Writer Brent Bowen is another podcaster in the VP XIII group, working with the fine folks at Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. We finally caught up with Brent to ask him a few questions between gigs in his very busy schedule.
Tamago: How did you get started writing?
Brent: Growing up, I read a lot of comic books and adventure novels. And I’ve been writing pretty seriously since middle school, but almost exclusively some form of journalism. It wasn’t until shortly after college that I gave serious thought to writing fiction. And then, it took me reading "The Golden Compass" to commit. I just thought: “There needs to be more fiction like this in the world.”
Tamago: Do you have a genre? What kinds of stories do you prefer to write?
Brent: I’ll write anything genre, but don’t gravitate to hard SF naturally, which is a bit strange because I’m a bit of a gadget-hound and had an aptitude for science in school.
Tamago: What projects are you working on now?
Brent: Currently, I’m finishing up another round of edits on a short story – I’ve got to get it down from novella territory -- where I mash up quasi-obscure religious werewolf lore, seventeenth century European slave trade and the origins to some Dutch holiday traditions.
I’m also working on my first magical realism piece. It’s set in a wine shop where the protagonist’s mother has just passed away and left her the shop in the will. She has no idea what she is doing, but gets some unexpected help in building loyal clientele.
Finally, I just finished a rough draft that's a big risk for me. The story kicks off with an absurd The Android's Dream-type beginning that I try to make plausible. I'll need a few crits under my belt before I could even begin to share particulars.
Tamago: I know you have a busy life: father, full-time worker, coach, and writer. What advice can you give to writers trying to find time to write while wearing many hats?
Brent: First, if you want to write, find solitude. I read a great blog post about the needs of creative types and it identified solitude as the no. 1 need.
Second, if you have commitments to other people in your life, such as your children or a significant other, find common ground. What I mean by that is that when my wife and I talk about my needs as a writer, I make compromises and I try to relate to things in a way that align with her values. There is no right or wrong, just your own hue.
As an example, my wife is more social than I am and she completely understands my need to go to my writing group. Getting together with other, like-minded people is part of her DNA. But … she doesn’t always understand how I need to spend a four hour block of time at the local coffee shop. When I get that four hour block, I generally give something back. It may be four hours where I defend the house solo, so she can spend time doing something that is important to her.
Also, if I take time to go to a con, I may cut away a bit early so I can get back to the kids. Case in point, I made sure I left World Fantasy early enough this past year so I could spend an hour with my kids (who are eight and five) during Halloween. It wasn’t the whole night, but the kids knew I cared enough to get back to them.
Regardless, it can be tough. And I struggle.
But the main thing I come back to is to make sure I’m enjoying life -- and writing is PART of my life. The way I envision my career as a writer is that it will be more like a fuse than a rocket -- a slow burn that is nice and steady, not some meteoric rise.
Heck, at this point, I'm making sure I'm exercising as much as writing, so that I can live long enough to actually see my work published.
Tamago: Discuss the role of writing groups in your writing (both your regular one, and VP).
Brent: Writing or otherwise, I’m a firm believer that a group of people is smarter than any one individual at identifying problems and potentially offering solutions. Where I struggle with groups – and this is my own personal struggle – is the social contract, i.e. can everyone contribute and participate on an equal basis. If not – and it’s more than likely me that’s not offering value -- I take a sabbatical for a bit until I feel like that equality is there.
But I struggle when I don't participate because I thoroughly enjoy brainstorming with a group of writers on plot and character before I even put hands to keyboard. And, I feel, some of my best work has come from those interactions. Plus, in my local group, we do cool stuff like an annual reading that draws as many 70 people. And I felt the way we handle our critiques (we read everything cold) really prepared me for VP.
As for VP, the first several days, I just shut my mouth and listened. There was such a wealth of knowledge -- not just from the instructors, but our classmates, as well -- that I wanted to soak it all up. I didn't grow up reading a lot of genre, so I felt like I was playing catch up. But after a couple of days, I became more comfortable and it was amazing to interact with a diverse group of people who were singularly locked in as you about writing.
The beauty of VP and the strong introduction to the SF/F community, in general, for me was that it was the warmest ice breaker to a series of life-long discussions.
Tamago: Can you talk about your Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing? How did you get involved? What do you do at the site?
Brent: Sure. I had been a long-time listener of the show and when Shaun Farrell, lead host and proprietor of the podcast, put out a sad state of the podcast episode last May. He and his wife were expecting their second child and he announced in the episode that he wouldn’t likely be able to continue the podcast alone. I empathized with him and immediately offered help.
I have some experience in broadcast journalism and pitched him this idea that when I went to a con I could conduct some interviews while I was there. We both viewed it as a win.
For me -- even after all the things they told us at VP -- I still struggle to strike up conversations with certain people. Having that initial common point of discussion with an author somehow helps get me going and pushes me out of my comfort zone. Though, trust me, I still have my awkward moments with the occasional author. Interpersonal communication is hard. Maybe that’s why I always feel comfortable around Kij Johnson. At least with her, no matter how stupid I come across, I know she appreciates how difficult it all is.
Still, contributing to the podcast has enriched my con experience and my view into craft in ways I hadn’t dreamed. As for Shaun, he gets material for the podcast. Hardly seems fair, does it?
Of late, I’ve been contributing to the podcast more. Moses Siregar III and I have joined Shaun as co-hosts and about every other episode will discuss a topic we find interesting – and we hope listeners do, too.
Tamago: Can you discuss a couple of interesting interviews you've done for the podcast?
Brent: Every guest I’ve had a chance to interview has been entertaining, insightful and, maybe most importantly, gracious. While there is a common thread of success with the folks I talk to and some common beliefs, each person seems to share unique pearls of wisdom, as well. It’s been tremendous fun because I've been able to extend my Viable Paradise experience and add to it with each interview. Having said that, there have been a few one-of-a-kind moments (though I'll admit, some of the best don’t make it on the podcast):
James Gunn – How often to do you get a one-on-one with a SFWA Grand Master? My second interview for the podcast and I was so enamored with his stories about Theodore Sturgeon that the hairs on my arms literally stood on end.
Paolo Bacigalupi – This guy is a pro and charismatic. He was struggling with his asthma (my son also suffers from it) and I offered to bag the interview, but he refused to quit. We recorded for nearly an hour and a half to get through the questions, which resulted in the 30-minute interview.
Liza Groen Trombi – Liza and I spoke for nearly the same length as Paolo and me, but for different reasons. The editor-in-chief of Locus Magazine is such an amazing cross-section of all that is genre, I could listen to her stories, some hilariously unmentionable and many poignant, for hours.
Stina Leicht – It’s just awesome to share in a debut novelist’s firsts. Everything is new and giddiness just seems to emanate from the person. I so got a kick out of talking with Stina (who I know pretty well from past cons). The whole situation reminded me a bit of my daughter, who’s a hugger. I don’t know how many post interview hugs I’ll get, but Stina’s was my first.
Tamago: Let's change gears. What can you tell me about good wine?
Brent: I’ve stopped blogging about wine recently because I’ve been contemplating the merits of a potential YA author recommending alcohol (spoken like a true parent). In any event, I’m glad you asked because I do enjoy wine. The funny thing about wine is that it’s a lot like fiction: Good varies according to personal tastes.
I primarily deal in reds and, because mostly writers will read this, the best value for good red wine are Argentinean Malbecs (2006 Graffigna Malbec and 2006 Antigal Aduentus Classic – Malbec blend) as well as Spanish (2005 or 2006 Atalayas de Golban Tempranillo and 2004 Museum Cigales Crianza) and Chilean reds.
Tamago: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start writing?
Brent: Write. Oh ... and find a community of writers who are further along than you that will take you in. When you do, really listen to their feedback and don't despair. After interviewing Nancy Kress, I get a sense that a person's attitude about being open to feedback (not necessarily incorporating all of it) is as important as any other trait for writers. Having that trait will get you through the learning curve faster.
Tamago: Where do you see yourself in 10 years as a writer?
I definitely have a dream project. Or perhaps better said, a dream universe. One of my VP submission stories about a young prophet whose first vision puts her at odds with a friend is set in that universe. I often dip into it for stories, but ultimately a series of novels set in that universe will be my old muscle car on blocks, primed for restoration. Things won't be right in my world if I don't get my Dark Materials meets Arthurian legend and Indiana Jones universe ready for the show.