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Archive for November, 2009

The Washington Corrections Center for Women doesn’t look much like a prison. The sprawling campus near Gig Harbor, built in the early 1970s, is occupied by comparatively modern single-story buildings. And situated alongside a major secondary road just off State Highway 16, it looks like nothing so much as a community college campus surrounded by razor wire.

Click here to see a video of life behind bars there.

It is the place that Jeannette Murphy has called home since October 1983.

Jeannette is the inmate I’ve come to visit Monday morning as I dash through an apocalypse of rain and check in with the desk sergeant. A moment later my shoes, belt and jacket are off for inspection as a corrections officer waves me through a sensitive metal scanner. All I’m allowed to bring in is a plain white card that can be used to purchase food and drinks in the prison visiting room. I’ve paid $20 for one; I’ve found that good prison-visiting etiquette dictates that I be in a position to offer to buy whoever I’ve come to see a snack or a soft drink or a cup of vending-machine coffee.

After waiting less than patiently in the downpour to pass through a series of electronically controlled gates, I enter the visiting room. It’s smaller than the one at McNeil Island but just as airy and light and almost cheerful, with kids’ toys and books stacked along one wall and a bank of vending machines against another. The room is nearly full of inmates — most of whom are wearing shapeless gray prison-issue sweatshirts and sweatpants — and their friends and family members, sitting at tables and chatting. A few are playing cards; Uno seems to be a particular favorite.

I check in with the visiting room sergeant and am told to wait at “Table 11.” This helps; as with my visit last week to McNeil Island to see Aaron Borrero, I really didn’t know what the person I came to see looked like. All I’d ever seen of Jeannette were photocopies of smudgy photos from her 1983 trial in The Olympian newspaper. They don’t assign you tables at McNeil, however, and Aaron and I had to do some awkward eyebrow-lifting exchanges from across the room before we finally figured it out.

Jeannette came in a few minutes later. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I had a vague mental image of someone who had been worn away by more than 26 years in prison. Someone maybe overweight from starchy institutional fare, as many of the inmates seemed to be. Someone with lines as deep as irrigation ditches around her eyes and mouth, with hair shot through with gray and iron-gray hardness in her eyes.

Instead, I was greeted by a slim, pleasantly chatty woman with a constant high-wattage smile. She looked no older than her age — 46 — and her black hair had a stylishly short trim. A media friend who knows Jeannette described her to me as “someone who seems like she represents the Junior League,” and I could instantly see what my friend meant. It was clear, too, how Jeannette earned her reputation as a leader among inmates. She’s an active and engaged listener, with nothing sullen or bitter sullying her disposition. I’d read a lot about how she counseled young women entering the prison, and counseled those destined never to leave the system, in their final days.

“I’m everybody’s shrink,” she said, with a bit of a chagrined laugh.

Chagrined because 26 years of listening to everybody else’s problems while keeping her own stuffed deep down inside could well be the reason Jeannette is still in prison. Even her visitors, she said, tended to use their face time with her to dump out their problems and rarely inquire about hers. I told her that in a way, I thought that made sense, that those of us on the outside can’t understand or empathize with life on the inside. And there’s the simple reality that many of us, inside and out, are self-involved and largely unable to see past the things that complicate our own lives.

Jeannette nodded at that. “You know, it’s funny,” she said, in a way that indicated it really wasn’t funny at all, “but in more than 20 years, nobody ever asked me what I did. Or if I did it.”

Ah, that “it.” I should probably touch on that.

In early 1983, Jeannette Murphy was 19 years old, and stuck. She was living in Lacey, a suburb just north of the capital city of Olympia with her parents, John and Elke, and her younger sister Natasha. She had just flunked out of Western Washington University in Bellingham (where I went to school a few years later), had no job, and was about to lose her boyfriend to the Army and a posting at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. But, by all accounts — including her own — the Murphys were a loving, functional, tight-knit family, with nary a hint of abuse. Jeannette wanted to join the Army herself, in a bid to join her boyfriend, and her parents made it clear that they didn’t think that was a good idea. There was also talk that both parents had had extramarital affairs in the past, affairs that Jeannette knew about. That, as far as anyone on the outside knew, was the extent of Jeannette’s problems with her parents.

On the late afternoon of April 22, 1983, Jeannette shot her father in the head with his .357 magnum handgun shortly after he arrived home from his job as the emergency-room administrator at St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, then did the same to her mother minutes later as she returned home from her job as an accountant at nearby Fort Lewis. She then set the Murphy house on fire to cover up the killings, and left to pick up 14-yearold Natasha at school. But the fire was stopped short of completely incinerating the house, and less than 24 hours later, authorities knew the that John and Elke Murphy had been shot. Jeannette denied any knowledge.

As authorities continued to find no evidence that led them to other suspects, however, they began to zero in on inconsistencies in Jeannette’s statements. About three weeks after the slayings, she took a polygraph examination at the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office. When she, in cop parlance, “blew ink all over the walls,” she was confronted with her lies. But she continued to deny any culpability, and left.

From there, panicked, she tried to cash a check, using her sister’s bank account and her mother’s name, but was denied. She then hastily packed a bag, drove to Sea-Tac Airport, bought a plane ticket to Oklahoma City and hours later dropped in on her surprised, estranged boyfriend at Fort Sill. Over the next two days, she confessed to him that she had set the house on fire, saying that her father begged her to after he shot her mother and then himself. She also claimed to be pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. She talked vaguely about leaving the county, either for Germany, where her mother was from, or Mexico.

Instead, the boyfriend persuaded her to stay with friends of his in Portland while she sorted things out. He then told his superior officer, who contacted local police, who contacted Thurston County officials, Two days later, nearly a month after the killings, Jeannette was arrested in Portland. At her trial for arson and two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, she stuck to her story of denying the killings but setting the fire. But the combined weight of her own furtive actions and the lack of evidence pointing in any other direction turned the jury against her, and she was convicted — not, as the prosecution wanted, of aggravated, premeditated murder, which would have carried a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, but just plain first-degree murder. Two counts, along with the arson.

She was sentenced to two life terms plus 30 years, and with good time and parole board approval, she could have been out as early as … this year. But then the state Sentencing Reform Act went into effect in 1984, and in 1990, the state Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (which replaced the parole board) reviewed all pre-SRA sentences and readjusted them to conform to the tougher SRA guidelines. The calculations get complicated, but the upshot is that Jeannette’s earliest possible release date was pushed back 12 more years, to October 2021.

In October 2021, Jeannette Murphy will be 58 years old, and will have spent over two-thirds of her life in prison. In fact, I just realized, it’ll be almost exactly the same stretch of years, over the same time in life, as was served by the fictional convict portrayed by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. Right now, Jeannette is in a peculiar place, sentence-wise. She’s considered to have served her sentence for the arson, was paroled for one of the murders in 1999, and is nearly 10 years into a revised 24-year term for the second slaying. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me, either.

It didn’t make much sense, either, to the state Clemency and Pardons board when they heard Jeannette’s petition in late April to be released early. And it was a point in Jeannette’s favor as her attorney moved on to the next point: That Jeannette has done not only good time, but great time. Between those who wrote letters on her behalf and those who actually showed up at the hearing and testified for her, some sixty people painted a portrait of her as a tirelessly sympathetic shoulder and an indefagitably hard-working volunteer. Her infraction record is pretty thin, and several prison staffers came forward to express admiration for her comportment and character.

But then came the counterweights: Her crime, and her perceived lack of ownership over it.

Jeannette publicly denied committing the murder for a long time. In fact, her first hesitant admission came at the 1999 hearing in which she was paroled for the one murder. Since then, she’s been equally hesitant to expand on it. Her attorney, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, who has handled several such cases, tried to smooth it over before the board members by steering them back to her good conduct and good works. “Actions speak louder than words,” McCloud said. But board chairwoman Margaret Smith wasn’t buying in: “I get what you are saying … but I think words are important here, too.”

Her point: Without ownership of the crime — a stated understanding of what she did and why she’ll never do it again in a way that doesn’t sound scripted — board members wouldn’t feel that they could assure the governor that’ll she never do it again. And freeing a convicted murderer from prison is one of the most politically risky things a governor can do. Anybody remember Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton?

So Jeannette had to come up with the words. And, well … she just couldn’t. Not very well, anyway, even though she did manage the words: “I killed my parents.” The most she could say to explain it was this: “The crime itself is unspeakable.” That wasn’t good enough, and she knows it.

And, as we talked Monday in the visiting room, she’s aware that she choked. Part of it, she said, was that she was ill-prepared for the hearing, unaware of the format and the process. And part of it was being unprepared, period. In prison, she explained to me, it’s easy to talk about your crimes with other inmates because they’ve been where you are and “there’s no judgment in their eyes.” (Though, she said, they don’t often spill their guts to one another about their crimes.) But she’s never discussed the murders with anyone with whom she felt there was a risk of judgment. And part of the reason for that is her everybody’s-shrink quality — people come to her with their problems, she said, and she rarely feels with them that she can interject with their own.

In its deliberations, the five-member board zeroed in on Jeannette’s difficulties in accepting public responsibility for her crimes as “the weakest part of her petition.” And then the votes were taken. One board member supported her petition, citing the arbitrary inconsistency of the shifting sentencing guidelines that have governed her time. Another said, simply, “I got to think of the victims here.” In the end, Jeannette’s petition failed by a 4-1 vote. She was invited to reapply in “a couple of years.”

Another reason for why Jeannette choked, she said, is that as a long-timer, she hasn’t had the same access to mental-health counseling that shorter-term inmates have. Not all prisoners get the same privileges and program access. I imagine the state Department of Corrections’ rationale is something like: Why should we invest professional services in somebody unlikely to benefit from them on the outside … because, hello, she won’t be on the outside anytime soon? Then again, who needs help just getting by day to day more than someone who committed an “unspeakable” act? Such as, say, orphaning yourself in spectacularly violent fashion as a teenager?

But she wasn’t offered that kind of help, she told me, and as a result, all she could do was stuff the pain and the unanswered questions deep down inside. For years and years and years. She could occasionally take advantage of group therapy sessions, however, and could sometimes see a counselor (many of whom, she told me, were more interested in pumping her for gossip about other prison staffers than in helping her).

In the mystic and secretive ways of the corrections system, however, a huge silver lining emerged after the April hearing. Jeannette was suddenly given access to a top-tier therapist, with whom she does role-playing in which she reenacts the horrific events of 1983. “He really kicks my butt,” she told me. And, in a way, cooperating with me for the book I’d like to write about her story may be good therapy for her as well. That isn’t necessarily my purpose, of course, but as I sat in the prison visiting room talking and even occasionally joking with her, I realized that I liked her and was OK with the idea that she would benefit in some way from my work. (It’s important to like the people at the center of the story you propose to tell. My late mentor Jack Olsen once told the story of spending nearly a year chasing the story of a federal agent who was framed in a series of rapes in New York City. And while the facts were compelling enough for a good Olsen book, one fact stood above them all, Jack said: “He was an asshole, and I couldn’t write the book because he was an unsympathetic character — both for me to work with and the reader.”)

Jeannette, despite the fact that she murdered her parents, is not an unsympathetic character. You’ll be repulsed by what she did, but you won’t be repulsed by her. It’s an intriguing tension that I think serves her well as the central character or a book.

That brought us a big step forward from our first letters several months before, in which she expressed wariness of the media and seemed concerned that I would be focusing exclusively on the murders and the trial. So, in a reply letter and again on Monday, I reiterated my purpose: “I will not be focusing exclusively on 1983. But neither will I be ignoring it. It’s a vital piece of a larger story.” And I made clear that working together means that at some point, we’re going to have to talk head-on and in detail about the murders, about the arson, about the lies she told in the days and weeks and months and years afterward. And that she’s going to have to tell me why she did it, and that she’ll have to overcome the overwhelming instinct to talk around it.

And she nodded. She understands that. Just as she understands that I am going to interview people who may not have the nicest of things to say about her (as well as a lot of people who do). She understands that I am her storyteller, not her advocate. And, on the other hand, I understand that if my work ends up being used to advocate her the next time she comes up before the Clemency and Pardons Board … well, then so be it.

So, as our time together — nearly two hours — drew to a close, I realized that I had the same feeling with Jeannette Murphy that I had with Aaron Borrero the week before. The feeling that I had chosen well, that I had made a connection with someone capable of digging deep for me — and capable of recognizing that doing so means doing good for themselves along the way. That I had found someone with a powerful story to tell, a story that would find an audience that’s thirsty for it. We shook hands again, agreeing that I would be back to see her two weeks later.

A moment later, I stood in the relentless rain, waiting for the first of several razor-wire-ringed gates to open, feeling cold rivulets of water run down the back of my collar. And I smiled.

Because Book Number 2 is a go.

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Some odds and ends:

— We do have a winner from last week’s drawing for a free, inscribed copy of my friend Craig Lancaster‘s debut novel, 600 Hours Of Edward. From 11 scraps of paper in a baseball cap, I drew the name of Kristin Hanes, my favorite Seattle radio news reporter. Congratulations, Kristin … and thank you to everyone else who participated in last week’s Q&A with Craig. And even though you didn’t win, I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book. Not only is it a great, fun, breezy, poignant read, but it’s a great way to support small-press authors who get no advances and have to cover most of their own marketing and promotion expenses.

— I’ve packed it in on NaNoWriMo after seeing early on that while I think I’ve got a great idea for a genre mystery novel and enjoy working on it, I just don’t have the time to write on it enough to maintain the necessary pace of nearly 2,000 words a day to get to the finish line at the end of November. Right now, on Nov. 13, I’m at 8,633 words, when I should be at a minimum of about 24,000. But, like I said, I do think I’m onto something good, and I’ll git ‘er done eventually.

— I submit monthly reviews and interviews with Pacific Northwest authors of mystery and true-crime books to Reading Local Seattle, and last week saw the posting of my review of Bainbridge Island author Anthony Flacco‘s The Road Out Of Hell. (The short version: It’s a good book, and Flacco masterfully carries off the difficult and ethically tricky task of recreating vast swaths of dialogue between long-deceased people while staying true to both the spirit and the letter of what actually happened.)

— My latest monthly piece for 1st Turning Point, a Seattle-based Web site of shared marketing and promotion strategies for authors, is titled “Pissing Matches As Platform Builders?” It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the only semi-ludicrous idea that staging a literary feud with an acid-tongued reviewer could be a good way to boost an author’s visibility — and sales. I hearken back to the late Jack Olsen‘s long-running, high-profile feud with The Seattle Times to make my half-serious point.

— In the If You Write It, They Will Come Dept., the fine Self Publishing Review has asked me for permission to reprint my Q&A with Craig Lancaster, whose book was originally self-published. I said yes; it should go up sometime this weekend, I’m told. And apropos of nothing, the Twitter site of Field’s End, a celebrated authors’ collective on my hometown of Bainbridge Island, posted a link to my blog about my visit to the state prison at McNeil Island. Nice little boosts for everybody. I love how that works.

— Speaking of prison visits, look next week for my report on my planned Monday visit to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor. I’ll be meeting for the first time with Jeannette Murphy, a woman who has been behind bars for more than 26 years for shooting both of her parents in the head and setting their Lacey home on fire to cover it up in early 1983, when she was 19. She’s done well in prison, becoming one of the facility’s most prominent inmate leaders. And while she narrowly fell short of her bid for clemency from the governor at an April hearing, I think she’s got a good shot at making it in her next bid in two to three years. All that’s missing for her is a clear and unhesitant vocal ownership of her crime. She has to be able to say what she did and why she did it to the governor’s Clemency and Pardons Board in such a way that they’ll feel confident in telling the governor that she’ll never do it again. It’s my hope that I can nudge her in that direction — it’s not only in her best interests, but in the interests of a future crime book I’d like to write.

— And I remain hard at work on a planned news article about Robert Holmes, a convicted rapist and murderer who sought a governor’s pardon, won a recommendation from the Clemency and Pardons Board — but was turned down this summer by the governor’s office. I’ve done several interviews, including ones with Holmes and the parents of the teenage victim — and have a partial first draft written. It’s my hope to have this all wrapped up within two weeks, and ready to pitch to local news outlets.

Check in with y’all next week.

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My first thought as rains let up and the ferry drew me close to McNeil Island for the first time: Holy crap! The island is being attacked by giant mutated Slinky worms!

946162.standalone.prod_affiliate.5Yes, there really are that many loops of razor wire all over McNeil Island Corrections Center. Which, I suppose, is as it should be. McNeil may be a medium-security facility, housing short-term inmates rather than the worst of the worst, but it is a prison nonetheless — the last island prison in the United States. And the mainland isn’t far away — less than a mile in places to the north and west from where it rests in the South Puget Sound region of Washington state. And escapes were not uncommon from McNeil, at least not in its days as a federal prison prior to 1981.

McNeilmap1980In my 20-plus years as a Washington journalist, I’ve been to the prisons in Shelton, Walla Walla and Monroe to cover stories for newspapers and interview inmates. I’ve been to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor more than 20 times (and will be back next week; more on that later). But that rainy Monday marked not only my first trip to McNeil, but my first visit as a citizen rather than a journalist.

My mission: To meet with a man convicted of attempted murder, to see if he’s willing to cooperate with me for the book I hope to write about his crime.

I’ll recap here briefly: Aaron Borrero is the man, who, in March 1997, participated in the robbery and attempted killing of fellow drug dealer Les Lemieux in Kent. Borrero is the one who actually dumped the hogtied Lemieux into the Yakima River to die. By a miracle, Lemieux survived. But not knowing that, Borrero took off for California — along with girlfriend Elizabeth Hernandez, also wanted for attempted murder in the shooting of her ex-boyfriend. The two were featured on America’s Most Wanted and, after two months on the run, were turned in by an AMW tipster. Borrero stood trial in 1998 and received nearly 23 years for first-degree kidnapping and first-degree attempted murder. His earliest possible release date is early 2017.

But Borrero turned his life around in prison, taking ownership of his crimes and personal failures along the way,and his good behavior got him a transfer to McNeil. It also gave him the idea of making a bid for clemency and an early release through Gov. Christine Gregoire‘s office. At his September hearing, Lemieux surprisingly testified in support of Borrero’s early release, and an impressed Clemency and Pardons Board voted unanimously to recommend to Gov. Gregoire that Borrero be released within 18 months. Today, that recommendation awaits a decision from Gregoire. That could happen tomorrow, or next month, or a year from now. Or it could happen on the last day of Gregoire’s term. By statute, it’s entirely up to her.

I knew at that hearing that I wanted to write about this remarkable case, and I set about securing the cooperation of the two principals. Les Lemieux, who did prison time himself for drug dealing, agreed to work with me, and we started formal interviewing on Nov. 2. Aaron Borrero responded to my letter with a short one saying that he wanted to meet with me before he made his decision. And as soon as I received state Department of Corrections clearance to visit McNeil, I set a time and date through Aaron’s helpful mother.

15728306Because I was “just” a visitor this time and not going over as a member of the media (arranging formal prison interviews is a far more complicated process), I had to leave all the tools of my trade — notepad, pen, camera and digital recorder — behind in a locker on the Steilacoom side of the water. A shuttle bus then took me and a dozen or so other inmate visitors to the ferry terminal, about 15 miles south of Tacoma, and we boarded the passenger vessel Neil Henly — named for a former McNeil superintendent — for a crossing of about 25 minutes.

From Steilacoom, McNeil loomed a couple of miles southwest, its whitish-gray buildings a start contrast to the dense thickets of evergreens, cedars and maples surrounding it. It was odd to see the shoreline of a Puget Sound island waterfront uncluttered by the luxury homes that pockmarked Fox Island to the north and Anderson Island to the south.

But it made sense, given that McNeil Island has been a prison island as long as Washington has been a state, and that no private citizens have lived there since 1935. In fact, the non-building part of the island — i.e., most of it — has an otherwordly land-that-time-forgot quality. On the bus ride to the ferry headed back to Steilacoom that afternoon, we traveled through beautiful, rolling, tree-dotted greenery punctuated here and there with weathered white clapboard houses on sagging foundations that looked for all the world like something out of Depression-era small-town Saskatchewan.

That central part of McNeil looked as though the island had been evacuated by the Joad family from The Grapes Of Wrath, and left untouched since by the presence of humanity. Small wonder that the place we departed from was called Still Harbor.

On the arrival trip in the late morning, we trudged up the dock and along a winding, wire-crowded path to the building housing the McNeil visiting room, which looked for all the world like an elementary school cafeteria. Which, I suppose, was the idea — as I walked in, I saw children playing with toys, board games and coloring books at table. Their daddies, many of which had gang tattoos crawling up their necks, smiled and laughed in delight as their kids happily busied themselves. More common was the sight of adult visitors playing cards with their inmate friends and family members.

I waited at a table for just a few minutes until a handsome, bespectacled, shaven-headed, lightly complected Hispanic man in his mid-thirties walked out from the main prison housing complex and caught my eye. It occurred to me, at just that second, that I had no idea what Aaron looked like, but I felt certain this had to be him. We shook hands with a smile and sat to talk.

Within three minutes of conversation, I knew I had chosen well. Aaron is not only personable, but bright, articulate, thoughtful, possessed of a strong memory and infinitely willing to embrace his failings and his crimes. I have a pretty strong bullshit detector, but my antennae didn’t twitch in the slightest as we talked for nearly two hours. As he spoke, I developed an increasingly focused picture of a man who realizes that the key to a successful future lies in claiming complete ownership of his past.

His path to redemption began some eight years before, after a series of “dirty UAs” — positive drug tests — while he was incarcerated in the far more hardcore state penitentiary in Walla Walla. According to Aaron, the corrections sergeant who administered the most recent test said, essentially, “You’re a better person than this, I can tell … what are you doing here? I don’t want to see you here again.” And then he sent Aaron, as he was obliged to do, to “the hole.”

It was in solitary confinement that Aaron did the reassessment that started his life on a different course. Since then, Aaron’s prison record has been almost completely clean. He repaired his relationships and reconnected with a lot of his childhood friends, many of who knew him since before his days as a cheerfully womanizing football star at Kentridge High School. He embraced an interesting mix of Christianity and self-empowerment through motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins. (I got the impression that Robbins’ book Awaken The Giant Within was just about as important to him as the Bible.) He’s also a big fan of Warren Buffett, and has a deep interest in financial planning and investing.

He spoke with remarkable candor about his crimes, starting with an armed assault just after his 1993 graduation from high school that landed him in a King County work-release program. It was through a work-release contact that Aaron made his first drug-dealing connection, and from there developed a reputation through Kent as a badass drug dealer who was not above robbing other dealers. Everything he told me checks out with the official record.

Aaron Borrero doesn’t deny what his did to Les Lemieux, and their stories largely agree. But he does feel that he took the fall for the crime’s mastermind, a guy named Kyle Anderson, who managed to escape clean after two mistrials. And after reading the police documents and court transcripts from his case, I’m inclined to agree that of the three people who participated in the robbery and attempted murder of Lemieux, Borrero’s punishment was disproportionate to his culpability. In other words, he deserved the sentence he got — but the other two should have been at least equally punished. But that’s not an argument I’ll make in my book. That’s not my purpose. It’s simply my belief that once the reader takes in all the facts, that’s the conclusion they’ll come to.

Anyway, the upshot is this: Aaron Borrero has agreed to fully cooperate with me as I prepare this book (which I have tentatively titled Everybody Here Gets Out Alive). And to that end, we’ll meet every two or three weeks on Monday afternoons. He’s also agreed to help secure the cooperation of others I’ll eventually want to talk to, including Elizabeth Hernandez, the mother of his youngest child. Hernandez got out of prison in 2004, lives in the Seattle area, and the two amicably co-parent their son even though they’re no longer a couple.

So this, in essence, means that Everybody Here Gets Out Alive is a go. Even if none of the secondary characters in the story agree to work with me, I’ll still have enough material for a good book based on police reports, court documents, trial transcripts, the Clemency and Pardons Board records … and the detailed memories of Aaron Borrero and Les Lemieux.

The best ending I can think of? In my first meeting with Les, I asked him if he would be willing to meet with Aaron once all the legal issues are behind them (there’s a lifetime restraining order between the two, which is pretty much automatic for any attempted murderer and his victim, but it can be lifted if the victim wants it lifted).

He said yes.

On Monday, I asked Aaron the same question. He too said yes.

I would very much like to be present for that moment. It would be an incredible way to conclude an incredible story.

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Edward Stanton is a man hurtling headlong toward middle age. His mental illness has led him to be sequestered in his small house in a small city, where he keeps his distance from the outside world and the parents from whom he is largely estranged. For the most part, Edward sticks to things he can count on…and things he can count. But over the course of 25 days (or 600 hours, as Edward prefers to look at it) several events puncture the walls Edward has built around himself. In the end, he faces a choice: Open his life to experience and deal with the joys and heartaches that come with it, or remain behind his closed door, a solitary soul.

— The back-cover copy for 600 Hours Of Edward, by Craig Lancaster

Last year at about this time, my good friend Craig Lancaster and I started the National Novel Writing Month event together. We checked in on each other every day, held each other accountable, talked one another through our struggles, kept each other excited about writing.

Only I blew it, getting bogged down by a bad start in mid-month, deciding to start over, and coming up short of the 50,000-word finish line by Nov. 30.

DSCF9547Craig, on the other hand, succeeded at NaNoWriMo in a way almost nobody has. He not only finished his novel, but finished early at nearly 80,000 words. And after a short tweaking period, he self-published the novel — then titled 600 Hours Of A Life — and set about it promoting and marketing it from his home base in Billings, Montana. Despite some missteps borne of inexperience, he made enough connections among the local literati and generated enough positive word-of-mouth that he wound up being offered a traditional publishing deal through Riverbend Publishing. The revamped novel — now titled 600 Hours Of Edward — rolled out Nov. 1 and is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

That’s right, folks … from nothing at NaNoWriMo time to mainstream publishing success in a year. I couldn’t be more proud of my pal.

As such, I think there’s a lot that all of us who have struggled to finish a novel — let alone get one published — could learn from Craig’s story. So, below is a Q&A I’ve done with him that may answer a lot of questions you may have about how he did it — and how you can do it.

And, as a guest blogger, Craig will be checking in throughout the day to answer your questions and respond to your comments. And to sweeten the deal, I’ll be giving away a copy of Craig’s novel through a random drawing; everyone who posts a comment or a question for Craig is entered into the drawing.

Thanks, my readers. And thanks, Craig. (By the way, if you haven’t already, follow him on Facebook here and on his fan page here.)

Q: I know you well enough to know that YOU are not Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours Of Edward — even though you’re both fans of Dragnet, the Dallas Cowboys and rocker Matthew Sweet. So where did he come from? Was it from anything in your own experience?

A: That’s funny, because one of my family members, upon reading the book, said, “That’s you!” You’re right, of course. He’s not me. But I think, were Edward real, he and I could connect on a very narrow range of subjects we’re both interested in.

Edward’s creation stems from the chestnut about writing what you know. The things he likes are things I like, but those are only background pieces to flavor the story. His personality, his mannerisms, his heart — the things that ultimately make the story what it is — are his alone. He’s more afflicted, less bombastic, more regimented and far sweeter than I could ever be. I once described my method of creating characters like this: I steal attributes from people I know, and then I give them a good, hard twist into something else entirely. That’s what happened with Edward.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward was written largely during NaNoWriMo in 2008. How much did the unique discipline of the event — the challenge to pound out at least 50,000 words in 30 days — fit with your personal work ethic?

A: I like to get to it, and NaNoWriMo certainly demands that. But I’d tried the event before and never made it very far, so I had more going for me than discipline. Actually, in a big sense, I credit you for what happened in those 24 days (that’s right — I finished the nearly 80,000 words of 600 Hours a week before the event ended). I was going to sit out NaNoWriMo 2008. I’d had a rough year, and I was just starting to emerge whole from a motorcycle accident I’d had in July of that year. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want any more disappointment, and up to that point NaNoWriMo had been nothing but disappointing. But when you asked if I’d take part, I thought about it and figured I’d give it a whirl. I spent a day thinking up the broad outlines of Edward’s story, and on Nov. 1 I got to work.

Once I hit about 20,000 words, I knew I had something, but I was writing so quickly that I wasn’t sure how good it would ultimately be. I’m a pretty fast writer under any circumstance, but this was a marathon at sprint speed. These days, I still write every day, but I’ve learned to walk away when the wheels go a little wobbly. Whether it’s 400, 750 or 2,000 words that I’ve managed to get down, I know I’ve pushed down the road. Eventually, they all add up to a novel, if you keep going.

Q: Given your knock-it-out-of-the-park success with NaNoWriMo on your first go, what advice would you offer others who seem to struggle with the challenge?

A: NaNoWriMo 2008 wasn’t my first go; I’d attempted it at least twice previously. But it was the first time I’d put my ass in the chair and made myself write. The primary reason I was able to do so was I had a plan (read: outline) and a pretty clear idea of where I wanted to go. Those things help. Beyond that, I would tell anyone taking part in the event to really take the spirit of it to heart. The goal is to write 50,000 words, not 50,000 pristine, ready-to-be-published words. Allow yourself to write with abandon and with a minimum of cogitation. Accept the high probability that you’ll squeeze out some dreck. Form a symbiotic relationship with your story and write the living daylights out of it. If, at the end of 30 days, you have a good pile of clay to work with, you can worry about the finer points in December and beyond, as you hone it into something more approximating art.

In other words, don’t even worry about publication. Not yet.

Q: One of the more remarkable things about 600 Hours Of Edward, to me, is that you steer well clear of what I think of as “Debut Novelist Disease.” You don’t drown your characters and themes in dense poetic prose — in fact, you seem to have an excellent feel for what to leave out so that the story zips along and develops its characters and themes along the way. How did you manage to steer clear of the need almost every other first-timer has to describe the leaves on the trees and the dew on the grass and give every character a zillion pages of backstory?

A: My answers to these questions notwithstanding, I’ve always been a fairly spare writer. Part of that comes from my grounding in journalism and its demand that you draw the shortest line from A to B. Part of it stems from emulating writers I’ve admired, particularly Hemingway. When I was in high school, I mainlined Hemingway’s stories. At his very best, he wrote the most muscular, uncluttered prose imaginable. I think it’s a real shame that his style has fallen out of favor in popular literature, because to me, it’s timeless.

Here’s the other thing: Every time you flash back, or describe a room in punishing detail or whatever, the forward motion of a story stops, and so does that pleasant feeling of being swept along for the reader. You have to be able to judge when it’s OK — nay, when it’s vital — to stop the story like that. In all other instances, resist the urge.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing, to me, is letting the reader have some control over what a scene/person/object looks like. In 600 Hours, Edward spends a bit of time in his basement, building a toy for Kyle, the neighbor boy who is the first person to start breaking through Edward’s wall. I didn’t describe the basement at all. I figured that single word — “basement” — was evocative enough for anybody reading the story. He or she can decide whether it smells dank, or it’s finished, or where the work bench is, or how steep the stairs are. It’s out of my hands.

Q: Speaking of publication, how would you describe that feeling when you first held a bound, finished book, written by you, in your hands?

A: Everybody says it’s surreal, and everybody is right. You can’t help but think of what it took to get there and the high hopes you have for it.

That said, the biggest emotional payoff for having written a book is not rooted in the physical book living on someone’s shelf but in the story living in the mind of someone who’s read it and enjoyed it.

Q: You originally self-published 600 Words Of Edward. How well did that work out?

A: I would call it a mixed bag of success. I did so many things wrong, but I also did the biggest thing right: I wrote a good novel that captured the attention of a publisher who could do more for it than I could in terms of getting it out there. (The hard pushing of marketing and meeting readers and stumping for the book still fall largely to me, and that’s fine. Great, even.) In my haste to get the book into people’s hands, I emerged with a story that still needed editing and a cover that absolutely screamed “poor self-publish job.” Because the book was print on demand, I was slowly able to make good on those things, but it was a less-than-professional way to go about it, and one that still embarrasses me.

Q: What do you know now about self-publishing that you would have liked to have applied to that experience?

A: I would have been much more deliberate — securing a good editor and a good cover designer before the book ever saw the light of day. I would test-driven parts of it with public readings. I would have realized the value in a slower build, in getting blurbs and sending out review copies well in advance of the release. Slapped-together projects (very) occasionally work in publishing, but the smart money is on steady and professional. Self-publishers, more than anybody else, need to go with the smart money.

Q: Based on your experience, for whom can self-publishing work?

A: Despite some notable success stories — like my friend Carol Buchanan, who won a Spur Award for her self-published debut, God’s Thunderbolt — it’s undeniably a tough road for fiction writers. The audiences are harder to find and identify — this is also true for traditional publishers — and the legwork, beyond the marketing expected of almost any writer, tends to get in the way of the next book.

Peter Bowerman, the author of The Well-Fed Self-Publisher, contends that someone with a surefire nonfiction book and an established platform can realize some impressive pure profit by self-publishing. He seems to be proof of that contention. So I think, in a general sense, that nonfiction will fare better in that realm. Of course, nonfiction also fares better in the traditional realm.

I’m interested to see what the massive tectonic shifts in the industry hold for self-publishers. It seems obvious to me that the playing field is leveling a bit.

Q: Does having your book picked up by a publisher make you feel more “legit”? Or does your literary self-esteem come from other places?

A: I’m going to say yes, but in a very narrow sense. My publisher, Riverbend Publishing, has a reach into my market that I couldn’t replicate on my own, and if that reach means that more people will now read my book, that’s a good thing for my so-called legitimacy as an author. But the story was just as good when the book was a print-on-demand item that I moved one at a time.

As far as literary self-esteem goes, that comes strictly from readers. They’re the completion of the circle. The publishing apparatus is the necessary middleman between me and them.

Q: How has your newspaper background helped you as a novelist? Has it detracted in any way?

A: There is no writer’s block in journalism. You write, no matter what. So the biggest help has come from that. I have the discipline to sit down and do it, and if you sit down and write enough times, you’re going to reach the finish line (unless you’re Michael Douglas’ character in Wonder Boys). Journalism also helped me develop a sense for recognizing a good story — not just “news,” but also subtle human stories that really form the backbone of what I try to do as a novelist. I’m grateful for the ability to pluck those moments of inspiration out of the air.

Beyond the physical act of pounding the keyboard, newspaper writing and fiction writing are entirely different things. When I edit a news story, I want the salient details up top, because I’m banking on the fact that a good number of readers will never make it to the end. (Hmmm. Maybe I’ve identified what makes so many newspaper stories so relentlessly pedestrian.) With fiction, you assume that readers will reach the denouement and structure the story accordingly.

Q: You’re a very fast worker. Are you a writer who generally trusts his first instincts and find that they hold up through the revision process? How do you keep from paralyzing yourself over word choices, prose cadence, segues, plot points and the like?

A: My first instincts get plenty of challenges, but that happens in subsequent drafts. On the first go, I just try to get it down, baby. If you’re in perpetual first-draft mode, agonizing over every little thing, the finish line will never come into view.

I’m enormously hard on my work in the second draft. Things get bloody. The third draft may bring a smaller amount of corrective surgery. After that, I apply spit and polish.

I’ll say this: I’m thankful that it isn’t more of an ordeal. I know writers who put down 150,000 words in a first draft and spend subsequent drafts cutting that in half. That would drive me crazy. Or crazier.

Q: Writing for a small publishing outfit, you’re largely responsible for promoting your work and getting it into the hands of paying readers. What, in your view, are some of the best high-upside, low-cost ways of making that happen?

A: This is one of them. You have a lot of readers, and you’ve given me an opportunity to talk up my book. I’m involved in social networking about to my tolerance point — because I love it on its merits, and because it allows me to connect with readers and potential readers.

But here where I live, nothing beats shoe leather. I’m planning to support the bookstores that stock my novel, and I’ll go to any public library or civic group that will have me. And then I’ll hope that the math of word of mouth favors my book. We shall see.

Q: How confident do you feel in your public persona as an author? Do you feel comfortable giving readings, speaking to classes, gladhanding, talking with strangers, making friends among other authors?

A: I’m still a newbie at this, and I still have a vivid memory of my first public reading — the shakiness of my hands, the waver in my voice. But I got through it, and I’ve gotten progressively better at standing in front of a group of people and talking. Maybe I should join Toastmasters and really ramp up my game.

The thing that I struggle with, on a personal level, is that I’m fairly goofy, and I have to guard against that becoming too closely associated with my work, which is intended to be taken seriously. So in a public situation, I try to straddle that line between warm and amiable — which I am — and irrepressibly stupid. Which I also am.

Q: Who are some established authors you’ve gotten close to, and what have they been willing to do for you? What do you feel you can do for them … or do to honor in some way what they’ve done for you?

A: I’m lucky to live in a such a richly literary place as Montana. In my town alone, there are several established writers who have been very generous with their time and counsel, among them Sue Hart, Russell Rowland and T.L. Hines. Sue, who has forgotten more about the literature of the West than I’ll ever be able to learn, has invited me to her classroom and introduced me to other folks (and wrote a hell of a nice blurb for my book). I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay Russell for all he’s done. It was his encouragement, after he read 600 Hours, that convinced me I had something worthwhile. He’s given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And Tony has been a good friend to talk to about publishing and pop culture. We’re both kids of the ’70s and ’80s and we like a lot of the same stuff, and that makes our chatter free and easy.

Ron Franscell is another one, although not a Montanan. He’s been a vast resource for tips on staying sane and for some good, rollicking conversation.

I think the best thing I can do to honor them is to follow their example and be generous with my time and advice if I’m ever sought out in a similar way.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward is set in Montana, and while its settings are largely urban and suburban, your reverence for the flavor and mythology of the West is obvious. What is it about Montana — and Billings, specifically — that speaks to you as an author as much as a person? Could 600 Hours Of Edward work just as well if it was set in, say, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?

A: Billings is where I live and the place I know best, so it was an easy decision to drop Edward into this world. I’ve never been to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but I suspect that Edward’s story could have been told there. You’d just have to change up some of the details; maybe Edward’s father would have a background in state government rather than in Big Oil.

In the stories I love best, setting is almost another character. Think of Of Mice and Men and that farm near the central California coast. Could Steinbeck have set it on a dude ranch in New Mexico? Maybe. But that changes the fabric of the story. Had he done that, we wouldn’t know what we were missing, of course, but imagining it retroactively takes something away from us.

Ultimately, I strive for a setting that provides a distinct flavor but a story that has universal themes.

Q: When you’re working, what’s a tolerable level of distraction? Music or no? Facebook or none? Dogs on your lap or no?

A: Absolute quiet and no external distractions. I’m lucky in that my most productive hours are after I get off work, between midnight and 3 a.m. My wife is in bed, the dogs are tucked away, and Facebook is more or less quiet. I sit in the dark and I try to find my way through the next scene, the next chapter, the next plot point.

Q: Do you ever have days where the words just won’t come? How do you deal with that?

A: If I’ve committed myself to writing on a given day, I really try not to leave without having pushed the plow down the field. I may know that I’ll never let the resulting pablum see the light of day, that I’ll double back and fix it at the first opportunity, but at least I will have done *something.*

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a lengthy break from fiction writing. In late July, I finished my second novel (now in the query stage), and I promised my wife that after writing two novels in less than a year, I’d let her see my face for a while. (And, to be honest, I needed the emotional recharge.) I’m about to start up again, and I’m eager to see how that goes.

Q: What expectations do you have for yourself in terms of eventually becoming a self-supporting, full-time writer?

A: It’s certainly my aim, though I’m heeding the advice of my friend Ron Franscell, who warns me that it’s a long road. Whether I ever get there, I’m going to keep writing and keep hoping that someone will find my stories worthy of publication. And, most important, that readers will find them worthy of their time and money. I don’t take either of those things for granted.

Q: What’s next for you? What can you say about Novel #2?

A: It’s finished. I’ve tentatively titled it Gone to Milford. Like 600 Hours, it delves into human relationships, but it comes with much darker undercurrents. 600 Hours is a very straight-ahead, sequential tale. Milford, I think, is the more difficult achievement. It spans a few decades and puts more things into play.

Here’s how I described it in query letters:

Mitch Quillen is in a rut. He’s on the cusp of his forties, his marriage is peeling apart, and his career has gone sideways. When his estranged father, Jim, calls unexpectedly — and then keeps calling — Mitch views the intrusion as one more problem he’s ill-equipped to handle.

Compelled by his wife to leave their home and go to his father, Mitch embarks on a journey not only forward in the here and now but also backward through a father-son relationship gone horribly wrong. Mitch goes to his father hoping to square accounts and find peace with what happened in the summer of 1979 in a small Western town, the place to which he traces a lifetime of losses. He finds reconciliation at home and with his father, and it comes with a harrowing yet affirming lesson in the power and the poison of the things we keep inside, and what happens when our secrets are dragged into the light.

Q: Any interest in doing genre fiction, or book-length nonfiction?

A: Genre fiction doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me, at least not as a writer. I sometimes wish it did; if I could write two or three thrillers a year, my future in this business would probably be much more clear.

When I moved to Montana in 2006, it was partly with the idea that I would write a nonfiction book about my dad, who grew up here and whose young life was like something out of a Dickens novel. But then life and work took over, and I never made much progress on the intensive research such a project would require. As it is, I’ve managed to exorcise some of those compulsions through my fiction. It’s no accident that father-son relationships drive the narrative of both of my completed novels.

Q: What’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you about your writing?

A: A dear friend wrote to me some weeks back and told me that she works with someone who’s a lot like Edward — irrevocably fixated on details, difficult to know, obstinate and probably suffering from some of what ails my character (who’s OCD and has Asperger syndrome). She said that since reading my book, she has found herself caring more about him and being more patient with him. That brought tears to my eyes. I mean, imagine that: a fictional character inspiring more empathy in real people. And, brother, I can’t think of anything we need more than a greater understanding of each other.

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