Craig Lancaster: On the way out, looking back on Billings


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Craig Lancaster, with just a few of the boxes he’s been packing up for the move to Maine. At left is Spatz the cat, named for her white paws.

I met Craig Lancaster almost as soon as he came to Billings nearly 12 years ago, shortly after he was hired to work at the Billings Gazette, where I’d already been for more than 15 years.

He quit the newspaper in 2013, about six months before I did, to try his hand at writing novels and freelancing full-time. Now, he’s on the cusp of another big change — moving at the end of this month to Boothbay, on the coast of Maine, with his wife, the novelist Elisa Lorello.

I thought it would be fun to catch up with him on the way out, to talk a little about his eventful 12 years in Billings and what lies ahead. We spoke in his house up on the bench, a little northeast of the Heights, with Elisa sitting in to listen, and occasionally to add her 2 cents.

Here’s an edited version of our conversation, with a few parenthetical explainers inserted as needed:

Ed: Tell us in, say, 150 to 200 words, what has happened to you since you moved to Billings.

Craig: Since I moved to Billings in June of 2006, I got a job at the Gazette — entirely too fast. I had hoped to take that summer off, and I was working by July. I had a series of jobs there — copy editor, then ran the copy desk, oversaw sports, night city editor, got married, got divorced, and somewhere in there I wrote seven novels and a collection of short stories — which is the reason that I had come to Billings in the first place. I’d left my job in California and wanted to see if I could go and have the writing life. And I had that and a whole lot more.

Ed: (Motioning toward Elisa.) I think you’d better mention that you remarried.

Craig: I did get remarried! Yeah, yeah. I was just focused on Act 1. Act 2 is the gateway into what’s happening now.

Ed: So, give us the similarly short version of Act 2. We’ll give you a chance to redeem yourself.

Craig: OK. Well, if it was a film montage, the opening would be divorce and craziness and therapy and bottoming out. And then — I had met Elisa sometime before that, but in the midst of all this upheaval, we had started talking and I thought, “Maybe I should go to New York and see how things are in real life with this woman.” And they were pretty damned good. When we saw the direction of things, she moved to Montana to be with me.

(Elisa): Well, I came for one summer first.

Craig: Right, right. She came for the summer of 2015, and then moved here in January 2016. She was a lifelong East Coaster. She’d lived for a while in North Carolina, but for the most part she’d been pretty close to home. So there was always this sort of implicit promise that we’d head back that way at some point.

Ed: Here’s a kind of a related question: Have you ever thought of what your life might be like if you hadn’t moved to Billings? Where would you be?

Craig: I think I was going to come to my end with the newspaper business no matter what. They were either going to get to me or I was going to do what I did in 2013: I was going to release myself on my own recognizance. When I left my newspaper in California in 2006, I had the opportunity to disengage myself from my middle-management, don’t-sleep, eat-crap-at-all-hours job that I hated, and Billings was an easy choice for me. I was so familiar with it. My grandmother and my grandpa had lived here. I once had an aunt and uncle here. My folks met here in the early ’60s. And I knew it was affordable. Since I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next, affordability was key. And I had been long-distance-dating the woman who became my first wife at that point. A lot of the things that I wanted to look into — like my family background, the people I didn’t really know anything about — the answers were here, and the people I hadn’t met yet, some of them were here. So it made sense on a lot of levels.

Ed: You came here and started working at the Gazette, your last newspaper job. Tell us about that.

Craig: Here’s what I’ll say in favor of working at the newspaper: You really get to know your town. Even if it’s secondhand, even if you’re doing what I was doing, which was working the night shift at a newspaper, you’re reading all this stuff and you really learn who the people are who make things happen in town, what the idiosyncrasies of the town are, what its rhythmic movements are. And so, I think doing that job, I took the affinity I already had for Billings and it sunk in in a much deeper way.

Ed: I’m interested in the way Billings became kind of a muse, with the settings, the characters. If you had moved somewhere else, would it have been difficult to set novels in other towns?

Craig: I don’t know. There are certain things that are really striking about Montana. You and I have talked about this because we both came from somewhere else — that no matter how deep we get in, no matter how many people we get to know, no matter how much time we spend here, you know, if we ain’t fifth-generation, we ain’t shit. Does it work like that in Omaha? I don’t know. But I feel like I’ve used that to my advantage because yes, even though Billings sort of gave me these settings and I tried to make it a character in the books that I wrote that I set here, I always kind of felt that I was writing from the outside. I’m never going to be an insider here, but I think that’s a very cool situation if you’re a writer.

And I do defend Billings. I can still remember my first reading in Missoula and people asked where I lived and I said, “Billings,” and they said, “Oh,” like it doesn’t stink in the room when they take a crap. It just drives me nuts. I think I have a pretty clear view of all the things that give Billings the reputation it seems to have in the rest of the state. When you drive through on I-90, you’re not going to see the best part of it. But man, I love the neighborhoods, I love the little funky joints. I love the art scene that is awfully underground. And I love the people, most of them. So yeah, I don’t think Billings has to apologize for itself, but it’s often put in that position.
(The local novelist) Carrie La Seur said something a couple of years ago that really stuck with me. She said, places that haven’t reached their full potential are much more interesting than those that have. That’s a good way to look at Billings.

Ed: When did you leave the Gazette?

Craig: August of ’13.

Ed: Tell us about that decision. That was another bold leap, to quit the biz and set up shop as a writer.

Craig: My second “Edward” book had come out in April of that year. The first “Edward” book had been re-released the previous August. It was connecting with audiences it never would have seen had it remained with the small Montana publisher that it had. It was still selling like gangbusters. Well, here came No. 2, and all these people who had read No. 1 glommed onto No. 2. In April of that year, I think my royalties were some incredible number, like, $12,000, and in May I made $18- or $19,000. Now, that’s not going to thrill Mr. Gianforte, but it was a lot more money than I was making at the Gazette, and I was having to work a lot harder for it at the Gazette. That, combined with the fact that we were winnowing staff every quarter made me look at my life at the time. I said, “I’m never going to have a better opportunity to see if I can do this.”

(Gazette editor Steve Prosinski quit the Gazette right before Craig was to meet with his financial adviser to talk about leaving the Gazette himself. He briefly thought of seeking the editor’s job, but every time he did, he said, “there was black dread spreading out in my stomach.”)

Craig: I watched Steve tear down most of what he had built. I couldn’t imagine doing a job like that if I wasn’t allowed to build stuff. And if I wasn’t allowed to build stuff, what’s the point? I feel for the folks who are still there, trying to do a good job and often succeeding despite the incredible obstacles that are placed in their way. Some of them would be obstacles no matter what, just because of the way the business model has changed. But my God, Lee Enterprises? Give me a break. It makes it a thousand times worse.

In 25 years of journalism, I had a lot of colleagues I loved, a lot of colleagues I never would have talked to but for the circumstances of the job, but Prosinski is my favorite boss, and it’s not even close. It really is not even close. There’s a pretty distinguished list of bosses who I respected, who made me better, gave me opportunities, but Steve — in addition to being a pretty damned good journalist — is a fine and decent man, and I treasure that.

Ed: So, the second “Edward” book came in April 2013. That means you already had three novels and a short story collection out while you were still working at the Gazette? I used to wonder how you pulled it off. You worked full time and then some, you cranked out novels, you kept up one of the most robust Facebook pages of anyone I know, and you didn’t seem to miss any big sporting events on TV. How many hours a night do you generally sleep?

Craig: More now than ever, I think. But back then? Maybe five.

Ed: Really? So that was part of the whole equation.

Craig: I think working second shift (3 to midnight) was a big help in that regard because there was time in the morning for me to work, and then there’s no collapse right after you put out a newspaper because you’re still wired. So, I’d come home and sometimes I’d make a pot of coffee and I’d say, “OK, I’m gonna write for two or three hours.” And that was usually enough. Hemingway used to say, “Done by noon, drunk by 3.” Well, I wasn’t enough of a drinker to follow through on that, but I got the “done by noon” thing. Three or four hours — nobody wants to write longer than that. I don’t, anyway. After that, everything gets kind of loose and you’re not putting things together very well.

It’s actually harder now, when I’m not working for a newspaper, because I’m doing so many other things. I think I’m in the middle of a correction. I’m not actively working on anything that’s worth talking about, and I’m kind of OK with that. It’ll show up again, and if it doesn’t, well, I wrote eight books in eight years.

(Elisa mentions the book they worked on together, a romantic comedy set in Billings. It’s out on submissions. If they don’t find a publisher, Craig said, “We’re prepared to do it ourselves. We’ve done that before.”)

Ed: How did you guys decide on this move?

Craig: At the end of last year, we really started feeling the pull. There’s a strong family element to that pull for Elisa. For me, I had had this boss in San Jose, David Yarnold, the editor of the paper. I remember him saying once how he always liked to replant himself every few years. Different job, learn a different skill, just challenge yourself, because it’s easy to get stagnated. He runs the Audubon Society now, so he walked his talk. The end of the last year was the first time in almost 12 years in Billings that I started to feel a little stagnant here. It was coinciding with the pull Elisa was feeling from back home.

Ed: Tell us briefly about the two-stage move you’re going to be undertaking.

Craig: At the end of this month, Elisa and I and the cat and the moving truck — a 26-foot moving truck — and her car on the tow trailer, will head out. Five days, 500 miles a day. Then we’ll unload in Maine, and I’ll spend a week there with her. We’ll do some unpacking, some painting — we’ve got a pink room we’ve got to eradicate. And then I’ll fly back here and take my dad to a handful of VA appointments, load up another, smaller trailer, hook it up to my car and then my dad and my dad’s dog and I will do the whole thing over again. So, my joke, which I’m not sure I want in print, is that I’m taking bets on where we are when I threaten my dad’s life. People who know my Dad from my Facebook stories about him know I’m kidding. Maybe.

Ed: I don’t think I’m going to leave that out. People who know you would expect that.

Craig: Some people are really optimistic and think I can make it to Illinois. But I’m thinking no farther than Wisconsin before I explain to him the physics of shallow graves.

Ed: It is crazy. On the other hand, you’re a novelist. How can you pass up an experience like that?

Craig: Yep, everything is fodder.

Ed: What aren’t you going to miss about Billings? Is there anything else you want to say?

Craig: Nope. I don’t even feel the need to say anything about how whacky I think this town can be, and maddening. I mean, the (Police Chief Rich) St. John stuff right now, with the sex-having cops, is freaking incredible.

I will say this: the NDO (the nondiscrimination ordinance) went down in late summer of 2014, and that was my first year sort of on the loose, the first time I allowed myself to become overtly political, because I was free to do it. That took a lot of wind out of my sails. It just seemed like such a no-brainer to me that you’d have that. And the fact that (Mayor Tom) Hanel publicly — on at least one occasion that I witnessed — talked about “let’s get this done,” and then he was the man who was in position to make sure it got done, and it didn’t get done.

Because he’s such — I’m trying to be nicer about that, because I do regret some of the ways I talked to him in my direct communications with him. But I don’t regret my central message, which is, you could have done something meaningful. In a position that doesn’t have a lot of direct power, you could have made things better in Billings. And you took a powder. It just pisses me off. I’m not going to be voting in Montana anymore, but if that guy’s on a ballot, I sure hope he gets rejected. We’re afflicted by empty suits. There’s no reason to put more of them in positions of influence.

But I have to say, even though it’s got 100,000 people, Billings is really small in all the nice ways. It’s hard for me to go somewhere and not run into somebody I know. People I met through the arts, people I met through work, just being out in the community. The really cool thing about Billings is, I lived in suburban Fort Worth, where I grew up, from like the age of 3 to 20. Billings is the place I’ve lived longest as an adult, and Billings became home in a way that was much deeper and more meaningful to me, and is more meaningful to me, than the place where I grew up.

When the inevitable moment comes when I get emotional and weepy about leaving it, that’s what I’m going to reflect on. There’s going to be that moment when I have to come to grips with the fact that I’m leaving the most important home that I’ve ever had and going somewhere else. Fortunately, I’m going with the most important person, and it would not be the home it is without her. So, I think I can take a reasonable gamble that the next place can be home, too.

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