By Sheryl Smolkin
Hi. Today I’m talking to Saskatchewan retired professor, author and playwright Gail Bowen. I’m an avid reader, so when I read her most recent Joanne Kilbourn mystery, “The Gifted,” which was published in 2013, and realized that she wrote 18 earlier books I decided to go back to the beginning and read as many of them as possible.
And while I usually interview financial experts and authors in this space, when Gail brought to my attention that 2015 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of the first Joanne Kilbourn book, I thought savewithspp.com readers would enjoy learning more about this homegrown celebrity.
In addition to writing the award-winning Joanne Kilbourn series, Gail has had several plays produced, and she wrote a radio play, “The World According to Charlie D,” based on a character in her books. Many of the Joanne Kilbourn stories have also adapted as television movies by Shaftesbury Films.
Well, thank you, Sheryl. It’s lovely to be here.
Q: Gail, you were an associate professor of English at First Nations University of Canada. How did you get started writing mysteries?
A: Well, I was asked to write something by a friend, and it was a book called “An Easterner’s Guide to Western Canada/A Westerner’s Guide to Eastern Canada.”
And my friend called me on Sunday afternoon. The deadline for the book to be published was Wednesday, and he asked me if I would do this.
At that point, we had three, small kids at home. I was teaching at the university. I was very involved in politics, and I said, “No, I’m sorry. Thanks for thinking of me.” And when I hung up, my husband said, “You know, when a friend asks you to do something, maybe you should give it a shot.”
So, I called him back, and that changed my life. After that project I was asked by the publisher if I would be interested in writing a mystery. So my writing career started when I was around 45.
Q: How did you find the time to write? How long does it take you to actually write a book from beginning to end?
A: Well, I always say each book takes two years. I have learned “to write in the cracks.” I really am very disciplined, and if I have five minutes, I’ll write for five minutes. It’s the only way I could ever get things done.
Q: Joanne Kilbourn is a widowed mother, political analyst and university professor who gets involved in frequent criminal investigations. Is she or any other characters in the book based on people you’ve actually lived and worked with in Saskatchewan?
A: No, they’re not. I mean of course there are small things. There are gestures, there are situations I use. But that tends to be almost the genesis of a creative idea.
I guess the thing I’m asked most frequently is whether Joanne is me, because her take on life is like mine. And I think of her very much as a very Canadian protagonist. When I started, that I was determined that she would be middle-aged and that she would age in the book, and that she would be very much a Canadian woman.
Most American female protagonists in mysteries are sort of lone wolves, but I think Canadians tend to be more community-minded, and Joanne is firmly rooted in her community. She has friends. Her family is so important to her. And she tends to also have very good working relationships with the police, which is often not the case in American mysteries.
Joanne also is really someone who, when she sees injustice or inequity, rolls up her sleeves and tries to do what she can to right what she perceives as wrong. And, again, I see that as a very Canadian attitude.
Q: Well, that was one of the reasons I was so excited to discover the series, because I love reading Canadian books about Canadians. So, 25 years is a long time, though, to write about one family of characters. How do you keep it fresh? And how do you keep coming up with new and evolving plot lines?
A: Well, I think, in part, it has to do with my decision to have Joanne age. This has allowed her children to grow and to bring new people into their lives, and for Joanne to change. I’m also a very different woman now at age 72 than when I started writing this series.
I think the other thing, too, is that as the series goes on, Joanne is more aware of the fact that nothing is forever. And so she really cherishes the moments that she has, but she also can kind of plow through the times that are not good.
Q: Well, realistically, nobody ever has that many murders in their life.
A: Oh, God, no. You’re quite right, of course. Anyone who’s witnessed that many murders would be looking down the business end of a rifle by now. But Henry James has that great line “you have to give the writer her givens,” and so it’s a willing suspension of disbelief. You know, she just kind of perks along despite the dismal, existential facts.
Q: I’ve been to Regina a few times, but I learned a great deal more about the city from your stories, particularly about some of the tension that exists between aboriginal and white residents. Did you draw on your experience teaching at First Nations University in the development of these characters?
A: Oh, absolutely. I live in a very affluent, white area of Regina; and we have a very blessed life. Ten minutes from my house, I could be in North Central Regina, where kids as young as maybe nine or ten are on the streets and prostituting themselves. I feel so strongly that something has to be done. I loved teaching at First Nations, and we were an integrated university, so I taught as many non-aboriginal kids as aboriginal kids. But I I did see the reality of that life, and it’s just insupportable to me. And I think that’s one of the things that also drives Joanne.
Q: Shaftesbury Films, the company that currently produces the “Murdoch Mysteries,” made several of your stories into television movies. Did you write the script? And what was it like to participate in the creative process and then see the finished product?
A: Well, I didn’t write the script. I would now, you know. I think I’m more confident.
Christina Jennings still is head of Shaftesbury and that was their first foray into television. She has had tremendous success with the company and we remain good friends.
They are good movies, and I like them. I think Christina did a really good job. But the movies are so different from the books. For one thing, there are no aboriginal people in them. And the Eastern European names common in Saskatchewan that I used were Anglicized.
Q: So, what have the sales of your books been like? Can a Canadian mystery writer make a living?
A: I could make a very poor living. But movies pay a lot. Yet as far as mystery writers, are concerned my income from my books is probably in the top five percent.
Q: So, if someone has always wanted to write fiction, but doesn’t know where to start, what would you advise them to do?
A: Well, I would advise them to start. Don’t wait. You know, you can’t move one domino in your life without moving all the other ones. There are times when I kind of wished I’d started earlier; and, yet, I wanted to be with my kids. I wanted to work at the university.
But there is no substitute for just sitting down and treating it like an office job. Nothing beats just putting your bum on the chair and doing it. The thing to do is just trust yourself and write the kind of book you want to read. That’s always kind of been what I’ve done, and it’s worked well for me.
I still believe a good book will find its way. And I think that’s what you have to believe if you want to write. I mean you have to believe yours is a book that will work.
Q: With the evolution of technology, many people are self-publishing books. In your view, what are the pros and cons of self-publishing versus the more traditional route of submitting a book for publication by a publisher, like McClelland & Stewart, as you did?
A: Yeah. Well, I’ve done a 180 on that. I’ll tell you I used to be so opposed to self-publishing. I think it was because I kind of grew into this with the old memories of vanity press – you know, where if no publisher would take your book, then you published it yourself. But, in fact, I am now a proponent of it.
I’ve been writer-in-residence at three libraries so my own evolution as far as self-publishing has grown. I’ve actually had students of mine in Regina who I’ve watched go through the process of getting something self-published, and I really recommend it highly. But if you self-publish one of the major problems you will have to contend with is how to distribute your book.
Q: I understand you’ve almost completed another book at age 72, when many people have packed it in. What keeps you writing? And do you have plans to retire the Joanne Kilbourn series at any point in the foreseeable future?
A: Well, I don’t. I mean obviously I’m going to have to at some point. Right now, before I talked to you, I was going through the edits from my editor on the new book, which is called “The Singing Grass.” And it’s very different from the book that’s coming out in March, which is “12 Rose Street.”
I’m having fun. That’s why I keep on writing at 72. So, I think as long as I’m feeling excited about what I’m doing, I will continue to do it. But the one thing I’ve promised myself from the beginning is that I don’t want to write a series that goes on too long, where the margins get bigger and the plots get thinner.
Q: Thank you so much for talking to me today, Gail.
A: Oh, it was my pleasure, lots of fun. The whole creative process just fascinates me, so it was my pleasure, Sheryl. Thank you.
This is an edited transcript of a podcast recorded on December 14, 2014.