I just can’t even…
Enough already! Okay, got that out of my system.
Today I am so pleased to have Fred Bowen paying a visit to the Cyber Cafe!
He is the author of 20 action-packed books for kids, including his most recent, Double Reverse. He also has written a weekly sports column for kids in The Washington Post since 2000. Fred holds a degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from George Washington University. He was a lawyer for thirty years before retiring to become a full-time children’s author. Fred lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife Peggy Jackson. They have two grown children. Visit his website at www.fredbowen.com.
Fred is yet another member of our stellar conference faculty. His presentation “Writing my Way to a Better Life” will share how he created a second career, going from a government lawyer to an author of middle grade fiction and Washington Post/KidsPost columnist. His Workshop on Sunday is “Finding Success with a Mid-Sized Publisher.”
I switched to decaff a year or so ago. So I am not a real coffeehouse type any more. Frankly, I am more of a wine bar guy. A nice, crisp California chardonnay is always good.
Did you say wine bar? I am a fan already! And your favorite snack?
I don’t mean to be a scold, but I try very hard not to snack – but only with moderate success. I think that is one of the real traps of the writing life is that it is much too sedentary. So it is imperative to watch out for thoughtless eating.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved the Chip Hilton sports books written by Hall of Fame basketball coach, Clair Bee. Chip was a star quarterback, pitcher and high-scoring forward in basketball in the 23 books. But he was also a good (B+, not All-As) student, and loyal friend who was kind to his widowed mother. Chip also had to work to pay his way through high school and college. I remember when I was a student in Catholic grade school in the early 1960s (I am 61), the nuns let me read the books secretly under my desktop so I would be occupied during class time. Looking at the books now (I have 17 of the 23 titles), they are relatively long (200+ pages), dense and filled with wooden characters and dialogue. Still, I loved those books. They taught me that reading could be a joy.
As a teen? I distinctly remember having a World Literature course with Mrs. Sack as a senior in Marblehead High School. For the class we read A Passage to India by Forster, The Stranger by Camus, Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, Darkness at Noon by Koestler as well as another title or two. And this was a half-year course that was “B-level” (there were more difficult A-level courses)! We read about 30-40 pages every night and came in ready to discuss the material. Again, it taught me that reading and talking about books could be fun. I remember the discussions; I remember none of the tests.
In high school I also read such 1960s classics as Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Slaughterhouse-5 on my own. I was very fortunate to have 5 older siblings. They often brought home books and rock albums from college and suggested I read them or give them a listen. It was a great education.
Darkness at Noon is amazing. It literally changed my world view. Catch-22 – simply brilliant. And now, your favorites as an adult?
I actually keep a list of the books that I read. I read about 35 books a year. Much of it is non-fiction although I read a variety of subjects. I “star” the books I particularly enjoyed and would recommend. Some recent “starred” books include:
The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown
If I Die in the Combat Zone – Tim O’Brien
A Hole in My Life – Jack Gantos
Overwhelmed – Brigid Schulte
Revolutionary Summer – Joseph Ellis
The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
What advice for beginning writers do you wish you would have followed?
Don’t wait to be inspired to write. Find something – a column, a journal, letters to friends – that forces you to write. Get in the habit of writing.
Yes! It’s a craft, a skill! What is your favorite writing how-to book, technique, or website that has helped you improve your craft or provided inspiration?
I think finding out how writers became writers is always inspiring. I also love quotes and poetry. It reminds you that at some point someone said it right. Because I like all those things, I recommend everyone listen to The Writer’s Almanac on NPR. Here is the website: http://writersalmanac.org
Where’s your favorite place to work?
I have an office in the basement of my house where I work. But I also do work at my dining room table as well as in my den and on my back porch (weather permitting).
I should emphasize that all of these arrangements are since I retired from being a federal attorney. When I was an attorney, I wrote on the subway back and forth to work as well as at my desk during my lunch hour (in longhand – I typed my books and columns at home). I wrote 9 -12 books and hundreds of columns this way. My point is that you can write anywhere. For example, I remember outlining a crucial chapter of my book Touchdown Trouble as I waited for my wife to pick me up at the subway station.
How were you inspired to write your current or upcoming release?
Actually I was “inspired” to write DOUBLE REVERSE because I had signed a contract with my publisher (Peachtree) to produce a football book. However, as I thought about the book I knew I wanted to write about appearances and how sometimes in sports the person who does not necessarily look the part can play the part. That is what the book is about.
What is your favorite line(s) from this book?
I love the chapters in which the brothers are together. I especially love the line where the older brother (Jay) admits to his younger brother (the main character Jesse) that his college (Dartmouth) has better quarterbacks than him. To admit that to his younger brother who admires him so much is very moving to me.
If you followed the career path you chose for yourself in high school, what would you be doing for a living now?
In high school, I thought I would some day be the junior Senator from Massachusetts. I was interested in politics and so studied History and Political Science at Penn. I went to GW Law School, thinking I would get into the political mix down here in Washington. But the closer I got, the more politics horrified me (it also looked like an enormous amount of work). So I became a government attorney, a husband, dad, coach and fell into a writing career that allowed me to retire from law six year ago and write full-time.
A far better use of your time, in my opinion. Okay, you’ve been locked in a bank vault Twilight Zone style, so you finally have time to read! Your glasses are fine, (whew,) so what’s the first book you crack open?
I would read a book that would help me figure out how to get out of that bank vault! I am shuddering just thinking about being locked in it.
But the question brings up a serious point … how do you find time to read. My suspicion is that people who claim “they don’t have enough time to read” simply don’t make reading a priority. If you followed them around I suspect they “have time” for watching television or shopping on the Internet. In this regard, the time studies of Professor John Robinson at the University of Maryland that are referenced in Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte are very instructive. We all have more time than we think. The key is to use it wisely. For any intelligent person that includes making time for reading.
If you could go back in time and make changes to any of your published books, would you? If so, which one and why?
At the moment, I have 20 published books with more on the way. I am very proud of all the books. I have on occasion been required to read small passages from the books to classes of kids or adults. Every time I have, there is always something I would change (although I am usually pleased at how well they read). So I think there are lots of words, phrases etc. I would change in any of my books. However, I do not spend any time worrying about what I would change in my published books. I try always to look forward. I spend almost all my time thinking about the next book. My time is much better spent trying to make that book better.
For one day, time travel is a reality and you have the opportunity to visit any famous deceased author you want. Who do you pick?
Some deceased authors I would love to talk to would include: Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and David Halberstam. My guess is that the group would be a very funny and fun time. But probably the person/author I would most love to meet is the very much alive Bob Dylan. I have loved his music and use of language for 50 years.
Congratulations, Steven Spielberg is doing a movie based on your book! Who would play the lead role and what songs would be on the soundtrack?
Wow! No idea about the casting. I would leave that to Mr. Spielberg and his associates. They seem to know more about that than I do. As for music…. I certainly would love to include some Dylan. After all, he won an Oscar for the song “Things Have Changed,” which is a great song.
You magically find a $100 bill in your box of cereal. In what frivolous way would you spend it?
Maybe on a round or two of golf or an evening at the Blues Alley.
What is your favorite quote?
I actually collect quotes. I could go through the hundreds I have collected over the years, but I doubt I could come up with one favorite. Although I have always loved Groucho Marx’s brutally insightful line, “No one is completely unhappy at the failure of their best friend.”
If you could sum up your best advice for new writers in only four words, what would they be?
Get it written.
Feel like answering some easy, quick questions? If so, here’s the lightning round—no more than four words per answer!
Do you . . .
Outline or wing it? I outline absolutely everything.
Talk about works-in-progress, or keep it zipped? I am superstitious. Zipped.
Sell by proposal or completed draft? Any way I can.
Prefer writing rough drafts or editing? Rough drafts.
Dread marketing/blogging or love it? “A boy has to peddle his book.” Truman Capote
Read Kindle or traditional books? Traditional.
And finally, what’s your favorite:
Time to work?
I like to be at my desk around 9:30. I am usually done by 4 pm.
Music to listen to while writing?
Jazz. I am a HUGE jazz fan. I suggest Miles Davis (from the 50s), Tommy Flanagan, Jim Hall, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Tony Bennett, Bill Charlap, Houston Person, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson and Scott Hamilton among many others. Jazz is America’s greatest contribution to the arts. Everyone should get to know it.
Pair of shoes?
Tony Bennett. I’ve loved Tony before Tony was cool. Check out The Art of Excellence, Perfectly Frank, Stepping Out as well as the two CDs he made with Bill Evans back in the 1970s.
Line from a movie?
“You want my advice? Go back to Bulgaria.” Of course, that line come just before Rick (in Casablanca) does the noble thing of saving the young Bulgarian wife from the clutches of the charming, but all-too-human Captain Renault.
I also loved Woody Allen’s advice in Annie Hall: “Never take a course where they make you read Beowulf.”
Hold on! I actually liked Beowulf! Thanks so much for stopping by Fred. We’re looking forward to hearing more from you at the conference!