Monday, December 30, 2013

My First Time: Craig Lancaster

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Craig Lancaster is the author of the novels 600 Hours of Edward, The Summer Son and Edward Adrift (one of The Quivering Pen's picks for Best Fiction of 2013).  He's also written the short-story collection Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.  His work has won Montana Honor Book designation, a High Plains Book Award and an Independent Book Publishers Award gold medal.  He lives in Billings, Montana, with his family.

Take This Job and...Change It

On Aug. 2, 2013, I worked my final shift as a full-time, benefits-receiving, dinner-break-taking newspaper editor.  I finished up my work as the night city editor at The Billings Gazette in Montana, said goodbye to my colleagues, and hit the door.

Nearly twenty-five years as a full-time newspaperman ended that night.  I did a lot of things during that career, which I started at the callow age of 18, and I lived a lot of places.  General-assignment reporter, copy editor, layout man (which in my mid-twenties morphed into the much more important-sounding term “designer”), Oakland Raiders beat writer, middle-management hack.  Texas, Alaska, back to Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, back to Alaska, California, back to Texas, Washington, back to California and, finally, Montana.  In light of the years and the memories, I was strangely unsentimental about the change from full-time journalist to full-time author and freelancer.

The fact is, I was ready to make the break.  I’d managed to write three novels and a collection of short stories while still gainfully employed as a journalist, but the toll—on my sleep, on my health, on my family life—was wearing me down.  Where once I had written in the early-morning hours after a copy-editing shift, a move to night city editor—a job where all other nighttime work often converges—regularly sent me home exhausted, unable to concentrate on fiction.  My writing time, already thin, dried up.

And then there’s this: I just didn’t have the fuse for daily journalism anymore.  It’s a strange thing to acknowledge.  Twenty years ago, I invented reasons to be in the newsroom.  I took every extra assignment I could get, accepted any shift offered.  I was addicted to the pace, the work, the colleagues who were so smart and so wickedly twisted.  When my favorite band, R.E.M., called it quits, lead singer Michael Stipe said you have to know when to leave the party.  That was me at the end.  My edge was gone.  I still loved the work.  I loved working with a reporter to make a story better, designing a sweet page, the adrenaline rush of a big story.  But my patience for all the day-to-day in-betweens had worn thin.  I was a tired, frustrated journalist.

When my most recent novel, Edward Adrift, came out in April 2013, I began to see the signs that would lead me to the exit.  In March, I sold more books than I’d ever moved in a single month.  In April, the number shot up again.  In May, it leveled out but remained robust, and my wife Angie and I began to discuss the possibility of my stepping away.  It wasn’t a slam dunk.  My sales, I figured, had bought me about six months to make everything work, and that’s a thin margin.  But I reasoned that I had a lot more security than the journalists I’d seen turned out by the score over the past decade, and I had the necessary motivation to keep myself and our family afloat.  Survival is a powerful propellant.

I had a few tasks first: meeting with my financial guy and setting some thresholds (I always do better with a concrete goal), making sure I could jump over to my wife’s insurance (yes, but at a considerable cost, one that will be lowered early next year by my participation in a statewide exchange—thanks, Obama!), and, finally, waiting for the acceptance of a new manuscript by my publisher.

Then things got a little weird.

At the beginning of June, the man who brought me aboard at the Gazette, Steve Prosinski, shocked the newsroom by announcing his retirement.  When word came down, I was about a week away from making my own announcement, and now I feared I’d look like the asshole who jumps ship when times are bad.

Angie asked me what I wanted to do.

“I still want to go,” I said.

“That’s your answer,” she said.

So I put in my notice and offered to stay on until my replacement was found, which happened expeditiously.  My bosses at the Gazette proposed that I stay on as a part-timer, working shifts when they need help and I’m free to offer it.  That sounded good to me, and it’s been good in practice, too.  Every couple of weeks, I’ll come into the newsroom, see some old friends and colleagues, apply skills I’ve spent a career nurturing, and then go home.

Two other, balancing things occurred in June: First, my manuscript was turned down, and my editor and I talked extensively about a different idea for a new book (one I’m about to finish).  By then, I was committed to my decision even without this threshold being met.  A couple of weeks later, my buddy Scott McMillion brought me aboard as the design director of The Montana Quarterly, a fine regional magazine I’ve long admired.  It’s the perfect job for my new situation, with ten to twelve weeks of solid work a year.  Between issues, I write and I pick up freelance manuscript editing and design jobs.  Heading into the fifth month of this grand adventure, I’m very much on the course I’ve charted.

One of the jokes I like to make is that I’m semi-retired.  It’s not true, of course. I’m working as hard as I ever have, but the difference is I’m now calling the dance.  I’m writing the stories I want to write.  I’m working with the people I want to work with, and that includes the occasional sojourn with my old colleagues at the Gazette.  I’m leading workshops at the local university, serving on arts councils, spending time with my family, and taking the odd day off just because I want to.

I wonder sometimes how I ever had time for a job.


  1. What an interesting story of success here--the important kind that means finding the ways and means to do the work that matters, having support from your family and colleagues to do so. I look forward to reading Craig's work, and thanks to you, David, for introducing him to those of us who don't yet know him. Good stuff.

  2. That Craig Lancaster has more time to write suits me just fine :) The prospect of more books like Summer Son and the Edward Books makes me one happy reader!

  3. Iconoclast is my local bookstore. Yes, part time journalism is the best kind. When I wrote most of the Livingston Enterprise for six months I burned out fast. I wasn't young either. James Lee Burke said the same thing. "It uses you up."