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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Novelist Neal Bowers

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Neal Bowers
Author of Loose Ends

By Doris Booth

April 2001

One in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!

Novelist Neal Bowers' latest work, Loose Ends (Random House, Spring 2001), is a darkly funny tale whose style and wit mark the debut of a very special writer. Here he talks candidly to aspiring Authorlink writers about his career as an author published by a major house.

 

" . . . poetry gave me great personal satisfaction . . . . The novel, as a form, is so radically different from poetry I couldn't resist trying it."

 

AUTHORLINK: When did you begin your writing career, and what prompted you to do so? Is there a special story behind your decision to become an author?

BOWERS: For the past 30 years, I've been writing and publishing poetry. For most of that time, poetry gave me great personal satisfaction, but I grew weary of the inbred world of contests and awards and wanted to breathe fresher air. The novel, as a form, is so radically different from poetry I couldn't resist trying it. And now I'm afraid I'm hooked. I wouldn't say I've given up poetry, because I try for a lyrical prose style that's still inviting and readable.

AUTHORLINK: Who was the greatest influence on your decision to write, and in what ways did they encourage you?

BOWERS: Growing up in the South, in a working-class family that placed a premium on education, had the biggest influence on every aspect of my life. My parents encouraged me in everything I attempted, including writing. And I don't think it hurt to be immersed in the oral traditions of rural people like my grandparents, to hear daily their lilting, colorful speech. Under different circumstances, my mother might have been a writer. She had a skillful way with words and their nuances, and enjoyed a good turn of phrase. Speaking once of someone who seemed disconnected and confused, she said, "Why he's as lost as last year's Easter egg."

AUTHORLINK: How did you find your first agent? How did you find the agent who sold your work to Random House?

BOWERS: My first agent was recommended to me by a friend. He was a nice enough guy but poorly organized and didn't circulate my manuscripts very much. I found my second agent through a cold-mailing of 50 letters to literary agencies. She sold LOOSE ENDS to Random House, but her blunt efficiency (including no phone conversation longer than 45 seconds) was a poor match for my excessive Iowa politeness. So I'm currently without an agent, though I haven't given up hope of finding one who has both hustle and heart.

 

"My editor told me he was impressed by my writing style"

 

AUTHORLINK: What aspects of your work caught your editor's attention? Voice? Characters? Marketing concept? If Random House was not your first publisher, who was, and how did you find them?

BOWERS: My first publisher, a university press, brought out a book of commentary on an American poet, Theodore Roethke, way back in 1982. No agent would have represented such a book, which left me to address my own envelopes and write my own pleading cover letters. My editor at Random House, told me he was impressed by my writing style, and that's what drew him to LOOSE ENDS. I knew from that point on that I had found an editor who reads with care.

AUTHORLINK: How important has your agent been in guiding your career?

BOWERS: So far, agents have been a great disappointment to me. I'm trying hard not to generalize from my unhappy experiences, but I'm coming to believe that a truly good agent–one who takes an interest in his authors as well as in their work–is very hard to find.

AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to be a published author? Is this your first book, or one in a long career? Tell us a little more about your writing career. How long did it take you to publish your first work?

BOWERS: LOOSE ENDS is my first novel, so it feels like a first book, although I've published six others (poetry and nonfiction). Nothing compares to seeing the first copy of any book, but I'm especially proud of LOOSE ENDS. In fact, I've got copies strategically placed around the house so I can see one wherever I am. Feels wonderful.

AUTHORLINK: Did you ever think you would be where you are today as an author? What was your vision for your career, and how does it compare against reality?

BOWERS: I'll be 53 years old this summer, which makes me a late arrival as a novelist. (Because I spent so many years thinking of myself as a poet, the word "novelist" sounds odd attached to me.) But it's invigorating to be engaged by something that's new and challenging. I haven't felt such an urgency to write since I was a teenager knocking out angst poems.

AUTHORLINK: Where or how did you get the idea for your first book?

BOWERS: I'll keep talking about LOOSE ENDS, because it's the first of what I hope will be a good number of novels. I began with a character who, like me, is from the South, lives in the Midwest where he makes his living teaching, and has diabetes. I thought of him as a darker version of myself. When my mother died in December 2000 (just three months before the release of LOOSE ENDS), I found myself following in my protagonist's vapor trail, flying to Tennessee to take care of the details of death. When I made discoveries about my mother that astonished me, I realized I had put much more of me into my protagonist and much more of my own life into the plot than I had realized or admitted to myself.

AUTHORLINK: What are your writing habits? How many hours per day do you write? Describe your writing environment? Do you have a special place where you write? Do you have special quirks about how you work?

BOWERS: I'm typically sitting in front of the word processor by 8:30 each morning, and I stay there until 9:00 P.M. (with meals and exercise and occasional pointless wandering mixed in). My study is in a distant corner of our basement, but our six cats take turns visiting, and they occasionally tap out something on the keyboard. I'm able to give all my time to writing because I'm currently on leave from my job as an English professor. It would be bliss if I never had to go back to campus and the classroom.

AUTHORLINK: How important is it to read other authors while you're working, and when you're not working? How important is it to read the classics? Why?

BOWERS: I read almost nothing while I'm writing, because I don't want other voices and styles mixing in my head. And while I've kept up pretty well with contemporary poetry, I've read a pitifully small amount of contemporary fiction. I'm more inclined to re-read a vintage Styron novel than anything on the best-seller list. In the academic world of universities, this makes me an anachronism, as the classics have been challenged, deconstructed, and replaced by inferior texts.

 

"I'm happy to be where I am at this moment. Change a single freckle in the past, and everything would be different. As for repeating the past, I'll pass."

 

AUTHORLINK: What would you do over again if you began your writing career now?

BOWERS: Because things happen in their own time, I'm happy to be where I am at this moment. Change a single freckle in the past, and everything would be different. As for repeating the past, I'll pass.

AUTHORLINK: What's the best thing about being a published author? The worst thing?

BOWERS: The best thing about publishing is connecting with people, most of whom I'll never meet or hear from. The human contact we can make with one another through words on a page still stuns me. The worst thing is even a single unkind review. Funny how something snide shouts in the mind long after the compliments have faded.

AUTHORLINK: Who are your favorite authors? What you like about them?

BOWERS: William Faulkner is my favorite fiction writer, because he was really a poet who happened to write novels. W.S. Merwin is my favorite poet because his lyric poems convey more meaning than most novels.

AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice or insights for newcomers trying to break into publishing?

BOWERS: I'm a great believer in literary journals as the one truly democratic medium for writers. If you're devoted and determined enough, you will find an editor or two who like your work and want to publish it. Books may or may not come later.

AUTHORLINK: Do you perceive New York publishing to be a closed society or an open one?

BOWERS: It's hard to think of NY publishing as a closed society when a fellow like me living in Ames, Iowa can place books with Random House and W.W. Norton.

AUTHORLINK: What are publishers looking for today?

BOWERS: While some publishers are looking for whatever is fashionable at the moment, many publish what they like, which is the most anyone can ask.

AUTHORLINK: Why do you think so many writers get rejected, and so few become published? What elements of good writing would you guess are missing from an aspiring writer's work?

BOWERS: I worry that many good writers get rejected simply because they never connect with the right editor. In poetry, where contests determine most book publications, the real editors see only the finalists after slush readers have eliminated 99.9 percent of the entries. In fiction, just being heard above the din of so many voices at the gates is the greatest challenge, and that's where agent representation becomes essential.

 

" . . . I still believe the craft of writing is a solitary pursuit and is better left to individuals than to groups in classrooms or at conferences."

 

AUTHORLINK: How did you learn your craft? Through reading? Conferences? A university? Mentoring? A combination of these, or other means?

BOWERS: I think of writing as a calling rather than an occupation. Certainly, no one writes poetry with the expectation of making a living at it. So I started out with a simple love of language and the need to speak or, better still, to be led somewhere by words. Although I've taught graduate writing workshops for more than two decades, I still believe the craft of writing is a solitary pursuit and is better left to individuals than to groups in classrooms or at conferences.

AUTHORLINK: If you could choose any career in the world today, knowing what you know now, what would it be?

BOWERS: Honestly, I'm content with the way things have turned (and keep turning) out. Just discovering where this particular life leads is excitement enough.

AUTHORLINK: What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you on the way to getting published?

BOWERS: It's funny only in retrospect, and I still bristle a little when I think of it. In 1995, a few months after my nonfiction book WORDS FOR THE TAKING had been accepted by W.W. Norton, my wife and I visited New York expressly to meet my editor. She suggested that we have dinner together, and we passed a pleasant enough evening until the check arrived and she slid it across the table toward me, saying, "I think this one is on Neal." At first, I thought she was kidding, because she had given every indication that the meal was her treat (on her Norton expense account), but she quickly stood and headed for the cloak-room. The bill was made even bigger because she had brought along her personal assistant for what turned out to be a free meal for the two of them. Then, when we grabbed a taxi, presumably to share, my editor directed the driver to her apartment, got out, and left my wife and me with the evening's second tab when we finally got to our hotel.

 

Tip: Download Random House E-books from The Modern Library for just $4.95 each.

 

This is one in a series of special Authorlink interviews with today's well-known authors. Watch for new interviews every month!