Tag Archives: William Kowalski

An Honest Look at the Who We Are and Where We Come From | Review of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” by William Kowalski

It was an honour to receive an advance copy of this book from the author.

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Many of us in North America descend from people who came from Europe. We have had to learn to accept some of the traditions of the ‘old country’ while trying to figure out what are superstitions and prejudices which have no bearing on our own lives in the ‘new world.’ The physical,  mental and emotional  struggles of immigrants and their descendants are important ones to note when pondering the human condition in literature. And that what William Kowalski has given us in his well-crafted book The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo.

Page 15

Of, course, darkness brought its own terrors, as any girl in this world of men knew all too well. They stayed together at all times, each one constantly checking to make sure the others were close by. They slept in shifts to ensure that no male dared try anything while they were asleep. they continued their prayers to St. Christopher, and they added added new ones to St. Jude, the saint of lost causes, for by now they had begun to understand that their entire way of life was lost to them, and the odds against them surviving this journey were very great indeed.

The strangest thing of all about this ship was that everyone was mixed together: Poles, Jews, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, Romaninas, Russians, Bohemians, Bavarians. They huddled together in tribes, dividing themselves naturally according to language and culture, glaring at each other with suspicion. Aniela had not known such a melange of humanity existed, nor that all these languages existed, either. It was proof that the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel was true. Some of these people she had never even heard of.

She had seen Jews before, but she had never been this close to one, let alone whole families of them; she found herself observing them curiously, wondering if all the horrible things the priest had said about them were true. He had lied about practically everything else, after all, including his own divinity. These Jews appeared to be serious grim people. They kept to themselves, and they regarded everyone around them with mistrust. But then, so did everyone else. All in all, despite their funny locks of hair that curled down from the men’s ears, and the strange clothing styles of the women, they did not seem so different.

Kowalski’s previous works are noted novels about the human condition, but this book for him is a deeply personal project from beginning to end. (See my Q&A with him about the launch of his crowdfunding project to get this book published last year.) This book brilliantly shows the life of his great-grandmother Amelia (and her legacy) while trying to build a life in America. But this is no rags-to-riches, and they-all-lived-happily-ever-after immigrant story that are so commonplace. Kowalski honestly documents how immigrants continually win and loose during their lives in North America. Yet even if the losses seem overwhelming and their traditions fade, the resilience of immigrants like Amelia continues, and continues to inspire.

Page 23

It was the ruination of their American dream Iggy was staring at now.

Iggy had heart the American Dream lecture so many times as a kid that back then it was all he thought about. Anyone could make it in America if they just worked hard, everyone said – his parents, his uncles, his cousins, his grandparents, every his great-grandmother herself, who had lived to be ninety-eight years old. He had known her well, although he could barely understand her, since he didn’t speak Polish and had never had more than a passing acquaintance with the English language.

If you didn’t make it in America, there was something seriously wrong with you. You just weren’t trying. You didn’t appreciate the sacrifice your ancestors had made on your behalf, leaving behind everything they held dear.

Nope. If you didn’t make it, you were a failure – not just in business, but as a person, and in the eyes of all those who had come before you.

Iggy sighed and looked at the time on his cell phone. It was nearly time to start prepping for dinner.

While Kowalski may have borrowed story lines from his family and his Polish-American background, he has honestly documented many occurrences that are common for many descendants of European stock in America and brought them to the public domain. He has given certainly many of his fans some thoughts and discussions because of his plot about their own lives. This book is not only a great addition to literature but a glowing tribute to his family.

Page 38

But what Zofia didn’t know was that Aniela planned on remaining unmarried and childless. In fact, she planned on having nothing to do with men whatsoever. The Prussian teacher had been only half right. It wasn’t just Plish men who were pigs. It was all men, everywhere. This had been her experience with just about every man she’d ever met. She would have liked to have been proven wrong, but so far it hadn’t happened. Her father was cruel to her mother. Her brothers were cruel to their sisters. Even the priest got so drunk on vodka sometimes that his hands seemed not to know what they were doing, and this was a man of God. All the girls in the village knew to stay far away from him when he was on one of his benders, or they might get invited back to his cottage for a private confession.

Aniela shook her head. She had to remember to leave these old thoughts behind. That priest, that teacher, her father, her brothers, hadn’t followed her to Ameryka, after all. She was safe from them now. And maybe the men of Ameryka would be different.

Besides, there were new challenges to deal with. It was all well and good to speak Polish in the streets of Black Rock, but eventually this business of English would have to be dealt with, or she would never succeed here – not unless she wanted to be an ignorant washerwoman all her life.

It was a true pleasure to dine upon The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo by William Kowalski. The many thoughts and experiences that Kowalski documents in the book are universal for any person of any European background living in North America yet never have been truly mention before. A great and unique piece of literature and a great tribute to Kowalski’s family.

*****

Link to the official website for The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo

Link to William Kowalski’s website

“A lot of black people are living in circumstances that middle-class and upper-class whites can’t imagine. So, I wrote this book partly to help illuminate that fact.” | Q&A with author William Kowalski about his new book JUMPED IN

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Image linked from the publisher’s website

For many of us readers, we understand the power of the gaining enlightenment through the written word. But for those of us who deal with individuals who are just becoming aware of the power that engaging in the act has, the thrill of sharing the joy of reading can be equally thrilling. Novelist William Kowalski is gifted in documenting the human condition through his books, but his love of his craft and his understanding of the power of his final product shines through his work with Orca Books’ Rapid Reads series. As his latest item for Rapid Reads is about to come out, he answers a few questions for me about his book, JUMPED IN, and he explains the power of the written word has for all of us. JUMPED IN will be released April 18, 2017.

*****

1) First off, could you give an outline of JUMPED IN?

JUMPED IN is part of my Rapid Reads series, which is written for adults who are new to reading.
>p<
It’s the story of a 16-year-old named Rasheed, who lives in a bad neighborhood in a large city. His school is so dangerous that he’s dropped out. His sister was the victim of a drive-by shooting when she was a little girl and is now paralyzed. His mother has become addicted to her daughter’s painkillers. His father’s whereabouts are unknown. His neighborhood is ruled by a gang called the E Street Locals, who are constantly trying to get him to join. Rasheed seeks to escape all this by hanging out on a nearby university campus. Here he meets a campus cop who eventually takes him under his wing and helps him realize that his strong desire to make his world safe for his family again can be translated into a career in law enforcement, rather than always rebelling against authority. The Locals jump him in, but he’s able to escape from them, and we get the sense that he has a real chance to start over.
 

2) Was there anything specifically that caused you to write this book? Is there anything you hope readers will gain from JUMPED IN?

I was motivated partly by the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer. It sprang up in the U.S. as a response to several police shooting of unarmed black men. I was really disgusted by some of the responses of my white friends to the whole thing. They didn’t seem to understand or care that being black in the U.S. is a whole different experience, and that people do not have the same opportunities just because they are Americans. A lot of black people are living in circumstances that middle-class and upper-class whites can’t imagine. So, I wrote this book partly to help illuminate that fact. 
>P<
Like all Rapid Reads book, I also wrote it to address a specific audience. I wanted to create a character that my readers could identify with. These books are written for teens and adults who are interested in becoming better readers. A lot of them are locked up. We know that a disproportionate number of people of color go to jail in our society. This book is for them, too. Not only does it show them that someone out there understands them, but it helps them see there’s a way out, too.
 

3) The Rapid Reads website has this listed as your seventh book with them. Has your writing changed at all since your first book with this series? 

I think it’s become clearer and simpler, a little more so with every book. Writing this way is good for me. I have to practice my basic techniques over and over. I think it keeps me fresh.
 

4) Have you had any contact with any readers of your books from the Rapid Reads series? If yes, what was their reaction to your books?

I get lots of letters from people who read these books. Often, their adult education instructors will forward them to me. They seem to really like them. For many of them, it’s the first book they’ve ever read. That’s a big deal. You never forget your first book. They’re proud of themselves for having finished. They let me know what they liked and didn’t like about the story, and they are always curious to know if I will write more. I always write back.
 

5) Do you think you will be doing any future books for Rapid Reads?

I hope to continue to write a book a year for the Orca people! We have a great relationship, and it’s working well for both of us.
*****

“I also suspected that large traditional publishers might turn their noses up at a book that appeared to be so “ethnic”. Being Polish hasn’t become cool yet, though every group will have its day sooner or later.” | Q&A with author William Kowalski on using crowdfunding to publish his latest book

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William Kowalski is one of the most detailed writers I know. So I was surprised to see about a month ago that he had launched a Kickstarter Crowdfunding campaign to fund his latest book The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo. But before my next paycheck came in in order for me  to help with his book, his campaign goal was reached. So in order to find out more about this book and the campaign, I asked Kowalski to answer a few questions for me – about the book, the campaign, and anything else he was working on. He took time out from a busy schedule to oblige me.

*****

1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo?”

This story is partly fiction, and partly based on a real person: my great-grandmother. It moves back and forth in time, alternating chapter by chapter,from 1908 through the 20th century to the present day. In the historical chapters, we see a young Polish immigrant, her mother, and her sisters arriving at Ellis Island, making the trip to Buffalo, New York, and joining the throngs of Poles already there. Immediately, they do what everyone else around them is doing: they dig in and try to find some way to get established. In the present-day chapters, we meet their descendants, who are dealing with modern challenges, but who still feel a strong connection to their ancestors. Like many of my books, it has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. It’s about how these two worlds connect, and about what might come next for this family.

2) Was there something specific that inspired or motivated you to write “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo?”

There were several things, but most importantly, I was inspired by my great-grandmother, Amelia.

I knew her fairly well, since she lived to be 98 years old. She passed away when I was 20. She was born in a tiny village in Poland in 1892, and she immigrated to America when she was 16. I was always fascinated by what her life must have been like, but she was never very forthcoming with details. Whenever I asked her about life in Poland, she would claim she didn’t remember. She seemed so incredibly old to me that I had no trouble believing she had simply forgotten ever being a child.

But now that I’m older, I know that our greatest hurts nearly always feel like they just happened yesterday. And the more I learned about what her life must have been like under the Prussian occupation, the more I realized it must have been so awful she preferred not to mention it. All of Poland was suffering during that time, under three simultaneous occupations: by the Prussians, the Russians, and the Austrians. Legally speaking, Poland didn’t even exist when my great-grandmother was born. It was treated by these nations like Tibet is treated now by China. If you buy a globe made in China, you’ll notice that Tibet doesn’t appear on it. Poland had no place on the map, attempts were made to erase its history, and its people were regarded as inferior.

I became even more fascinated when I realized that Amelia had come here with her mother and sisters–but with no men accompanying them. They left her father and brothers behind in Poland, and they never saw them again. In those days, that must have seemed very strange. Normally it was the men who would come over and work until they had saved enough money to send for their families. You did not often see women making such a huge journey on their own. There must have been circumstances behind this. I can guess at what they were, but we will never know for sure.

I wrote this book partly as a tribute to my great-grandmother, and partly because I wanted to get to know her better. I did a lot of research, and I made her world come alive for me.

I wrote it also because I was raised without much of a Polish identity. At this point, after three generations, we’re pretty much just American. I’m fine with that, but I’m still curious. What did it mean to be a Polish-American? I wanted to know more. I’ve explored the Irish side of my heritage, and someday soon I hope to begin exploring the Jewish side, which is a small part of my ancestry I didn’t even know existed until very recently. I have a lot of German background as well. As you can probably guess, this is really just a journey of self-discovery. These people made me who I am. I want to know who they were.

3) You have used a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to help fund self-publishing the book. What inspired you use that format to ‘get the book out’ as opposed to the traditional method of sending a manuscript to a publisher for them to consider printing?

There were a few reasons. Primarily, my experience with traditional publishing lately has been very disappointing. It’s always been a difficult industry, but my last traditionally-published book, THE HUNDRED HEARTS, was abandoned by its Canadian publisher and never found a traditional home in the U.S. at all, even though it won a major award and has been translated into German. So, I’m kind of fed up with the status quo.

I also didn’t feel like dealing with all the waiting and the disappointment that goes along with submitting a manuscript through an agent. It can take years for a book to get published. It might never happen at all. I’ve been down that road too many times. It’s starting to feel like madness. I know how to market this book and who to market it to, and the technology is there for me to do it myself. I don’t need to give up ninety percent of my royalties to make it a success. Maybe I’m being naive, but I think I can bring this book to the tipping point. I wrote it for a broad readership. It’s a very accessible book–it’s far shorter than most of my novels, which I think is a good thing, and it deals in universal themes that anyone can relate to.

I also suspected that large traditional publishers might turn their noses up at a book that appeared to be so “ethnic”. Being Polish hasn’t become cool yet, though every group will have its day sooner or later. It’s funny–I could never reasonably claim that I’ve been the victim of prejudice or racism, because on the surface I’m a white male, and I have benefited enormously from the privilege that accompanies that in our society. But there is still a distinct, if subtle, bias against Polish last names. There are certain assumptions about them, certain stereotypes: the big dumb sloppy Polak, or else maybe Brando’s portrayal of the violent, animalistic Stanley Kowalski, or the jokes about screen doors in submarines. We don’t really associate Polish names with literary fiction. When my first book was published in 1999, a woman I know who worked in publishing told me that if it had come out even a decade earlier, I would have been forced to change my name to something more WASPy sounding. I laughed it off, but at the same time I found it painful.

The Kickstarter campaign occurred to me because I wanted to prepare the manuscript in all the ways a small publisher would, but I’m supporting a family and paying a mortgage, and I just didn’t have the extra money. I wanted to be a to pay an editor and a cover designer, and to have some money for advertising. I knew this would take at least several thousand dollars. I felt like I could raise that if I pre-sold copies of the book, which is essentially how my campaign was presented. I let people know that the book was already written. I think that made a difference. They weren’t subsidizing endless hours of me daydreaming in my bathrobe. They were investing in something that could rightly be considered a cultural commodity, something that had value for them. I also presented it as a new way of publishing, that is, the readers deciding ahead of time what they want to read, rather than having publishers make that decision for them. I’m certainly not the first person to think of that, but for many of my subscribers, this was the first time they had been exposed to that notion, and I think it appealed to them.

4) Am I right in assuming that your Kickstarter campaign was a complete success?Will you now be able to publish the book? (Even publish the book sooner than you expected?)

To my delight, my campaign surpassed my goal by about a thousand dollars. So,yes, I will be able to self-publish the book in the way I had envisioned, hiring a professional editor and cover designer. I’ll record some radio spots and buy some air time in key markets, and I hope I’ll have some left over for internet advertising as well.

I’m allowing plenty of time for the editing and the various design elements to happen because I don’t want anything to be rushed. If the book comes out some weeks earlier than planned, so much the better. I think that’s likely. But there is still a lot to do.

5) You mentioned in a blog post how much Facebook was used to during the campaign. (“I should really call this a KickFace campaign, or some similar portmanteau. https://williamkowalski.com/self-publish-like-pro-part-1/ ) Did that really surprise you? Will you be using Facebook more as opposed to other social-media applications from now on?

I’ve been using Facebook for a long time, but I had assumed that only a small portion of Kickstarter subscribers would find me through it. Boy, was I wrong. As I mentioned in that blog post, nearly all my subscribers came through Facebook, and they were nearly all people I knew. If it wasn’t for Facebook, I have no idea how this would have turned out. Probably not well. Kickstarter will promote certain campaigns itself, but they seem to focus on the really cool, flashy technology ventures. My Twitter campaign was ignored, drowned out in the chaos of the Trump circus and the nine zillion other more important things going on around the world. My posts on other sites were scarcely effective. In the end, it all came together because of Facebook.

6) Most of my fellow readers (and myself) not only enjoy reading books but also getting out and hearing authors speak about their works. Are you planning a tour with “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” once you get it published? If yes, is that something you plan to pay for yourself?

I think publicity events are going to be crucial. I hate to say this, because I detest touring–I’m really an introvert, and I would prefer to stay home. But once I’m out and about, I enjoy myself. I still have a lot of family in Buffalo, and there are sizable Polish communities there, in my hometown of Erie, PA, and in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Allentown, etc. It’s not that this book will only appeal to Polish-Americans, but they are a logical place to start when it comes to scheduling events. I don’t know if I will visit all these places, or how I’m going to pay for it. But there have been changes in how touring works, too. Sometimes authors will agree to come speak to a group if that group will chip in for a motel room for the night, for example. If you get enough friends together, it costs you very little to have an author spend an evening with you, and it’s a great scenario for the author because he gets to sell books. So, any touring I do will probably follow that sort of a model. I will likely start planning that in the new year. In fact, I already have one event lined up, through a genealogical society in western New York State.

7) You mentioned on your Facebook page that you recently agreed to work with Orca Book to create another book for their “Rapid Reads” series. Are there details about it you can share? (Release date, title, etc?)

Orca has been just fantastic to work with. I’ve recently signed a contract with them for my seventh Rapid Reads, which are books written for adults who simply haven’t learned how to read yet, or who are new to reading English. Illiteracy is a huge problem in our society, but most literate people don’t know that, because people who can’t read tend to be extremely clever at hiding that fact. These books are also good for strong readers who want something fast. They use simple language, but they have strong story lines. This book is called JUMPED IN. It deals with gang life, just as my first Rapid Reads book, THE BARRIO KINGS, did. It also addresses the way young men of color tend to be treated by the police. These books find a wide readership among people who are in our detention systems, and who are still suffering greatly under what could be called “institutionalized racism”, or simply being born into disadvantageous circumstances for cultural reasons. I get a lot of letters from them. For most of them, it’s the first letter they’ve ever written to an author. For some, it’s the first letter they’ve ever written, period. I always write back.

8) Outside of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” and your book with Orca, are you working on anything else right now? (If you have time for anything else?) If yes, are there details you care to share?

I seem to be experiencing an explosion of creative energy these days. I have a few ventures going on: I am currently working full-time as an instructional designer, I make and sell dill pickles at KowalskisPickles.com, I run a small web design business at MahoneBayWebDesign.com, and I run a site called My Writing Network at https://mywriting.network, which offers free websites to anyone in writing or publishing who wants one. And yet I’m really just a writer trying to carve out enough time to write.

I have an idea gestating for a novel that feels very big and very complex. It has a murder in it, and also a political revolution. I have no idea when I’m actually going to write it. I’m quite excited about it, though. It’s the thing I think about when I’m caught up in the drudgery of my daily existence, the pillar of fire burning in the night sky that I’m following through the wasteland. I hope to be able to begin it sometime early in the new year.

*****

Link to William Kowalski’s website

Nowhere to Heal a Warrior’s Wounds | Review of “The Hundred Hearts” By William Kowalski (2013) Thomas Allen Publishers

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A family unit is suppose to be one place where a member can go to experience love and healing.  It is suppose to be a place where members come together for nurturing and support. But when one or more members of the family unit themselves are seriously damaged, then that family unit itself becomes dysfunctional. And the pain and suffering quietly continues for each of the members. It is a more common reality than our mass-media induced society cares to show us but it is one that William Kowalski has skillfully crafted in his book The Hundred Hearts.

Page 9

A month after they’ve consigned the remains of his grandmother, Helen, to the flames of the crematorium, Jeremy sits in his car in the parking lot of Sam “The Patriot” Singh’s Fortress of America Motel, a crumpled note in his hand. The not had arrived today in his faculty mailbox. It’s written in pencil on a piece o ragged-edged notebook paper. The handwriting is decidedly feminine. He knows whose it is. In just a few weeks, he’s learned to discern the penmanship of most of his nearly forty students. He’s wrestled with himself over whether he should open it, sensing that whatever it said, it would get him into trouble. But in the battle between curiosity and discretion that took place in his mind, curiosity had discretion on the ropes.

Room 358. I need you, Jeremy.

You’re the only one who can help.

Help with what, he doesn’t know. Merely being in possession of this note makes Jeremy nervous. He’s already received a lecture from Peter Porteus, principal of Elysium High School on the importance of propriety: don’t let yourself be caught alone with a female student, for God’s sake, and if you do keep doors open, keep hands to self, et cetera. It is preferable to wrap yourself hermetically in plastic and stay on the other side of the room

Kowalski has a direct yet sincere writing style and this book is a perfect example of it. The story deals with Jeremy Merkin, a former soldier whose tour of duty in Afghanistan had traumatic events that  his body and mind have issues still dealing with. He has returned to his hometown of Elysium, California but the town has no  mythical or realistic hopes for him or its citizens for an ideal life. It is a fading community on the edge of the desert whose citizens merely exist in a state of shock, waiting for the results of a broken promise to come true. Jeremy lives in the basement of his grandparent’s home along with his mother and a mentally-challenged cousin and works as a high-school teacher. He is constantly self-medicating on marijuana to deal with the pain and anxiety he suffers from which in it self leads to interests results.

Page 67-68

Downstairs, he makes himself comfortable on his mattress and eats his double-frosted sugar bombs while watching the latest Japanimation classic Rico’s Dropboxed him. Then he pours himself a cup of tea. Now that he has a job, the guilty edge these mornings used to have has faded. He leans back against his pillow with a sense of pleasantly high contentment. Nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do. Monday is a light-year away. If he were a truly dedicated teacher, which he isn’t, he’d already be thinking about what he was going to teach next week. Tomorrow night he’ll hop on Google and see what lesson plans exist out there for him to steal.

The last three weeks have been a panicky time. He hasn’t been teaching; he’s been doing his best imitation of a teacher. Porteus knew he didn’t have any experience when he hired him, but he’d assured him he’d be fine, that he could tell he’d be a natural in the classroom. He can see this was a blatant lie; Porteus was desperate for a warm body.

In his naivete, Jeremy had believed he could simply engage his students in Socratic dialogues of the sort he and Smarty used to have, and together they would wing their way through the world of knowledge, delighting in the mysteries of the universe. Maybe he could even teach them about the Fibonacci sequence. He’d forgotten the crushing load of ennui that high school students carried with them everywhere, the blank stares, the hostile resistance to doing absolutely anything. He’d hoped to find out what interested them and build a curriculum of sorts around that, but he’d realized within about two minutes that they weren’t interested in anything, at least nothing he was allowed to discuss.

He’d also thought, for some insane reason, that the students would respect him because he was young. Instead, they seemed to think this meant they could get away with anything. On the first day of school they’d aligned themselves into groups, boys on one side, girls on the other, cool kids in the back, dweebs in the front, and had begun to talk amongst themselves as if he wasn’t even there. Engage them, Porteus had said; teaching is infotainment. But Jeremy was not an infotainer. In his vocabulary, to engage meant to lay down heavy fire, to shoot to kill. During his very first class he’d felt a panic attach coming on, and he’d only been able to prevent it by pretending that getting to the end of the period was an objective, and that his job was to attack and hold objective until reinforcements arrived. He’s still not sure how he’d made it this far. sometimes he looks at their glazed-over faces and thinks, If only you could see what I have seen. But he’d been trained to see those things so other people didn’t have to see them. That was the role of the army: not to fight for freedom, whatever that nonsense meant, but to see the unseeable, do the undoable, and later to try to forget the unforgettable. And to somehow try to fit back into a society that had no clue.

I usually hate using $50 psychological terms but Kowalski has written something here that reflects the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times. Jeremy is an adult trying to fit in someplace but it doesn’t happen. He is missing the guidance, the social network and simply the love to survive to be a positive member of society. He exists and that is it. He is like so many people in real life but one that rarely discussed or portrayed in mass media.

Page 95-96

Jeremy remembers that birthday party clearly. Abortive is a charitable way to describe it. Wilkins had appeared out of nowhere, uninvited, his presence unnerving everyone – most of all Rita. His birthday present to Jeremy had been a rock. Not a particularly pretty or interesting rock, just a rock like you might find anywhere, but which for Wilkins apparently had some sort of symbolic significance. He’d tried for several minutes to explain it to Jeremy, with no success. Then he’d wrapped himself in a bedsheet and spent the afternoon in a corner, glowering at the other partygoers, all boys who were tripping balls on sugar and making tremendous amounts of noise. When they’d asked who Wilkins was, Jeremy pretended not to know. The highlight of the party was when the police arrived. It transpired that they had been called by Al, and they led Wilkins away, sobbing. Jeremy had been very popular after that, because no one else had ever had a police birthday party before.

“It’s okay,” Jeremy says. “Hardly anybody has fathers anymore.”

“Sad but true. You’re not angry?”

“I guess I would be, except that so much other shi-stuff . . . has happened that  . . .well, it’s all relative, you know?”

“So you didn’t come here for a confrontation?”

“A confrontation? No. Why would I do that?’

“You know. Son accuses father of being a bad father. Of being absent, abusive, egocentric. All of which I’m guilty of. Father repents, begs forgiveness. Father and son hug. Emotional string music on the soundtrack. The audience sniffles and goes home feeling redeemed.”

Maybe in some other, forgotten era of his life, Jeremy has harbored such thoughts. Maybe there was a time when he was angry at his father for not being a father. But all this is so far in the past that he doesn’t even remember it. It all ceased to matter a long time ago.

William Kowalski has documented an unexplored yet common state of life in his book The Hundred Hearts. It is a touching and poignant read for our anxious and lonely times.

*****

Link to William Kowalski’s Website

Link to Dundurn Press’ page for The Hundred Hearts

Link to a Q&A William Kowalski did for me “Anything that isn’t writing is hindering my writing . . .”

 

 

 

“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” | Q&A with writer William Kowalski

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.
*****

Coming to Terms with the Ghosts of the Past | Review of “Eddie’s Bastard” by William Kowalski (1999) HarperCollins

There is a certain enlightenment when reading a great coming-of-age novel. No matter how dire or downtrodden a character seems to be in that book, there is a strong sense of empathy a reader has for that character because they can relate to their own upbringing. And then the reader gains a sense that they are not alone with their pain. That is certain the emotions that will occur to any reader of Eddie’s Bastard by William Kowalski.

Page 1

I arrived in this world the way most bastards do – by surprise. That’s the only fact about myself that I knew at the beginning of my life. At the very beginning of course, I knew nothing. Babies are born with minds as blank as brand-new notebooks, just waiting to be written in, and I was no exception. Later, as I grew older and learned things – as the pages of the notebook, so to speak, became filled up – I began to make certain connections, and thus I discovered that among children I was unusual. Where others had a mother, I had none; father, same; birth certificate, none; name, unknown. And as soon as I was old enough to understand that babies didn’t just appear from mid air, I understood that my arrival was not just a mystery to myself. It was a strange occurrence to everyone who knew me.

Readers are vaulted in the life of Billy Mann as he is deposited on the doorstep of his grandfather’s decrepit  estate in New York state. We follow Billy’s twist and turns from his infancy to his childhood to his teenage years. He experiences the usual items and chaos that occur to any male during that period of life but he also must endure questions about his troubled background, which make for a gripping drama.

Page 105-106

Second grade passed for Annie and me in this manner, and so did third and then forth, and the years rocked along like the cars of a speeding train. None of my classmates seemed to mind that I was a Mann; the Fiasco of the Ostriches, it appeared, had been forgotten by everyone except Grandpa, and nobody made fun of me for it. And Annie’s hand stayed in mine right up to the year we turned thirteen, or so it felt, which was when things of note began once more to happen. Perhaps the holding-hands part is merely my imagination, because thirteen was when I began to feel shy around her. But shyness notwithstanding, we were together, and before I knew it we were in eighth grade, which was the year of The Steamroller.

Early each morning of that year, just as she had every morning for the last several years, Annie walked down the hill from her house and met me at the corner of Mann Road and the County Road. The County Road never had a name except for just that: the County Road. It was like everything else in town: The Square, The Oak, The School, The Steamroller. In a town the size of Mannville, where there is generally only one of everything, there’s not much point in giving things a proper name; everyone knows what your talking about.

Annie’s father didn’t know she and I were walking to school together. If he had, he would have found some way to stop us, maybe even by forbidding her to come to school altogether. He hadn’t spoken to me since the day Grandpa slipped on the ice, six years ago now. That was because I’d my best to avoid his presence, never going into the house  or any nearer to it than I needed to let Annie know I was waiting. He sat in front of the television all day, leaving the house only to buy beer, which he drank on the couch until he passed out. I knew this only from Annie, of course. I hadn’t dared to set foot inside the Simpson house again. His belly, according to her, was growing larger, his skin turning the sallow  shade of death, his eyes smaller and beadier and more and more like the devil’s. She shuddered when she spoke of him. I learned not to bring him up.

On the way to school Annie and I compared lunches, and if she didn’t have enough I would give her some of mine. She packed her own lunch every morning, but often there was little to put in it: a hard-boiled egg or two, or a peanut butter sandwich. Doritios were her favorite. Mine too. They were the only thing I was jealous of giving her. Anything else I had was hers unconditionally, even my fried baloney sandwiches.

Kowalski does a great job of weaving the confusion around Billy Mann’s life into a great story. His words here are simple yet at times lyrical. A reader can easily follow the story and the mind’s eye easily envisions the people and places created here. And the range of emotions that are brought out at times are vivid as well.

Page 110

Just as Annie walked away, I saw him. The Corvette was cruising like a hungry shark down Frederic Avenue, which ran in front of the main doors of the senior high building. I neither slowed nor hurried my pace, but my heart began to thump rapidly and I felt hot blood pulsing through every inch of me. It was definitely David Weismueller. I knew that car well. Dreams of him in his Corvette were beginning to supplant the dreams of soldiers chasing me through the woods.

A moment later he saw me, stepped on the gas, and roared up to where I stood. Then he unfolded himself from the driver’s seat and stood before me, a splendid example of Homo erectus more than Homo sapiens, but bent over considerably so that he could push his face threateningly into mine.

“What did you say?” he said.

This was his most common opening, to pretend I’d just said something to him that no man of honor could ignore. It was useless to protest, although I usually did anyway. But this morning I was feeling different. My eyes swept him from toe to head, taking in his sneakers, his jeans, his letterman’s jacket, and finally his eyes, which were as vacant and glaring as two laminated meatballs.

“I said your mother sucks large dicks,” I replied. “She sucks for bucks. Ten dollars a pop. I think you’re the only guy on the football team who doesn’t know.”

David Weismueller’s neatly shaved jaw dropped about three inches. I knew it would be wise to shut up, but it was already too late. I threw caution to the wind.

Eddie’s Bastard by William Kowalski is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. The prose is lyrical and simple and the plot is well-constructed. It is an enlightening and engrossing read.

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Eddie’s Bastard

Link to William Kowalski’s website

 

Learning to put some Heart into the Game | Review of “Epic Game” by William Kowalski (To be Released in March 2016) Raven Books/Orca Publishers

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book via librarything.com and Orca Publishing

We all have habits and attitudes that makes us act on instinct instead of doing something rational to improve our lives. These may be traits that we learned from our parents or habits we picked up on during our childhood or just something in our internal wiring that makes us do things that in many cases keep us alone or unhappy. So sometimes external events cause us to force us into breaking those patterns we are stuck in doing and lead us down a different path of life. That is the type of story William Kowalski has brilliantly written in Epic Game.

The story deals with Kat, an independent woman who makes a living as a professional poker player. She learned her trade from her father, whom she had an uneasy childhood with. She has tried hard to distance herself from her past, yet when her best friend commits suicide and becomes guardian of her son, she finds that not only does she have to deal with her past emotions but also begins to question her present lifestyle choices.

Part of the Rapid Reads series from Orca Books, the style of this book is simple making it a quick and easy read. But there are complexities still in the plot that make the story interesting to readers; elements of Kat’s life and memories that we all have that make us ponder our own existence.

Epic Game by William Kowalski may be a quick read but it is an enlightening one. He has crafted quite a story into this book that reflects  important elements of the human condition.

Link to William Kowalski’s website

Link to Orca Books website for Epic Game