Last week I posted a review about The Company of the Dead written by Dr. David Kowalski – an Australian author currently living in Sydney. A doctor by profession, he is no stranger to being published in professional journals but The Company of the Dead is his first work of fiction. I’m pleased to announce that Nerd Trek was able to do an interview with Dr. Kowalski about his writing, his work and his way forward into the yet unmapped future of fiction writing.
Firstly Dr. Kowalski, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this. As a doctor, I realize that you must be very busy and time is ever precious. Tell me, in such a demanding profession, where do you find time to write?
Alyssa, none of my colleagues or patients call me doctor, so don’t you go starting. I’ll get all confused. To answer your question; time is precious, of course, but I spent 7 years writing the book. More if you include various breaks I had to take for exams, etc. I took my time with it as it was a personal project to begin with. It only dawned on me that I had something to publish quite late in the piece. Now that my practise is quite busy, it’s getting harder to make the time. My second book should have been well and truly done by now. Between work commitments, family and friends, not to mention reading and writing, I’m glad I don’t need too much sleep.
Of course, no titles… sir. So, when did you start writing?
I wrote mini-epics when I was a kid. I filled exercise books with stories I made up; Doctor Who, Star Wars, you name it. When I was in High School I kept my love for language but found myself steered towards the sciences. I kept reading but never really considered a career in writing. I don’t think I was brave enough, and besides, there was nothing I felt the need to share. I started Company as a short story, during a fairly dark time in my life. It was therapeutic. Things got better but the desire to write and expand on the piece stayed with me.
Now, I have to ask. Why the Titanic? What inspired you to use this particular event in history as the catalyst to your story?
I have always been interested in the Titanic. One of my earliest memories is my mother telling me the story of the sinking. I just couldn’t believe such a thing happened. I came back to the subject as I got older, reading about it in more and more detail. I read an amazing book by Biel called Down with the Old Canoe (I heartily recommend it) examining the Titanic as a cultural phenomenon. It seemed that interest in the sinking caught the imagination of every generation, each one finding its own meaning in the burgeoning myth. It struck me as a great starting point and framework, to a story that looked at a Twentieth Century, that was distinctly different, yet very familiar to our eyes.
Where else did you get your inspiration?
Hmmm. I was feeling very ambitious. I love the great Russian novels that span generations. I’m also a fan of the Sci Fi epics like Foundation and Dune. I remember reading somewhere that Iain M Banks wrote like he was making a movie with a limitless budget. I must have been influenced by all those things. I feel that when you write you get to create something, that, synthesised with the responsive reader, can manufacture a whole new world. I loved the idea of that possible interaction. I hope I’m making sense.
How difficult was it to rewrite history for your own purposes?
It was difficult and easy. I had my starting point and I knew how I needed the world to be in 2012. One difficulty was creating a world that had no Second World War, no Holocaust, and making it nastier than our own. I spent a lot of time reading history and talking to historians, discussing the changes I was proposing. Their general consensus; history, as it happened, is strange enough. Knock yourself out, kid.
The changes I made had to have some justification and of course can be questioned. But so can actual historical events. I had a blast with the small things, the cultural changes; New York has aSinatraIslandaerial tramway, Orson Welles made a film called Colonel Kurtz, and Anne Frank was a famous and respected author.
It took you ten years to finish this book, how many times did you give up and what made you decide to press forward?
I never gave up. The one time I questioned what I was doing was straight after 9/11. I had been trying to create a nasty place in fiction and found it difficult to compete with the world I lived in. That feeling didn’t last long but it made me wonder about what I was trying to do. Also, I had told a lot of my friends I was writing. Big mistake, but I found the process so exciting I couldn’t really stay quiet about it. Most of them would smile politely at me and I had a sense that I was obliged to finish it so I could justify the time spent. Petty, in terms of motivation, but there you have it.
I read widely; history, military documents, excerpts from renowned Japanese and German texts, so I could get a feel for how my two empires might have progressed. I studied everything I could find on the Titanic, from first-hand accounts of the sinking to the deck-plans of the ship. I interviewed a lot of people; Submarine Commanders, police officers, soldiers, Native Americans, aeronautical engineers, scientists. I contacted locals living in the areas I was writing about to get a feel for the place. I tried to be as exhaustive as possible. I found that a good solid grounding in reality bore the richest fruits when it came to fiction.
How did you feel when you realized that after all those years of hard work, the book was finally going to be published?
I was gobsmacked. I had spent years, sitting on the patio, under a heater in winter, writing, writing, writing… I listened to the same playlist so many times. It’s a very solitary experience, though obviously rewarding in many ways. The idea of being able to share that now is simply brilliant. Being quite naïve I had no idea how the publishing world worked. I’m thankful for that as I might not have even tried to submit the book had I known. I firmly believe that best we have of the written word is probably lying around on people’s desks or in slush piles, awaiting disposal. It’s a sad thought.
If answering this does not mean that you have to kill me, what are you working on currently? Is it a new project or do you pick up the theme of The Company of the Dead?
Alyssa- you’re safe now. I’m working on something very different. Thematically there are similarities as I am not done with exploring certain conspiracies and working on how my characters face the challenges they are presented with. Having said that Company is very much a part of my life.
Do you find time for reading yourself and, if you do, what genre do you like and which authors do you read? (People always ask )
I try to always read. I usually have some non-fiction I’m looking at. (I’m into the history of science, at the moment, after reading Neal Stephenson – what a legend.) I also listen to audio books in the car. I am also trying to work my way through the classics. I usually try to cover one or two a year. I’m currently struggling through Chaucer but I plan to follow-up with Anansi Boys (Gaiman) and the latest James Ellroy.
Lastly, if you have any advice to other future authors out there, what would it be?
I’m not really qualified to give advice but I’ll tell you how I feel. I remember reading somewhere that Samuel Johnson said that anyone who writes, without writing for money, is pretty much a moron. I’m fairly sure he didn’t put it quite like that. Having said that, just about everything he published was a masterpiece. I think you have to read widely. I think that if you want to write you should write. It’s a discipline so you have to set goals for yourself and try to keep them. I also believe you should write for yourself. Create the book you would most love to read if it’s not out there already.
Again, I’d like to thank you for your time. The Company of the Dead was an invigorating read, one I shall not soon forget.
Alyssa, the pleasure was mine. It was great to have a chance to chat with you.