About Richard Bowker

Author of the Portal series, the Last P.I. series, and other novels

When I wrote about a pandemic

Well, sort of.

Portal is about two kids getting trapped in an alternative universe. The universe they ended up in was like ours, but a couple hundred years behind us technologically. I set it up that way because I wanted a bit of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court feeling to the novel — the kids had to figure out how to make do without modern inventions — no cars, no planes, no electricity . . . But then they use their middle-school knowledge to actually make a difference.

But why was this world a couple hundred years behind ours? I didn’t exactly have to explain this; my premise was that anyt event could split off another universe, as in Everett’s many-worlds theory. (Did I ever mention that I once saw his son perform at the Somerville Theater? I digress, however.) But I thought it would be an interesting plot point. So early on in the novel I had the kids figure it out: native Americans had a horrible disease (I called it drikana) that the first European explorers brought back with them. And it devastated Europe, the way that, in our world, smallpox devastated the Americas. The story of Guns, Germs, and Steel in reverse. Eventually Europeans built up immunity to the disease, but in the meantime the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were delayed, and so the world the kids found themselves living in was still primitive compared to ours.

And of course the kids had no immunity to drikana. One of the kids comes down with it, and both end up quarantined, wondering if they will survive. Much drama and pathos ensues.

Having used this plot element in Portal, I didn’t trot it out again in its sequels, Terra and Home. But this nagged at me a bit — if I wanted this bit of realism in novels (that otherwise weren’t realistic in the slightest), I really should have had the threat of disease be a pervasive concern whenever you traveled to another world. If I were writing these novels nowadays, this threat would have loomed a lot larger, I’m sure.

What do writers write about now?

As the quarantine approaches infinity days long, I keep staring at the novel I’ve been working on, and I keep not working on it. Life seems to have passed it by, turned it into an artifact of a now forgotten world. Even though it’s, you know, science fiction.

I was also reading a well-received novel about life in modern Manhattan called Fleishman is in Trouble. I found it unbearable and gave up about a third of the way through. These people didn’t have real problems — they had no idea what was about to hit them.

And I wonder about TV shows. Grey’s Anatomy has been chronicling the lives of hot, horny doctors in Seattle for about a hundred years. They’ve dealt with ferry accidents and tornadoes and hostage situations and just about everything else — except what hit Seattle in real life a couple of months ago. How are the writers going to handle that? (How are they even going to film a TV show?

These are stupid things to be thinking about, I know. But the smart things to be thinking about are kind of, you know, terrifying.

Stay safe!

New Year’s resolution on playing the piano

When I returned to playing the piano a couple of years ago, my vague idea was to broaden my repertoire of classical pieces. I’ve done that at this point. I’ve gotten reasonably up to speed on maybe three dozen pieces by Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, Bach, and Debussy. I haven’t tackled anything extremely difficult, and I don’t bother memorizing anything — it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort, even though that’s what you need to do to really master a piece.

This yearI want to be able to sight-read chord notation, something I didn’t learn at all when I was studying the piano as a kid. I’m reasonably good at sight-reading standard musical notation, but show me F-7 and I have to pause to work out the four-note chord this represents (F-A-flat-C-E-flat). Learning this isn’t hard; you just have to stuff it into your brain and fingers.

The way I’m doing it is by using a web site, http://www.pianochord.org, which shows you all the chords laid out on the keyboard, and The Real Book, a book that contains hundreds of songs with the melody shown in standard notation and the accompaniment shown in chord notation (these are apparently known in the music biz as lead sheets). If I can’t work out a chord, I go to the web site (which is displayed on my iPad Mini next to the sheet music). After a few weeks, I’m going to the web site less and less. Now I just have to get to the point where I don’t have to work them out — I can just look at them and play the notes. I’m there with most of the common chords — C7, Cmaj7,G7… Eventually I’ll get there with the rest of them.

Theoretically, the eventual goal of being able to sight-read lead sheets is so I can improvise a left-hand accompaniment to a melody, based on the chord structure. There are books you can read that will teach you how to improvise. And then I can join a cover band, or get gits playing solo in bars where Ican take requests from the inebriated customers: “Hey Rich, play ‘Misty’ for me.” Not sure I’m gonna get there. But I can dream, I guess. “Misty” isn’t actually that hard.

Writers in movies: “Little Women”

I haven’t done one of these in a while. I assume you’ve all seen Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, so I don’t have to include spoiler alerts.

The difficulty with portraying writers in movies is that they’re mostly boring people, and what they do is mostly boring. Scribble scribble. In Little Women, Jo March is scribbling in her attic room by lantern light. When she finally gets the idea that she should be writing the story of her family rather than fantastical adventure stories, she starts scribbling really fast. This is fine, because I would watch Saoirse Ronan scribbling names from the telephone book. But anyway, Greta Gerwig has Ronan’s right hand cramp up, so she switches the pen to her left hand and keeps scribbling. This is a lovely touch!

And then we see the accumulating pages laid out on the attic floor. Five pages, then quick cut to ten pages, then to twenty, and so on. She’s making progress! This is fine, but I was bothered by the lanterns on the floor illuminating the pages. That’s because I had PTSD from the scene earlier in the movie when sister Amy burned Jo’s novel page by page after Jo wouldn’t let Amy join her and Laurie at the theater. Don’t put the pages of your novel near a source of fire, Jo!

In the movie we get a big, sisterly fight when Jo discovers what Amy has done, then some parental words about forgiveness from Marmy, and a couple of scenes later Jo and Laurie save Amy from drowning after she falls through some pond ice. Don’t do it, Jo and Laurie! Drowning in icy water is a fitting punishment for burning someone’s novel!

I digress. The scenes of grown-up Jo negotiating with the hard-nosed New York editor are lovely. I was afraid the whole flashback approach Gerwig came up with would be irritating, but it wasn’t at all. (The Irishman uses a double-flashback structure that also worked OK, although the complexity of the device seemed unnecessary.) Anyway, Gerwig took a big risk, I thought, when she goes all meta on us and has Jo and the editor discussing the climax to her book, and he convinces her to have a scene where the heroine gets together with her hot boyfriend Friedrich — a scene that didn’t take place in real life or in the real book. But that’s the scene we see in the movie. And it was nicely done! (The excellent 1994 version of the book just includes a comparable get-together scene with the boyfriend — Gabriel Byrne in that case — without the narrative hijinks.)

Anyway, the movie was really good. Bring your hot writer boyfriend or girlfriend to see it.

“They” is the word of the year

So says Merriam-Webster.

Here’s Benjamin Dreyer celebrating the decision in the Washington Post. As long as I’ve been around, people have been using “they” to refer to a person whose gender was unknown or irrelevant — and then, perhaps, feeling guilty about it. Or, we tried to recast the sentence to make the person in question plural, or we held our noses and used the awkward “he or she.” That dodge has become more than merely awkward as an increasing number of people reject the binary he/she as their pronouns of choice.

Merriam-Webster is fundamentally descriptivist, so this accolade doesn’t mean they are saying “they” must be used in this way. On the other hand, other organizations, like the American Psychological Association, have endorsed the usage. But what’s most important is that my cold-eyed editors reached the same conclusion earlier this year. There is, of course, no higher authority, This means that you can feel confident that you are doing the right thing when you use the singular “they.”

Go ahead. You know you want to.

“You can’t chop your poppa up in Massachusetts”: Visiting Lizzie Borden’s House

I don’t think Lizzie Borden ever worked a day in her life, but we decided to spend some time on Labor Day Weekend touring her home in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The furniture in the house isn’t original, but other details, like the woodwork and the radiators, are. Here is some sheet music (obviously not original) on an old spinet, beneath a portrait of Lizzie looking like she’s staring at a ghost:

I can play that music!

Here’s my beloved wife happily clutching a fake ax on the the spot where Lizzie’s father was hacked to death while he napped.

Here’s the view Lizzie and the maid Bridget had into the room where Lizzie’s mother lay on the floor after having been hacked to death earlier that hot August morning:

The tour was fine — the guide was knowledgeable and delivered the required corny jokes pretty well. So, whodunnit? (I read a book about the case in addition to taking the tour, so I’m an expert.) Lizzie had motive/means/opportunity. She almost certainly lied to the police about some things. She acted oddly in the days before the murders. Whoever did it almost certainly had easy access to the house, since the murder weapon was found hidden in the basement. (We know it was the murder weapon because the blade fit perfectly into the wounds. The police demonstrated this at the trial by producing Mr. Borden’s skull and showing the fit, causing Lizzie to faint.) But…

Lizzie was an exemplary citizen. She learned Mandarin so she could teach Sunday school to immigrant Chinese children. She was active in the temperance association. She founded the Animal Rescue League of Fall River. Also, the motive is a bit fuzzy, as is the opportunity, given the timeline of the events that morning and the fact that the maid was working in the house. It’s not at all obvious to me that the jury got it wrong when they acquitted her after deliberating 90 minutes.

I dunno. I probably need to read some more books.

The Reefs of Time

My friend Jeff Carver has been working on The Reefs of Time since the Coolidge administration, I think, and it’s finally here!

Jeff’s specialty is galaxy-spanning science fiction with intriguing ideas and a large cast of entertaining and well-drawn human and alien characters, and I think he’s outdone himself with this one.

You don’t have to read the earlier books in his Chaos Chronicles series to enjoy The Reefs of Time–but then again, no one is stopping you. I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time in Jeff’s universe over the years, and I’m sure you will enjoy it, too.