Richard Bowes is an author I should have been long-since familiar with, but who I’ve only started reading in the past two years or so. Rick has lived an interesting life, a large portion of it in Greenwich Village serving as a librarian at NYU. He’s seen the city change a lot, and regularly posts photos of Old New York on his Facebook page. He was, of course, in the city on September 11, 2001, and one of his most moving stories, “There’s a Hole in the City,” takes place in the days immediately following; WBAI out of NYC airs Rick’s reading of the story ever year to commemorate the anniversary of the event. All of Rick’s stories and novels are character-driven and many, but not all, have some aspect of the supernatural or fantastic. I met Rick in person, finally, at Readercon 2013 in Boston, and he’s as fun to talk to in person as he is on Twitter or Facebook.
ANTHONY: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Rick. Let’s start with an easy one: when was your first professional sale?
RICK: It was early 1985. Before then I’d designed board games that got bought and published. And I wrote gay porn under a pseudonym. But my first real fiction sale was a paperback time travel/alternate worlds novel, WARCHILD, to Warner Questar in 1985. It was the first piece of real spec fiction I’d written.
ANTHONY: What is your writing process like? What’s a Day In The Life of Rick Bowes?
RICK: Well I’m old so a day in the life isn’t as exciting as it might once have been. I’m retired and can stay up far into the night like I’m doing as I write this and can sleep until noon if I want. I try to have something: Yoga class, shopping, early brunch with a friend, to get me out the door before noon. I live in a tiny apartment in what was the heart of the 1950’s/1960’s Greenwich Village and I love this place dearly. I almost always manage to write something each day. I don’t have those spectacular daily word counts I read about in young writers’ tweets and Facebook entries but I produce stories and they get bought and published.
ANTHONY: You’ve written short stories and novels. Does your process change at all from one form to the other?
RICK: The two are often intertwined. The first three books I published, WARCHILD and its sequel GOBLIN MARKET plus the standalone FERAL CELL were novels written as novels. In 1989 I began writing short stories for the first time since college nearly 25 years before. The first one never sold (though I cannibalized it many years later). Every story since then has sold. My fifth story “On Death and the Deuce” was my first fictionalized autobiographical story. It was about kicking alcohol and drugs which I’d done 15 years or so years earlier and it introduced Kevin Grierson and his doppelganger who was his addictions. A couple of my other stories had already been bought but ODATD was the first to be published (in F&SF May 1992). I wrote nine more Grierson stories and all ten became the Lambda Award winning MINIONS OF THE MOON.
At some point fairly early on I realized I had a book and began “hooking” the stories, introducing the same characters in different stories, creating story arcs (like showing Grierson going from self destructive kid hustler to a gay man in an adult relationship). Each piece had to be written in the classic short story form in order to sell to the magazines and anthologies. But certain changes had to be made for them to then serve as chapters. My story, “Streetcar Dreams” which won a World Fantasy Award was actually the linking material that joined the other stories together in the finished novel.
ANTHONY: You know I’m a big fan of your short fiction. A lot (if not all of it) draws from your real life in a much more concrete way than I think a lot of authors would be comfortable doing (at least, while the people they’re drawing from are still alive). Are there any pieces of your past that are “off limits” as story fodder or inspiration?
RICK: “Still alive,” may play a bigger part in this than I’d consciously realized. Except for my late brother Gerry, I guess I’ve written less about my family than I might have. Gerry and my relationship was what my story “Circle Dance” was about. It appeared in Postscripts magazine and my 2006 collection STREETCAR DREAMS then got adapted into a chapter of DUST DEVIL. Gerry and I were in the East Village together in the heady late ’60’s and grim early ’70’s. I was as close to him in many ways as I’ve ever been to anyone.
“Off limits”? I’m not sure. My parents were fascinating people. My father and mother were both in the theater when I was a kid. Both were writers. I use some of that in DUST DEVIL and in my “were actor” story “A Song to the Moon” which I’ve included in IF ANGELS FIGHT. Often my narrator’s mother is crazy/unhappy and his father is angry and tough (mine had been a WW2 army bomber crewman). I’ve written about my father in the story “My Life in Speculative Fiction (in the STREETCAR DREAM and TRANSFIGURED NIGHT collections) and in an upcoming non-speculative fiction story for the magazine “The Revelator”. I used an aspect of my mother for the mother in MINIONS. But there was much more to each of them than I’ve shown.
My sisters and their husbands and children and my youngest brother are all highly successful many of them in the creative arts and I’ve never really written about them. I’d love to but, yeah, that can get difficult and somehow the right circumstances never seemed to arise.
ANTHONY: Without naming names (unless you want to), have there been any instances where you’ve based a character on someone from your past and they’ve reacted negatively?
RICK: The friends/boyfriends/girlfriends/chance encounters in my stories tend to be modular creations; a single character will be drawn from several different people. Also this is fiction. I make varying amounts of this up. It draws from real life but isn’t autobiography.
That said one advantage I had was that in a large part of my life most of the people I associated with weren’t readers or if they were didn’t read fiction. It’s only in the last fifteen or so years that I’ve started hanging out with writers. I put aspects of people in books and they never knew. Now the God-damnedest people see themselves in my stories. Usually they seem pleased. Maybe they’re right but it wasn’t intentional.
ANTHONY: I remember a guest on the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Chat on Twitter (#sffwrtcht) once commenting that the defining aspect of “urban fantasy” is that the setting is as much a character as the actual characters are. It strikes me that this is very true of a lot of your work: most obviously with Greenwich Village in DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREET, but even with your Time Ranger stories (especially “The Ferryman’s Wife” and “Mask of the Rex”) and your story “Seven Days of Poe” in Steve Berman’s WHERE THY DARK EYE GLANCES. Do you intentionally give Place this level of importance, or is it something that is just organic to your style and process?
RICK: So do you consider any of your story cycles to be “urban fantasy?” If not, is there a sub-genre you would say your work falls into?
I’m going to try to answer both of these questions in one if you don’t mind. It’s probably a sign of my alienation that I find my surroundings so endlessly fascinating and surprising that I don’t really need to invent imaginary ones.
FERAL CELL was my second novel. It came out in 1987. FC gets talked about in DUST DEVIL in the chapter where the narrator is in St. Vincent’s Hospital. I had cancer in 1984/5 which is when I began writing FERAL CELL. It’s set slightly in the future in a New York where the narrator is dying of cancer and when he discovers an alternate world called Capricorn where people dying of cancer in our world (which they call Cancer) appear like spirits and are considered sacred. There are evil aristocrats in Capricorn and rival gangs of skateboard and roller skaters here in NYC.
The vast apparatus of online websites and blogs and so on didn’t exist twenty-six years ago. The book got interesting reviews and attention, especially from people who had or once had cancer. Among them was Terri Windling the editor/author whose BORDERTOWN anthologies in the 1980’s did so much to establish Urban Fantasy as a sub-genre. She discovered Feral Cell, included my story “On Death and the Deuce, in YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR and helped get MINIONS published. Terri identified me as one of the early practitioners of the sub-genre.
Stories of magic set in cities go back as far as cities do. Urban Fantasy wasn’t something I did intentionally. The Boston (especially the Boston Public Library) of 1960 in my Poe Story, the Bar Harbor Maine of FROM THE FILES OF THE TIME RANGERS, the New York of the late 20th/early 21st centuries in DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREET are my world. I’m glad there’s a subgenre to accommodate it.
ANTHONY: In October, Fairwood Press is releasing your collection IF ANGELS FIGHT, which brings together stories from across your career, with new introductions written by you. How did you choose what would be included? Was there anything that didn’t quite make the cut that you wish you’d had the room to include?
RICK: Patrick Swenson of Fairwood Press has been great to work with. The stories in the book are the ones I wanted included. It could have been a longer book if I’d decided I needed that.
But I intend it to give an overview of my career as a short fiction writer from my first published story to very recent pieces. I included stories like “Jacket Jackson” (my collaboration with Marc Rich) and some recent stories that appeared in large anthologies because I didn’t think they got the attention they deserved. Also I thought would give variety to the collection and show what I could do. Others like “If Angels Fight” itself, a Nebula nominee and World Fantasy Award winner is a personal favorite I wanted to show off.
ANTHONY: IF ANGELS FIGHT includes a number of stories that went on to be folded into full novel narratives: the Time Rangers stories are part of a ‘mosaic novel,’ but the Kevin Grierson story became part of MINIONS OF THE MOON and “A Hole In The City” became the lead-off chapter of your recent novel DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREET. Is the concept of merging short stories into novel form something you’re always thinking about as you write?
RICK: “On Death and the Deuce,” “The Ferryman’s Wife,” “The Mask of the Rex,” “There’s a Hole in the City,” were changed in the process of being turned into novel chapters and I present them here in their original story format – all of them also attracted attention (award nominations, inclusion in Year’s Best anthologies etc).
I often have a novel in mind as a final destination when I’m writing a story. But sometimes stories I think of as part of a novel, don’t fit into the finished manuscript. Doing a novel about Greenwich Village and how I ended up here was already a concept when I wrote the first story, “There’s a Hole in the City” in 2005 and I wrote many stories that became chapters in what turned out to be DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREET. It didn’t always work out. “If Angels Fight,” for example was intended it to be part of DUST DEVIL but it turned out to be too much an entity unto itself to fit.
A lot of the stories I write are stand alones. That’s why I do collections.
ANTHONY: What is the appeal, and what are the challenges, of taking a short story cycle and creating a full novel around them rather than just releasing a story collection?
RICK: I get a lot of satisfaction out of fitting the pieces together. Also novels generally sell better than short story collections and do more to establish a certain name recognition which then helps the process of selling more stories. That may sound a bit brutal but this is a commercial medium.
ANTHONY: I think I’ve told you the story of reading the first chapter of DUST DEVILS in a restaurant in Alexandria VA and being almost in tears as you describe New York City in the days immediately after September 11, and then hearing Ryan Adams’ “I Still Love You, New York,” (the video for which was filmed only days before the Towers fell) and completely losing it. Does music play a part in your creative process, as it does for many writers?
RICK: Music is my main love. I confess I don’t keep up with current popular music. I know Rock from the fifties through the seventies but not much later. Aside from that – classical music, opera, classic jazz, Broadway and what’s called The American Songbook – especially stuff from the thirties and forties Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Porter etc. are what I listen to.
(As I write this at 2 AM on September 12, 2013, twelve years and a couple of hours after 9/11 I’m listening (as I know you are) to Jim Freund playing the wrong version of me reading “There’s a Hole in the City” on WBAI radio).
ANTHONY: I felt bad for Jim when we realized the wrong version was playing, but I loved the insight it gave to how he works with voice folks. In addition to DUST DEVILS and IF ANGELS FIGHT, you’ve also recently released THE QUEEN, THE CAMBION AND SEVEN OTHERS, another short story collection with the focus on “modern fairy tales.” Tell us a little about that collection and how/if it differs from your previous collections.
RICK: TQTCASO has been a joy. I’ve always been interested in fairy tales. You should see my shelves. But in the last few years reading them and reading about them has become a minor obsession. And I wrote stories in that mode – third person, past tense fantasy tales. Chris Barzak turned me on to Aqueduct Press and their Conversation Series: small books nicely produced.
Aqueduct is mainly a feminist press and the fairy tale was for much of its history largely a woman’s genre and a refuge for gay and lesbian writers (think of Anderson and Wilde) in bad times. So I asked and Timmi Duchamp the publisher was interested. She and Kathryn Wilham, the editor, were very supportive. The book includes an essay and eight stories involving everything from the daughter of Winter and Summer (very unhappy marriage), to a young woman who learns to dress bears, to stuff you didn’t know about Merlin and Queen Victoria.
Just under 35 thousand words which I think is a perfect length for such an enterprise. In fact my essay (one of maybe five which I’ve written in my entire life) is titled “A Secret History of Small Books.”
Kath Wilham suggested the pictures and helped me find suitable ones by Rackham and Dore. There’s a generous sampling (and what is a fairy tale book without pictures?). I know I would have been delighted to find something like this.
ANTHONY: What work do you have due to be published in the near future?
RICK: Getting four books out this year took a lot of my time and took a lot of writing over the last year. Both TQTCASO and IF ANGELS FIGHT include never-before-seen stories. DUST DEVIL needed lots of new linking material. Even the new edition of MINIONS has the first new Grierson story in many years.
So only a couple of new stories are due out:
“Tales That Fairies Tell” involving a certain famous fairy tale cat and set in a more desperate New York (The Big Arena) fifty or so years down the line.
It’s included in: Once Upon A Time: A modern fairy tale anthology (Guran ed), Prime Books, October.
The other is:
“Stories I Tell My Friends” – Narrated by the same kid who appears in my “Seven Days of Poe” (from the Berman/Lethe WHERE THY DARK EYE GLANCES). But this will be a first: sex and drugs and parent problems in Boston circa 1960 but NON GENRE! NO SPEC FICTION ELEMENT! It will appear later this year in Matthew Cheney and Eric Schaller’s experimental online magazine The Revelator (which everyone should check out).
Currently I’m writing a story about a play being staged in an abandoned hotel in the same NYC as “Tales That Fairies Tell.”
And I’m writing what seems to be a very short story about a mortal, once a fairy bridegroom now the owner of a bar in the current Greenwich Village.
ANTHONY: Now I’m looking forward to all of those. And my usual closing question: What is your favorite book and what would you say to someone who has never read it to convince them that they should?
RICK: Not one book but two! I would like to thank Steve Berman and his Lethe Press for bringing out a new edition MINIONS OF THE MOON as well as the first publication of DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREET. Together I think they make a gay chronicle from the 1940’s till now.
You can follow Rick on Twitter @rickbowes, find him on Facebook, and of course check Rick’s website for updates on his work. DUST DEVIL ON A QUIET STREETand MINIONS OF THE MOON can both be purchased from Lethe Press, Amazon or BN. IF ANGELS FIGHT will be out in October from Fairwood Press and on Amazon and BN. THE QUEEN, THE CAMBION, AND SEVEN OTHERS is available from Aqueduct and on Amazon and BN.