William Kowalski has a direct yet simple outlook on the human condition. (In fact his bio on his website refers to the fact that he wears socks with sandals, and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks about that.) That is what makes his writing so unique. He answered a few questions for me here which allowed insight into him and a glimpse into his future works.
1) What inspired you to become a writer? Was it an easy job for you to get published?
A: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young, probably about six years old. I wrote short stories as a child and as a high school student, and when I was in my early 20s I decided to try writing a novel. Eddie’s Bastard was the result. It was very difficult for me–the hardest thing I’d ever done, up to that point in my life. It took about three years. Getting it published also felt very hard, but I was told that I’d had it a lot easier than some. I landed an agent within about six months, in January of 1998, and she had sold it to HarperCollins by that July. It can take much longer than that to get a book published.
2) Your writing seems very personal. Is there much research/personal experience you use for your writing or is it pure imagination?
A: I don’t really do any research for my books. I believe in writing what I know, and I’ve never felt that I could do a convincing job of writing about something just because I’d read about it. Of course, that doesn’t really explain how I can write about things I’ve never experienced, like war, for example. I do sometimes spend a very long time trying to put myself in the necessary head space for a book, and that might involve some general reading about it. But it’s more like me just asking myself a very hard question, and spending months or years coming up with the answer. For example, while I was writing The Hundred Hearts, one of the questions I was asking myself was, “How could the My Lai massacre have happened? How could American soldiers just mow down innocent people like that?” I had to go to some pretty dark places to find the answer. It took me eight years to write that book. But eventually i did arrive an AN answer. I don’t say it’s THE answer. But it’s an answer that worked for me.
3) What are you reading right now? Who are your favorite writers?
A: I just finished a book of short stories called Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, by Mark Anthony Jarman. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in years. But I don’t have much time to read these days, and when I do, it’s usually non-fiction. I’m also reading Atlantic, by Simon Winchester. He’s such a great writer.
4) Do you do much in the way of speaking engagements and public readings? If yes, is it something you enjoy doing? Have there been any memorable events that occurred during any of your readings?
A: Between 1999-2005 I did about five US speaking tours, and one in Europe. These were both exciting and torturous for me. I’m an introvert, so speaking in public requires a lot of work. Once I’m up there, I’m fine, but I’m a nervous wreck for days beforehand, and afterward I’m exhausted. I do a lot less public speaking these days, which is partly a relief, but I also miss it. The attention can be very uncomfortable for me, but I need it to succeed as a writer, and if I’m to be honest there’s a part of me that likes it, too. The most memorable thing that occurred was when one gentleman showed up at a reading to chastise me for using the word “bastard” in the title of my first book. It turned out he didn’t really have a larger point than that, and he hadn’t even read it. He just wanted to give me a hard time, because he believed it was an evil word. You really never know what kinds of people you’re going to meet on the road.
5) You seemed somewhat surprised that I had reviewed “Eddie’s Bastard” recently. Has your writing changed much since you first started being published?
A: I feel that I am a very different writer now. I wrote that book between the ages of 25-28, and I’m turning 46 this year. I don’t even feel like the same person. I know my writing has changed drastically. David Adams Richards put it beautifully when I saw him read last summer in Port Medway. He talked about how young men are often prone to very lyrical writing, and as they age, they become more analytical. This was a really valuable insight for me, because I didn’t understand why I had changed–I just knew that I had. I actually wrote a blog post about this: https://williamkowalski.com/wise-words-from-an-older-writer/
6) You have written several books for the Rapid Reads series for Reluctant Readers. Is there much difference writing a book with that audience in mind as opposed to a regular novel?
A: The Rapid Reads books are shorter, so they’re easier in that sense. But they’re harder in that I have to keep my voice very simple, which requires a great deal of restraint. I regard this as excellent practice for my craft. Showing off all the time is self-indulgent. Keeping it deliberately simple is very hard. If anyone doesn’t believe me, try doing ten pushups very, very slowly and see how you feel afterwards.
7) You seem to have an active presence on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you feel about using those apps? Does help or hinder your writing?
A:. Anything that isn’t writing is hindering my writing, although many life experiences, such as being a husband and father, are really a great help to my craft in the long run. My real problem with social media is that I absolutely love computers. I am obsessed with them. They’re a huge distraction. About ten years ago I started building websites for myself, and it’s gotten to the point now where I actually have several clients for my web design services. It’s a nice bit of extra money, but mostly I do it because I love it. Twitter and Facebook are fun for me. They’re a great way to tell people about what I’m up to, and I get a little thrill when I see something I’ve written or tweeted take off, even in a small way. This is why everyone likes those things, I think. It’s like being micro-published.
8) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
A: I’m currently writing a novel about the Polish immigrant experience in Buffalo, NY around the turn of the last century. It’s told from the point of view of a young woman who is based on my great-grandmother, Aniela. She came from Poland when she was a teenager, in 1908, and lived until 1990, so she saw a lot of changes in her life. I was privileged to know her and have always found her story fascinating. It’s really a very common story for a lot of immigrants in that time and place, but I think that’s what makes it valuable.
I’m also working on a web project: My Writing Network. My goal with this is to provide anyone with an interest in writing with a free website and membership to our online forums, so they can connect with other writers and promote their own work online in any way they see fit. This is all done with open-source software, and it’s free for everyone. It’s up and running now at https://mywriting.network. I hope some of your readers will check it out.
9) No doubt you have seen the debates over what we consider Canadian literature. I have seen some of your books tagged in libraries with little maple leaves denoting that it is Canlit, and sometimes not. You are born in the U.S. but now live in Canada. Do you consider your writing as Canadian or is it in a more broader scope of literature.
A: I am a Canadian citizen now, but I don’t try to label myself as a Canadian writer or an American writer. I moved to Canada when I was 30 years old, so I was pretty much formed by then. I love Canada, and especially Nova Scotia. Moving here was one of the best things I ever did. I came because of my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife of 14 years. But if I were to try and write a book that was set in Canada, or that set out to be a deliberately Canadian book, I think I would probably fail. I didn’t grow up here and I don’t have the same frames of reference Canadians have. It goes back to “write what you know”. I would probably fail just as much if I tried to write a book set in Texas or Tajikistan. I do understand why Canadians are so bent on distinguishing their literary culture from that of the US. American media is so dominant everywhere that it threatens to stamp out anything unique in other parts of the world. I think if I had been born Canadian, I would probably have a strong dislike for anything American. So, people who stick up for CanLit have my full sympathy. I will leave it up to others to determine whether I belong among the ranks of Canadian writers or not, the same as I leave it up to others to interpret my work and discuss what it’s about. It’s not for me to tell people what to think. It’s just my job to write, and I hope to keep doing that until the day I drop dead.