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Charles Bowden, writer

King of the Blues 

Charles Bowden, writer

"People usually seem surprised I'm not depressed," says Charles Bowden, standing in his flower- and bird-filled mid-town back yard. The house is in the same neighborhood where his family lived when they moved here from Chicago in 1957.

Depressed? The author of the So-AZ-apocalyptic collage/memoir Blues for Cannibals, and other works of purgation and black-as-midnight reportage such as Juarez and Blood Orchid? A man who just spent seven years crawling through the sewers of the drug trade for his next book, Down by the River?

Nahh. Why should he be blue? "It's summer, the best season of the year. I'm going to open a nice cabernet in a while and make Country Captain Chicken for dinner. The recipe calls for mangos. The garden's good and Mary Martha and I go through I don't how many pounds of birdseed a month. My dog's young and happy.

"Tomorrow I'm going to get on the phone and pitch a story about a guy I've been after for years to an editor at GQ, and he'll take it.

"So. I don't feel like touching the bark of that mesquite over there, I feel like licking it."

By his own testimony, Bowden has never been able to quite locate the boundary between himself and the natural world--"'Nature' is a category I don't quite get"--and this afternoon his private chunk of it's in fine order. So is he.

He got up before dawn, as always, and went down in the dark to his office to work while the world was quiet. "There's nothing quite as helpful for writing as knowing for a fact that the phone will not ring."

He was drafting last-minute additions to Down by the River, due out in October--if he can curb his compulsion to nail down just a few more facts--from Simon & Schuster. Two floor-to-ceiling bookcases in his study are stacked with orderly boxes of documents and books on Mexican and border history. The type has been set and the editors didn't want any changes at this point.

"I said I'd pay. Vicente Fox just opened up all the old files. It's impossible not to look."

Bowden's obsessive delving into the darkest corners of life began when he worked for the Tucson Citizen in the early '80s. As he tells the story in Blues for Cannibals, one day an editor sent him out to find some something to say about the death of a toddler in a motel room on Miracle Mile. Bowden did in fact fill the news hole, as they call it in the business. As a result, he landed the sex-crimes beat, where he lasted almost three years--right through a singularly frightening period in the history of crimes against children in Tucson.

The horror of the job marked him, burnt him out, and, in a curious twist, led to his reputation as a nature writer--"Whatever that is. I think of myself as a writer," he says. "I write about what interest me."

It was while working at the paper that he started taking long hikes by himself, far off the trails, to get away from the stories of little girls who disappeared on the way home from a neighbor's. He started writing about his walks and, boom, the crime reporter had a whole new gig. Except, of course, that he never left the first one behind. Even out in the middle of nowhere Bowden is more likely to quote the Book of Revelations than Walden.

He loves photography--the walls of the house he shares with Mary Martha Miles and their poodle are solid with gorgeous prints, mostly classic works of photojournalism--and he's collaborated on a series of photo-essays. He wrote the text for Juarez: Laboratory of Our Future to accompany the work of a group of then-unknown Mexican photographers who were documenting the unprecedented violence of their city. The other three picture books are coffee-table numbers, splendid desert landscape studies with photographer Jack W. Dykinga. Although Bowden writes frequently for Aperture magazine, he doesn't know how to load a roll of film.

"I can't work a camera, can't paint, can't dance, can't play an instrument. So I cook, I garden, I write. We all do what can. 'Notice must be taken.'"

The story that he's going to sell the next day is on his mind.

"I spent a week, seven days and nights, with this guy who's been an undercover narc, a very, very good one, for 20 years. That was just 10 days ago. He was finally ready to talk, to get it all out and he contacted me. People want to tell their stories, you see. We all do.

"This guy has killed three people, put a half-dozen in the hospital, has a teenager informant's suicide on his conscience. So where do I bond with this stone cold killer? In his kitchen. We got down over his Viking range--God, what a beautiful thing. We cooked and I listened and he told it all.

"By the end, he felt born again. I, of course, felt like a toxic waste dump."

He laughs, lights another cigarette and tells Sam to put that toy away. (Sam, a dog who doesn't need to be told twice, goes off to roust some sparrows.)

"So how am I going to pitch it? 'What if Dirty Harry kept a diary?' It's crap, they'll love it, and I'll get to tell the guy's story in such a way that he can't be dismissed, put off to one side in a category. A stereotype, somebody from another species than you and me. I hate that. The world's too complicated."

And too interesting. "I'm curious, that's all. Sometimes things don't feel right, and you look a little harder and it blows up in your face. There's the story."

Last CD bought: "Leonard Cohen's Ten New Songs. I hadn't listened to him for 20 years. Great album."

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