paying better attention to my aspirations (and to road safety, but that probably goes without saying).
As an adult, I've lived in Texas, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio, California, Washington and now Montana. This place, where I moved in my mid-30s, is the land I dreamed about living in when I was a child. Now, there were a lot of romantic notions tied up in that ideal, but the truth is, I've never felt more at home than I do here. I came here at a time when I'd assumed that it wasn't going to happen, that the circumstances of my life had led me down another path. In that way, it feels like a gift to be here.
Helen Smith: What can you tell me about the idea to write The Summer Son?
Craig Lancaster: I started writing it in April 2009, when the book that became my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was still a self-pubbed title. (Edward was picked up by Riverbend Publishing, a small house here in Montana, in October 2009 and went on to be a Montana Honor Book and a High Plains Book Award winner.) I'd been thinking a lot about fathers and sons and how that relationship, if it's fouled up in the beginning, can skid sideways for decades, affecting everybody in its sphere. I was also taken with this notion that it's the things we don't tell each other--those crucial pieces of context that help illuminate the inscrutable decisions we make in our relationships--that cause the most problems later on. This is certainly true of Mitch Quillen, the narrator, and his father, Jim, who ends up being the emotional core of the book. It was a difficult book to write, not least of all because it's intensely personal for me. But it was also hard to find the story. Where Edward was written in a 24-day burst of creative energy, I needed most of a year to get The Summer Son where I wanted it to be. I'm really, really proud of it.
Helen Smith: Do you think your training as a journalist helped you when you were writing your books?
Craig Lancaster: In a few profound senses, yes. First, I know how to put my shoulder into the plow and do the work. You won't be much of a journalist if you can't deal with the mountain of work, regardless of how you feel or whether the words aren't coming easily. Second, to whatever extent my prose is spare and direct, that's the influence of a journalism background. I move from Point A to Point B in a straight line. That has the nice side benefit of keeping a story moving right along. Finally, more than twenty years as a journalist has helped me to refine my sense of what is a story and what's not. Because I tend to find my richest veins in human relationships, that ability to tease out the smaller movements of a story--the emotional pitches and quiet desperation--has really served me well.
Helen Smith: You write short stories, essays and novels--is there any particular form that you enjoy more than the others or that comes most easily to you?
Craig Lancaster: They all have their distinctive rewards and maddening moments. When I hook a good idea for a short story, I love that I can get a first draft pounded out in a few days, as opposed to the weeks and months associated with a novel. The essays are very occasional; luckily, I've cultivated some relationships with publications that allow me an outlet for those thoughts when I have them, and the comfort is that it's often the work that bears the most resemblance to journalism.
For a sense of accomplishment, though, nothing beats finishing a novel. There are so many things that can go wrong, so many junctures at which the whole enterprise can sink, that actually making it to the end is something worth celebrating. And I always do.
Helen Smith: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?
Craig Lancaster: I just finished a collection of short stories, which are now wending their way through the process. And, yes, I'm hard at work on what I hope will be the next novel. It's too early in the game to say much about that, but I'm feeling really good about its possibilities.
Mitch becomes “the summer son” when his parents split up. His kind mother lives in Olympia, Washington, where Mitch attends school. His irascible father lives in Utah and Montana. A “doodlebugger” who runs a “truck-mounted drilling rig” and searches for uranium and natural gas, Jim puts his too-young “summer son” to work, along with Mitch’s older brother, Jerry. But in the fateful summer of 1979, Jim—a violent, boozy, foulmouthed man with a hair-trigger temper—drives Jerry away, leaving gentle Mitch defenseless. In 2007, Mitch’s life is unraveling, and his wife convinces him to confront his estranged father. As Mitch and Jim circle each other like wrestlers, long-buried truths, brutal crimes, and lies are brought to the surface. In his second novel, Lancaster writes with deceptive directness, rendering the sensuous world with high-definition precision, from a rattlesnake to a sunset to Jim’s drunken aggression, while slowly revealing the complexity of his damaged characters’ psyches. A classic western tale of rough lives and gruff, dangerous men, of innocence betrayed and long, stumbling journeys to love. --Donna Seaman