I’m trying to think of something to say about my friend Chuck Bowden—in my opinion the greatest U.S. nonfiction writer of his generation—who died in his sleep yesterday afternoon.
I’ve already said some of it to The Arizona Republic and to my friend Michael Kiefer, whose articles can be read by clicking on the links, and I said a little bit in a column I wrote in 1997, when I first met Bowden. So I guess all that’s left to say is personal.
Bowden was the biggest influence on how I write nonfiction. Along with that influence, he was a breathtakingly kind, supportive friend and mentor. He recommended me to the editors of national magazines, and, sometimes, when he was offered work he didn’t have the time or inclination to do, he would ask me if I was interested. He was just as supportive of many other writers, even though he stated that writers were “worthless scum,” including himself.
He took friendship as seriously as his writing, with equal artistry and attention to detail; he was a fine cook, and when I was coming for dinner he would ask me in advance what he had cooked the last time I had visited, so he could do something different this time. Reading his books probably made me a better writer, and his friendship certainly made me a better man.
I speak for the mongrel, the mestizo, the half-breed, the bastard, the alley-cat, the cur, the hybrid, the mule, the whore, the unforeseen strain that pounds against all the safe and disgusting doors. I speak for vitality, rough edges, torn fences, broken walls, wild rivers, sweat-soaked sheets. Who would want a world left mumbling to itself, a perfect garden with the dreaded outside, the fabled Other held at bay and the neat rows of cultures and genes safe behind some hedgerow?
Bowden risked his life to give voice to the voiceless. He said things no one else did, and he said them better than anyone else could. He was as much a prophet as a reporter, and his death is a loss to all who know the importance of bearing witness.
An author and a publisher are wandering in a desert, dying of thirst. Then they find a flask full of water.
"Great!" the author says. "We have water to drink."
"Yes," the publisher says. "But can I piss in it first?"
I’m gratified by the response so far to One for My Baby. It’s a radical departure for me in various ways - the first book of mine with no reference to childhood, and with no backstory at all, and certainly the most stripped-down book I’ve written. My ambition was to get as close to having a blank page as it’s possible to get while still having a story.
It’s the fourth book in what I call my Phoenix Noir sequence (the others are How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy?, The Wrong Thing and When It All Comes Down to Dust, and I think it’ll be the last book I set in Phoenix for a while, though I intend to write a sequel to When It All Comes Down to Dust at some point. I’ve written about Phoenix since shortly after arriving there in 1995, and I’ve now said as much as I have to say about life there for the time being.
My next book, which I’ve already started, is a cyberpunk story with no specific setting. I also want to write a book of stories set in Scotland, a place I stopped writing about after The Book of Man, and only started writing about again with a story I wrote in 2012, "Big Davey Joins the Majority." Writing that story unearthed something long-buried (and, I had thought, dead), and I realized that I have more stories to tell set in that small, cold country whose accent I still speak with.
And I want to write a Western. And a Zen police procedural series.
One of the books I’ve found most helpful to my work is Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. He refers to the actors in his films not as “actors,” but as “models,” because he sees the art of acting as something that gets in the way of the truth that is being shown. He writes: It would not be ridiculous to say to your models: “I am inventing you as you are.”
This reminds me of an interview I read with the actor Ray Winstone, in which he said that his friend Gary Oldman had been helpful to him. As they rehearsed together, Oldman would sometimes tell him, “I can see you acting, Raymond.”
Bresson sees film-making, and every other art, as being separate and unique. I disagree with him on this, and as evidence that he’s wrong I offer that I find his book helpful in all of my writing. When I read books I’ve written and cringe, it’s not because the writing is bad (though it may be) - it’s because I can see the writing, see myself writing, see my own artifice.
I seem to be closing in on the the end of the novel I’ve been working on, about a musician in Phoenix who moonlights as an armed robber. I always want to get as close as I can to having a blank page while still having a story, and I think this book might be the closest I’ve gotten so far.
There’s something unique about this one for me: Usually, when I start writing a book, I know what the final scene is going to be, though I don’t know what it means, and I don’t know much that’s going to happen before the end. With this book, though, the ending is radically different than I thought it was going to be.
I’ll write the ending soon, but first I have to crank out a ghost story set in Japan for an anthology…