INTERVIEW: Bill Lowenburg

It was a freezing cold afternoon. I drove across the Delaware Water Gap to meet with Bill Lowenburg at his home in Stroudsburg, PA. Lowenburg is a writer and photographer known for a series of photos chronicled in his photo book, Crash Burn Love. He hangs out with Larry Fink, sold his art to John Waters, was an ex-boxer and writes articles about tough guy author Norman Mailer. For all of that you would think Bill was a big guy with a broken nose and barrel chest, instead of the soft spoken school librarian with a passion for living a simple, vegan inspired lifestyle.

Bill greets me at the door of his contemporary split level home with a south facing wall of windows filtering the winter sun through opaque curtains of soft linen. As photographers it is the first thing we talk about, because it is the first thing we notice in any space we occupy. Where is the light coming from and when is the best time to shoot to have the right light. Out beyond the curtains is a field of ice and snow we will have to cross to get to his old reconstructed barn, cleverly hidden behind a grove of trees.

But first we sit in the warmth of the kitchen and sip a cup of green tea letting our conversation find its way from healing old surgeries, enjoying retirement and finally to the travails of writing and self-publishing a book. Bill knows the story well having written a young adult novel, The Zorki Chronicles in 2014. What one soon learns in the publishing business is the creative process, as daunting and difficult as it can be, is nothing compared to promoting and marketing the work in a glutted market of writers determined to make a name for themselves. Of course and why not? Creatives thrive on sharing their work with others, but once the task is complete the real work begins.

We made our way out to the old renovated barn Lowenburg had moved from his childhood land to rest here miles away. It has been a passion of his to create an artist studio where he can comfortably spend time doing what he loves best. With the fire stoked up high in the wood burning stove and still feeling around 40 degrees, we continued our conversation.
1. How would you describe yourself as an artist? Has it changed over time and where are you now in your creative process?
The simplest description I can give is I’m a working artist. I volunteered for the job about forty years ago. No one makes me do it or cares whether I create anything. I recently retired after a long career in education, so fortunately I’ve never experienced the stress of trying to pay the bills by selling my work. Having a career in education and also working “second shift” on my photos or writing or painting was never a sacrifice — it was what I chose to do with my time. Friends say I’ve missed a lot of good TV shows over the years, but what the hell…the art was much more engaging. I like to do things as opposed to being entertained.

As a teenager I was interested in writing and photography. In my mid-twenties I became obsessed with photography after studying work by Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, and, especially, Larry Fink, who became my mentor. I studied with Fink for over twenty years.

After publishing Crash Burn Love, the obsession with taking and looking at photographs left me. I became interested in publishing a novel and writing a screenplay based on it that would be produced as a movie or television program. The novel has been published and at the time of this writing the screenplay has a producer seriously interested. If by good fortune he wants to shoot a pilot, I’ll suddenly be unretired.

All the while I was teaching, taking pictures, and writing, I also made crazy paintings and mixed media pieces. I’d studied with some of the best in photography and writing, but never had any interest in receiving instruction in drawing or painting. Through self-study, I have a strong grasp of the history and traditions in Western Art, but my inspiration in painting comes from self-taught artists like William Hawkins and Henry Darger.

These days I bounce back and forth between writing and painting in my studio in the barn. Occasionally I take a few pictures on my iPhone. I’m on Instagram and Facebook, but don’t take it seriously.

2. What inspires you as a creative artist?
I think it’s just my curiosity to investigate the possibilities of life through different forms of expression. Hey, could I do this? Maybe…why not try? I have no patrons, no gallery, no audience, and no profit motive. With nothing to lose, I don’t have a strong fear of failure. Consequently, I don’t have a sense of limits when it comes to trying new forms. Naturally, I’ll stick to things within my capabilities. My potential as an opera singer is obviously limited. But hey, I can buy a cheap electric guitar and learn a couple of chords and start a rock band. I’ve been threatening to do that for years. It still might happen.

3. You have two books published, how are they different from each other?
Crash Burn Love is a collection of photographs documenting the grassroots American subculture of automobile demolition derby over a ten-year period. It also contains two essays, one of which was commissioned by PBS. The book was published in the traditional publishing model, by a company that produces high-end art books. Great attention was given to print quality, for which I’m very grateful, and to design, which was largely initiated by my wife, Debbie. I worked with a wonderful editor, Richard Trenner, to polish the essays and am proud of the way the book turned out.

Crash Burn Love received a glowing review in Library Journal and feature spreads in publications like Popular Photography, Top Gear, London Telegraph, etc. A number of libraries across the country added it to their collections. Crash Burn Love is the only book of its kind and will be the one that comes up in a search about demolition derby a hundred years from now.

In the twelve years since publication, Crash Burn Love has taken on a small-but-interesting life of its own. A photo editor at Slate found it in a bookstore in New Mexico, tracked me down, and published a selection of photos along with a clever write-up. Someone wrote to tell me they bought a copy in a bookstore in Jamaica. And a man wrote to me from Japan, concerned that I may have passed away due to lack of updates on the book’s website. In my reply, I couldn’t resist quoting Mark Twain, that “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Then in 2016, I was contacted by film director John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, etc). He was a fan of the book and would I participate in an international exhibition he was curating in Provincetown? Well, sure! Finally, like the demolition derby cars that get recycled again and again, there has been discussion of Crash Burn Love returning as a feature documentary.

The Zorki Chronicles is an irreverent anti-war novel, inspired by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. I’m well-aware of the futility of such intentions. Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, wrote of an editor’s reaction when he described his now-classic, Slaughterhouse Five, as an antiwar novel. “You might as well,” the editor replied, “write an anti-glacier novel.” But, like Vonnegut, I thought it was important to try.

The young protagonist of The Zorki Chronicles is a high school senior who walks away from a promising athletic career to become a photographer and anti-war activist. Coincidentally, the president happens to be unstable and totally unqualified for the position. War threatens to break out on several fronts, including Korea, Pakistan, and Mexico. The book was published before Trump even considered running for president — I guess something was in the air.

The Zorki Chronicles was written with the intention of adapting it to television or feature film, and also to be released in graphic novel form. Currently, the screenplay is being considered by Centone Pictures, who recently released Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Lost Town.

4. How long did each one take from concept to publication?
Crash Burn Love took ten years. I began shooting photos in 1995 and the book was released in 2005. It could have been wrapped up much earlier, but I was having so much fun going to demo derbies each summer that I rode the wave and just kept going. As a result, some of the book’s best photos were made. The lesson learned was, sometimes when I think I’m finished, I’m not. Creative projects have a way of working out on their own terms, independent of my intentions.

The Zorki Chronicles took a year to write the first draft and four years to revise and edit. In a way, it’s still not “finished.” It continues to serve as the nucleus of new story lines and character development as I adapt it for the screen.

5. Why did you decide to self-publish the Zorki Chronicles?
The Zorki Chronicles manuscript was a semifinalist in the now-defunct Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. Several of the other semifinalists were offered publishing contracts, but I wasn’t. I shopped the book around for the better part of a year, writing to dozens of agents, but nobody expressed interest. I learned all about the economics and business model of publishing first novels and realized I had nothing to lose by self-publishing. Now, several years later, I have no regrets. I could still be looking for an agent, when instead, I have a number of readers who enjoyed the book and a producer interested in my screenplay based on it.

6. What company did you choose to publish with and why?
I used Amazon Create Space. It is essentially free if you can provide your own cover art and, of course, editing, and marketing. Any services you might need can be purchased for a reasonable price. In terms of distribution, Amazon can’t be beat. Essentially, the world is your market. When a customer orders a copy, it is printed and shipped within 24 hours. The book can also be made available for electronic download on Kindle and other devices.

7. What did you find to be the most difficult and time consuming part of the publication process?
From my viewpoint, difficulty and the investment of huge amounts of time go with the territory. Problem solving is inherent in the creative process and in bringing your work to a potential audience. So I face the challenges one by one as they arise and view them with detachment. I often rely on the Buddhist routine of asking the question, “What needs to be done?” Answering that one simple question provides the pathway leading to the next step. While I do set long-term goals, I try to pay attention to the task in front of me at the moment, as opposed to obsessing about the outcome.

It seems to me that writing and publishing books, whether through the traditional model or self-publishing, is a form of role playing not unlike the lives of the characters I create. It’s analogous to the protagonist in a novel encountering obstacles. The way he or she reacts reveals character to the reader and moves the story forward. Shakespeare said we’re all just actors on a stage and I agree. I try not to take the whole thing too seriously. Especially since I don’t have to depend on it to make a living.

8. What did you find to be your best (most profitable) marketing strategy?
From my experience with both titles, I sell the most books when I give a reading or make a presentation and have discounted books for sale immediately afterward. Unless you’re famous, all other marketing strategies are pretty much a waste of time and money, in my opinion. Nonetheless, I want to recommend John Kremer’s comprehensive guide, 1001 Ways To Market Your Books. You may pick up a strategy that works well for you.

9. Looking back what might you have done differently.
More readings and presentations. Fortunately, now that I’ve retired, I can arrange to do more at any time.

10. How would you advise writers looking to self-publish their first book?
I agree with John Kremer, the book marketing expert, who encourages aspiring authors to answer the following questions:
Who will read /buy your book and why?
What distinguishes it from other books already on the market?
What is your plan to publicize, market, and distribute the book?

I would add: pay your dues as a writer. If you have never published anything – for example, a collection of short stories or nonfiction articles, or have never written professionally, the idea of producing a publishable full-length manuscript is, in most cases, not realistic.

If publishing a book is a goal, but the whole process seems baffling, that’s a clear signal you need to educate yourself on the process. Read books on the topic. Attend publishing and writing conferences. Consider enrolling in an MFA program. I graduated from Wilkes University’s Creative Writing Program and benefited tremendously from the experience.

As a basic starting point, complete your manuscript. Next, confirm that your manuscript meets professional standards. Arrange for several professional writers and editors — not friends or loved ones — to provide an honest assessment of the writing.

If you have never published anything professionally and have written a book-length manuscript working on your own, without professional feedback, you need a reality check. Many unpublished writers do not understand the editing process and the necessity to revise and rewrite. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell To Arms fifty times. Years later, in an interview with The Paris Review, he was asked why he gave the ending that kind of attention. He answered, “To get the words right.”

Thank you for the questions. I hope these thoughts will be helpful to someone. Good luck to everyone with the drive and persistence to publish their work!