I met Phil Bowie, like so many other wonderful authors, at Killer Nashville. He gave away lots of free copies of his short story collection and made an impression with his intelligence and generosity. A few years later, we attended the SEMWA (Southeast Mystery Writers of America) retreat, where I taught a session and attended his class on short stories. He shared another of his tales with us, a beautiful little story about a man struggling with grief and his life-changing encounter with a young girl with Down Syndrome. I learned a lot from him, that day, and even more when I asked him for advice on a scene I was writing for a short story. It involved a difficult helicopter maneuver, and I knew Phil, a longtime pilot, would have the information I needed. He did, and once again, he generously shared his knowledge.
According to his official bio, Phil has sold 300 articles and short stories over the years to magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Harper’s, Yankee, Heartland USA, and others. He has four suspense novels out in a series endorsed by top authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. The debut in that series earned honorable mention at the London Book Festival among hundreds of contenders. He also has a collection of short stories out including several previously published in magazines and an award winner begun by Stephen King.
Not only is he a writer, but an instrument-rated pilot, a motorcycle rider, a licensed boat captain, an inventor, a fiddler, and an amateur astronomy buff.
Phil’s new stand-alone suspense novel Killing Ground, has one of the most powerful openings I’ve ever read. The point of view shifts between the matriarch of an elephant herd and an ivory poacher. In my humble opinion, the book is worth buying for that scene alone. But, of course, that’s not all there is to enjoy. In this fast-paced thriller, part-Cherokee corporate pilot Zeke Blades learns that his friend and former flight instructor Ben Stone has gone missing while flying humanitarian missions for Global Health Resources in Africa. Zeke travels to Tanzania in search of Ben. He meets enigmatic beauty Liana Sekibo and a small cadre of anti-poaching vigilantes known as the Mambas.
Zeke is drawn into a lethal fight against a vicious gang of poachers led by the notorious outlaw Muhammadu Raza, who feeds profits from illegal ivory to al-Isra, a radical Islamist group plotting to seize Uganda.
Phil has agreed to answer some questions for us about his life and his writing. If you’d like to know more, you can check out his website at www.philbowie.com. And if you’d like to check out the book, there’s an easy buy button on his website. The Amazon link is https://www.amazon.com/dp/1079131795
In the meantime, let’s welcome Phil to Crimereaders.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? What led you to become a thriller writer?
My mother Edith was a 1940’s reporter for the Northampton, Massachusetts, Gazette. She interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt and actor Boris Karloff, reviewed local plays, and later wrote human interest pieces for New England Homestead. She encouraged reading and taught me much about ethical and impactful journalism. She inspired my lifelong side career of magazine writing, expanded over recent years into novels. I’ve always enjoyed reading action and thriller tales so that’s what I attempt to write.
I’ve met a host of fascinating people along the way. Writing has enriched my life.
We both know that story ideas are everywhere. What inspired this book in particular?
In 2018, the last male northern white rhino, named Sudan, died. Only two females remain. If desperate in vitro fertilization fails, the species will go extinct like ten other animal species have over the past decade. One a year. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 4,000 wild species have declined by 60 percent since 1970 for preventable reasons. Poaching is the cruelest, most senseless pressure many species suffer, driving them ever closer to the brink, and no creature has been more viciously abused and exploited than the elephant. I wanted to raise awareness of the issue.
What kind of and how much research did you do for the book?
I built each of my four series suspense novels around a central theme—the black market weapons trade, a lost Cherokee gold mine, the outlaw motorcycle cult, synthetic drugs—and those core themes needed researching, but at least I set the tales in familiar places like the Outer Banks and the Great Smokies. I’ve never been to Africa, although my daughter Lisa has and helps support a mission school for AIDS orphans in Kenya. So, in addition to researching poaching, I had to really dig into the culture and landscape and problems of east central Africa before I felt comfortable setting accurate and believable scenes there.
Each novel gets its own portable file box containing maps, Google Earth grabs, magazine articles, news clippings, and notes that I’ve harvested from interviews and the Net and TV documentaries and plucked from my feverish imagination.
The opening scene is incredibly powerful. How did you get into the mind of the elephant herd matriarch?
Elephants are noble intelligent creatures. Mammals like us. They care for and help each other and grieve for their fallen. I wanted to arouse reader empathy right off by showing the raw brutality of poaching, and I thought the best way to do that might be from a matriarch’s point of view, imagining not only her intense physical pain but also her depthless grief and desolation because she’s powerless to protect her small herd against killer man creatures.
It’s a truly heartbreaking scene, and I know you did a lot of research to get the details right. What’s the most interesting or unusual thing you’ve done or learned or had happen to you while doing research for your writing?
It’s hard to single one out from so many over the years—Riding at over 200 mph on a long runway in a jet-powered show truck. Stunting with airshow pilot Kim Pearson in his nimble two-place aerobatic plane. Interviewing and photographing the last builder of Chesapeake Bay sail-powered wooden skipjacks that once dredged for oysters. Writing assigned articles under my own name and two piratical pen names for the slick company magazine Hatteras World, which they sent to yacht customers worldwide.
In 1976, on pure speculation and little cash, I drove a borrowed tin-can Fiat 2,800 miles from my home in New Bern to the Bonneville salt flats to cover male and female attempts on the World Land Speed Record in a rocket vehicle. The drivers were Hollywood stunt people Hal Needham and diminutive, beautiful, fearless, part-Cherokee, and deaf Kitty O’Neil, who had already been an Olympic diver, competed in the tough Baja motorcycle 500, and set records including water skiing at 104.85 mph. I interviewed and photographed both drivers. My article about Kitty came out in The Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest reprinted it. (I gleaned five published articles from the shoestring trip, so that impulsive gamble paid off.)
Kitty broke 22 records in her dangerous career, including the women’s Land Speed Record at 512.71 mph on Oregon’s dry Lake Alvord. Dressed as Wonder Woman, she leaped in a swan diver’s pose from the top of a high-rise California hotel onto an air bag she said looked like a postage stamp from 127 feet up. She did incredible stunts in many movies. Stockard Channing played her in a biographical film called Silent Victory.
Kitty died in late 2018 at 72 of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota. I was privileged to have met her.
The love of my life and best friend Naomi is also part Cherokee, so it’s no coincidence the co-protagonist in my suspense series is beautiful, motorcycle riding, part-Cherokee Kitty Birdsong.
What a beautiful tribute to Naomi. I know she loves your work, and she’s told me how devoted you are to it. What do you think is the most challenging part of being a writer?
Sticking to it day after day through all the rejection and frustration and the necessary never-ending learning curve.
We only fail when we quit, which I refuse to do.
I’ve happily watched your own career begin and flourish, by the way, from your efforts in organizing and running the Killer Nashville conference to your debut novel and excellent subsequent tales. I especially liked your Racing the Devil and River of Glass.
Thank you so much for that, Phil. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the books, and I feel blessed to have helped Clay Stafford, Killer Nashville’s founder, build such a great conference. Those are some of the most rewarding things about being a writer to me. What’s the most rewarding for you?
Touching and moving however many readers I can. I have a thickening file of notes and e-mails from people who’ve liked my stuff. It fuels me.
I agree. There’s nothing like that feeling! What was your favorite encounter with a reader?
Taped to the wall behind my computer there’s an e-mail from a UK man confined to a wheelchair because of a vehicle wreck. Although a confessed addicted reader, he told me it was the first fan letter he’d written in 20 years. He said, “Reading your books has taken me back to what I miss the most, the outdoors and all its splendor, what it means to be alive.” And he vowed to step up his physiotherapy.
That must have been an incredible moment. And how gratifying that he took the time to tell you how much your writing meant to him. What was your favorite encounter with another writer?
Top gun Lee Child endorsed my debut novel and my then publisher Medallion Press sent me on their tab to SleuthFest in Florida to meet him. He was the guest of honor and keynote speaker for the 500 attendees, and when all six feet five inches of him came up and shook my hand and said he liked my work it made my decade. He slipped into the back of a room where I was serving on a workshop panel, and that night we sat by the Hilton pool over drinks and talked about life and writing. The next morning, I had breakfast with the gracious and prolific Heather Graham and her stunning daughter, who had served as a model for some of her covers.
I flew home from that conference in a euphoric haze and went to work on another novel.
You write a lot of short stories as well. What are some of the rewards and challenges of writing short vs long and vice versa?
Shorts are fun and challenging because you have to pack most of the elements of a novel into a severely restricted framework. Nothing teaches you to write clear and tight more than having to whittle down 5,000 words by half to fit a magazine format, and it invariably improves the writing.
Shorts have inspired many movies so there’s always that chance. The recent A. J. Finn novel The Woman in the Window, which drew a $2 million two-book advance and a Hollywood option, was clearly based on the 1954 Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart film Rear Window, in turn based on the 1942 Cornell Woolrich short “It Had to Be Murder.” The excellent TV series Justified was based on the Elmore Leonard short “Fire in the Hole.” J. K. Rowling almost certainly based her superb Harry Potter debut novel partly on the ancient short tale “Cinderella.”
That’s an interesting point. I love the Harry Potter books, but I hadn’t considered the comparison to “Cinderella” until now. So…in addition to thinking outside the box about literature and writing a little of everything, you’re an accomplished pilot. What do you love about flying, and how do you incorporate your knowledge of flying in your writing?
Some of my most memorable experiences, and a few of the most frightening, have involved aviation: Discovering in 1981 in a dusty red barn by a short grass strip on a Pennsylvania mountain top the Cessna Skyhawk I’d buy that day and name Angel. Flying regional and national media crews and politicos and activists as a volunteer Neuse River Foundation pilot over sprawling eastern NC corporate hog operations to spot and document pollution. Gliding a mile and a half high through a cobalt-blue fantasy sky filled with bright towering cloud pillars and misty rainbowed canyons to see my daughter Lisa receive her master’s degree from Clemson. Flying with Naomi and my business partner and her husband to the Bahamas for a vacation, on one leg with no land in sight for nearly an hour, with Angel’s single engine beating faithfully all the way. Dodging snow showers over New England. On the way back from visiting my father, flying down the East River alongside Manhattan past the shining ill-fated Twin Towers and out over New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. Taking kids up and watching their wonder blossom.
The main character in my suspense series of course had to be a Cessna pilot. Likewise, in this new stand-alone the protagonist Zeke Blades is a part-Cherokee corporate pilot. My experiences have helped lend realism to the aviating scenes.
Though I hated to, after a long and happy relationship I finally sold Angel several years back because my skills were gradually beginning to erode with age. I don’t know where in the skies she is, but I hope one day I’ll look up and see her still wearing the distinctive blue-and-white paint job I designed after much deliberation (photo on my website).
On occasion I still fly with an instructor friend who lets me take the controls under my hands once again and feel a bit of what the soaring eagles must as their right.
What do you most like to do when you’re not writing–or flying?
Naomi and I travel and go for walks along the beach or through historical New Bern. She won’t ride motorcycles with me anymore because of cell phoning drivers killing so many of themselves and others out there (some 5,000 American deaths a year and many more thousands of injuries), but I still like to get lost in the wind by myself sometimes, usually on twisty lonely back roads high in the Smokies.
You’re accomplished in a lot of other areas too. What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Nothing to do with writing, although I’ve always tried my level best at that.
Romance author Nicholas Sparks lives on the far loftier side of my hometown in a mansion. (I tell people I’m the other famous New Bern author.) He’s helping hundreds of young people become better and more successful citizens through the Epiphany School he founded and funds.
On a much more modest level, for over 20 years I’ve supported and guided just one young man named Aaron who would otherwise have faced a bleak future. I encouraged his schooling in academics and music and sports and he’s responded well in every way. It’s been fun watching him grow. He graduated in 2015 from NC State, first in his family lineage to earn a degree, and he’s moving up fast in a major corporation at a job he loves. I’m proud of him.
Coincidentally and more than he knows, Nick also helped this same boy a few years back through donating a new running track to Aaron’s high school and coaching his team.
I can see why you picked that as your greatest accomplishment. I’ve always thought that books could change the world, but changing an individual life may be even more powerful. Okay, now for a totally random question: If you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could take only three books, which three would they be?
I’d choose three big anthologies so I could take a whole gang of good writers with me.
Last question: Do you have a favorite animal? If so, which one and why?
Naomi has rescued several dogs and cats over the years and those have been fine experiences, but we’re down to just one stray tabby she named McKenzie, who allows us to live in his cottage by the river with him.
My name means lover of horses and I always have since reading Zane Grey and watching western movies as a youngster, though I’ve never owned one. I know they’re your favored creatures, too. I loved the movies Hidalgo and Secretariat.
Those are two of my favorite movies. I do love horses, though I’m a very timid rider. I’m a cat lover too, but I think dogs may be the most perfect creatures ever created.
On that note, I think we’d better wrap this up. Thanks so much, Phil, for sharing your time with us.
And again, dear Crimereaders, you can learn more about Phil at www.philbowie.com. And if you’d like to check out the book, there’s an easy buy button on his website. The Amazon link is https://www.amazon.com/dp/1079131795