A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing a professional author in person: Gary Bower. Gary writes books for toddlers as well as teenagers. He has written over a hundred books and published a number of them. His novel, Gulliver Wimple and the Gems of Dara Mhor, is one of my favorite books of all time.
Gary’s wife, Jan Bower, also illustrates all of his books with hand-drawn pictures, which are all so beautiful and life-like. I enjoy both Gary’s writing and Jan’s illustrations, but when both are combined, it’s even better.
So today I will be sharing the interview I did with Gary Bower. Be sure to leave a comment below and tell Gary and I what you think, and if you have any questions!
Here’s the interview:
. . .
Tell us about your writing journey. What first inspired you to become a writer?
Well, I didn’t know I was going to be a writer when I was young, but I wrote a lot. When I was eight or nine, I just liked to write my own comic books and things like that. And that was a lot of fun.
I just liked playing with words all through my life, but I never really considered writing as a career. When I got to college age, I wish I had, because I would have studied it.
I was a children’s pastor for lots of years, and that meant I had to tell stories a lot. But I’d never really write them down; I’d kind of just tell stories and forget them.
And one day, one of the parents said to me, “I like that story, you should write that down, or publish it, or send it to a magazine or something like that.”
I said, “Well, who does that?”
She said, “No really, you should.”
So I took this little story I had told and I sent it to Christian Publishing House and forgot about it. About nine months later, they sent me a letter and said, “We love your story and we want to put it in our Sunday School Paper, and we’ll pay you forty dollars for one-time use.”
I thought, Ooh, forty bucks. Back in the day, that’s when forty bucks was worth something. I said, “That’s pretty cool, sure!” So we did that. That was the first time I was published and that was 1990, thirty-two years ago.
Then I kept writing more stories and decided to keep them because I always thought that stories are just a very effective way to get to a child’s heart and memory. They’ll remember a story that I can’t remember.
It’s kind of like if you were to ask the average person to say something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, they’d go, “What?”, or the Olivet Discourse, they’d go, “Huh?”
But if you say something about the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, even if they’re not Christians, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about because the stories stick.
Stories are effective, and so I thought, “Well, Jesus did it, this is kind of fun.”
So after I pastored for a number of years, I decided I was going to just try it in the publishing world. So I sent some of my stories to a few publishers, and one contacted me and hired me to write stories in a Sunday School curriculum throughout the year for fifth and sixth graders.
I did that for a year, until they ran out of money, and I was out of a job. I thought, Oh my, I have no way to make an income on this anymore.
So I went for a walk out in these woods right in my backyard, and I came to an old tree stump. I sat down on the stump and just kind of pouted and said, “Lord, this isn’t going anywhere. I don’t get it. How come it’s not working?”
And just like that, I looked up to see a tree and the biggest spider web I ever saw, just going from one limb to another. And I heard something rattling in the leaves by my feet. I looked down, and there was a little snake going through.
I don’t know what happened, but just like that, an idea popped into my mind about the snake and the spider. And so I ran back home, started writing it down, and that turned into my first ever book, which is Tessa’s Treasures. That’s how it started.
How would you say the Lord has contributed to your journey as a whole?
Well, the Lord has not just contributed, he has like been the maestro, the conductor, the songwriter; it’s like he’s the entire thing, and I’m just kind of along for the ride.
I write a lot of things out of what I think are good ideas, but they usually don’t amount to much. But when I spend time on my knees, and say, “Lord, you direct me. What should I write?”, my good ideas just start to disappear and things I never thought of just start flooding in and I start to write them down.
So he’s more than instrumental. He’s pretty much the beginning and the end and the middle; the whole process.
How would you say you have grown since you first started writing as a career?
In many, many ways. The first thing that comes to mind is (I know it’s going to sound like it’s impossible, but it’s true) I am more humble than I used to be.
And the reason is because when I first started writing, all the advice I got from other writers and agents and publishers is that you have to really promote yourself. You have to be your own cheerleader. So I tried to do that for a long time.
And not only do I hate it, it’s depressing. You go through all this rigmarole to promote your book and your credentials, and this and that and the other thing, and it doesn’t go anywhere. So I’m understanding a little bit better every year that it’s not about me. It’s about Him.
Like John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease.” And so, I don’t do self-promotion anymore; I don’t even promote my website. I probably should… but I just look for opportunities to serve, tell stories, write stories if they ask me to, and give away the books if they’re not selling. I just give them away. Because it really is all about that.
So I’ve grown in that area, but I’ve also grown in my writing skill. I used to tell, and now I show more. It’s fun, my wife and I used to do workshops, these homeschool conventions around the country. And Mrs. Bower would go and she’d talk about illustrating, and I would go and do workshops on writing.
And we would say the same thing. As an illustrator, you’d think she would show how she wants to paint something and depict it. And as a writer, I should tell. Well, we switched it. As a writer, I tried to show by painting pictures with words and things like that, evoking feelings and helping you see it. And Jan, instead of showing, she tried to tell a story with the painting and let it speak for itself.
We take opposite approaches to what we used to, and it’s better.
So we’ve learned that. I’ve learned – well, not really learned – but now I know I’m not supposed to not be so wordy. But… that’s a hard one to kill. Once I think I put a final nail on that coffin, my big mouth comes resurrecting again, and all of a sudden, I need to edit, edit, edit, edit, edit. All my great lines, my great wit, and everything else; most of it doesn’t need to be there.
Simplify. Use smaller words. Don’t try to impress people with your vocabulary, say it the simplest way, so that the story is prominent, not your cleverness.
What is your favorite book you’ve written, and why?
Of all the books I’ve written… I think… two of them are at the top. One is There’s a Party in Heaven, and the other one is Away on a Hilltop.
And I like those because I like writing in rhyme. But I like those in particular because the focus is so much on Christ, the Kingdom of God, the goodness of God, and the promises of God. And I love the illustrations Jan’s done.
So I think together, married together, the text and the pictures… I think those are my favorites.
But I also like The ABCs of God a lot, because that’s very special to me. I wrote that when I was very sick a number of years ago. I was in bed for three months, and I could hardly move. It was very discouraging.
And it was while I was in bed that I wrote that book, The ABCs of God, and it got me looking away from my circumstances and looking at my Maker. And basically, it’s an alphabet book on the attributes of God. So it got me focusing on him instead of all my problems. And it’s very special to me.
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a story, and what is the easiest part?
The hardest part, for me, is plot. The easiest part for me is character development and dialogue. I love dialogue.
But the plot itself; I don’t sometimes think I’m clever enough. I see some of these mysteries, or popular teen books, or movies that come out that are popular. I think, It had to take an army of brains to come up with a plot that interwoven. I can’t do that.
I’m pretty simple. These guys who write like that are like master chefs. And I’m more like… I know how to scramble eggs, and that’s about it.
So the hardest part is plot. Creativity isn’t the hard part; I mean, I come up with lots of ideas for silly characters and things like that. That never ends. It’s always like, “Put me in your book! I’m a weird character, put me in!” And I say, “Okay, I will.”
What does your typical writing process look like, and how does that process change when writing children’s books versus teen books?
The first four children’s books I wrote were just prose. They were not rhyming at all. So those are just simple stories and plots, and I mostly observed my grandkids and kids and watched things and doctored it up a little bit and made a story. I didn’t outline it or anything. But those are short stories; thirty-two page books.
I did a whole bunch of rhyming books in a row. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Clever plays on words come to my head. If I like it, I like the cadence and the sound, I say, “Oh, that’s a memorable phrase; I’m going to capitalize on that phrase and build something around it.” It becomes the centerpiece on the table.
That’s what I did for A Party in Heaven. Every page ends with “In Heaven”. That gave me a guideline to go.
Now, when you’re doing a book like Gulliver Wimple and the Gems of Dara Mhor, that’s where it would have been really good if I had paid attention when I was younger in school and taken more classes. I would be outlining better, I would be probably using notecards and stuff, and sorting out my things that way.
I don’t do that, and that’s why it probably takes me a long time. When I’m writing something like that, I’ll take the chapter I’m on, and I’ll outline the chapter, but I won’t outline my book.
So I say, “Chapter 3 ended on a cliffhanger. Chapter 4 I know where I’m starting. Where do I want to get through in this chapter, and how can I leave a cliffhanger for Chapter 5?” Then I just take it as a piece, and I’ll outline that.
And I’ll look it over and I’ll say, “Oh, there’s not enough humor, or not enough excitement, or this is too long and boring…” and then I’ll just doctor it up and I’ll read it over until I like it. And then I know I’ll come back to it in about a month and do it all over again because I don’t like it. That’s pretty much the process: to keep tweaking until I like it.
What does a normal day look like for you? Do you just write whenever you have a burst of inspiration, or do you have a routine you like to stick to?
I write when I have a burst of inspiration if it’s in the middle of the night. So I’ll pick up my phone and write down my idea at three in the morning. But other than that, I try to do it at a set time. You know, get up in the morning and write for two hours today whether I like it or not.
Because if I don’t set some kind of structure like that, discipline to it; if I just write when I’m inspired, I don’t think I’ll ever finish a book. That’s number one; number two, I’m not sure it will be that good of a book if all my inspiration isn’t all that inspirational a week or two later, maybe it was just craziness before.
So there has to be some kind of structure. I can’t just choose how I feel.
When I was writing Gulliver Wimple and the Gems of Dara Mhor, I was doing it every day. I would write from eight in the morning till noon, then take a break, maybe from two to six. I mean, I do that.
Right now I’m not doing that. I’ve got some other projects going, but if I decide I’m going to write every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’m going to be out in the office doing it at nine o’clock, and I’m going to do it till eleven whether I have anything to write or not, I’ll just write it. So there’s a little bit of discipline.
What projects are you currently working on?
So right now I’m basically working on three. So I’m still working on the audio drama of Gulliver Wimple and the Gems of Dara Mhor. And then I started the sequel, the second book for Gulliver Wimple: it’s called The Sapphire Tree. And I am almost done with the first chapter of that.
But at the same time I have a third project – I started a chapter book series for younger kids, probably ages six, seven, eight, nine. They’re called The Sorry Detectives. They’re mysteries kind of like Encyclopedia Brown, only Christian based. There’s a lot of word play and silliness to it, a lot of tongue twisters and craziness. But they’re all mysteries. I’m working on the first one of The Sorry Detectives.
So I’m kind of different. I can write Gulliver for a while, and in the afternoon I can just put it on the shelf and turn my head from being fourteen-years-old to being seven, and take a different approach.
Finally, what is your greatest piece of advice for young writers?
Oh, I’m not sure I can limit it to one. Well, the first one is going to be what every other writer says: Just keep writing. And it sounds so trite and cliche, but it’s true. You gotta write a lot to even discover your own style. You have to write enough to learn your voice and who you are, things like that.
But the second thing I would say is be very, very, very careful not to get too high or too low with what other people say. Be very teachable with the people who know and critique – be very teachable. Because they know what they’re talking about.
And do not get too excited if your fans think it’s awesome, because the truth is, your mother and your grandmother and your Aunt Betty are always going to say it’s great. But that’s not helpful. You need to know what’s wrong with it so you can improve your skills.
Not everything a critic tells you is right, but you need to be willing to at least listen to them and say, “Maybe they are.”
There were some things in my stories that used to be my favorite, and I would think, “this is the highlight of the chapter,” or the page, or whatever. But I had to remove it. Everyone was saying I had to chop that branch off; prune it out of there. Maybe I liked it, but it didn’t really help the story. And they were right.
So be real teachable, and do not take it personally. Write, write, write; listen, listen, listen – that’s about the best you can probably do.