An Interview with Richard Bowes
by Jeffrey Ford
Besides possessing a wicked sense of humor and a long memory for both the highs and lows of the SF genre over the past twenty years, Richard Bowes is currently one of the best writers in the field. He is the recipient of both the World Fantasy Award and The Lambda Award. His recent novel, Minions Of The Moon (Tor 99), a dark fantasy, beautifully written and harrowing as hell, is set in New York City and tells the tale of an addiction transformed into a doppelganger. His more recent work, a series of novellas and stories concerning The Time Rangers has garnered much critical praise. Bowes' writing style is one of utter clarity, in which the story is never sullied or slowed by authorial ego, and his fictions, though fantastic, never shy away from the honest depiction of human existence. It is my hope that this interview will serve as an introduction for readers who have not yet encountered his work. These days, his writing can be found on-line at SciFiction and in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
What were some of the books that you enjoyed as a child? Do any images or ideas from them find their way into your fiction now?
My parents had The Thurber Carnival. They used to read me things from it like "The Night The Ghost Got In" as bedtime stories. And it had pictures, New Yorker cartoons, that I loved to look at even before I learned to read. I heard all the Hugh Lofting Doctor Dolittle books, especially Doctor Dolittle And The Secret Lake which is mostly the first hand reminiscences of the Great Flood narrated by a pair of ancient giant tortoises. It's never been reprinted maybe because it deals with Biblical events but has no religious content. Stevenson's Child's Garden Of Verse, books of Mother Goose rhymes, got read to me. This primed me. Made me want to read. Otherwise, I doubt that I would have had the motivation.
When I did, I inherited all these books my uncles and older kids of family friends had. I read Tanglewood Tales and Pyle's Robin Hood and versions of the King Arthur stories and a lot of Boys' Own Adventure stuff with titles along the lines of, The Motor Car Chums At The Battle Of The Somme ("Golly," shouted Biff, the stout, jolly Chum, "If we could attach this Vickers machine gun to the hood, I'll bet we could slaughter those filthy Huns as they're eating breakfast!"). Dave Dawson was a sixteen year old World War Two flying ace. I read every novel in the series that I could get my hands on. I re-read Dave Dawson At Dunkirk recently. The first part of it, anyway. Old loves are best left as memories.
You ask if images and ideas from these books turn up in my fiction? Are you kidding, in a lot of ways there's nothing else.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Until I was eighteen, I lived in neighborhoods in South Boston and Dorchester in the Irish Boston of the 1940's and '50's. It's the same background as Kevin Grierson's in Minions Of The Moon, as the POV character in the story Transfigured Night. You know, parochial grammar school, sandlot baseball, normal enough up to a point. It's odd but two critics who gave those pieces very favorable reviews, Charles de Lint for Minions and Faren Miller for Transfigured Night And Other Stories, describe that background as "poor" or "crummy". In fact, what I was talking about was lower middle class urban life as it was lived by a big chunk of the population forty years ago. This country wasn't nearly as rich as it got to be. City life wasn't as tough then. But I was a kid with problems. There were cracks to fall between and I found them. I sometimes feel like I'm describing a lost world.
At what point in your life did it strike you that writing might be something you would like to pursue? What was the first story you ever wrote?
Oh, like half the kids in the world, when I was nine I wrote a "book" about going to the zoo. You mean writing as something I was seriously doing something about? When I was eighteen or so, I began to want to. And I had trouble getting started. I describe the process in My Life In Speculative Fiction, a memoir in the form of a novella. It's the original piece in my collection Transfigured Night And Other Stories from TimeWarner.
I had ended up at Hofstra College on Long Island in 1963. The writing teacher there was Mark Eisenstein. The poet Robert Blye credits Mark with teaching him how to write. But it was more like he allowed us to do it. Gave us a place and an audience. Mark's still around, wonderfully enough. I just spoke to him on the phone.
The first story I wrote for him was called For Innocent Children, and I used it (somewhat rewritten) as the first story the narrator writes in My Life In Speculative Fiction. Another story I used in MLISF, which I call Snake Eyes At The Dog Yard was made up of two stories I wrote for Mark. They were about a kid hustler and drugs and it didn't quite work. Rewriting those piece was like collaborating with this not-untalented but deeply disturbed boy whom I only knew slightly.
I know you are interested in antique toys as both a hobby and a business. How did this come about? Does any of this find its way into your fiction? What, for you, personally, is the Holy Grail of antique toys. Which one would you love to have in your collection but is either too elusive or too expensive?
The irony is that I wrote about antique toy dealing in Minions (It's what Grierson and his lover do after he gets free of his Shadow) first. Then I began doing it in real life. As I'm writing this, fifty-five of the fifty-six old toy lots I had up on Ebay have sold. Having a full time job at New York University and trying to write and doing the toy thing is wearing me out.
Being in the business has kind of taken the mystique out of collecting. The magic aspect is there, though. Last summer one of my brothers was in the hospital, dying, waiting for a liver transplant (which he got just before September 11). He was in Mt. Sinai Hospital and I'd ride up there and back on the Lexington Avenue subway every other night after work. There was an ad in the trains for a museum that featured a bright red, circa 1940, Marx Mercury toy train. After my brother pulled through, I went out and bought one for myself (not as nice as that museum one, though).
You are the recipient of both The World Fantasy Award ("Streetcar Dreams," novella) and the Lambda Award (Minions Of The Moon, novel). Have these awards had any impact on your writing career?
I really liked getting the Lambda, because it's from a non-genre group and because the version of life depicted is maybe grittier and less idealistic than is usual in gay fiction.
But winning the World Fantasy Award for "Streetcar Dreams" was a huge help. It happened as Minions Of The Moon, of which "Streetcar Dreams" was a part, was about to be released by Tor. And it was a big talking point. The book could go to press with "World Fantasy Award Winner" on the cover. When you're published in as large a line as Tor's, you need something to make you stand out. I'm very grateful to the World Fantasy Convention and to those judges.
What was your first professional sale as a writer?
I co-designed and co-wrote rules for a lot of board games in the late '70's and early '80's. We did promotional games for The National Lampoon, Dow Jones, Metropolitan Life. We also did trade games. One was Jack The Ripper.
But my first fiction sale was a novel, Warchild, for Warner Questar in 1985. It was the first piece of speculative fiction that I had written. The circumstances were kind of dramatic. I sent it off to my agent in late '84 and almost immediately afterwards was diagnosed with acute colon cancer. I had known I was sick but I thought it was AIDS about which nothing could be done back then. I was operated on and was in remission when I got a call (at work) telling me the book had sold to this brand new SF line, Questar. By that time, I had started another novel Feral Cell about a game master in a turn-of-the-millennium New York who is in denial about having cancer. Questar promptly bought that and Goblin Market, a sequel to Warchild.
Many of the best known and most talented writers working in the field today, yourself, William Sanders, Octavia Butler, Robert Silverberg, etc, wrote for Questar Books. What works did you produce for them and what was that experience like?
Kind of a non-event in my case. I'd read a lot of speculative fiction but I knew no one in the genre, had never been to a convention. There weren't a lot of places where SF books, especially paperback originals, got reviewed in 1986. When I went to SFWA events, I knew nobody.
In 1984/85, the brilliant Terry Carr had launched his Ace Specials with an amazing array of debut novelists: William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Howard Waldrop, Lucius Shepard. Questar was an attempt to duplicate that. It didn't work.
Butler, Silverberg and the other big names were later on in the Questar line. For the first year or two, it was first-time novelists, two a month, pushed out into the wild world of the mass market paperback. Bradley Denton, Esther Freisner, Jerry Oltion, William Sanders, me (among many others). Not enough publicity, lousy distribution. A lot of us ended up with "bad track records" (low sales) and found no one wanted to publish our books.
Do you remember what you were doing, where you were, when the concept for Minions Of The Moon first came to you?
Late one night in 1990, someone very close to me, maybe as near to a son as I could have, rang my bell, woke me up. He had been on an epic bender, was still high but falling, wore an expensive suit but had nothing on under it. He was grandiose, he was terrified. He was me from twenty years before when I was drinking and hooked. I had just begun writing short stories after not having done that since college. Shortly after that night, I wrote On Death And The Deuce, my first story about Kevin Grierson. In the story he's trying to stop drinking and he has a 'shadow' a doppleganger who wants him addicted.
The theme of the doppelganger is a prevalent one in Minions Of The Moon. Do you feel any sense of duality in your own life?
Sure. There's a duality in Feral Cell also. The POV character, as he's dying, begins to slip from this world (Cancer) into an alternative world (Capricorn) where, as I said in the copy I wrote for the iPublish reissue, "He is worshipped as a god and hunted like a stag." In Minions, Grierson when he's seventeen says, "My sex life seemed more like something I had witnessed than a first-hand experience."
Maybe it's dyslexia. Possibly it's schizophrenia. Probably it's just a cheap literary device. But I've always felt removed.
In Minions and in many of your recent Time Ranger stories, you, more than any other writer in the genre, really capture, for me, as a reader, the essence of New York City. The City seems to often transcend the role of setting and become a character in your fiction. Could you comment on this?
Maybe because the city has been the one constant in my life for the last 35+ years. I feel as if anything can happen here. I live at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal which, when I was coming into the city 40 years ago, was the epicenter of all that was hip. It's all narrow streets and 19th century, five story buildings. Tenements, mostly. And now, in the afternoons it's tourists sitting at the sidewalk cafes and coffee shops. At night it's drunken college kids and sailors. But in the mornings, it's quiet. Sitting at my computer, I hear this clip, clop on the street. Sometimes one horse, sometimes a dozen. I come downstairs. NYU, where I work is just around a couple of corners. On MacDougal Street, the Indian waiters in the Italian restaurant downstairs in my building are setting out flowers. A Spanish guy is hosing down the street. A couple of police horses are tied to parking meters. The cops are drinking coffee. And what year is it?
Your new Time Rangers series of stories has garnered a great deal of critical praise, yet it deals with an SF trope that in other hands might come off as hackneyed. What is your approach to the Time Travel scenario that breathes new life into it?
It's about people. To the extent that I understand them, they're all that I understand. I don't have any ability to think in abstractions. I've worked on the information desk in a science library for almost thirty years. I couldn't write hard science fiction if my life depended on it. But, if I had to, I think I could write a pretty good story about a scientist's life in the later part of the 20th century.
The Time Rangers stories, as it has turned out, are mainly set in the not too distant past, the '50's and '60's. That's an historical period I lived through. I'm already in the future looking back. That makes it a little easier to look forward.
One of the most effective and affecting novellas I've ever read is your "My Life in Speculative Fiction." There is a level of personal honesty there that usually is not found in genre publications. What prompted the writing of this remarkable piece?
Gee, thanks. That really means a lot to me.
It's a memoir, a description of my first creative act, the creation of a persona for myself. Part of the way that happens, I think, is by defining the ways in which one is not one's own parents. So it's a story about my father too. The story of a certain kind of male authoritarianism that was a big part of the landscape forty years ago. My father had problems with it but also accepted it.
I had used some of the same material a few years ago in a story called "In The House Of The Man In The Moon" for the first Bending The Landscape anthology. "In The House" was pretty lurid, Bluebeard's castle with an all male cast. The father was a brute. The son was a victim.
It worked but it was unfair. When I did "My Life," I tried to go the other way, to make it as much like I remembered it as being as I could. I even downplayed events that were scary and brutal. I'm glad it worked for you.
You have told me that the Time Rangers pieces are parts of a novel that you are presently constructing. I believe you used this same method, working on completed sections of a novel that first appear as stories in magazines, for Minions Of The Moon. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this method?
I write really slowly. Publishing the work as stories makes it possible for me to stay in the public eye during what would be years spent writing a novel. The disadvantage is that at some point you have to make it all hang together. That's the scary part I'm facing right now.
You recently had an early novel, Feral Cell, and a collection, Transfigured Night And Other Stories, published by iPublish. What was the iPublish experience like?
In most ways, for me personally, it was terrific. Linn Prentis, my agent, had major problems with the contracts, but those were eventually resolved.
Paul Witcover, the editor, was most supportive. The check cleared. The art department listened to my ideas for covers. The publicity people got it reviewed much more widely than I had thought likely. It was hard to believe iPublish was an imprint of TimeWarner. It was so much more pleasant than WarnerQuestar. All during this period there was a background noise, criticism from SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Of America) about the unfairness of the contracts that new writers were being given. Norman Spinrad, after he lurched back into the presidency of SFWA, announced that he was going to confront iPublish/TimeWarner personally. Shortly after that, one afternoon, I got an email from Paul telling me that iPublish was gone. TimeWarner had decided to wind it up. This had nothing to do with Normal Norman Spinrad. But his actions contributed to a general bad feeling.
My reviews, by the way, were terrific. The one in Locus was one of the best I've ever gotten for anything. And the books remain in print, available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble. All quite amazing. More so even than Questar.
"A Huntsman Passing By," which appeared in F&SF (June 1999), dealt, at least partially with the New York Art scene of the late seventies, early eighties. I know your brother was part of this scene and you lived with him in the city during this time. What was it like? And how did it influence your writing of the story?
My youngest brother stayed with me off and on in the early 1980's when he was first in New York and getting established in the East Village/SoHo art scene. I'm also his godfather (he's that much younger). Because of that, I saw fragments of the art scene.
One of the eternal fascinations of New York is the dozens of parallel worlds that exist. Sometimes intruding on each other. Sometimes not. It was opera. Grand. Soap. Fortunes and reputations were made. Lots of drugs. Lots of AIDS. Lots of casualties. Some not very appealing people. At times, the art could be compelling. I tried to show that.
The narrator is based on a guy I knew who ran the door in discos around that time. I made him dyslexic. Made him interested in fairy tales: the only things he had ever been able to read. The art scene had always struck me as being colorful and cruel, magic and selfish in the way of myth and fairy tale. But I gave the story a just outcome. And I gave the doorman quite a nice life. Because the Grimms usually did that sort of thing.
I believe you told me at one point that your story, "The Ferryman's Wife"(F&SF, May 2001), was a sort of homage to writers like John Cheever and a time when the New Yorker was populated with fiction dealing with unhappy marriages in Westchester where everybody was pounding the highballs and living lives of quiet desperation. Did this fiction influence you as a young writer?
"The Ferryman's Wife," is set in an historical period I lived through: the 1950's. I believe any period gets condensed into a dozen images. Elvis and Ike, Little Rock Central High and Lucille Ball pregnant on TV and like that. Everything else gets forgotten. There was a texture to that time that I remember and remembering is a kind of time travel. I invented a secret police force for the Time Stream and assigned a couple of them to duty in the suburban America of 1956.
The story's a homage to Cheever. To Thurber too. Like I said, The Thurber Carnival was my bedtime story book as a small child. A bit later when I read it for myself, I found lots of scotch and philandering (mostly in stories my parents hadn't read me.).
But I also found plenty of fantasy. Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty," defines daydreaming. Cheever wrote some powerful fantasy stories: "The Enormous Radio", "Torch Song," "The Swimmer." If he'd written them for F&SF they'd be in every anthology. Instead they were written for the New Yorker and he became famous.
Cheever follows the zeitgeist. After World War Two, he lives in New York, starts a family, writes stories about the city. In the '50's he moves to the suburbs, writes about that. His take on the suburbs is light and dark. The title story in that great collection, The Housebreaker Of Shady Hill is about a suburban go-getter who loses his job and takes to robbing his neighbors' houses. It could be a farce, it could be a tragedy. It's neither of those things. It's a tale of redemption.
In your story, "Days Red and Green" (Scifi.com 11/04/01 ), you describe a neighborhood centered around a catholic church in Irish Boston. Some who never experienced this might say that you were being stereotypical in your rendering of the scene. Having grown up in an Irish catholic family, it seemed pretty accurate to me. How real would you say was your depiction of that time and place?
"Days Red and Green," is set in the early '50's, a few years before the events of "The Ferryman's Wife." That was a precarious and giddy time for the Irish in America. By supporting Senator Joseph McCarthy they had proved their super patriotism. The old ghettos of the major cities were beginning to unravel as the Irish moved into the mainstream. When I was a kid, lots of people over a certain age spoke with brogues. But the reality of Ireland had slipped away. St. Patrick's Day pageants, one of which is the center piece of my story, were a welter of plastic bowler hats and cardboard shillelagh sticks. That's what I tried to show in the background as the Time Rangers go about their business down front.
Besides, what the hell is the point of being an Irish American writer if I'm not to be permitted a few Celtic stereotypes?
In Minions Of The Moon and in some of your short fiction, like "Someday I Shall Rise and Go," one of the characters is afflicted with heroin addiction. I know from our personal conversations that this is something you struggled with for a time and eventually kicked. Could you comment on your years of addiction, what it took to overcome the drug, and what the experience meant to your writing?
From when I was, maybe, thirteen to when I was in my late twenties, I couldn't stand who I was and things that were done to me. I took refuge in fantasy, imagining I was someone else. Booze and drugs (speed at first, later junk) helped this along. When I was in my mid and late twenties, junk was what I did in my life.
Over time I became easier with being gay and with having been brought out as a really young kid. I was lucky. When I wanted to stop, I was able to. I got into a drug program. Later I was a client of a man, Vincent Tracy, who got me off alcohol. Being a middle class white man had much more to do with my recovery than any innate strength and goodness.
What does the experience mean to my writing?
"My Life In Speculative Fiction" (Transfigured Night And Other Stories) deals with how I use personal material. But I'll tell you something I remembered while doing this interview after not having thought about it for years.
When I was doing junk, I knew a kid, a young Spanish junkie, who lived with an NYPD narcotics detective who would be around with his cop friends all of whom had habits. Being stoned in that apartment kind of made me feel like the zebra you see in the nature documentaries, stepping around the pride of lions who have just gorged on zebra and aren't hungry. When I cleaned up, that world was gone.
But flashes of it stayed. The building where they lived is on Fourteenth Street between Second and Third Avenues. It's the kind of faceless, circa 1960, apartment house that you find out in Queens along the routes to the airports. I go past it and it's like a portal to the Time Stream. I should be able to go up to the sixth floor, knock on that apartment door and step back into 1971.
What writers, what books and stories, have had the greatest influence on your own writing?
I'm going to cite out-of-genre influences here. Selby's Last Exit To Brooklyn and Trocchi's Cain's Book were big influences when I was in school. Over the years, ones I've come back to are Evelyn Waugh, William Burroughs, John Cheever, especially The Housebreaker Of Shady Hill and The Enormous Radio. In the last year or two I read the three volume Complete Stories Of Liam O'Flaherty and I've been reading chunks of Kipling. Plain Tales From The Hills was wonderful.
Not books, but big influences when I was doing the stories that became Minions Of The Moon were Gus Van Sant's "Portland Trilogy" of films (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho). Especially Idaho which is set in the world of street hustlers and is about nearly everything except sex showed me a way to write about that. The movie is also a retelling of Shakespeare's Henry The Fourth which, for me, is about fathers and sons and the demi-monde. Tony Kushner's epic play Angels In America, in which he somehow finds magic in AIDS, was important to me.
You have been a Science Fiction writer for some time now. Which writers that you have read over the years do you think have consistently done the best work in the field? Which new writers have done work that you admire?
Have I? It feels like I'm still a newcomer.
The writers that I most admired back in the '60's and early '70's were Disch, LeGuin, Wolfe and, above all, Roger Zelazny. Stuff like Nine Princes In Amber had an hypnotic effect on me.
Recent stuff? Kelly Link is terrific! To make the kind of impact that she has with a single collection of short stories is amazing. Kage Baker and William Sanders write the kind of stories that got me into this genre in the first place.
One writer I would like to mention is Richard Winter. He's not genre, though I encountered him through the genre. Mark Rich turned me on to him. He publishes his books himself. They're simply produced, but very beautifully made. His most recent book is a novel, ILA, that was like all the power of Hardy compressed into 160 pages. If anyone is interested I can give them Winter's email address.
What, if anything, pisses you off about the Science Fiction Fantasy field?
SFWA and Normal Norman. The Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers Of America has, as an organization, outlived its usefulness. I was a founding member, twenty-five years ago, of the twelve hundred member union local to which I still belong. I'm a member of a co-op IN MANHATTAN FOR CHRIST'S SAKE! So I have some idea of how organizations run and some ability to get along in potentially contentious situations. But I have never encountered anything like SFWA. I was being published by iPublish when they were having their problems with the company. And I was never asked for my opinion. I was never contacted by them. If Norman Spinrad had any brains he'd resign. If he had any pride, he'd shoot himself.
Where can readers find your latest work and what do we have to look forward to in the near future?
Ellen Datlow, bless her, has three Time Ranger stories available online at Scifi.com. The May 2002 Fantasy and Science Fiction featured my novelette The Mask Of The Rex as it's cover story. AND Electric Velocipede, contains a story, Mr. Brain And The Island Of Lost Socks by myself and Mark Rich (who has chosen to hide himself under a pseudonym).
I don't know what more life could offer, really.
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