|Curled Up With a Good Book brings you interviews with your favorite authors responding to questions about the pleasures and difficulties of the writing craft in general and about their stories and characters in particular. This month, we're proud to present our interview with William Kowalski, author of Eddie's Bastard.
|First novels are often autobiographical, at least in part. To what extent does that hold true for you and Eddie's Bastard?|
EB is truly autobiographical only insofar as the setting is concerned. The characters are not based on real individuals. They're more like amalgamations of different people I've known in my life--so I guess that does make them autobiographical too, now that I think of it. The plot itself is completely made up. None of this stuff ever happened to me, or to anyone I know. Even the historical elements, such as the tale of the Rory fortune, is imaginary. The voice of the narrator, though--now that is pretty much my voice, and the way he sees the world is the way I see it. Voice with a capital V is the hardest thing for any writer to capture; it makes sense to me in retrospect that my first novel would be in what is basically my own voice, although at the time I was writing the book I wasn't thinking in those terms. I was just trying to tell the story as honestly as I knew how.
Had you tried (and failed) to sell any novels before Eddie's Bastard? What was your secret for getting your first novel published?
This is not only the first book I tried to publish, but is also the first book I've ever finished. (For a little more detail on my previous efforts, see my Author's Comments section on Amazon.com.) My secret is to pray very hard every night that things will work out. I'm sorry that I cannot offer anything more concrete than that. The fact is, I was lucky. I know it's a good book, but there are a lot of other good books out there that will never get published, for one reason or another. I don't know why mine rose to the surface while so many other fine writers go unrecognized. My only explanation for it is chance--luck--whatever you want to call it. Of course, the old-fashioned values of hard work and dedication played a huge role too, but that is not always enough. I had no friends in the industry when I started trying to sell EB, so there was no string-pulling, no calling-in of favors. I have found, however, when dealing with agents and editors and the like, the simple rules of human courtesy which we all learned (I hope) at our mother's knee go a VERY long way. There is a lot of ego in this business, a lot of insecurity and back-stabbing at every level, and I think people remember you for saying "Please" and "Thank you" with a lot more warmth than they would remember someone who is constantly trying to force his way in the door by telling everyone what a genius he is. Believe it or not, courtesy can really work to one's benefit in a short time. The slush piles (piles of manuscripts) in every literary office in America are already crammed with work by people who think that being forceful and relentless in their approach is somehow going to get them published. When dealing with agents, and later with editors, show that you are willing to work with them, to be patient, to listen carefully to their suggestions and take them into consideration. This is a sign of professionalism, and since these people are professionals themselves, they will respect it a great deal more than they will cajoling or pleading or even threatening, which as incredible as it may seem is a fairly common experience.
Was Billy's voice an easy one for you to hear and transcribe?
Billy's voice is my voice, so yes, it was relatively easy. However, it took me several drafts (about two years of writing) before I had his voice nailed down so that it was consistent throughout the story. In fact, Eddie's Bastard had existed in a variety of forms before Billy Mann even came into the picture. Originally, the story was told in the third person, but it just didn't have the flavor necessary to make it interesting to a wide readership. There was a lot of stumbling around in the dark, so to speak, before I found the light switch.
Do you have another job to supplement your writing income? How does it inform your fiction? How do you balance writing with your other work?
I write full-time now. I used to be a teacher, so I think that experience of addressing groups of people every day was very helpful in preparing me for public readings as an author. I have been working at home for the last year and a half, the first year of which was glorious. Lately I've been wishing I had more to do during the day than just write, though. I believe, actually, that it's better to have a non-writing-related job to go to for a while every day, to take one's mind off writing. Of course, most people don't have a choice in the matter--they have to have jobs, which they resent, and therefore they naturally assume they would be much happier if all they had to do was write. It's true that I am much happier now that I am master of my own time, but it's still important to strike a balance between writing and other aspects of life, and that is always going to be tricky to achieve.
Did you study writing at the college or post-grad level? When did you first know that you wanted to write?
I knew when I was about six years old that I wanted to be a writer, and I began working towards that end almost immediately. I studied writing in college for one year in Boston before realizing that I was only shooting myself in the foot. I see a lot of young writers doing that to themselves, and it saddens me. People think you can go to school for x number of years and that it somehow will give you the experience you need to be a brilliant writer. These people have talent, sure, and they are right to try and develop it, but there is no substitute for life experience. We have far too many writers in America these days who are expert stylists but who really aren't writing about anything. They can write like hell, but they don't have much to say, because they haven't done anything except study writing. As soon as I realized I was in danger of having this happen to me, I dropped out of college, worked for a year, and then went to another college, where I studied a variety of subjects--philosophy, math, science, art, language. I became more well-rounded, and as a result, a more interesting person, or so I would like to believe. I have never seen the point of studying writing as a major. A class here or a workshop there is probably a good idea, but anything more than that is overkill. Life makes writers--nothing else does. Some may argue that school is vital because it provides one with the contacts one will need later in one's career, but I didn't know a single person in the publishing world when I sold my book, so there's another theory shot down in flames.
What is it about your writing that has the critical book world (and your publisher) comparing you to such popular favorites as John Irving and Wally Lamb?
I had never read Wally Lamb until I was compared to him, so that one came as a surprise. I have since read both his books, and I have to say that although I am flattered at the comparison--he is an excellent storyteller--I really don't see much of a basis for it. I don't think we are very similar at all. John Irving was my favorite writer for quite a while. I am not a fan of everything he's written, but I think three or four of his books are really fantastic, and I've read them over and over. I guess that probably shows in my writing--hence the comparison. Irving's slightly warped sense of reality has always appealed to me. It seems like he is capable of peeling back the uppermost layers of life and looking at all the craziness that is going on underneath the surface, the chaos that naturally exists while masquerading as order. There are few other writers who can get me as excited about writing, and about life in general, as John Irving. Hemingway has a similar effect on me; so does Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So does Isabel Allende.
Are you working on another novel? Can you tell us a little something about it?
I am nearly done with my second novel, but I am not going to say anything about it until it's ready to be sent out into the world in galley form, at least, which is probably going to be sometime in the summer or fall of 2000.
What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you?
Well, really, there is only writing and re-writing--those are the only two parts of the process I can think of, without getting into a lot of intellectualizing about the whole business, without breaking it down into a lot of useless subdivisions. I spend about ninety percent of my time re-writing, but I enjoy it greatly, so I wouldn't say it's difficult in the sense that it tries my patience. As far as writing, by which I mean the creative, inventive side of it, I get stuck sometimes on where the story itself is supposed to go. I believe in letting my plots evolve organically, rather than planning them out ahead of time, so sometimes it gets a little scary when I can't think of what's supposed to happen next. Usually, when that happens, I go do something else for a while. I might not work on the story for a few days, or even for a few weeks. It helps if I get out of my head and into my body--through rollerblading, for example, or working with my hands.
What keeps you writing?
Coffee, and an insatiable need for approval from complete strangers!
Well, maybe that's a little too glib. The truth is, I don't know why I write at all. It's a very strange pursuit, if you think about it--the process of stringing words together in a pleasing way, of making up complete lies and deriving satisfaction from having other people read it and telling you it's good stuff. I almost feel as though I never really had a choice in the matter. I've never had another serious career goal, never been interested in anything as much as I am in writing. I can't help myself. I write even when I don't feel like it. I guess I hit a point similar to what joggers hit after running a certain number of miles, what they call The Wall. It's the writer's equivalent to an adrenaline rush. When I am going great guns, hitting my stride, so to speak, I forget about everything else. Hours can pass by without my noticing them at all, and I feel wonderful. I believe all the stories I make up. I am as much a resident of my own imagination as I am of the real world; perhaps more so, according to some who are close to me. But I don't think I'm an escapist. In the final analysis, I keep writing because it pleases me to do so, and for no other reason.
Are you surprised at the success EDDIE'S BASTARD is enjoying?
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Write as much as you can, make up your own rules as you go along, and never listen to a single negative thing anyone tells you. Only listen to the people you trust. Also--remember that in the long run, it's more important to be a happy, healthy person than it is to be a famous writer, so make your life decisions accordingly. The writing will follow.
Who are your favorite authors? What's your all-time favorite book?
I think the best novel ever written is One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Marquez. I've read it about five or six times. It's a perfect blend of the big picture with the small, everyday details of life--he managed to complete a sweeping family history, the history of a whole town, in fact, while somehow creating the illusion that the reader is familiar with every tiny thing that happened there over the course of a century. Any writer will tell you that this is a highly ambitious, almost Herculean task, and there have been perhaps five or ten people in the history of the world who are capable of pulling off such a stunt. His matter-of-fact way of relating improbably strange events--a girl who is so beautiful that she simply floats away one day, for example, or an ancient Spanish galleon found in the middle of the jungle, somehow immune to the ravages of time--is so straight-forward and honest that I have no trouble believing these things really happened. Even in translation, I think his way with words is unparalleled. I hope one day to improve my Spanish to the point where I can read it in the original.
As far as my favorite authors go, there are Irving and Hemingway, as I mentioned above. I like Allende too--she reminds me a little of Marquez, but with a softer, more feminine approach to her stories. I really enjoy John le Carre--I love well-told stories of espionage. I lived in the Southwest for many years, and I enjoy a good mystery, so Tony Hillerman is also one of my favorites. Patrick O'Brian, who writes brilliant sea adventures about the Royal Navy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, is also wonderful, in my opinion.
Read the Curled Up With a Good Book review of Eddie's Bastard here.
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