April 07th, 2008
A heavy fog settles in on the first pages of Tim Bowling’s first novel Downriver Drift (Harbour $18.95), set in Ladner 30 years ago. As the fog slowly lifts, the ebb and flow of life in a small fishing town emerges. There is beauty in a traditional way of life; there is unease about an uncertain future. Deadheads are submerged just beneath the river’s surface.
Bowling, 36, grew up half a block from the Fraser River in a Ladner fishing family. As a child he played along its banks and sloughs; later working aboard gillnetters crisscrossing its surface like waterbugs. He probably heard the river in his dreams. Ladner and the Fraser River have also inspired Bowling to write three books of poetry, Low Water Slack, Dying Scarlet and most recently The Thin Smoke of the Heart (McGill-Queens $16.95).
BCBW: Does the Fraser River still tug at you?
BOWLING: Coming to Ladner, getting out of the car, just the smell of the place is so powerful. People often wonder if you have to leave a place to write about it. I don’t think that’s true, but your imagination is called on in a different way if you’re not actually in the place and you have to visualize it.
I have these incredible flashbacks of being on the river, especially at night; fishing itself and the whole mystery of what’s in the net. There’s incredible creatures in the water. As a kid leaning over the rollers at the back of the stern, even if it was a 50-pound Spring salmon, there were certain ways the net acted. The darkness, the depth, pulling things from out of that. You can see how that would have a powerful effect on your imagination—especially for a child.
BCBW: When did you start writing?
BOWLING: Even in grade one I wanted to be a writer. In a serious way, I started to think about publishing poetry after my English degree at UBC, then I came back to Ladner and fished. I had a lot of years reading while working the river – it was wonderful to go from book to book. Atwood to Mavis Gallant and on and on. Not just heavy literature—I read a wide range of stuff, Chandler, mysteries.
BCBW: You never took a Creative Writing course?
BOWLING: I have mixed feelings about Creative Writing programs. I’m not opposed to them…but even the best teachers will tell you, you can’t teach writing. You can offer practical shortcuts. Like most things in life it really is hard work, but to most people who end up doing it – it doesn’t feel like work. It’s a passion. I’ve always been amazed by the angst of the writing world…no one’s making you do it. There’s an awful lot of mythology around writing but there’s really not all that much mystery about it. William Faulkner used to talk about building his novels the way a carpenter builds a house.
BCBW: Does that come from your Ladner fishing background?
BOWLING: I think I’d extend it to the community. Ladner was a rough and tumble town in the 70s when I was growing up. I did some work on farms and worked at a Buckerfield’s; you come into contact with a lot of people who aren’t literary. You didn’t talk about writing… but there’s still a kind of respect for doing your own thing and being independent. But any writer will tell you that you’re going to get a lot of discouragement. The world’s telling you all the time, ‘Who needs another writer?’
BCBW: After three books of poetry, how did you approach writing a first novel?
BOWLING: I definitely wanted to see if I could get out of the lyric voice… not write the first person autobiographical ‘coming of age’ story, to see if I could create convincing characters who are not obviously me. I wanted to get some of the poetic devices I use in poetry to transfer to prose, but not bog down. That was a challenge I set for myself.
BCBW: How hard is it to survive as a full-time writer?
BOWLING: I never like to use the phrase ‘making sacrifices’. To me it would be a sacrifice to not spend time on my writing. So what I’m sacrificing are things I don’t really want. Probably this is Ladner fishing values applied to personal finances. You have a big year, you put it aside because you know you’ll have a lean year soon. There’s always a bit of edge about it, but maybe that’s good for the creativity, too.
Essay Date: 2003