Here's the latest installment of Cool Canadian Crime Writers. Today mystery author David Cole returns with another interview in his Cool Canadian Crime series: Gail Bowen Previously, David has interviewed Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, and Mary Jane Maffini and Thomas Rendell Curran. These interviews were organized with the assistance of Cheryl Freedman, executive director of Crime Writers of Canada (CWC), and David Cole, a US author and CWC member. The group of 13 authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel. Gail Bowen is currently Mystery Writer in Residence at the Toronto Reference Library. Bowen’s mystery series features Joanne Kilbourn, a university professor, sometime political columnist, and a wife, mother and grandmother. McClelland Stewart published The Brutal Heart, the 11th book in the series, in August 2008. Bowen’s short story “The King of Charles Street West”, which appeared in Toronto Noir (2008) published by Akashic Books, New York, was singled out for special praise by Publishers’ Weekly.
DC: Why do you prefer to write a mystery series rather than stand-alones?
GB: I’m now working on my 12th novel in the Joanne Kilbourn series, and I still find this approach congenial. As a reader, I have always been drawn to the development of characters and the sense of a real and changing world that a series offers. As a writer, the luxury of having 3500 pages in which to develop the character of my protagonist and the people who shape her life is seductive. Ruth Rendall once told me that I would regret letting my protagonist age; for once, Ruth Rendall was wrong. The fact that Joanne Kilbourn has grown into late middle age in my series and will eventually grow old allows me to explore my own thoughts about aging. Readers tell me that they come to the books as much to discover what’s happening in Joanne’s life as they do to read about the specific murder on which the novel focuses. As well, a series allows me to create a repertory company of secondary characters upon whom I can draw to develop plot-lines or simply to create interest. I get a great deal of mail about the Kilbourn series, and readers are open about letting me know when they feel Joanne is, for example, drinking too much or attracted to the wrong man. I answer every letter I receive, and I take readers’ comments very seriously. Readers of series are in there for the long haul, and they have a very keen sense of what rings true. They trust me, and I honour that trust.
DC: How did you feel about the movies made from the Kilbourn series?
GB: Shaftesbury Films in Toronto produced the first six books in the series as movies starring Wendy Crewson as Joanne. We are now talking about producing the last four novels, which feature Joanne and her new husband Zack Shreve, a criminal lawyer and a paraplegic. Although I’ve been told that the odds of having an optioned book make it to the screen are the same as the odds for being hit by lightning, I have my fingers crossed that the last four books will make the transition. The first six movies continue to be shown both here and in the U.S. with a frequency that surprises me. They are more action driven than my books, but people like them. I like them, too, but I think the next movies could be even stronger if people had a chance to come to know Wendy Crewson’s Joanne more intimately. Wendy looks great in leather, but she also is a fine actor. I’d like to see a little less of her sensational legs and a little more of her intriguing character. And I think we’re all ready to see a passionate relationship between two smart and funny people in their 50’s.
DC: P.D. James says “A first class mystery should also be a first class novel.” Agree or disagree.
GB: Who could disagree with P.D. James, and in this case, of course, she’s absolutely right. Those of us who write mysteries are obligated to give our readers the best novels we can write. Not much irritates me, but at the beginning of my career I was annoyed by the number of people who asked me when I was going to write “a real novel”. In fact, I was on a panel at a university and a feminist academic likened women who write mysteries to 19th century women who painted china rather than risk creating what she called ‘real art’. Well, as a feminist, an academic, and a crime writer, I believe that crime writers, both male and female, do write real novels. We understand that readers of crime fiction deserve characters with dimension with whom they can empathize and from whom they can gain insight into the business of being human. We know that our readers deserve plots that not only keep them turning pages but also lead them into examining existential questions. Finally, readers of crime fiction deserve to experience the sense of ‘felt life’ that Henry James said is the responsibility of all serious fiction. I have never believed that being a crime writer excuses sloppiness of thought or of prose. As a wise person once noted, there are only two kinds of writing: good writing and bad writing.
DC: You’re in the midst of a term as Mystery Writer in Residence at the Toronto Reference Library. How did that come about, and how’s it working out?
GB: I did my Masters’ thesis on Robertson Davies, and one of my favourite Davies quotes comes from “Fifth Business”. The hero, Dunstan Ramsay, reflecting on life and chance says “When life pushes you in a certain direction, it’s spiritual suicide to resist.
I’d never considered being a Writer in Residence, but last January, my home province, Saskatchewan, was deep in the miseries of the mother of all winters, so when a friend forwarded the Toronto Public Library’s ad for a mystery writer in residence, I felt a cosmic nudge. The position started on May lst, and I was going to be in Toronto, reading at a function for World Literacy on April 29th – synchronicity. The nudge became a push, and I applied. When the email asking if I would accept the position arrived, I answered with the concluding words of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: ‘yes I said yes I will. Yes.”
I am still fervently enthusiastic about my position. Like all good contracts, the contract between me and the library is clear about our mutual rights and duties: I am to devote 60% of the residency to a work in progress and the remaining 40% to reading and assessing manuscripts submitted by the general public, counselling people on their submissions, conducting writing workshops and showing up where I’m invited. The library is responsible for giving me a place to work, a person with whom to work and a cheque.
The Toronto Public Library has honoured their commitments with whipped cream and cherries on top.
My office, on the fifth floor of the Reference Library is the Arthur Conan Doyle room, a book-lined space that houses the library’s Conan Doyle collection. The room is large and gently lit; the furniture is period, and the ambiance is bygone London. Peggy Perdue, the special collections librarian with whom I work most closely is, like another famous citizen of bygone London, ‘practically perfect in every way’. Peggy protects my time; is there when I need her and trusts me to do my job. She’s smart, funny and lovely—the ideal companion for a writer in residence.
During the 60% of the residency allotted for my work-in-progress, I have worked on my next Joanne Kilbourn mystery, “The Nesting Dolls”. I’m pleased with my progress, but I think the real value of my time as writer in residence is found elsewhere.
Several years ago I was invited to the Banff Playwrights Colony. In his welcome to us, the Director said “We don’t measure the value of this program by what you produce in the next few weeks. If you want to stand on Tunnel Mountain Road and look at the mountains, do that. Somewhere down the line, what you experienced here will find its place in your work.”
In the month I’ve been in Toronto, I’ve been to two operas (one shimmering; one fusty); learned from my neighbour how to keep growing bok choy safe from racoons (first under inverted vegetable crispers; later under an elaborate system of bricks and discarded oven racks); heard A.S. Byatt and Michael Ignatieff read; seen Niagara falls; mastered the Toronto public transit system (well almost); learned the best place to buy coffee in Kensington market; witnessed a superb production of “Sunday in the Park with George” and become a temporary member of the congregation of St. James Cathedral (where I worship next to a genuine Tiffany stained glass window and listen to homilies delivered by a warm, brilliant and very young female priest of Chinese descent).
Thanks to the Toronto Public Library and Robertson Davies, I have been uprooted and transplanted, and like my neighbour’s bok choy, I am thriving.