1. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?
Writing is something I fell into. I always enjoyed writing, all the way back to high school, but it was a hobby for me, at first. It was something subservient to what I intended to do for a living which, at the time, had been to become an urban planner. However, I graduated from the University of Waterloo's school of urban and regional planning in 1995, during tough economic times and a period of government downsizing, when I was competing with senior managers with ten years experience for entry level positions. So planning was what I wanted to be, and I couldn't get into it - not without slaving away as a long-term intern, or upping sticks and moving to Florida. Instead, I got temp jobs and ended up falling into the tech industry, although that wasn't as good of a fit. I still enjoyed the writing and creation aspects of the job, but it was far too dry and technical for my tastes. Becoming a writer required a lot of courage, because I knew it was hard to make it work financially, and there were all these demands on my finances. But in the end, I needed to work at something I loved doing, because the other jobs were demanding too much of my time and I simply didn't enjoy doing the work. So, if I wasn't a writer now, I think it would only have been because I'd found a good planning job and progressed in that career. Today, though, it's my secondary interest. I run a public transit historical website called Transit Toronto, and I earn my keep with column writing, and contract work (writing marketing profiles) for an up-and-coming apartment brokerage company. I'm pleased that I've been able to put that part of me back into my professional life, but I am a writer first and a planner second.
2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you nurture that dream?
As I said, I'd been writing since high school. I've been a fan of Doctor Who for just about ever, having seen my first episode (Genesis of the Daleks, part 6) on TV Ontario when I was four years old. When I entered high school, I discovered the world of fandom and joined a Doctor Who fan club. From there, I learned of the existence of fan fiction. I submitted my first Doctor Who fan fiction story when I was fourteen. By the time I was nineteen, I was producing my own fan fiction magazines. From 1991 to 2004, I wrote for and edited nearly twenty Doctor Who fan fiction publications. I've met a lot of friends through fan fiction, including the woman who became my wife, and I keep in touch with them to this day.
3. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?
I grew up in a family that loved the written word. Both my parents were trained as librarians, and my mother (Patricia Bow) had been writing and submitting stories to publishers for as long as I could remember. When I was a teenager, my mother let me read over and critique one of her YA submissions, and she read over and critiqued my fan fiction. Along with my wife (Erin Bow), she's my best editor. I met my wife, Erin, when I submitted one of my fan fiction stories to the newsgroup alt.drwho.creative. We became penpals and eventually fell in love. She was already a talented poet, and I encouraged her to write some fan fiction, which I published, and which a lot of people liked. We've supported and encouraged each other ever since, sharing scenes and critiquing them. She's made me a much better writer than I would have been without her.
4. What authors influenced your writing style and format?
I read a lot in the field I like to write in, so I think that has an influence. Really, I'm writing what I'm writing because I love the YA, science fiction and fantasy genres and I want more such books on the shelf. When you read a lot, there's a lot of cross-pollination. I love what Kenneth Oppel did with his Airborn trilogy, and I want to emulate that. Arthur Slade and Phillip Reeve have helped introduce me to steampunk. I also love Terry Pratchett. But I think the two longest standing influences have been the television show Doctor Who and Australian children's writer Patricia Wrightson. Doctor Who is the most flexible format in fiction. At its core, it's the tale about a wizard with a magical cabinet that can take him anywhere in the universe. He's a portable hero that can be dropped into any story, regardless of setting or genre. That gave me a love for wide ranging storytelling that I think has influenced my writing. Patricia Wrightson is not really well known in Canada. Somehow, one of her books, An Older Kind of Magic made its way here, and my mother read it to me when I was eight. It's a story about how a group of children help save a park in Sydney from developers, with the help of creatures from Australian aboriginal folklore. A sense of magic infuses the book, but one thing that stood out for me at the time was that a couple of the children were siblings that lived with their parents in a cabin located on the roof of a government building in downtown Sydney. Their father was the chief caretaker of the building and he got to live at the top of the building with his family, and the children got to roam the abandoned offices after hours. That magical, almost spooky, setting just burned itself in my mind and I remembered it instantly when I came upon the book twenty years later. The interesting thing is, when I read the story to my wife, she said that my writing style was very similar to Patricia Wrightson's in this book. So perhaps she's influenced me more than I know.
5. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?
People say it, but you can only really learn this first hand: it's better to make a living doing what you love than what you don't love, even if what you don't love earns you more money than what you do love. Even if you struggle to make ends meet (and you will), it's far more fulfilling if you enjoy what you're doing. I spent years avoiding being a writer because I didn't think it would pay the bills, but it was far better for my soul, and that's more important than my pocketbook.
6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?
I try to spend every spare moment writing something. I often have to struggle against wasting time on the Internet, checking e-mail, surfing websites or following Twitter. Sometimes I'm successful; sometimes I'm not. Now that my youngest daughter is attending preschool, and my eldest is in grade one, I have mornings to myself. This is a treat I haven't had in years. My wife needs to have her own writing office, and has rented space downtown to give herself a controlled mental space in which to work. I'm better at blocking out distractions, but in order to motivate myself to write, I sometimes find that I do have to step outside and find a space that isn't my home. By buying a coffee at a coffee shop, I tell myself, "right, I've spent money. Now I've got to sit down and write something in order to earn what I've spent." I also do a fair amount of writing late at night, after the kids are in bed but before I go to sleep myself. I don't have a set process other than that. The stories that I wrote were often discovered. I had a few seed ideas, perhaps a scene at the beginning, cool stuff in the middle and a possible scene in the end, and my task is to find a fun way to connect the dots. I rarely outline or anything like that or, if I do, it's something that I do at the same time as writing out scenes. Writing for me is the same act of discovery that readers do by reading.
7. Dows your writing process differ when writing fiction versus non-fiction?
Yes, they do, because the objectives of non-fiction are quite different. There is a lot more research involved and it stands to reason that the process has to be much tighter. In my non-fiction work, the deadlines are much tighter, so the work is more frenzied, but often the "story" is right there in front of me, and I simply have to write to that.
8. Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
There are elements I like of both. I'm proud of my non-fiction work, but fiction is more rewarding for me, I think. The story is far more mine in this instance.
9. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?
I do have "soundtrack albums" that I associate with some of my stories. As with my fiction writing, these came together organically. Often, I'd discover a new artist or album as I was writing my new project, and I would make connections between the two. I discovered the Quebec artist Jorane back in 2001, when I started writing Fathom Five, and I believe she had a great influence on that work; the atmosphere of her music just fit the atmosphere I was going for in the novel. The Unwritten Girl was more of a Pink Floyd tale. My latest novels (currently unpublished) also have their own soundtracks. The Night Girl is a bit of an eclectic mix with a lot of alternative stuff; The Dream King's Daughter has a lot of Jorane and Tori Amos, and Icarus Down was written as I was discovering the works of avant-garde techno-cellist Zoe Keating.
10. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?
That's certainly the case with Rosemary and Peter, whose first novel, The Unwritten Girl was heavily influenced by L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (I'm sure you've spotted some of the explicit connections). I started writing the series in 2001, five years before the first book was published, and I had a draft of all three novels finished by 2003. I knew what their lives were like from 12 to 18, and I had plans for a fourth novel (now shelved) that would have taken them to 24, when they were adults and expecting their first child. It's similar for the other characters I've created since, although in those cases, the development of their lives have come in the form of potential sequels rather than anything as detailed as Peter and Rosemary's lives.
11. If you could only recommend 10 books to a reader looking to be a well-rounded and whole person what books would you suggest?
I can suggest ten books, but I don't think they'd be well rounded. My love is YA literature, with a healthy dose of fantasy and sci-fi. That has been the bulk of my reading for the past fifteen years. I haven't read Margaret Atwood, though I greatly respect her contributions to Canadian literature. My favourite Canadian writers are Kenneth Oppel and Arthur Slade. And I don't keep lists, so what I would suggest one day might be different on another day. So, here and now, off the top of my head, are ten books I'd recommend other readers read, in no particular order: 1. Kenneth Oppel's Airborn trilogy 2. The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade 3. The Boneshaker by Kate Milford. 4. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett 5. Nation by Terry Pratchett 6. The Mortal Engines sequence by Phillip Reeve 7. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino 8. The Chestnut Soldier by Jenny Nimmo 9. The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson 10. Plain Kate by my wife, Erin Bow
12. In many ways you are a modern renaissance man, philosopher, educator, researcher, student, author and more. Very few people today are as well rounded as you are to what do you attribute this?
Quite possibly by not excelling in a particular field with good career opportunities. I've always enjoyed learning, and I was a rather studious kid, but I never seemed to take the most obvious path. Back in high school, I decided my focus would be geography, of all things, since that wasn't the obvious choice as something more math or language related. Maybe a part of me thought it would be fun to explore. The problem is, choosing such paths means the paths aren't exactly clear, since they're not as well trod. They're more fun to explore, but the final destination isn't easy to see. It took me a while to understand that it was writing that I loved the most, and that of all of the things I've done in my life - urban planning, office work, working at a high tech company and so on - the things I loved most about those things have been the creative writing elements. That doesn't exactly line up. I've dabbled in journalism, but I like to write fiction. I like to speak my mind, and putting a blog together naturally helped get those words out. I've dabbled in a lot of things, but at the core of it all has been my writing. I suspect being a writer leads to a lot of dabbling. We're explorers, not necessarily researchers. We don't always have the necessary focus to be experts in only one thing.
13. Some of your books are available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of ebooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?
I really don't think we're going to be getting the genie back in the bottle in terms of bootleg downloads. It's just too easy to put something on the Internet and get it off, and making it difficult penalizes legitimate users unfairly. I think the best approach is to just call for an honest payment, noting that if we don't get paid, the world will lose our future content. I can only hope that anybody who downloads a bootleg copy of my book (I haven't heard of anyone doing that; my wife's Plain Kate is pretty high on the list of illegal downloads, however) eventually decides to get a legitimate copy that will get reflected on my royalty statement. If he or she ends up doing so as a result of encountering my book as a bootleg, so much the better. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it.
14. Some authors monitor torrent sites and have their publishers contact them to remove their content. Do you do so are have someone do so for you?
There isn't enough hours in the day for me to do this, and I'm not sure what my publisher does. Again, I have things to write, so I'm not going to waste that time by trying to police the Internet.
15. Completely off topic but what TV shows or movies do you enjoy?
We cut the cable television soon after my eldest daughter was born, so what we have tends to be downloaded via iTunes or streamed from Netflix, or grabbed through an off-air antenna. My favourite show remains Doctor Who, but I quite like Community and The Big Bang Theory. We watch Mythbusters with our kids. And I have a healthy diet of children's television under my belt… enough for me to build conspiracy theories as to what really happened to Max and Ruby's parents. My favourite movies include Hitchcock's North by Northwest and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I'm also partial to anything by Pixar. Other than that, we haven't been out to see a movie all that often since the kids were born.
16. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?
I have to agree that learning how to learn is the best thing the university system ever taught me. Because once you get the basics down, there's so much more that's out there, you've just got to go and get it yourself - or ask the right people the right questions in order to get the answers you need. Everything else that our higher education systems are obliged to do - give us job skills, do high level research, et cetera - becomes much easier once this foundation is laid.
17. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?
Well, I would go back to the list that I gave you in question 11. I'd knock out numbers seven through nine and bring along my wife, her laptop and my laptop. That way, I'd have good stuff to read, and she and I could work on our books and read them over for each other. That should keep us occupied for years. We'd also need a solar charger, so knock out number six as well.
18. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
My sister-in-law (now sadly passed away), Wendy once said "never buy anything you don't love". That made her very difficult to shop for. She later amended it to "never do anything you don't love." There is far too little time in your life to waste focusing on getting a high-paying career you're not passionate about because you want something to pay the bills. You have to be passionate about what you do in order for what you do to have meaning. It's hard to make a living, no matter what you do, but it feels a lot easier if you have fun doing it.
Thank you James for taking some time to answer some questions for the readers at Book Reviews and More. I look forward to reading more books by you and your wife.
Books by James Bow:
The Unwritten Books:
The Unwritten Girl
The Young City
Animal Mysteries Revealed
Earth Mysteries Revealed
Space Mysteries Revealed
Lamborghini: Superstar Cars
Earth's Secrets: Invisible Worlds
Deep Space Extremes
Baseball: Sports Science
Cycling: Sports Science
Saving Endangered Plants and Animals: Science Solves It
Rescue Missions: Science Solves It