Frank Bukowski Interview
Today we are joined Frank Bukowski, author of Reality TV. Welcome, Frank.
Well hello there.
For any of our readers that haven’t come across your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us all a little about yourself?
I’m a British writer working out of Norfolk, UK. I’m about half way through my third mid-life crisis, it’s going pretty well. I’m divorced with a grown up son at university who makes me very proud. Like a lot of writers I have a 9-5 day job and I write in my spare time. My day job also involves writing – I’m a copywriter/creative director at UK Cash Cowboys, a UK financial services company. My days are largely spent creating superbly crafted advertisements which are then crapped on from a great height by our executives until they read like the instructions for flat-pack furniture. You might imagine that having a writing day job would be a good thing for an author, but you’re better off driving a truck. Or cleaning windows. Most evenings I come home all written out. Thinking and creating all day exhausts your writing muscle, the brain. There’s just no gas left in the tank. All I’m good for most evenings is a glass of Rioja, a frozen pizza and bed. Next day, repeat all over. Continue for sixty years, then die. This, I suspect, is the deal for most people. We throw our lives away in unhappiness, making rich people richer. As you’ve probably figured, I’m a glass half empty guy. Most writers are. What the hell would there be to write about if everything was wonderful?
What are your perfect writing conditions, and how often do you write?
A big country house miles from neighbours, traffic and barking dogs would do just fine. With a big oak desk in the conservatory. Overlooking panoramic views of the rolling English landscape, perhaps Dartmoor or the Lake District, where I’d take long walks, notebook in hand, treading in the footsteps of Wordsworth. A million in the bank would help. I’d get up every morning at dawn, write a paragraph, then have a two-hour breakfast of poached salmon and scrambled eggs on toast with a pot of scalding coffee, while reading The Times. I’d go for a walk somewhere around eleven, returning to edit the paragraph before tackling a stiff pre-lunch sherry. After lunch, brandy and cigars, then retire for the afternoon to dictate my correspondence to a Scandinavian au pair named Ingrid. My ACTUAL regime couldn’t be more different. I write in scraps of time left over from my day job, mostly at weekends, or during work holidays. Usually to an accompaniment of howling neighbours’ dogs, lawnmowers, hedge-trimmers, chain-saws, and various DIY equipment. Alas, Ingrid is also a figment of my imagination. As to the actual mechanics of my writing, I find it really hard to create anything half decent sitting at a computer. Most of my first drafts are done with pen and pad. Either propped up in bed or out walking. There’s something about performing a physical activity which seems to unlock the subconscious and allow the creative juices to flow, in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re sat staring at a blank screen. At least, for me there is. So if I’m writing of a weekend and I’m blocked, I’ll go for a long walk, or go shopping, or take a bath, just do something. Before you know it the block dissolves and the words start to come. Cycling also works. I live in the country so I often go for long bike rides. They’re great for running lines of dialogue through your head because you don’t write them down in a stilted way, you voice them aloud. I’m sure many people I pass en route wonder who the maniac is on the mountain bike who’s always talking to himself. Oh, and I take along a little mini usb recorder to record as I go along. Cycling and writing in a notebook don’t mix very well.
Can you put your finger on the moment where you decided that you wanted to publish your work?
Yes. It was 1990. I was reading Martin Amis’s novel about greed and excess, Money. It was a revelation to me. I’d just finished my degree in Brighton where I’d majored in illustration at the art college. I’d spent a lot of my uni time reading ‘serious’ literature. Then a friend recommended I read this novel by the then ‘emerging’ young writer named Martin Amis. I’d never read anything like it before and was immediately hooked on Amis’s gunslinger prose style and his sparkling vocabulary. The way he managed to write about quite profound issues in a really humorous way made a big impression on me. Sometimes reality can be too depressing to look at, so we avert our eyes. Amis is clever, he disarms you with his humour. There aren’t many people who can joke about The Holocaust and get away with it. In Time’s Arrow for instance, you have to admire the comic genius in his ‘reverse-time’ descriptions of Nazi doctors in Auschwitz assembling human beings from piles of hair, eyeballs and limbs, who then leap off the stretchers and come to life. You find yourself almost catching your breath at the terrible reality behind what he’s just described. He’s taken you to a place not even documentaries can take you. And he’s done it by making you laugh. I found that incredibly powerful. This, is what I want to do, I thought. It’s the point I date my serious writing career from. I immediately began penning several short stories that I hadn’t even realised were in me. The following year I applied to the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Today almost every campus has a writing programme but back then there were only two in the whole UK, and they were vastly over-subscribed. The UEA was considered the daddy. Its alumni included stellar names like Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. In 1991 there were 1,200 applicants for 16 places so I figured I had no chance. But I sent my stuff in, was interviewed, and completely gobsmacked to be offered a place. I can’t tell you what that did to my notoriously fragile self-belief as a writer. When literary sages like Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain (my tutors on the course) think you have something to say, it’s amazing how that kind of affirmation can keep you going through the dark times. And there were plenty of those.
Why do you think it is that you have found yourself writing in the style/genres that you do?
I gave a clue in my previous answer. The two authors I feel most influenced my development were Martin Amis and Charles Bukowski. I admired the hilarity with which they wrote about bleak subject matter. A kind of laughter in the face of the worst the world can throw at us. Amis’s style has grown more serious over the years so he’s not such fun to read nowadays, but his novel Money remains one of the funniest books of the 20th century. As for Charles Bukowski, old Hank just kept firing from the hip right to the end. I don’t think I ever read a bad book by him. Women, Ham on Rye, Factotum and The Post Office are but a few of the semi-autobiographical novels he wrote that I never tire of re-reading. (Cliché alert!) They’re like conversations with old friends. Sure he revisited the same themes over and over – women, work, booze, sex, fighting, gambling, and of course writers and writing. But no matter how often he wrote about a subject, it always felt like he was saying something worthwhile, and with style. He’s been called the poet of Los Angeles low life but anyone who’s read him will know he was an extremely well read and erudite guy. You could pick up any of his books at random and I defy you not to laugh out loud within a couple of pages, or think, god, that’s just what happened to me! Hank wrote a little gem of a novella right near the end of his life called Pulp, which was like nothing else he had ever written. Its narrator was a private detective with a voice straight out of Raymond Chandler. It was the closest Buk ever got to pure fiction, and to me it signalled a new direction he might have taken. Sadly papa death shook him by the hand shortly after the novel was published. But along with Bring me your Love – probably the best short story ever written – I rate Pulp as a masterpiece of short comic fiction. More than anyone else, I think, these two authors inspired me to write, and they definitely had a formative influence on my style. They taught me that it’s possible to write about dark and serious issues in a light-hearted, irreverent way. God knows the world needs more laughter.
What do you feel best differentiates your work from other authors?
Everyone is unique. We’d all write the same story or paint the same picture in slightly different ways. Your upbringing, the relationships and experiences you’ve had, your education and talent (or lack of it), the writers you read… they all feed into your subject matter and style. I guess I’m quite a masculine writer. The male equivalent of chick-lit, or bloke-lit, as I sometimes call it. But I hope my writing appeals to women too, if only to confirm them in their opinions of us as a thoroughly incorrigible lot. Seriously though, I write from a distinctly male psychological point of view, so anyone who wants to look under the lid and find out what makes men tick, will hopefully find something interesting in what I have to say. Or at least be entertained by the way I say it. What was the question again? Oh, right, I class myself as a humorous writer, I guess. That’s what I aim for. To make people laugh. It’s a fairly noir humour and there’s usually a serious message under the surface, about work, politics, cultural degeneration, failing relationships, sexual hang-ups – you know, regular everyday stuff. So it’s kind of laughter in the dark. At least, that’s what I try to pull off. You guys will have to be the judge.
Can you take a moment to tell us all about Reality TV?
It’s a dystopian vision of where I think society is headed, in the best traditions of Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury et al. Television has pretty much taken over our lives, hasn’t it? Especially the genre of so-called ‘Reality’ television programmes. From what I can make out they’re just formulaic copy-cat shows peddling vacuous trash about the minutiae of uninteresting nobodies’ lives, or the public’s obsession with celebrity and fame. They drive me nuts when I’m trying to find something decent to watch, and I scroll down a thousand Sky channels and all I can find is this brainless gunk that’s as interesting as watching paint dry.
How did you first set about creating your parody?
Like a lot of my stories I had no idea how it would end. I’m not one of those macro planners who have to have the whole story arc mapped out before they write a word. I wouldn’t describe myself as the complete opposite though. Somewhere in between. If you stick to a rigid way of working then it all becomes a bit formulaic. I like to leave room for the story to put down its own roots and grow a little organically, then build in support later on, when it begins shooting off in all directions. I start with the kernel of an idea then see what develops as I write. Usually when I’m about half way through the book the plot themes emerge and take shape, and that’s when I’ll start to do what could loosely be called ‘plotting’. It’s still very unorganised. I’ll jot down future plot points on scraps of paper, cluttering the floor around my desk. I’ll often jump around at this stage, writing whichever scenes are most vivid in my mind that day. I might leap ahead to the denouement of the book for instance, then work back to fill in the gaps leading up to it. At the risk of mixing metaphors, by the time I’m about three quarters of the way through it’s like having a tray of jigsaw pieces, with half the jigsaw done. The remaining scenes, bits of narrative and dialogue are gradually slotted into place. Organised chaos describes it perfectly. I’m not sure it’s the ideal way to work but it’s the way books always seem to pan out for me. Reality TV was a good example. The book began from nothing. I hadn’t been walking around for months planning to write a dystopian fiction about the dangers modern media trends pose to our cultural zeitgeist. I think I was just at home one day scrolling through endless rubbishy reality programmes on Sky, desperately trying to find something remotely intelligible to human life. I was appalled by how utterly meaningless most of the shows were. I mean, some of them had titles like “I was abducted and raised by aliens”, or “Lose 120lb in the next ten seconds”. And these weren’t comedy shows. They weren’t even dramas. They were so called ‘reality television’. That’s where I first got the idea for writing out the joke list of programme titles that appear at the beginning of the book. Once I had that down the story just took off, in the living room of the Mason household in West Ham, which is in the East End of London, by the way, where proper cockneys live. At this point Soup Dogg and the other celebrity characters didn’t even exist, nor that whole central plot around the reality show Humili-ATE. I was just taking my pen for a walk, as they say, excited by where it was leading me.
Is your aim purely to make people laugh, or is it important to get a message across at the same time?
I’d have to say both. Nobody likes to be preached to. If you get on your soapbox too much it’s just boring. They’re only your opinions, after all. So you have an obligation to at the very least state them in an entertaining way. If you’re trying to get a message across, do it with style, with wit and humour. I can’t remember if it was Bill Hicks or George Carlin who said it, but the mantra would go something like, “Take the shit that drives you crazy and make it funny”.
Which characters in particular are you most pleased with?
I would have to say Soup Dogg. I put a lot of work into trying to get his blend of Afro-English street slang just right. Yoof-speak, as the kids say. Plus I had a lot of fun creating his whole complex body language of gesticulations, body-pops, moon-walks and crotch-grabs, that have become part of the music scene. Most pop videos these days are like watching late night TV with signing for the deaf. I quite like the football character too, England captain David Crimp. The guy transcends football. He’s a fashion icon, a cultural guru, a walking brand. No prizes for guessing who I based him on.
What sort of reader do you feel this novella would appeal to?
Someone who likes books that make them laugh while ‘improving’ them, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Someone who isn’t easily offended. Aficionados of black humour. Lovers of dystopian fiction. Fans of magic realism. Did I get everybody?
Can you take a moment to tell us all about your short story/poetry collection Sex on the Brain?
It took me ten years to write. I started it on New Year’s Eve 2005. My life was stuck on pause. I’d been married, divorced, and became a father all in quick succession. I was also mired in a 9-5 job I hated. But the work paid well and I had a young son to provide for and a big mortgage to pay, so there was no out. I remember it was a cloudless night and I was pacing up and down my gravel driveway, cradling a glass of single malt, gazing up at the stars thinking what the hell is it all about? This life deal. I wanted to be a writer but I wanted to be a good dad even more. My work days were often twelve hours long so the only free time I got was weekends and holidays. Those were also the times my son came to stay. That meant football in the garden, trips to the zoo, feeding the swans on the river, playing computer games. That was fine by me. I wanted to be a dad, not a baby-sitter. Your kids are your magnum opus man. They’re the most precious thing you can leave the world when you’re gone. When the writing becomes more important than them, it’s time to pack in. So it was New Year’s Eve. He was tucked up in bed. I was out there walking up and down the frosted driveway, thinking, so if I don’t have the time and space to write a novel, why don’t I just write shorter fiction, or poetry? Maybe both. It might take years to pull together a collection (it did) but if I kept biting small chunks out of the project whenever I had an hour spare, I might just end up with something worth publishing. Also, I remember the uncharacteristically pragmatic way I went about deciding what to write about. Normally my subjects find me rather than the other way round. But this was early days in my writing career. I figured I may only get one shot, so I better write about something lots of people would be interested in. God knows why I chose sex, because I wasn’t getting a lot at the time. Except with the boudoir of famously beautiful movie stars and celebrities in my imagination. My fantasy sex life was fantastically fulfilled. That’s normal, right? Well that’s how the idea for Sex on the Brain came about on that frosty New Year’s Eve in 2005. You may not believe this but I actually wrote the first draft of the opening poem, Big Bang, right there in my driveway. I was staring up at the Milky Way, peering through it into the vastness of the universe, when the initial couplet came to me: “When the great cock god unzipped his flies, Infinity knew it wasn’t going to be her day”. I mean, the stuff that goes on out there. There’s no health and safety committee in outer space. No PC police. You have the birth and death of stars, the collapse and expansion of the universe, the darkness, the sheer emptiness of space, the violent outbursts and explosions, the terrible gravitational pulls of black holes, those cataclysmic physical collisions without which nothing would exist. It almost felt as though the universe was having some kind of giant pullulating orgy above me, and human sexuality was just this tiny microcosm of the same elemental force in nature. Sorry if that sounds poncey but that was how the whole book sprang into life, staring up at the sky. I swear to god.
Did you find any limitations writing in the shorter form?
Well obviously you don’t have the luxury of a vast a canvas when writing shorter fiction, nor the space to develop your characters over time. But since I tend towards caricature in my writing for greater comical effect, I didn’t see it as a particular hardship. Besides, as you can tell from this interview I have a tendency to waffle on, so the challenge of paring writing down is a discipline that’s always good for me. There’s that old joke by Dr Johnson who apologised for writing a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. Where you can ramble a bit in novels, shorter fiction forces you to cut every unnecessary word. Poetry more so. Sheri Thomson, a book reviewer who followed me on Twitter, tweeted me a lovely comment last week after she’d read Black Dwarves, White Holes, a short story from Sex on the Brain. “You pack a lot in a small space”, she said, which was just about the nicest compliment anyone could pay a writer. It put a spring in my step for the whole day.
Do you have a favourite poem or story in the collection?
There are many I like in different ways for different reasons. Several that spring to mind (with titles clean enough to mention here) are the poems Big Brother, I.E.D., The Sperm Spittoon, and Beauty and the Beast. Among the short stories I’d have to say I’m proudest of Baggage, The Blonde Bombshell, and Black Dwarves, White Holes. If you pushed me to name just one I’d have to give it to that opening poem, Big Bang, because of its significance in the genesis of the whole book.
Is there potential to expand on any of the shorter stories into novella length or longer in the future?
I already have. Partly for logistical reasons, partly commercial. The three books I published after Sex on the Brain all began as short stories inside it. That’s to say, Sticky Pages, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Reality TV. All the self-publishing gurus tell you that you need three or four books out to have any chance of success, so it made sense to hold a few back. But really those stories simply outgrew the first book. Once a short story gets beyond twenty pages it stops being a short story. Sex on the Brain was already over five hundred pages long so it was a no brainer to take them out. They needed their own space in which to grow and develop.
What kind of responses have you received from people who have read your work?
Well, friends and family all love it of course, which is meaningless since they would say that. To be honest I’m struggling to get reviews, which is one of the reasons I reached out to excellent sites like Self Publisher’s Showcase. The reality of self-publishing on Amazon for most unknown writers is quite bleak, in my opinion. Within a nanosecond of listing your book, it will probably have disappeared. Become invisible, literally. Forever. Submerged beneath the tsunami of other self-pubbed books pumped out every five minutes that day, and the day after, and so on. I’ve blogged about this before. I think the days of writers making a mint from self-publishing are behind us. That may sound like heresy on here, and writers like Jack Konrath who built their platform in the glory days continue to wax lyrical about self-publishing, but for the multitude of newer writers now clamouring for a slice of that pie, there’s not a lot of pie left, I’m afraid. There’s no damn pie at all. The problem is, anyone can now publish any old rubbish online. And they frequently do. The agents and editors who were once the gatekeepers of quality are now largely circumvented. You get authors who can barely spell their name bragging about e-pubbing ten or fifteen books a year. Many of them pimped by a rash of 5-star Amazon reviews which, judging by the half dozen typos and grammatical faux pas on page one, are clearly phoney. Everyone knows it goes on. No one plays by the rules any more. There are no rules. Readers who get burned tend to lump all self-published books into the same ‘junk’ category, making it tough to get anyone to even look inside your work of genius, let alone buy and review it. The whole internet mantra of everything being free is remorselessly chasing book prices down to nothing. You can spend two, three, four years writing a quality work of fiction but in such an environment, self-publishing is like throwing a big rock into the middle of the ocean. Within seconds it’s disappeared. Within minutes it’s a mile down, sunk to the bottom of the sea bed where it will remain forever, unless you are prepared to spend the next sixty years of your life promoting it on social media. That’s when you realise that writing the damn book was just the easy bit. ‘Tweet about it’, they say. Build your platform. Build a Facebook page and they will come. Blog daily. Guest blog weekly. And so on. But when you’ve got a million other wannabe authors all doing the same thing in the same space it’s like trying to shout above a football crowd. And there’s this thing about having to prostitute yourself which doesn’t sit comfortably with most writers. We’re really a shy and sensitive bunch, you know. Introverts by nature. Sometimes you feel more like a hustler than a writer. You have to be a whore to have any chance of succeeding today. I better stop now.
What is the process behind how you come up with your covers?
They’re mostly down to my brilliant designer friend Steve Kirkendall, who’s a top guy, a talented designer, and a fabulous illustrator. He’s also one of the funniest people I know. The idea for the cover of the first book, Sex on the Brain, came from one of the short stories inside called The Bermuda Triangle of Love. It refers to that tiny triangular gap that sometimes happens when a curvaceous lady wears tight pants. I had a clear idea of the kind of image I was after, which would sum up not only the story but men’s idealised view of a woman’s sexuality. I found a few images that fitted the bill and sent them to Steve to do his magic. Steve came up with the idea of using a big chunky font called ‘Machine’ to mirror my blokey writing style. He experimented with making the font transparent, or ‘cut out’, enabling glimpses of the image to show through from underneath. It looked so awesome I decided to stick with the style for all my subsequent books. It does call for a particular type of image, usually a zoomed-in shot of a face or body part. Busier images tend not to work. The details get blocked out by the font. You need a big, bold, brassy image to hold its own alongside the Machine. The process usually begins when I’ve written the book. I’ll search for some pictures online and send them to Steve to do some initial mock ups. Depending on the title and where the letters fall on the cover, some of the images just don’t work, so they fall by the wayside. One or two favourites emerge which Steve will try out with various colour schemes and font layouts. Eventually a standout candidate emerges. We buy that image and Steve finesses the final artwork and sends me the high res versions to use in anger. We’re good to go.
What’s next on the self-publishing horizon for Frank Bukowski?
I’ve got a rough draft written of a Western novella about the seven deadly sins. Oh, and a send up of Fifty Shades of Grey that I’ve been meaning to get done for the last two years, but every time I write a page something pops up in my life that means I have to put it to one side. It’s going to be hilarious, a real laugh out loud page turner. Bit like the original really.
Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
Nope. Back in the early 90’s, before marriage, divorce and parenthood came along, I did my Creative Writing MA, believe it or not, following it up straightaway with a thriller novel called Meltdown. It was about the breakdown of society, inner-city riots, that kind of thing. Took me two years to write. The first agent I sent it to said he loved it, and wanted to represent me. As any author will tell you, that was one of the happiest days of my life. He circulated it round several of the big London publishing houses, who all responded positively. We thought we might have a bidding war on our hands. I already had my beachside villa mapped out in California. Alas, it wasn’t to be. A key thread in the plot of Meltdown was the terrorist violence going on in Northern Ireland, which by then had been raging for a hundred years. Fate couldn’t have been more unkind. Literally the week after we sent it to the publishers the Northern Ireland Peace Accord was signed, consigning a century of sectarian violence and bloodshed (along with my book, and two years’ work) to history. I was gutted, heartbroken. Happy for all the people who weren’t going to die, obviously, but still gutted. The agent encouraged me to try and salvage the book by changing the Irish factor to environmental terrorism, but every thread I carefully unpicked and tried to sew back together, began unravelling the book. Eventually I gave up and started looking for a job that would pay me money. The big lesson I learned was don’t write a book with a huge hostage to fortune built smack in the middle of the main plot.
If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
Keep at it, and decide what you’re in it for. If it’s just for the money, you may luck out, but statistically you’ll probably make more flipping burgers. If you write because you love it, and you’ve a burning compulsion to reach out and connect with others through your story-telling, then just enjoy the ride. If success comes along, that will be a bonus. Hard work and talent will get you a long way, but you need the luck too, and that’s a lottery ticket. Live every day as though it were your last. Make sure the people you love, know it. Give more hugs. And be kind to others.
Before we bring this interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed? Now is your chance to spread the word…
Well I’m currently reading ‘House of Holes’ by Nicholson Baker, which has me in stitches. He doesn’t need any shout outs from me but I’ll mention him anyway. Also a dystopian writer you may have heard of called George Saunders. Finally I’d like to give a plug to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn, not that he needs my help in getting anyone to recognise his greatness, but because I think he’s one of the most accessible and finest poets around.
Thank you for joining us today Frank, and all the best for the future.
You’re very welcome, thank you for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure. All the best with the Indie Book Butler project, you guys are oxygen to writers.
For more information on Frank and his work, please visit his Butler listing page page here.