Flashback: An Interview with David Bowker

Originally published in issue 7 (Jul/Aug 2005)


The Lord of Misrule’s Favorite Son

An Interview with David Bowker

By Jennifer Jordan

Do a Google search for David Bowker and you’ll turn up the books and little else. Except for reviews (“Bowker’s writing is poignant, moving and funny, bristling with a new breed”; “A perfectly paced rollercoaster ride. If you care about world peace, don’t read this book”), you’ll see confusion and consternation. “I love his books but he has no web presence.”

Just who is David Bowker?”

After reading every book of his I could get my greedy hands on and becoming mightily addicted to his literate, affectionate sociopath of a hitman, I was compelled to find out. Like a smoker with only the stubbed out butts left in the ashtrays compelled.

Here’s a tiny history to give you a mindset.

A former editor of David Bowker’s chose to market one of his novels as non-fiction. An odd choice, to be sure. When the novel was published, unwitting booksellers shelved it in biography and shelved it remained. Bowker, apparently not one to live in anger, got the book angst out of his system in a healthy and effective manner. He wrote it out. Woe to those who irritate Bowker (er, Billy Dye) for they shall find they are faced (in print) with Rawhead.

Jennifer Jordan: The inception of Billy Dye and Rawhead – a vivid recurring dream, I’ve heard. But is it one steeped in Celtic mythologies (Raw-head a.k.a. Bloody-Bones) or an amalgamation of dream and reality?

David Bowker: Yes, an amalgamation of dream and reality –I heard an ugly rumour that an old schoolfriend had done a few hits for a Manchester gang. At school, he was a very tough kid who happened to be my friend –and he took it upon himself to be my protector. I don’t know whether he really grew up to be an assassin, but it captured my imagination, And Billy Dye, a writer who ruins all his best chances by shooting off his mouth –there’s an element of truth in that. I’m forever being told that I’ve said really offensive things to people, yet rarely have any memory of saying them –which is slightly worrying. Because it implies that even when I think I’m on my best behavior, shit always escapes from my mouth.

JJ: The influence of graphic novels on your writing is readily apparent to those that read such things (i.e. me). If there isn’t one on your part, I’d be flabbergasted. The books read as if moving from one carefully drawn vignette to another, all of them larger than life.

DB: I think the comparison to graphic novels is very astute. As a kid, the first things I really loved reading were American comic books. I loved Batman, Spiderman and Superboy …and used to imitate them slavishly. I loved to draw, so the first stories I wrote were all in comic strip form. That’s a very good discipline to learn, because these comic guys don’t fuck about …every image and line of dialogue serves a purpose and there’s no time for any real subtlety …page one, here’s the super hero, page four, look he’s discovering his powers, page five, look here he is foiling some muggers in an alley, now let’s see what he can do against a REAL villain.

And to a very real extent, I still plan novels in that story-board style. I like a story to zip along, I don’t like the characters to sit around talking for too long. Comics are full of energy whereas it seems to me that most novels, even crime novels, contain very little energy …they’re so obviously written by someone who’s trying to keep writing until they’ve got eighty thousand words. I think a lot of Stephen King’s books are like that …he seems to believe that a book isn’t real unless it’s too heavy to carry about.

I’m always terrified of boring the reader. I actually trained at art school to be a comic book artist, thinking it’d be easy…but illustrating my own stories was just too frustrating for me because I found I could never draw as fast as I could think up stories and dialogue. I would absolutely love to work with a great illustrator and turn the Rawhead books into graphic novels.

JJ: I’ve seen you described as a sci-fi writer.  Are you an intentional genre jumper,  a co-genre writer, or a teller of  the tales that the muse facilitates at the time?

DB: I’ve seen me described as a sci-fi writer, but that isn’t true. It’s just that I’ve written a couple of supernatural thrillers (THE DEATH PRAYER and THE BUTCHER OF GLASTONBURY) which a few sci-fi mags chose to review. I do tend to combine genres, but it’s never a calculated thing. I’ve always been a fan of classic ghost stories by the best English and American writers, and I always think of the supernatural as my specialist area. When I came up with Rawhead, I’d just discovered Elmore Leonard, and I thought it would be fun to try and write a gangster novel in that cool style and see if anyone noticed.

But absolutely no one did.

And something went wrong, because before long all these old, dark houses were appearing. And it was becoming fairly obvious that my hitman was either a ghost or some kind of highly intelligent demon. So I jumped genres without really meaning to. I used to think I could write any kind of novel but I’ve now realised that if people don’t die horribly, I’m not really interested.

JJ: Who are your favourite crime novelists?

DB: One of my favourite US reviews claims that I’ve been reading LA Noir. This makes me laugh because I don’t even know what LA noir is. The only US crime writer I’ve ever read is Elmore Leonard, and even then I got bored after four books because they all seemed the same to me. The only English crime writer I’ve read is Conan Doyle. I’m planning to read a French crime novel one day, but I haven’t got round to it. I think that’s one of the things that makes my books different –I’m writing in a genre I know nothing about and have no respect for. I don’t know what the rules of crime fiction are, I don’t care. And I think my ignorance makes me strong.

JJ: You sound conceited. Are you?

DB: Yes.

JJ: Cute!

Onward and sideways! There is a marked difference between American and U.K. titles/covers? Should readers expect a there text change as well (which translates to – does Jen need to buy more copies of his books)?

DB: The titles were changed because my American Editor was worried that people would confuse the Rawhead books with a terrible Clive Barker film called Rawhead Rex. In fact, Rawhead is just an old English name for the bogeyman. So RAWHEAD in the UK became THE DEATH YOU DESERVE in the US and RAWHEAD IN LOVE became the US I LOVE MY SMITH & WESSON.

DB: THE DEATH YOU DESERVE was the title I’d been hanging onto in case anyone ever asked me to write a Bond movie. (I’m a big Bond fan and I paraphrased something Bond says in the LIVE AND LET DIE novel: ‘Those who deserve to die…die the death they deserve.’) I LOVE MY SMITH & WESSON was based on all those stupid car stickers that say ‘I Love Disneyland’ or ‘I Love Jesus’. So the covers had to be changed accordingly to fit these more in-you-face American titles. The English covers featured gravestones and moons, whereas the US versions go for bullets and guns. The only changes in the text have been adjustments for spelling and grammar. Eg. in England we’d write ‘he spat on the ground’ but in the US, it’s ‘he spit on the ground’.

JJ: What is thedifference between being British and being English?  Billy Dye makes rather a point of saying he’s English as opposed to….

DB: Like Billy, I only feel British if I feel my identity is under threat. Most of the time, I have an ongoing love-affair with America and think of British people as lazy, complacent arseholes. I only think of myself as British if I hear someone from another nation pouring scorn on Britain. Then I automatically think: ‘We’re only a tiny little island but we gave the world Shakespeare and the Beatles, so frankly, who the fuck are you?’

But to truly know the difference between being British and American, I’d have to be both. All I will say is that the Americans I deal with all seem to work harder and think faster than their UK counterparts. Take you, for example –four days after asking if I’d do an interview, you come back with questions. An English journalist would have taken four months –or forgotten all about it. (I know this for a fact, as I used to be an English journalist.) I’ve been in love with America since I was five years old and copied a picture of the Statue of Liberty out of a book. I must have drawn that ugly fucking statue a hundred times. I’m finally putting my love of the US of A into my work –my next book is set in America, with American characters. The idea scares the hell out of me, but I’m going to try.

JJ: You have writing roots in journalism, a not unheard of factoid in the backgrounds of many writers. I want a serious expounding on the subject (the man was a regular columnist in New Woman after all!).

DB: I wrote a monthly column for ‘New Woman’ for two years, and don’t know why I got away with it for so long. Each month, I wrote about some aspect of maleness, like having a penis or suffering from temporary impotence, etc. It was a strange job, and the closest I’ve ever come to being a low-grade celebrity. Women readers sent me strange pictures and invited me round to their houses. (I didn’t go.) Then one month, the editor suggested I write about what men really say about women. So I did. I quoted a friend who said of his wife: ‘She takes it up the ass, and what more could you ask for in a woman?’ The editor was horrified and said that her readers would lose all hope if they thought men really thought of women in such base terms. I refused to delete the sentence, convinced that the Editor valued me too highly to sack me. But no, she sacked me.

JJ: In an almost seamless seamy segue. What, pray tell, is buttwax?

DB: I was afraid you were going to ask me that. Butt-wax is anal mucus. The natural lubricant in people’s bottoms. Sorry.

JJ: This valuable grossitude was supplied for you by your son. After his birth, you went through an episode of male post natal depression which became From Stockport with Love. Lie down on my couch and tell me about it.

DB:Jane, my own personal spirit of darkness, always refers to my own period of depression as ‘the dark years’. A fair description, as I spent about two snarling years filled with bile and resentment because I’d  become a father. We’d moved from a huge flat in London to a tiny cottage in the country, so my gloom was partly brought on by the shock of suddenly being stuck in a confined space with two people for twenty-four hours a day, one of whom kept shitting everywhere. But the feeling of being trapped wasn’t just physical -I think I was also miserable because I knew that fatherhood was one responsibility that I couldn’t walk away from. 

I’ve since spoken to several fathers who recognize these symptoms all too well -one said ‘the only trouble with kids is that they’re there all the bastard time’.  I’m convinced many, many men feel their lives are completely fucked when their children are born -and in a way, they’re right. What they don’t know is that one day they won’t want their old life back anymore, and simply 

being separated from their kids will create a vast, aching void in their dysfunctional  hearts.

I think the reasons men don’t talk about post natal depression are a.)they don’t want to feel anything that women feel in case this makes them gay and b.)men always like to be in control, so see their inability to enjoy fatherhood as a personal failure (a bit like a guy admitting he can’t change a tyre) and c.)they’ve never heard of male post natal depression, so how can it exist? I could write a book about the subject, if I was boring enough!

JJ: ‘Your Own Personal Jesus’ can certainly be taken in a different context in HOW TO BE BAD. When Jesus returns, what is the likelihood of him being an angry Irish mobster?

DB: I just rang my bookie to ask precisely this question. He gave me odds of ten thousand to one.

JJ: In HOW TO BE BAD, your newest book, hero(?) Mark Madden is caught in a shitstorm. From having a bad day to suddenly having a bad life with only a small stone thrown in his pond as impetus. Do you feel we’re all one small stone away from lawlessness?

DB: Well, yes. You only have to drive a car to be aware how little empathy human beings have for other human beings. Have you ever been tempted to speed up to avoid someone overtaking, just to see if they crash into an oncoming vehicle? I’ve done it a few times, but always pulled back at the last moment with the realization that I’m behaving insanely. But I’ll bet thousands of deaths have been caused by people who lack my restraint. I don’t know about you, but the only thing that stops me from killing and maiming people I don’t like is the desire to stay out of prison. If I get a bad review, I always want to kill the reviewer, or at least kick them on the ground until they’re bleeding and begging for mercy. The only thing that prevents me is the suspicion that such behavior might be damaging to my career. That’s what ‘How to Be Bad’ is about –what would happen if we threw caution to the winds and actually went ahead and killed the people we hate? I thought it would be interesting to write a completely immoral book, in which there are no sympathetic characters and no redemption and the author’s message is ‘fuck off’. I feel I’ve succeeded.

JJ: How good does sex have to be to compel a man towards such atrocious bad judgment?

DB: Sex doesn’t have to be any good at all to make men do ridiculous things. Just being wanted by an attractive woman, even if the sex is useless, is still enough to inspire men to acts of sheer folly. Some women are so erotic they set your teeth on edge; just the sound of their voices is enough to give a man a hard-on. So it doesn’t really matter if they give you orgasms because standing next to them is like one long, slow orgasm.

DB: Caro is based on a girl I knew at school who was exactly like this. She had a habit of fucking people at parties when she was stoned and then forgetting all about them. So the next day, you’d turn up to her house with a bunch of flowers and she wouldn’t even recognize you, let alone know that she was carrying your child. But I would have done practically anything for this girl. I got back in touch with her recently and it was obvious she didn’t remember me or our sordid escapades. But when she read what I’d written about her, she thought I’d captured her character perfectly. She was actually flattered. Can you believe that?

JJ: Is Caro Sewell inherently evil?

DB: I wouldn’t say so, because the people she wants dead are all pretty awful. The only person Caro actually kills herself is based on a real person I knew in England, a woman who adopted her young nephew because his parents had died. This kid was disturbed and kept starting little fires on the carpet. So to teach him a lesson, his aunt shoved his hand into a fire, branding him. Some social workers came round and warned her that she mustn’t burn the kid’s other hand –and that was the end of the matter. I’d argue that anyone who can do that to a child is inherently evil and that it’s perfectly reasonable to beat them to death with a shovel. But we’re not even supposed to think these things, let alone say them.

JJ: Now, a seemingly irreverent question but one closely addressed in HOW TO BE BAD. Is happiness a state of mind? Or, as the Beatles contend, is it a warm gun?

DB: I think only stupid people are truly happy. Even if your own life is going well, someone you care about will always be dying or suffering or failing in some way. To be happy in spite of that, you’d have to be a moron. So my ideal state is not happiness, but being healthy and full of energy. Having said that, I think I’ll be pretty happy when I’m dead. I once had an out-of-the-body experience that was more blissful and fulfilling than any drug. While it lasted, I wasn’t just free from my body; I was free from all ego, ambition, anger, regret or resentment. I have this theory that the dead are not just happier than the living –they’re more alive.

JJ: Why are do your books show no respect for ordinary decent people?

DB: When did ordinary decent people ever show any respect for me?

With reviews For HOW TO BE BAD like this Kirkus starred review that states “Superior crime fiction: vivid, original, edgy, and constantly surprising,” that will be a question Bowker will seriously have to contend with.

Jennifer Jordan