When I asked Donna Janell Bowman if she was available to be interviewed for our August feature, she was in the middle of a graduate residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It is a testimony to Donna's work ethic and enthusiasm that she said "yes," despite the intense pressure of not only graduate work, but the demands of her flourishing career as a writer of children's books, and her equally important work as a mother. I am delighted to introduce Donna today. She's talented and energetic, and she wrote her first stories in a tree. She may not be the Bionic Woman, but I count her among my superheroes.
Where did you grow up, and did that place (or those places) shape your work? If so, how?
I grew up on my family’s Quarter Horse ranch north of Austin. Everything I am, every quirk, talent, and passion blossomed in those wide-open spaces. It was a blessing to have the freedom to explore the outdoors, and to fall in love with nature. When I wasn’t fussing over our many animals, including a pet skunk, I swam, shot targets with my brother, fished for crawdads, and tackled a long list of ranch-related chores. I filled any “bored” times with crafty arts, and writing. I often perched on an outstretched limb of an old oak tree, and filled notebooks with stories and poems. My early training ground.
My competitive spirit was born in a saddle, and that’s where I spent most of my youth, training for and competing in horse shows around the state. It’s fair to say that my first love was a horse. Being an animal-loving ranch kid with entrepreneurial parents, I learned early the importance of responsibility, dedication, sacrifice, empathy, wonder. I also learned about paying my dues, in and out of the show ring. It all prepared me for the writing life.
Did you always want to be a writer, or did that come later?
As a kid, I wanted to be a princess, a famous horse trainer, a veterinarian, an author, or…the Bionic Woman. Hey, you asked. Of these, authors were most like superheroes to me. My parents encouraged my writing by giving me a typewriter when I was ten or twelve. It had a sticky "N," but I didn’t care. I felt like a real writer, punctuating the nighttime silence with tap-tap-tapping. Writing was my youthful outlet and escape. Then I packed it all away for a long while.
I was deeply entrenched in the corporate world, when the birth of my first son led me back to children’s books. Reading together was magical. As I began to make up stories for him, my childhood muse began to whisper to me. By the time my second son arrived, I was writing again, madly in love with books for young readers. My long apprenticeship period began. I was determined to be an author.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Yikes, that’s a scary thought! I’m down to one child at home now (*sigh*), so during the school year, I get him off to school, then I walk the dog, and go to the gym. When I finally face the keyboard, I pull my hair back into a ponytail, which is my mental signal that it’s time to work. I usually have an ongoing list that helps me prioritize graduate school deadlines, and other deadlines. In truth, I do a lot of pacing, staring, researching, and talking to myself. It all looks like procrastination. I prefer to call it pre-writing exercises.
Once I pick Kiddo up from school, I try to give him my attention. I generally squeeze in more writing time during his many sports practices, while he’s occupied with his friends, or after he’s gone to bed. I tend to be a night owl, so much of my best writing happens during the wee hours, when it’s too dark and quiet to pace, talk, or stare.
How does your everyday life feed your work?
I’m fortunate that my everyday life allows me to pursue my book projects, and an MFA program through Vermont College of Fine Arts. Juggling MFA work with works-in-progress is a challenge. As for feeding my work, I think it’s more a matter of priming the creative senses. This seems to tie-in with the common question of where we get our ideas. For me, they come from everywhere: the news, people-watching, emotional experiences, obscure factoids, things kids say or ponder. Curiosity is at the heart of everything I write. And, not surprisingly, much of what I write is set in natural environments. In fact, my first trade book, Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Taught the World about Kindness (Lee and Low, 2016) features a horse. Of course!
Tell us about some of your accomplishments that make you proud (work and/or otherwise).
That’s easy. My kids are my greatest accomplishments. Truly! No award or accolade, no bestseller or literary masterpiece could ever match the pride I feel about the two remarkable young men who call me Mom. Writing-wise, I’m proud of my tenacity and stick-to-itiveness (is that a word?). My journey to publication has been a long one, so each first has been confetti-worthy. First newspaper article, first magazine article, first book contract, seventh book contract, and the myriad of itty bitty acknowledgements along the way. They each represent a step toward my goals.
What surprises you about the creative life?
I am stunned by the bombardment of ideas, and the sharp focus when one of those ideas digs in and demands to be written. I’m also amazed by how moments of insight and inspiration show up at the most inconvenient times: in the shower, while driving, in the middle of a conversation, or when I’m a zillion miles from pen and paper. I am constantly wowed by the human imagination and our fundamental need to be creative. We have the remarkable ability to create believable characters and stories out of the ether, or to recreate the past so vividly that historical people and places feel authentic. Geez, the fact that we have a written language at all is mind-blowing.
Your work is like a gift for your readers. When they open it, what do you hope they find?
In general, I hope readers find themselves and glimpses of their potential. When they turn the pages, I hope they discover their own sense of wonder about the world. Maybe, when they realize a simple tomboy wrote the book, readers will feel a little more like superheroes themselves.
Bio: Donna Janell Bowman is the author of four books for Capstone Press, plus three forthcoming picture book biographies: Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Taught the World About Kindness (Lee & Low, 2016), En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (Peachtree, 2018), and a recently sold title that has yet to be announced (2017 release). Donna resides in Central Texas, not far from her childhood home, where she frequently visits a few of her now very old horse friends.