Gail Bowen on the 'long strange trip' of being an author
Warning: graphic content
For 27 years, award-winning crime writer Gail Bowen has regaled readers with the exploits of Joanne Kilbourn, a university professor, occasional political writer and family matriarch. In The Winners' Circle, the 17th book of the series, Kilbourn's investigative skills are put to the test by a triple homicide involving several people close to her family.
The Winners' Circle is now a finalist for the 2018 Arthur Ellis Award for best novel. Bowen will also receive the Arthur Ellis's Grand Master Award, which celebrates a Canadian crime writer with a substantial body of work who has garnered national and international recognition.
Below, Gail Bowen answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books' Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "Why do you write what you write and the way you write it?"
I was in my mid-40s, when I began writing. I was teaching full time at a university; my husband had a demanding job, and our three children were still at home. I wanted writing to bring me joy, so I decided to write the kind of book I liked to read: a mystery with a strong protagonist and a social conscience. I had always loved series, so I made that choice too. Nineteen books later, I'm still very glad I chose the path I did.
2. Linwood Barclay asks, "Does writing get easier the more you do it, or more difficult because you don't want to repeat yourself."
Both, and in my case both "the easier" and the "more difficult" stem from the fact that I write a series. Writing a series gives a writer real advantages. When I start a new book, I don't begin with a tabula rasa. I know my protagonist well; I have a solid repertory company of supporting players and Joanne's world is well-established. Readers are immensely loyal to Joanne, so I have a built-in-readership. The continuing support I receive from readers is a gift, but it comes with a price. Simply put, because I don't want to disappoint the good people who buy and read my books, until I'm well into a new manuscript, I'm tense.
3. Alexi Zentner asks, "Do you ever bribe yourself to write? What with?"
I've always been very involved with family life, and until recently, I've taught full-time at a university. I've never had to bribe myself to write, because writing has always been my reward for marking essays, preparing meals that everyone will sort of like, walking the dog(s) and sitting through endless ball games and recitals. I love my busy life, but I'm always very grateful to open my laptop.
4. Louise Penny asks, "What do you know now that you wish you'd known when writing your first book?"
To quote the late and much lamented Jerry Garcia, I wish I'd known "what a long strange trip" it would be. It's not over yet, but it's been amazing, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
5. Andrew Pyper asks, "Have you ever been surprised — deeply and honestly shocked — by the violence of a reader's reaction to your work, whether positive or negative?"
I'm not sure I would use the word "violence", but I have often been surprised and sobered by the intensity of a reader's reaction to what I wrote. In 12 Rose Street, I wanted to draw attention to the blighted lives lived by too many children in too many cities in our country. Not too far from where I live, I have seen children as young as eight or nine selling their bodies. In 12 Rose Street, my protagonist is out for a morning run when a van slows and throws out what at first appears to be garbage. When my protagonist comes closer, she sees what was thrown from the van was a blanket that held a child of perhaps nine. The child is naked. She is clutching a $20.00 bill in her hand and semen is dripping from her mouth. Some readers said the image sickened and shocked them and they'd never read anything I wrote again. It was a price I willingly paid.
6. Erin Bow asks, "Do you love your villains?"
Love, no, but I try to find the humanity in all of them. Three of my villains have been sociopaths, and I really had to dig to find the humanity there, but my favourite villain is Cronus (self-named after the Titan who castrated his father Uranus). Despite being a reptilian slumlord who's into rock-em-sock-em sex, my Cronus shows surprising courage and humanity at the end.
7. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Have you ever been frightened by what you write? How and why?"
I may be stretching your question a little here, but the only time I've been frightened when I'm writing comes when I see that the exigencies of plot demand that something tragic must happen to a long-time and much-loved character. This situation has arisen in The Last Good Day and in my latest novel, The Winners' Circle. In both cases reader response has been lively, but no one has demanded my head.
8. Yann Martel asks, "What's the favourite sentence (or scene) that you've written."
Two scenes that have affected me (and readers) deeply occur in The Winners' Circle. The first happens when Joanne discovers the inscription a friend who has died suddenly wrote in the book he left for Joanne to give her daughter as a birthday gift. The second comes when a four-year-old boy who's at the centre of an unimaginable tragedy asks Joanne to guess the name of his new kitten, and the only hint he gives her is that the new kitten is named for "something brown." Spoiler Alert: the answer is "Toast."