Gail Bowen literally just wrote the book on writing mysteries
Books | by Emmet Matheson
It’s easy to take Gail Bowen for granted. Her first Joanne Kilbourn mystery, Deadly Appearances, came out in 1990 and she’s been going strong since. The 18th book, A Darkness of the Heart, is due in August.
While it might be easy to dismiss the Regina-based series about a political science professor-turned amateur sleuth as frivolous escapism, there’s something defiantly radical in a crime fiction series about a middle-aged working mother in a small, out-of-the-way city like Regina. Bowen’s books have never shied away from uncomfortable social issues, especially at the municipal level (in the most recent books, Joanne’s husband Zack has been elected as a progressive mayor of Regina), and at 5,000 pages and counting, the Kilbourn series serves as a social history of the last three decades of Saskatchewan through a distinct and always affable point of view.
At the heart of the series, though, is the heroine’s ever-contracting and expanding family.
Bowen’s latest book, from University of Regina Press, is called Sleuth: Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries. It’s a non-fiction tome that’s part writing manual and part memoir. I spoke to Bowen by phone on Saturday, March 24 in advance of the book’s April 26 launch at Bushwakker. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
After 17 Joanne Kilbourn novels, why do a writing manual now?
There are actually 18 — the new one comes out in the fall, and I’m about two-thirds of the way into number 19. I wrote Sleuth because [U of R Press director] Bruce Walsh asked me to. Most of what I write in the book applies equally to any sort of fiction, but my form is mystery. Really, there’s no one-size-fits all rule to writing fiction but it’s a chance to share how much I’ve learned from reading and teaching. There’s nothing in there that will lead anybody astray. It came down to, ‘would you like to write a book about how to not bang your head into walls?’
What keeps you motivated to keep telling stories about Joanne Kilbourn? How is it different writing an open-ended series like this as opposed to the more traditional novel, where the beginning and ending are kind of a hermetic seal?
I still do not know Joanne after over 5,000 pages. In a long series, the immediate problem is solved but the issues around the main character… it never quite gets there. That’s why I keep coming back to her. There’s still more to explore. I try to always tell my students that writing really is about discovery. Your readers will get much more if you’re discovering along with them.
Your first Joanne Kilbourn novel came out nearly 30 years ago.
When I wrote the first one it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be published. Those were different times. Douglas & MacIntyre took a huge chance on me. Then when they got out of mysteries, McLelland & Stewart took me on before they had even seen a page of my next book.
But you found an audience, a readership.
I love hearing that readers have enjoyed it so much. People say, ‘when is the next one?’
Have there been surprises along the way? Did you have any idea when you started that you would still be going, 18 books later?
It worked out well. I had no idea just how the Love family would play into the series, but it’s right there on the first page of the second novel. These are the people who are significant. The things I introduced in Murder at the Mendel (1991), I never would’ve thought that it would end up being so seminal — in the truest sense of the word, as in semen; seeds for the story. I wish I could take credit for it. The first page of the second book echoes through the rest of the series. I know from my career as an academic how desperately we cling to what patterns we can find to give meaning to things.
One thing I find really rewarding in my own writing, my own unpublished fiction, is going through and finding patterns I didn’t even know I was making. The writing will reveal, even to me, what’s important. What I care about.
Part of it is — there’s no way you could know this, you haven’t read the book yet — but in Darkness of the Heart, Joanne’s daughter Taylor, who has not liked to have guys touching her. I’d always thought it was a reaction to her birth mother Sally being promiscuous. Of course, you wouldn’t say that about a man — he wouldn’t be promiscuous, he’d be a swashbuckler. Taylor’s had a sort of relationship with Declan but that’s just sort of been to keep other people away. Everyone thinks she’s this ice queen or she’s frigid. So in Darkness of the Heart, she falls in love with another young woman.
I wrote a scene where she kisses this other woman and I wanted to know what my grandkids thought about it and they just said, ‘about what?’ It’s kind of a wonderful thing. I’m glad. Who cares if she’s gay? There have been gay people in the books before but this was a surprise for me. I didn’t know that about Taylor before I wrote this. When I showed it to my editor, she said, “Oh, I loved that kiss. It just felt right.”
Walter Mosley has talked about how detective novels, oh geez, I’m paraphrasing here, something, they’re pedestrian in nature. [EDIT: in his 2007 book, This Year You Write Your Novel, he writes that the novel — any novel, not just a detective novel — is “a pedestrian work of the everyday lives of bricklayers and saints.”]
I’ll tell you: I did a reading with him once. I was reading with Walter Mosley and Ruth Rendell, who is a very prickly person. We got along but she could be difficult. After the reading — this was at the Vancouver Writers Festival — Ruth says, ‘I believe Walter Mosley is my long-lost son.” He was just so easy to like.
But I think I know what he means by that. The books take place in the everyday world. This is what happens. We don’t all live in an enhanced state of being, but extraordinary things do happen. People are shaped by the defining moments — what are the things that happened to you to make you who you are? So for me, it’s very interesting to watch a character react to these defining moments. And Walter, he’s so seamless in this.
It’s astounding — my daughter and I went to a bake sale this morning. But when we got home we had to watch the March for Our Lives: “Emma’s gonna be on.” Emma Gonzalez, the young woman from Parkland. Did you see her speech? That’s seven minutes that will define American history. I can’t even stop crying when I think of it. All the terrible names, the insults and the venom — the ad feminem, or ad hominem, attacks, that [are] being thrown at these kids, but their lives have been changed and now their lives will change the trajectory of many lives.
That’s what I think he means: pedestrian fiction tells defining moments that change the trajectory of our own lives. I agree with Walter Mosley.
Family plays a big role in Joanne’s life, and you write in Sleuth that you started writing when your own children were young. There are so many stories about great writers who were horrible parents — mostly men, but some women too. But it’s satisfying to see this example — and I’m sure it’s actually the norm, we just don’t hear about it that often — of someone who doesn’t think being a successful writer and being a good parent are mutually exclusive.
One huge thing for me is that I had a terrible relationship with my mother. She was very smart and very horrible. I remember being seven years old, thinking, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here.” But of course, at seven, my career opportunities were limited.
Everybody has something that they have to work out for themselves, and my strongest advice is: don’t let that ruin your books. If you don’t understand your Jungian dark side, It will take control of the wheel. Understanding is one thing, controlling is another.
I made a choice to be a very good mother. I followed in my mother-in-law’s pattern. My kids turned out good — none of them will win a Nobel Prize but they’re good people, and they’re raising good kids.
My main goal was not to fuck them up and I achieved that. It’s the same with my books.
That’s great, I love that.
It can feed your writing, it can be a real flame. I don’t know if you’ve read Robertson Davies, but his book The Manticore is really about that Jungian shadow self. ‘Cherish your bear and your bear will feed your fire,’ he says. It’s an allegory.
Writing and parenting are both a process of discovery. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for writing or parenting. For me, having a good marriage and solid friendships — those old-fashioned values have fed my writing, even in the smallest ways.
Sleuth launches in Regina on Thursday, April 26 from 6–8 at Bushwakker, at 2206 Dewdney Ave.