Billings novelist Craig Lancaster is just out with his latest book, “Julep Street,” about Carson McCullough, a lifelong journalist whose world is shattered when the small daily newspaper he works for is suddenly and unceremoniously closed down.
In a hilariously unsuccessful attempt to deal with his new reality, Carson embarks on a road trip in a Mustang convertible, freshly purchased with his severance check. Accompanied by his best friend, Hector, an old yellow Lab with a diminished appetite for adventure, Carson goes off to chase job prospects, visiting old friends and one old flame.
Nothing quite works out as planned, but then again not much was planned, least of all Carson’s alarming descent into activities of a highly questionable nature.
Lancaster, who gave up the newspaper business to write and do freelance editing full-time, has previously published six novels and a book of short stories. We thought it would be fun to hear directly from him about the new book. What follows is an edited transcript of an email interview.
Last Best News: Did this book form in your mind as “the newspaper novel”? In other words, was that the backdrop you wanted to deal with from the start?
Craig Lancaster: I rarely think in big thematic terms. It almost always starts with a character and a situation. I tug at those strings, and the themes tend to take care of themselves, beneath whatever I’m consciously thinking of. I started this book about five years ago, so I don’t have total recall of what drove me to the desk. But I think it was less “the newspaper novel” and more “this guy, Carson McCullough, he’s really agitating me.”
LBN: Tell us more about that. Did Carson McCullough show up on your brain’s doorstep one day? Did he arrive with that name? Why was he agitating you?
Lancaster: I don’t know if it was one day, or over a longer period of thinking about him, but Carson definitely took on some critical mass in my head. I knew he was a newspaper guy, I knew something big was heading his way (projection, anyone?), and I knew he wasn’t going to handle it well. The agitation, I think, was just to start sketching him out and finding out what he was going to do. That’s the part that’s really fun for me, the discovery that comes only from sitting down and writing. If I knew everything before I started, there’d be no reason to do it.
LBN: How long had you been thinking about writing this kind of book?
Lancaster: By 2012, when I started it, I could pretty well sense that I wasn’t going to make it to the end of my working days as a newspaper journalist. (I ended up leaving the business in 2013.) To the extent that I relied on my own experiences, it was mostly a game of what-ifs. What if I’d stayed in one place and never left? What if I’d just had a job shot out from under me? What if I had this laundry list of regrets and some quixotic notion that I could turn those things around? None of those things actually happened to me, but asking myself the questions helped me develop some empathy with Carson.
LBN: I just assumed, from my former-newspaper-guy perspective, that there would be more newspapering in the book, but it starts with the shutting down of a newspaper and we read about life in the newsroom only in reminiscences or in short visits to other newsrooms. Were you wary of presenting too much inside-baseball stuff or were you simply more interested in tracing what happens to a victim of the newspaper industry’s implosion?
Lancaster: Oh, I’m glad you think there wasn’t too much inside baseball. I was actually worried about that. I probably ended up in a newsroom with this story because that’s a world I know and where I’m conversant. I think, somehow, it ended up being more universal than that, and I’m thankful. It’s funny. I started it in 2012, put it down in 2014, and returned to it last year. And damned if it didn’t become more topical. A happy accident, that.
LBN: What made you put the book down for a few years, and what made you pick it up again?
Lancaster: After I’d done a first draft and a couple of rewrites, I turned it over to my then-agent and my then-editor at Lake Union Publishing. Long silences. Finally, the kind of feedback you don’t want to hear. The agent didn’t find Carson likable and wanted something more high-concept from me. (Slight tangent: If the whole point of this life thing is to know yourself, then I’m happy to report that I’m not really geared for high concept, whatever the hell that is.) The editor didn’t like Hector, the dog, and thought the manuscript as a whole was probably three-quarters baked. I was willing to accept that, as far as it went, but I didn’t really know how to fix any of those issues. So I just moved on to other things.
I really have to give a lot of credit to my friend Jim Thomsen, who loved “Julep Street” from the get-go and gently hounded me about it during the time it sat fallow. Jim’s a former newspaper guy, too, so maybe he was predisposed to liking it, but I also find his taste to be unerring. So that kept the manuscript at least active in my subconscious, and when I picked it up again thinking I might try to resuscitate it, I found some clarity on the read-through. The simple act of leaving my newspaper job had given me even more empathy with Carson, and I drew a fuller picture of him. Hector became a true character, not just an add-on, and the broader themes came out more fully on the subsequent rewrite. The book was always there. I just had to find it.
LBN: At what point did Hector enter the story? Was Hector always a main player as this novel developed?
Lancaster: Hector was always present from the earliest draft, but I don’t think he arrived in full until I rewrote the book for the final time. In many ways, he’s Carson’s spouse—he sees the good and the bad, the gentleness and the hostility, and everything else. They move around each other the way two old married people do. There’s history and love and irritation.
LBN: Except for “The Summer Son,” which had some Montana scenes in it, all of your books have been set mostly or exclusively in Montana. What was it like to shift gears and set this one in Kentucky? Did it open up any unexpected avenues of creativity?
Lancaster: Kentucky was the biggest, most welcome surprise of the whole book. I wasn’t really thinking about place when I started up with Carson—just character and situation. And then Kentucky showed up. It makes sense, when you pull back a little. One of my earliest jobs in journalism was at the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, Kentucky. I was 23, and it was the first place I’d worked that was a really accomplished paper, with a nice mix of veterans who sensed it was a career place and young up-and-comers like me who saw bigger frontiers but needed some molding. So, 20-plus years later, it was easy to go there in my imagination and wonder what might have happened had I settled down in Owensboro, met somebody, bought a house, raised up 3.4 children … and then seen every self-definition I had blown all to hell. Carson doesn’t have the house or the marriage or the kids, but he’s got the last bit in spades.
LBN: Carson McCullough seems to be experiencing what you might call mid-life PTSD, a combination of your typical mid-life crisis triggered by a huge blow to his perception of himself as a lifelong newspaperman. Was it fun—even, dare we say, cathartic—to have him deal with all this in a way that was not only self-destructive but downright criminal?
Lancaster: Oh, god, it was so much fun. That’s the really magical thing about writing fiction. I didn’t plot out Carson’s unraveling. I just followed him. Without giving too much away, a simple act of thrill shoplifting went to places I couldn’t have imagined before I started writing. I also like the idea that our seemingly innocuous actions over here can play out ruthlessly over there. Carson runs into a lot of what the Buddhists call karma. It all ended up being darkly comic, I think.
LBN: I really like how you handled Carson’s attempt, in his desperate frame of mind, to reconnect with an old flame. It is subtle and nuanced and a little surprising. I would even say it’s poignant, if I didn’t hate the word poignant. Was that part difficult to write?
Lancaster: The writing was easy enough; it’s the tapping into empathy that can be a little draining. Maybe everybody’s got an old relationship, or even unrequited love, that kicks around, that’s full of what-ifs. I certainly do. Writing Carson in an honest way required being honest with myself about how fucked up I’ve been at various points in my life. Not so I could imbue him with my particular brand of fuckupitude, but just so I could understand him in that moment.
LBN: I just noticed that this book was published by Missouri Breaks Press, the imprint you started and then, I thought, stopped using. You’ve had quite an interesting history with publishers and various publishing methods. What’s the story on this book?
Lancaster: This is actually the second book in a row, and the third overall, that I’ve used my own imprint for publishing. Originally, I started Missouri Breaks Press as an outlet to publish my own work and that of other writers I admired. I quickly discovered that, one, keeping track of royalties and marketing of multiple books and authors left me little time for my own pursuits and, two, I wasn’t giving those authors anything they couldn’t provide themselves. So, selfishly, Missouri Breaks Press became a one-horse operation again.
I like the freedom, the ability to be project manager on my own stuff, and, so far, I’m making it work financially. I’ve always had a bit of a DIY streak. This lets me scratch that itch.
LBN: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want to tell people about this book?
Lancaster: Of everything I’ve published, I think this is my best work. I’m not an unbiased source, clearly, but feeling that way about it makes how it ultimately does in the marketplace or with critics pretty much moot. I find freedom in that.
Book signing set
Lancaster will be reading from and signing copies of “Julep Street” at This House of Books, 224 N. Broadway in downtown Billings, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Friday, June 2.