Aliza Prodaniuk: What drew you to the mystery genre? When did you begin to take your writing seriously?
Gail Bowen: I came to writing late. I was in my mid-forties when I got asked to write a lighthearted piece for Prairie Books. It was fun! The fellow who was the publisher liked it enough to suggest that Ron Marken and I write a book. We called the book The Love Letters of George and Adelaide, 1919. It ultimately became a play called Dancing in Poppies that Prince Edward came to see, which was very exciting. After that, I was bit by the writing bug.
In graduate school, my summer reading list was always mysteries. I thought to myself, “I’d like to write a mystery,” one that was set in Saskatchewan and captured the local flavour. That was very important to me. It was also important to create a main character that reflected myself: someone who lived in Saskatchewan, someone middle-aged and ageing, someone with a family, not a superwoman, but an academic like me. That’s really how things started.
AP: Do you pre-plan your writing? Or do you write by the seat of your pants?
GB: The first chapter is very important for me in setting up my story. It takes me forever to write the first chapter. My latest book, An Image in the Lake, took me three months to get through the first chapter. However, when I get the first chapter done, I know where I’m going. There are always surprises along the way, and that’s the joy of writing. But at that point, I have a good idea of what will happen in the book. That first chapter never gets easier for me. Twenty books in, and I still think, “What if I can’t pull the rabbit out of the hat this time?” Luckily, even though the writing hasn’t become easier, with experience, I can tell when I’m doing something that isn’t working.
AP: Congratulations on your recent publication. An Image in the Lake is the 20th novel in the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series. How did you get here? How do you keep such a long series healthy and fresh?
GB: As I said before, I made several decisions early on that have helped keep things going and keep my readers and me interested. I get an awful lot of mail about the books — I’m grateful for it, and I answer everyone, even the cranky ones — and I think the biggest thing that people continue to care about is Joanne, the protagonist, and her family. Joanne is very approachable. She is not extraordinary in any way. She is every woman. Because she has aged throughout the series, many readers have gone through their middle ages with her and can identify with her experiences.
Joanne keeps me coming back to the series, too. People are like onions; the more time you spend peeling and peeling away their layers, the closer you get to what that person is. That’s the exciting part for me. Joanne constantly surprises me, even after all this time!
If it ever becomes a chore, then I’ll stop. I think we’ve all read series that have gone on too long, and you can tell that the writer hates the story and their protagonist. I’ve gotten so much out of these books. Six of them have been made into movies, and we got to go to Toronto and be part of that process. We have had so many travels and met so many people, and now they are being made into audiobooks. The series has been so good to me that I’m not going to let it go on too long and be terrible at the end. I’m noticing now that I’m starting to put proper endings on the novels that would be satisfying just in case it’s the last one. I don’t leave anyone hanging.
AP: What advice would you give to emerging writers?
GB: Take a great deal of time developing your protagonist and getting to know them. The time you put into pre-writing is well worth the effort. It will save you from making an awful lot of mistakes along the way or from simply running out of gas.
The other thing is, no matter what kind of book you are writing, get your money’s worth out of secondary characters. They can do so much for you. They can keep the interest up so that you’re not totally plot-driven in your narrative.
Learn about pacing novels. That’s really important, too. Periods of actions and reflection are equally important, and you will want to learn how to balance them.
Write every day and never leave your work in a bad place! That’s the most important thing I can say.
AP: What’s next for Gail Bowen?
GB: I just got through chapter one of my next book, and I’m feeling really happy with it. After Christmas, I will be participating in a program through the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild that provides writing advice to rural areas where it’s not readily available. In November, I will also be giving a lecture on Canadian Literature at Marburg University in Germany. So, I will be very busy in the coming months.
Gail Bowen is a prolific author, playwright and teacher. Her best-known works are the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series of mystery novels, all of which are set in Saskatchewan. The twenty novels in the series have received national and international acclaim for their realistic, continually evolving heroine and examinations of contemporary social issues ranging from child prostitution to feminism, racism and domestic abuse. Six books in the series have been successfully adapted for an international television audience. Among her numerous writing awards are a lifetime achievement award from the Crime Writers of Canada and the Distinguished Canadian Award from the University of Regina and the Lifelong Learning Centre. Readers’ Digest has called her Canada’s best mystery novelist. She is also a playwright, specializing in children’s literature, and has adapted a number of classic works such as Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast for the stage and radio. In 2018, she was awarded the Grand Master Award of Crime Writers of Canada, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.
Aliza Prodaniuk lives in Hamilton, Ontario and is a current graduate student in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. She has had recent work appear in East by Northeast Literary Magazine & The River Volta Review of Books.