Interview with Bill Bowler
by Don Webb
Bill, your filling the new position of Bewildering Stories’ Coordinating Editor beginning with the second half of 2007 has been a lifesaver for us in many ways, and the operation has been running as smoothly as can be. Is the work in any way similar to that of your day job? Are you naturally gifted as an administrator?
Thanks for the kind words, Don. Many hands make light work. In real life, I traffic a high volume of contracts, keeping track of where they are and in what stage of completion. I rig up Excel spreadsheets to record whose desk the paperwork is on and when it got there. Moving submissions through the BwS pipeline can be accomplished with roughly the same tools. I don’t think it comes natural but I get a lot of practice.
What advice would you give to contributors in general? Aside from following the formatting instructions on our sample page, what can contributors do to make their submissions really attractive?
My advice is write a good story. Use your head but write from the heart. Convey ideas and emotions. There aren’t really any rules, and they all can be broken, but it still helps if the story is interesting from the very beginning.
I recommend using the simple device of a plot hook. From the start, put the characters into conflict, have an intrigue brewing, place an obstacle in the way. Grab the reader’s attention. Tease him; drop hints; but never show all your cards and don’t explain everything. In fact, don’t explain anything. Let the reader solve the puzzle.
And stick to the story. Don’t go wandering off. Just tell us what we need to know in as few words as possible. Any detail, passage, or line of dialog that does not advance the story should probably be cut.
It’s also generally a good idea to avoid stereotypes and clichés, as they lead quickly to boredom. I also recommend that all contributors — and anyone who wants to write — read Elements of Style by Strunk & White and follow Mark Twain’s “rules” of good writing: “Eschew surplusage,” “Never use two words when one will do,” “Use the right word, not its second cousin,” etc., etc.
Your editorial style is distinguished by open-minded generosity, a willingness to search for wheat among the chaff and for diamonds in the rough; and that fits perfectly with Bewildering Stories’ mission. Is that your natural style? Or do you make a conscious effort to counterbalance what might be a strict or even hard-nosed adherence to “standards”?
I’m too aware of how much work, and how much heart and soul a writer pours into his writing to dismiss things out of hand. Given that Bewildering Stories’ mission encompasses education, I use a sliding scale when evaluating submissions. If a new or inexperienced writer makes a bona fide effort to improve his story through revisions and re-writes, then I’m inclined to acknowledge that. The bar may be placed higher for a second submission or for an experienced writer who is operating at a more advanced level.
Can you give our readers an idea of what it’s like to be a member of the Review Board? Aside from the formal qualification of being a contributor to Bewildering Stories, what special qualities or advantages would you say our members need?
The Review Board is a lot of fun and a lot of work. We read the issue before it “hits the stands” and discuss among ourselves the pros and cons of the various pieces. A consensus emerges from our discussion. And there is nothing more instructive and enlightening than to hear other, objective opinions about a story that may not, ahem, fully agree with one’s own. One might even be forced on occasion to (gasp!) change one’s mind.
The Review Board members need a thorough grasp of basic writing mechanics, a love of reading and writing, and the ability to support their positions with concise, well reasoned arguments.
How does the work of the Review Board differ from that of the Associate Editors, i.e. the review readers? In what way is each important?
The Associate Editors are our “slush” readers. They get raw submissions straight from the in-box and give us their comments and recommendations. It is not collaborative work, like the Review Board. The Associate Editors provide the initial screening. Afterwards, the Review Board takes a collective look at what has made it through to print.
When and why did you decide to get a degree in Slavic languages and literature? Do you find that it helps with your writing or your work at Bewildering Stories?
My degree was a fluke, the result of a series of zigzags. When I went to high school in the 60’s, it was the “post Sputnik” Cold War era. The Soviets had put up a satellite and the fear was that America was falling behind Russia. As a result, an ordinary high school in New Jersey thought fit to offer Russian as a language option. (Of course, they don’t offer it any more. As I understand it, they’ve since phased out education because it’s too expensive.)
At the time, I was thinking, “Spanish? French? Russian? Eh, what’s the difference? Hmm, Russian might be something a little different.” But I just happened to get a really good teacher. So by the time I finished high school, I already had four years of Russian under my belt.
Freshman year in college, I placed into History 100 and Science 100 but Russian 300. Since I was more advanced in Russian, it was naturally more interesting and, once again, I was fortunate to have really good teachers.
Then I started reading Russian literature in Russian. The first thing was Crime & Punishment, one chapter a week. That was the end of it. Dostoevsky. Tolstoy. Gogol. Pushkin. Once I started, I never looked back.
And throughout high school, college, and grad school, the average size of my Russian classes was around six. So I basically got a sixteen-year private tutorial in Russian language and literature.
Now, when one graduated from college around 1972, one was invited by Richard M. Nixon to visit Vietnam if one were not otherwise engaged. This was just before the draft boards did away with the 2-S student deferments. So I shipped off to Ann Arbor and stayed in school until they threw a Ph.D. at me and told me to move along.
All that being said, Russian literature changed my life. It fills my bookshelf and I’m always reading something in Russian. It colors everything I write, if not everything I do.
Did you return to New York after grad school because the academic workplace was going through a depression in the 1980’s? Or did you just want to go home to the Big Apple? Some other reason?
Well... teaching Russian literature at the university level is my lost Shangri-la. But my academic record and experience at Michigan was a bit... uneven. Two of my professors independently called me into their offices and suggested I leave the field and pursue something for which I had more aptitude.
I remember the chairman telling me in exasperation that he didn’t know what to make of me. Half of my professors thought I was some kind of budding genius and the other half thought I had no business being there.
When, much to everyone’s surprise including my own, I actually graduated and took the Ph.D., the job situation in Slavic was exceedingly bleak. It has since turned around but, at the time, after giving it the most careful consideration, I thought my best move was to go to New York, write poetry, and chase girls. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
You’ve often referred to your works with familial fondness, and I’m sure you speak for most writers of fiction and poetry. Do you find that emotional involvement with one’s own work is a byproduct of imagination? Is it necessary to imagination? Have you ever found it to be a handicap at the same time?
It’s a double-edged sword. You’ve got to pour your heart into your writing or the results will be dead on the page. Lifeless. But, at the same time, after you pour your heart in, then you’ve got to step back, put your feelings aside, and look at it objectively so you can perform the necessary surgery with a steady hand. You’ve got to love it and then dissect it. It’s not so easy.
Certain themes seem to recur in your stories. One of them is what one might call a doomed Cinderella motif, as in “Broken Parts,” “Heart Too Hard,” and “Ayla.” And we find environmental catastrophes, communication breakdowns, and identity crises in “Garbage Planet” and “Significant Other.” Do you naturally prefer tragedy to comedy?
The themes come in unconsciously. In the writing, I tend to think in terms of characters and situations. At the same time, I suffer from chronic Weltschmerz and my ennui acts up now and then.
When I look at the world and see the awful things people do to each other and the unjust and ironic things that happen to people, it strikes me as tragicomedy. So my characters do those things to each other and those kinds of things happen to them. The world is such a bloody mess, it’s ridiculous. You have to laugh to keep from crying. The Russian writers called it smyekh cherez slyozy, ‘laughter through tears’.
Do you have other favorite topics or themes you like to build your stories around?
What does it mean to be “human?” What qualities are human qualities? As Mephistopheles remarked to Faust, “Nothing human is alien to me.” That is, the behavior we might wish to condemn as inhuman is precisely human. Or as Mark Twain observed, “If you take in a stray dog, shelter it, feed it — it won’t bite you. That’s the difference between dogs and people.” So, though it may seem obvious, I like to explore the idea of what it means to be human, and that leads immediately to the labyrinth of human emotions. The bitter injustice of life and its fleeting nature are also of interest.
What is the significance of “android” stories in general? What is the difference between androids or robots and the space aliens that have always dominated science fiction? What dramatic opportunities do robots and androids offer that human characters do not?
Robot stories have a fine pedigree. Asimov traces it in one of his articles. In its broadest sense, the lifeless humanoid created by man, it dates back to the Jewish Golem myth and the Victorian Frankenstein story. Robots per se make their appearance, I think, in Capek’s play RUR written in the 1920’s. Asimov, in the 50’s and 60’s, explored the robot theme in depth.
Interestingly, Asimov was polemicizing with Mary Shelly and Capek, with the Frankenstein monster mythos, with the idea that the created humanoid was a threat to its creator. Asimov wanted to represent robots as humanity’s servants and helpers, thus the moral imperative of the Laws of Robotics.
In parallel to the robot literature, robot cinema also developed and thrived. Many of the great robots are movie robots: the one in Lang’s Metropolis, Gort, Robby the Robot, Robocop, the Terminator, Mr. Data.
The great literary summation of the problematic is P.K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Humans have to save themselves and kill the androids, but no one can tell which is which without testing, and the test results are inconclusive. In fact, individuals themselves, including Rick Deckard, who hunts and kills androids, are unsure of their own identity: android or human?
The human mind renders everything into human form. A circle and two dots become a face. A circle and a couple of lines are seen as a human body. Robots and androids look human. They become ciphers. We react to them as if they were human, knowing full well they are not. It’s a bit of a paradox.
Now, with modern computer technology, AI is approaching and even surpassing human intelligence. But what about the other equally strong human force: emotion? Androids have no feelings. (Or do they? What about AL, Artificial Love?) They are machines.
In my story “Broken Parts,” the guy is beating the crap out of his “female” android. But who cares? He might as well be beating up his toaster. So, in robot stories, you are able to display and explore the ironies and ambiguities of human emotions, to throw them into stark relief, by depicting their interaction with the emotionless machine to which we cannot quite help ascribing emotions anyway, against our better judgment.
The Star Trek Borg episode where the Borg Queen gives Mr. Data feelings is a brilliant depiction of just this set of issues. And if we then proceed to cyborgs, hybrid robot/human entities (like Robocop, whose human memories start to return), it gets very blurry and we open up a whole new can of worms.
What do you find hardest about writing? What do you find most enjoyable?
The hardest thing is to get your rear end down on the chair and sit still. The next hardest thing is staring at the blank page. You’ve had some vague ideas floating around in your head and simmering for a while but now you’ve got to crank it out, creating something out of nothing. That’s the tough part. The enjoyment comes from the satisfaction of creating a thing of beauty and from the pleasure of communicating with other human beings, in this case, the reader.
You have a very respectable bibliography at Bewildering Stories. What motivates you to write? The sheer fun of it? A message?
Writing is not fun, exactly, since there’s so much work involved. But there’s the satisfaction from creating and the pleasure of communicating that I mentioned. I have no message. I’m just objectively reporting what I see, in one form or another.
You’ve mentioned Stanislaw Lem as one of your favorite authors. Would you agree with one critic who said that Lem hated life? Or does Lem have a special kind of humor that North Americans, in particular, might overlook?
I love Lem. He’s one of my favorite Russian authors (a little joke there: I read him in Russian translation). I don’t understand why anyone would think that Lem hated life. Life no doubt looked a little dubious to young Stanislaw and his compatriots when those jolly fellows, the Wehrmacht, marched into Poland. But I don’t get any bitterness or anger in Lem’s work. Quite the contrary.
His memoir, which I would highly recommend to everyone, is called The High Castle. It is a lovely, poignant, tender reminiscence of a bygone era. As to his humor, a lot of Lem is cerebral but isn’t Futurological Congress hysterically funny? And how could someone who “hated life” write a beautiful, poignant, tragic love story like Solaris, which, of course, is another really intense look at what it means to be human?
Do you have any favorite stories of other authors that you like to reread?
Dostoevsky. I read and re-read his work and will continue doing so until the light fails. He was a genius in all forms of narration and characterization. The Idiot is my personal favorite but his novels are like Beethoven symphonies, a great body of work. Take your pick. And it’s amazing, really, to re-read at the age of fifty something by Dostoevsky I’d originally read when I was twenty. It becomes a new experience.
In the Sci Fi/Fantasy department, I’d advise reading all of P.K. Dick. It expands your brain. You’ve also got to read at least a couple of Lovecraft stories to really comprehend and fathom the unique narration that the man was doing. Not much happens. It’s all about mood, essentially a growing sense of dread. “The Whisperer in Darkness” is incredible. It’s like Edgar Allan Poe narrating “Attack of the Crab Monsters.” It’s got to be read to be believed.
The Strugatsky Brothers also bear reading and re-reading. It is sci-fi as serious literature, as art. Can you imagine? Their works were banned. To understand the recent history and development of sci-fi writing since the advent of computers, you should take a look at William Gibson’s Neuromancer and, probably, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash
Suppose you had to recommend to a newcomer one story that is one of your personal favorites and that you think would give the newcomer a quick glimpse of what Bewildering Stories is all about. For the purposes of discussion, it can’t be one of your own works or one by a current member of the Review Board.
Maybe ‘Sharpshooter,” by Steve Murphy. It’s a brilliant work in many ways. A great character, tour de force narration, compelling scenario.
What writing projects of your own do you have in mind? What might we look forward to from you?
I’m cooking up a vampire story at the moment. It’s something new for me. Lyrical. No politics. “Horror” fantasy instead of high tech sci-fi. It’s really fun. I’ve read the Nightwatch trilogy by Lukyanenko and just finished Witcher by Sapkowski — so I’ve fallen under their spell and am stealing from them like crazy. Stay tuned.
Thanks, Bill, and best of luck with your stories and your work as Coordinating Editor.
Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bowler