Mystery writer got her start in a cemetery

At age three, Gail Bowen learned to read by looking at gravestones. “My mother was not a natural mother,” said Bowen in an interview…

At age three, Gail Bowen learned to read by looking at gravestones.

“My mother was not a natural mother,” said Bowen in an interview from Regina.

“I think having a child around bothered her so my grandmother used to take me for these great long walks, and in Toronto the largest greenspace where a kid could run was the cemetery.”

Bowen and her grandmother, who was also a voracious reader, would spend hours in the graveyard going over the letters on the stones one at a time.

“It’s so bizarre when I think about it, bizarre but true,” she added with a laugh.

On Wednesday afternoon Bowen — who is now a top Canadian crime novelist and successful playwright — was at home spending time with her own grandchildren.

Wednesday was also the day that Bowen retired from her job as a professor and head of the English department at First Nations University of Canada, ending more than 20 years of teaching.

She had handed in the grades for her last class earlier that afternoon.

“I really enjoy the time with my grandkids and I’ve been writing a lot and at some point something has got to give,” she said.

“Everybody has been giving me weepy hugs today and I’ve been weepy hugging back, but I keep thinking that I’m going to be leaving for the Yukon so I have something to look forward to.”

Bowen will be in Whitehorse next week as one of the visiting authors at the Yukon Writers Festival.

While she’s in the territory, Bowen will share excerpts of her work at a couple of public readings and she’ll work with high school students on their writing at the Young Authors Conference.

Bowen will help students craft their own tales.

“One of the main things you want to teach them is to write hot and start at a very exciting point,” she said.

And you want them to keep away from some of the biggest pitfalls facing new writers, such as giving too much away at the beginning of the story or getting bogged down in description.

“When writing fails, it has missed opportunities,” said Bowen.

And that happens when writers don’t pay enough attention to things like setting or secondary characters, or they don’t understand dialogue.

But her most important piece of advice she has for aspiring authors is to read lots of books.

“You can learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t just by reading,” she said.

Bowen began writing at 43. And, believe it or not, she began in comedy.

A friend was editing a book called Easterners’ Guide to Western Canada and needed someone to write a witty snippet about Saskatchewan.

So he called Bowen.

“My life changed then,” she said.

The snippet became a book, and the book later became a play that Prince Edward attended.

Then tried her hand at writing a mystery because she loved reading them as a break from her academic reading at university.

“It’s not bad advice to tell anybody that you should write the kind of book you like to read,” she said.

Now, 17 years later, Bowen has 10 published novels to her name.

The stories have such intriguing titles as A Colder Kind of Death, The Glass Coffin and Verdict in Blood.

And they all feature the same lead character — a super sleuth named Joanne Kilbourne.

Real-life Bowen bears a striking resemblance the fictional Kilbourne.

They’re about the same age. Both have children. Both teach at a university. Both have a dog. Both live in Saskatchewan.

“She’s much like me in many ways,” said Bowen.

“But she’s obviously a lot stronger and braver and taller and thinner — after all why wouldn’t you give her all these lovely traits.”

And the Kilbourne character has made Bowen a big success across the country.

“People now buy the books just to see what’s going on in Joanne’s life, not necessarily because they’re interested in the plot,” she said with a laugh.

Bowen and the five other guest writers — Anna Chatterton, Ivan Coyote, Julie Cruikshank, Carl Leggo and Donna Morrissey — will read at a free public reading and reception at 7 p.m. on May 2 at the Beringia Centre.

The Young Authors Conference runs on May 3 and 4 at FH Collins.

This year marks the 16th writers’ festival and the 24th anniversary of the Young Authors conference, which is open to students in grades 8 to 12.

The festival continues until May 10 at locations in Whitehorse and in the communities.

Call 667-5228 for more information.

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