You may have noticed (based on the photo greeting you to the left) that Drew Bowling’s young. Not only is he young, but he’s a good looking, college-age guy who one might expect has better things to do â€“ say traipsing the streets of Madrid, his life stuffed into a backpack, a beautiful woman hanging off his arm â€“ than write Fantasy. You might also be worried that a hip, good looking college kid should stay far away from the writing scene. Well, Bowling’s not afraid to show you why you’re wrong.
Last year’s debut, The Tower of Shadows, surprised me by offering a quick, punch novel (so much a rarity in the Epic Fantasy genre these days), peppered with terrific prose, almost poetic at times, and really made me sit up and notice an author who is sure to make some waves as he grows and refines his craft.
Drew and I have been working on this interview for a good while now, so it’s with pleasure that I can finally bring it to the table. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Drew, I’d like to start things off by thanking you for taking part in this interview, it’s an honor to have you!
The honor’s mine, Aidan.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way, Drew. You’re young, very young. How does a twenty-one year old find himself with a publishing deal with one of the biggest publisher of Fantasy Literature in the world?
Threats, bribes, and ties to the New York Mafia. Actually, in hindsight, my pathway to publication was relatively pacifistic. I began writing The Tower of Shadows during my senior year of High School, right after failâ€”*cough*â€”finishing an Algebra II final. I retired from the test early (not because I was doing well) and decided to try my hand at something more fun (my mind isn’t made for numbers), so I penned the beginning of a chapter. The story grabbed me, and I actually structured the novel around that particular chapter, which is now located in the middle of the book. The summer after graduation, I waited tables, scribbling ideas between orders, ordering ideas at the occasional expense of orderly service, and jamming on a keyboard during moments of solitude.
Then summer ended. I started college, and the story’s progress slowed to a crawl. Halfway through my freshman year, sometime during the holiday season, I got fed up with waiting, crossed my fingers, and sent what I had writtenâ€”110 pages, roughly the first third of what is now the finished bookâ€”to Del Rey. I was, um, slightly nervous. Although this was my first serious attempt at writing a novel, I believed I had something specialâ€”but would the people at Del Rey feel the same way?
One afternoon, sometime in February, a lawyer from New York called my cell phone and woke me from a nap. He demanded to speak with Tabby. My name is not Tabby, and I told him so. But then he called again. Repeat. Prank caller, maybe. Regardless, after several more calls, when my cell lit up and displayed yet another 212 number, I didnâ€™t check the remaining the digits. More fool me.
“I’m not Tabby!” I screamed into the receiver.
“Mr. Bowling?” said a slightly worried voice (and Iâ€™m paraphrasing, but not by much). “I’m calling from Random House. We were hoping to publish your novel.”
I paused. Stuttered. Realized I was talking to someone who not only held my greatest hope and dream in the palm of his hand but who, quite possibly, thought I was insane. Then, following a brief conversation, I hung up the phone and screamed again, this time with excitement instead of irritation. One of my roommates charged through the door. By his face I could tell that he, too, thought I had cracked.
Long story short, Chris Schluep, my editor at Del Rey, had read and enjoyed the first third of The Tower of Shadows. He asked if I would like to write two sequels. Yes, thank you, I would. Del Rey found me an agent (Robin Rue of Writerâ€™s House), probably because the prospect of negotiating a three book deal with an unseasoned nineteen-year-old was rather daunting. Things snowballed from there.
It sounds as though between college and your writing career things are pretty hectic in your neck of the woods. How do you find the time to deal with everything on your plate at the moment?
By overdosing on Starbucks. And I have way, way too much energy. Which, of course, has landed me in trouble more times than I can or want to count but helps when I need to pull consecutive all-nighters to fend off demons from deadline hell. I dropped to part time status as an undergraduate at Loyola College, Baltimore, to give me more room to juggle classes with contracts. Also, I write more and better when inspired, sticking to the mantra (which, if untrue, is almost certainly a philosophical confection born of one young manâ€™s proclivity for procrastination), that if one too often forces himself to write, one runs the risk of producing writing that sounds forced.
But that tendency is no longer an option for me. I used to work during the day and go out at night with friends. It made sense: all work produces bad work, all play keeps work away. Unfortunately, that relatively sane, balanced existence is nothing more than a fairy tale now. Not enough work put me in the position of a writer who, as my editor once suggested, was possibly spending too much time â€œholed up at a bar, descending into drunken former-author status.â€ The doomsday clock for book two is ticking, and my editor, agent, and publicist, as well as (or so Iâ€™m told) a shadowy literary assassin with a penchant for â€œmotivatingâ€ wayward authors, are in all probability waiting like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ready to hunt me to â€œThe Endâ€ of my manuscript should I fail to wrap things up in a couple of months.
To leave this question on a more positive note and in the interest of remaining optimistic about my future health and general wellbeing, Iâ€™m pleased to report that the completion of my next novel, tentatively titled The Sea of Dreams, wonâ€™t require too many more all-nighters.
As a new, young author, it must be hard not to let your three novel publishing deal go to your head. What do you do to keep yourself grounded and not fall into the rock star style of complacency?
Itâ€™s not so tough; few of my friends read fantasy. In the usual college social settings I donâ€™t come across as a writer, let alone a writer of fantasy fictionâ€”unless someone strikes up a conversation about literature, that is, and I am then inclined to defend the literary merits of fantasy and speculative fiction (of which there are MANYâ€”but thatâ€™s for another question). Iâ€™m interested in things besides reading and writing: snowboarding, good movies, traveling, hanging out with friends (okay, Iâ€™ll stop before this starts sounding like a MySpace profile). I guess I donâ€™t fit the usual stereotypes. For example, before I was published, Iâ€™d never attended a convention (although I was sorely tempted to bring a sword to the midnight premier of the Return of the King, which I saw at the Uptown in Washington D.C.).
But let it be said that many commonly held stereotypes about readers (and writers) of genre fiction are false. Since Del Rey published The Tower of Shadows, I have attended conventions and seen editors with publishing expense account cards, authors with â€œThanks for the free drinks, for as you know, most of us writers are little more than destitute beggarsâ€ placards, various fans, and other literary types embark on bar crawls the very scope of which would shame the best efforts of most fraternities. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with being an introvert (and trust me, I can happily spend a week holed up with a stack of my favorite books) or a dedicated fan (by all means, thrown on that cute Daenerys costume, girl!), but not everyone active in the genre wears elf ears or pretends, when driving to work, that his car is the Starship Enterprise en-route to nuke the Klingon Homeworld.
In short, while my friends think itâ€™s cool that I got published, some of them poke fun at me for writing about castles and dragons. But hey, I think castles and dragons are cool.
We’ve all heard the same thing over and over again about writing and how to succeed. Read, write and write some more. So I have a challenge for you: What sort of advice could you give to an aspiring writer that you wish you had been told before you wrote The Tower of Shadows?
1) Don’t start a novel unless youâ€™re excited enough about it to see it through to The End.
2) When your imaginative light bulb flashes and you have an idea, get it down at all costs. If an idea pops into my head when Iâ€™m driving my car, I juggle pen and paper with the steering wheel to jot it down for safekeeping (but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this particular scenario, because I don’t want your blood on my hands).
3) Take the story behind my publication and banish it from memory. Manuscripts are rarely picked up that way. Finish your novel, and then find an agent before submitting it to publishing houses.
Oh, and read, write, and write some more.
But to writers who aspire to work in the fantasy/speculative fiction genre: make sure you read the right books. If you read the wrong books, you’ll probably end up writing the wrong books, either because they are some sort of haphazard, unintentional, messy hybrid (as opposed to the creative and intentional mixing one finds in New Weird works like China MiÃ©villeâ€˜s Perdido Street Station), or because they are (perhaps accidentally) all but plagiarized. So what exactly do I mean? Basically, you need to read in the genre to avoid replicating someone elseâ€™s work and to write material that displays confidence and knowledge about the genre.
But that doesnâ€™t mean you shouldnâ€™t venture from your literary hobbit hole. Far from it! I read widely in and out of the genre. My favorite authors range from Cormac McCarthy to Neil Gaiman, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to J.R.R. Tolkien, from Edgar Allen Poe to Peter S. Beagle, from Shakespeare to George R.R. Martin. Reading outside the genre is very helpful if you want to create meaningful worksâ€”to bring new fictional influences to the genre, which is endlessly elastic and more conducive to imagination than any other. Cross-fertilize, re-envision, whateverâ€”just donâ€™t do whatâ€™s been done before.
Well, well, Iâ€™ll just be sure to stay off the roads when I know youâ€™re out driving! The Tower of Shadows is a fast, punchy book that doesn’t waste time beating around the bush. Was this sort of pacing intentional or did the story itself just demand it?
Both, but more intentional than anything else. There arenâ€™t enough fast, punchy fantasy novels on bookstore shelves today. When I was writing The Tower of Shadows, I swore to keep my novel around 300 pagesâ€”and managed to keep my vow! I wanted to write a sword and sorcery thriller infused with fairy tale elements, something of a cross between Peter S. Beagleâ€™s The Innkeeperâ€™s Song and George R.R. Martinâ€™s A Game of Thrones. I also wanted The Tower of Shadows to be accessible to people who have never read fantasy. One of the ways I tried to do this was by keeping the length down. That many of my friends are dissuaded from picking up great fantasy novels because of their high page count is just short of criminal. I’m not the only fantasy author writing this way (for fantastic examples, check out The Mark of Ran and This Forsaken Earth, the first two installments in the ongoing Sea Beggars sequence by Paul Kearney), but I’m one of the few.
You bring up a good point, very few fast, punchy novels are published these days. Any theories on why this is and do you think there is room in the industry for quicker paced and more serialized fantasy?
Room? You bet! In a genre as accommodating to different styles and voices and ideas as fantasy/speculative fiction, thereâ€™s room for anything!
Why are most fantasy novels longer than shorter? The answer might be due to the immersive nature of sub-creationâ€”the production of secondary worlds. Writers creating fictional universes with carefully thought out cultures and languages and politics and cities and foodstuffs and mythologies become heavily invested in their imaginings, and rightly so!â€”just as readers fall in love with such well constructed milieus.
But while I love reading long fantasy adventures as much many a fantasy fan, I donâ€™t believe all fantasy adventures need to be long to be loved.
You mentioned earlier that the first rumblings of what would be come The Tower of Shadows began after a painful attempt at an algebra exam and that you then built around that work to finally create the finished model of the story. Can you describe for us in more detail the process you go through when creating your characters and the story that will pull them through?
That question is akin to â€œwhere do you get your ideas?â€ The answer: anywhere and everywhereâ€”by living my life! Reading books, watching movies, traveling (two favorite destinations have been England and Italy), meeting interesting people on the streetâ€”I throw the useful stuff into my novels, which, at the risk of sounding horribly pretentious, take shape like slowly evolving mosaics as I shamelessly blend and reshape and comment on the wealth of source material in the world around me.
I do write in a linear fashion. I also try to strike a balance between plotting and charting more nebulous fictional waters. In my experience writerâ€™s block is a direct result of a lack of planning. On the other hand, I feel if I were to micromanage a plot before setting pen to paper, then the writing of the book itself would, far from being a surprising, entertaining journey, stretch before me like some sort of connect-the-dot chore.
Where do you feel your strengths as a writer lay?
That’s for my readers to decide. But if you held a gun to my head and threatened to take away my publishing contractâ€”which youâ€™re not doing, thank you, Aidanâ€”and to provide some more meat for the interview (or, more truthfully, to perk the interest of possible readers, becauseâ€”letâ€™s face itâ€”Iâ€™m writing to be read and am interested in getting my book out there), Iâ€™ll give you a few things to chew over.
For what itâ€™s worth (and it isnâ€™t worth much; a bookâ€™s value is nothing if not subjective), I think Iâ€™ve crafted a faced-paced fantasy that avoids many of the genre’s clichÃ©s (I’m not a philologist, so no invented languages. Also, thereâ€™s no multi-syllabic, tongue-twister names; no prophecy; no farm boy who becomes king; no wise, magical mentor who guides the heroes through the story; no elves, dwarves, orcs; ECTâ€”not that any of those examples are even the least bit fundamentally problematic, but rather that I simply chose for various reasons to leave them out of my story), even as it celebrates some of epic fantasyâ€™s time-tested-and-vetted storytelling traditions (I threw in a relatively traditionalâ€”if gruesomeâ€”dragon, and hell will freeze over before I apologize for it!). Iâ€™m not trying to reinvent the wheel, just make it turn faster. Letâ€™s seeâ€¦ Iâ€™m trying to develop a lyrical writing style. I’ve got a long, long, long way to go, but I’d like to think Iâ€™m working toward poetic prose construction that sounds nice now and might someday, with the necessary years of practice, reveal the influences of Peter S. Beagle, Neil Gaiman, and K.J. Bishop, to name a few. Iâ€™ve been told I have a knack for imagery and for creating evocative, haunting settings.
How about the ability to write a really fun book that readers of widely divergent backgrounds will enjoy!
Now, to brown my nose a little bit, I find it interesting that you mention your prose, I personally thought it is the standout portion of the book, you very much do have a lyrical voice and the clarity with which you tell a story is great. Is this a challenge for you, do you spend a lot of time writing and rewriting to get sentences/paragraphs/chapters that you are happy with?
Yesâ€”and much, at times, to my detriment.
I love creating plots and characters and settings, but I also love playing with the English language. It is a challenge, but it is a fun challengeâ€”and I hope to continue challenging my ability to use words well for the rest of my writing career. While working on my second novel, Iâ€™ve happily and rather insanely spent several hours revamping single paragraphs. Of course, I canâ€™t devote that much attention to everything I write; if I did, Iâ€™d never be able to finish anything. But if I happen to find a scene on which Iâ€™m working to be especially moving or to have enough significance to the narrative at large to warrant the extra work, Iâ€™ll mold the prose with which I tell it until Iâ€™m completely content.
Writing, like painting, is artâ€”but only if writers treat words with the same care that painters treat paint.
One area of Fantasy Fiction that short novels often have trouble with is world building. It is obvious to me that The Tower of Shadows is a character and action driven novel. Now, I know youâ€™re not a philologist but is world building something you have spent time on, or are you discovering the world alongside your characters?
Where the writing of the my book is concerned, I spent more time discovering the world alongside my characters than creating extensive back-stories and genealogies. Around the time I began The Tower of Shadows, I didnâ€™t want to develop an entire world before putting pen to paper (again, I would have been connecting dots, and I didnâ€™t have much time for prewriting during that math exam).
Look, I know Iâ€™m a young writer with a lot of room for growth and improvement. I didnâ€™t want to lock myself in a rigid, fully mapped out world to be explored via the compass of a rigid, fully defined plot at nineteen. My imagination would have been left with few outlets as I grew and matured as a writer. Because of that decision, I think my second novel, The Sea of Dreams, will be better than my first one in terms of the originality, scope, and the numinous nature of its settingsâ€”as well as in terms of characterization, plot, ECTâ€”because I began creating and/or expanding many of them largely after having already completed my first novel.
Drew, it was a pleasure to have you on board. Thanks again for taking the time to drop by A Dribble of Ink and best of luck in the future! Any parting words?
Thanks for the interview, Aidan. And for those who have enjoyed The Tower of Shadows: be sure to check out my website, www.drewbowling.com, for updates on the upcoming sequel, The Sea of Dreams.