600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster is a difficult book to categorise, and to describe. Novels like this are always my favourite kind. Just as the best magic tricks are the hardest to explain, the best books are too. I’d heard of it long before I got around to reading, and the only reason I took so long was because of all my writerly commitments like editing, reading for reviews, and other things that involve my poor tired eyes. There’s a fantastic team of Edward fans at TBC (The Book Club on Facebook) who rave about him at any possible opportunity, hashtagging every comment and review with #TeamEdward, and awarding a badge to those who’ve read all the books.
This beautiful, haunting and intelligent novel involves thirty-nine-year old Edward who has Asperger’s Syndrome and OCD. His life is about routine and order; watching his favourite show, Dragnet, every night at exactly 10pm, monitoring his exact waking time each day, and filing articulate daily letters of complaint that he never sends. But change is coming. Will Edward learn to adapt to life and all its suddenness, or remain alone?
I want to welcome author Craig Lancaster – so excited! – and ask him a few questions.
The first one is one that everyone I speak to about the book wants to know (and definitely the fans at TBC) – where did Edward come from? He’s like no one I’ve read before. Was he based on anyone? Inspired by someone you know?
Edward has no real-life counterpart. For better or worse, he gestated in and was born from my imagination. He was a little bit of a back-construction, in the sense that he was conceived as someone so bound by his routines that simple, everyday challenges and changes would force him to react sharply, with poignant and humorous results. So it was the broad idea first, then figuring out what his underlying condition might be. The really validating thing about that is how many people have sought me out and said “I saw my son” or “I saw this child I taught in the third grade,” or whatever. I write character-driven fiction, and the aim, I suppose, is that old line about making art a lie that reveals the truth. I’m appreciative—and deeply, deeply humbled—any time someone tells me Edward hit that mark.
Now, there are certain surface things about Edward that have a lot in common with me. R.E.M. is (or was) my favorite band. When I still followed American football, I was a Dallas Cowboys fan. That sort of thing. But those were expedient choices, for the most part. As I’m fundamentally lazy, those things didn’t require any particular research on my part.
Was it a challenge to write such a diverse and unique character? Did you have to do much research?
This is the question that requires me to just be honest: I did almost nothing in the way of research, outside of acquainting myself with behaviors and traits and a little deeper digging for the pharmaceutical likelihood for someone like Edward. I knew my tendencies, and if I’d read a textbook about the autism spectrum, I probably would have written a deeply clinical book. I’ve written Edward three times now, and my only aim each time is to make him consistent unto himself. A friend of mine who’s on the spectrum told me once that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. That was freeing, because it meant that Edward could be whoever I imagined him to be. I think I’d have locked up had I felt forced to categorize him in any way.
What was the best part about writing the book? And the worst?
The best part is easy: finishing. That first book was the first novel I ever wrote to completion, and that I did so in 24 days seems almost inconceivable to me now, especially so because I’ve seen the other side of it. Six published novels into my career, I’ve had the range of writing experiences: the first novel that comes fast and nearly complete, the second novel that takes almost a year and three major rewrites, etc. I’ve learned to appreciate each journey for what it is.
The worst part occurred to me only in retrospect. It almost didn’t happen. The first Edward book started as a lark, when my friend Jim Thomsen asked me to do National Novel Writing Month with him as a way of keeping each other honest. I said no at first. I’d had a horrible motorcycle crash a few months earlier, and I didn’t feel as though I had the energy for a project like that. Literally the next day I started thinking about Edward. I called Jim back and said, “Yeah, OK, let’s do this.”
Did you know what was going to happen to Edward when you ‘set off’?
I had a bare-bones outline when I started the project, because I didn’t trust myself to work without a net, so to speak. But I abandoned that outline fairly early in the writing as I found my groove and discovered that when I sat at the keyboard, I had this ability to sort of step into Edward’s head and let his thoughts guide my fingers. I haven’t outlined a novel since. I just don’t want that much control. I find that if I’ve given enough thought to a character and/or a premise, I’m sufficiently compelled to sit down and start the work. So I give it a little shove, and then I just follow the action.
Here’s something funny, though: The last line of the first Edward book, I knew that before I ever started writing. I could see the scene in my head, clear as a spring day. That was interesting. And it’s happened a couple of times since, this clear idea of where it’s going to finish but no idea at all how it’s going to get there.
What did you hope to achieve with the book? Did you anticipate the amazing response and reviews? What has that been like?
I just wanted to finish a novel. Thoughts of publication, acclaim, more novels, all of that—I had none of that. So the journey of this book, in particular, has been a bit like living a dream. It started out being self-published, ended up with a small Montana publisher who didn’t sell many copies but helped it find some awards and recognition, got shuttled off to a much bigger publisher who’s been able to make it a hit. Month after month, year after year, it’s my biggest seller. So Edward’s constantly finding new friends, and I’m constantly meeting and hearing from these wonderful readers, and on it goes. It has changed my life.
And those changes have mostly been wonderful. There have been a few hard lessons. I’ve afflicted myself and others, at times. I had to get used to some people conflating me and the work. But that doesn’t happen often, and I’m better equipped to deal with it now than I was some years ago. Mostly, people have been wonderful to me and wonderful ambassadors for the book.
Tell us a bit about your writing routine?
This might seem a strange declaration from someone who’s published seven books in seven years, but I take a lot of time off between projects. Months, sometimes. But let’s assume here that I’m actively working on something. Here’s a typical day in the life:
I wake up and take a walk with my fiancee (Elisa Lorello, also a novelist—and a damn good one). I drive over to my ex-wife’s house and pick up the two dachshunds we co-parent and bring them back to the house. Everybody eats breakfast. Elisa and I go to work, she in her office and I in mine.
I work till lunchtime. I start by editing what I’ve written the previous day, both to make it better and to get my head back in the story, and then I write fresh stuff. I’m not big on daily word counts; I just write until I feel like I’m losing some of the elasticity in my thoughts and my words, and then I look for a place to step off until the next day.
We have a family lunch. Then I drive across town to see my father and, if it’s a good day, I kick his ass a couple of times at backgammon.
Back to the house, do non-writing chores (answer correspondence, update the website, whatever). Take the dogs back to my ex-wife’s house. Come home, have dinner, relax with Elisa.
It’s a beautiful life.
Who are your influences, you favourite writers?
Oh, I have a bunch.
Hemingway was the first writer who made me think I might want to do this. He had a journalism background, and that’s the career I was aiming at when I was in high school. He wrote in this lovely spare way that I was learning at the time, although I must say I’ve gotten a bit more expansive in my own style in the years since.
I learned so much about place and heart and the simple power of a well-chosen word from reading Steinbeck.
I really love the work of Alyson Hagy, a novelist from Wyoming whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a bit.
Gwen Florio, another friend, blends artistry and action like nobody’s business.
Jonathan Evison writes with more heart than anybody I know. He’s also the kindest author I’ve ever met. Not a bad combination.
And there’s Elisa, who writes love stories that have a deep, psychological component and the best dialogue I’ve read anywhere.
There are two further Edward books – I just bought the next one! – but will that be it? Can we expect more from him?
Several years back, after 600 HOURS came out and started to find an audience, I said flatly that there’d never be another book about him. I felt confident in saying that; I felt as though I’d told the story that was there and was ready to move on to other things.
Here’s the problem: A few years later, Edward started to tug at me again. So I wrote another book about him and made my apologies for being so strident earlier.
So I can’t say yes or no to another Edward. If he’s ready to come out again, I suspect he’ll let me know. I certainly finished the third book in a way that leaves room for his story to go on. That’s not unusual, for any of my stories. To one degree or another, they all finish in an open-ended way, because I like this idea that a book is just a snapshot in time of certain characters and situations—that they have a history that pre-dates the book and a future that will go on after the final page.
What I will say is it’s important to me, if no one else, to write other stories and other characters. I saw an Amazon review the other day for THE FALLOW SEASON OF HUGO HUNTER that said, in essence, “nothing here for Edward fans.” People like what they like, and I wouldn’t presume to tell them otherwise, but I had to wonder why that was a terribly important thing to point out. Whether it’s a band I dig or a writer I enjoy reading, I like following artists where they want to go. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I get that. I’m an R.E.M. fan. I loved “Lifes Rich Pageant” and hated “Around the Sun.” But if the latter was the record they wanted to make at the time they made it, I have to honor that. Otherwise, I’m just wishing they were my personal jukebox. Which is unfair.
Finally, what else do you have plans to write?
Oh, lots and lots of stories. No specifics, though. It ruins the magic. 😉
Craig Lancaster is the author of six novels: 600 Hours of Edward, The Summer Son, Edward Adrift, The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, This Is What I Want, and Edward Unspooled. He’s also the author of a short-story collection, The Art of Departure. His work has been honored by the Montana Book Awards, the High Plains Book Awards, the Utah Book Awards and the Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal. Lancaster lives in Billings, Montana, with his fiancée, Elisa Lorello, who’s also a bestselling author.