Interview with Jonathan L. Bowen Part One

Jonathan L. Bowen is the author of 2005’s ‘Anticipation: The Real Life Story of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace’ and last year’s ‘Revenge: The Real Life Story of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.’ Both books chronicle every aspect of the phenomena leading up to their releases and beyond. Here he talks about why he decided to write these books and the experiences he had breaking into publishing:

LP: What motivated you to write “Anticipation” and “Revenge?”

JB: I wrote Anticipation and Revenge for different reasons. With Anticipation, I had been collecting articles about the film for years before its release, more for personal reference reasons than anything. As the film release neared, however, I started to think I had built such a strong archive of information that I would be in great position to write a book on the subject. My reason changed after the release of the movie, however. I saw the terrible reporting in the media, the spread of misinformation, and the propagation of the idea that most people hated the film, so I saw my book as a defense of The Phantom Menace, not primarily in terms of plot or content, but just the simple facts about the movie’s success. I wanted to make sure I wrote a definitive book on the subject so that people looking back at the event years later would have accurate, thoroughly researched information available.

With Revenge, I only decided to write a book on the film in the summer of 2006, well after the movie’s release. I had not been collecting research materials actively, though I had bought almost every magazine related to the film because I knew I would probably want to write a book about the subject. Revenge of the Sith is not a movie that needs defending, either critically or commercially, so my reason for writing the book was more to celebrate the saga’s final film entry and look at what a landmark cultural event it became, much like The Phantom Menace six years earlier. I wanted to write a book that, like Anticipation, would remind people of a period of time in the history of the franchise and film history that I think will remain important indefinitely.

LP: How many hours did you spend just doing the research for both books? Did you have any help?

JB: The research process for the first book was immensely more difficult than for the second, largely because of the way I gathered research material. With Anticipation, I found the articles each day, following the movie over a long period of time from before its release to well after, and then copied and pasted the text into Word files for online articles or copies of articles in newspapers I found online. The process was often quite difficult because the formatting of the articles required a lot of tinkering around to copy just the text part of the article into a Word document. By the time I wrote Revenge, I was using a Mac and just used “Save As PDF” to save a document in just a few seconds, which took me sometimes a minute or two previously, time that adds up quickly when one is gathering more than 1,000 articles. In all, I had about 1,500 articles for Anticipation and somewhere around 1,700 for Revenge. While research on Anticipation lasted years because of the way I gathered the information (without the intention of writing a book at first), I finished the primary research gathering on Revenge in just 3-4 weeks of intense work.

The way I organized the research materials for Anticipation was also poor, because of my lack of experience. I gathered the articles and sorted them into folders by year, then by month, which made sense from an archival standpoint but not when one is writing a book. On Revenge, I decided upfront roughly how the book would be divided by chapter, then I created folders for each of those chapters, then I dropped articles into the folders appropriately so that when research was completed every chapter had a corresponding folder full of articles relating to it. Of course, that was just the digital area of research; the magazines and in-print newspaper articles created a bit more of a hassle. When I wrote a chapter, I created two folders within the research folder, “Used” and “Unused,” so that I could drop articles into the used folder for writing the bibliography later. It proved a highly effective and time-saving way of writing the book. I did not have any help researching either book.

LP: Was “Anticipation” your first attempt at writing a book? What have you learned from the process of writing a book about writing and about the publishing industry?

JB: Anticipation was my first attempt at writing a book. Revenge was actually my third attempt. The second was an untitled project about DreamWorks SKG, the film studio, for which I was never able to obtain the interviews I wanted to make it a compelling book. I abandoned it after writing several hundred pages, which is a shame, but sometimes it happens. I have learned a lot about writing and publishing since I first started researching Anticipation many years ago. I was barely a professional writer when I wrote Anticipation, having published a few freelance articles online for pay. I also did not know much about the book publishing industry. I could write an entire article about what I think of the current state of book publishing, but suffice to say I ultimately decided to go with iUniverse so I could control the rights to my book, the “final cut” so to speak, and still have the advantage of professional quality.

Anticipation had a literary agent attached to it, one of the best in the world actually, but when the major publishing houses claimed it would appeal only to “a small audience of die-hard fans,” I lost support for the project and had to publish it years later through iUniverse. My experience led me to look into what a major publisher offers versus what a print-on-demand publisher offers and I did not see much of an advantage to using a major publisher. On the one hand, if you are a major author, a large publisher will throw its advertising support behind you, but on the other, if you are a major author you have no need for their advertising or distribution because you can arrange it yourself.

As with any desirable field, which is to say any job that people think is “cool” or “glamorous,” book publishing is an incredibly difficult industry. It reminds me a lot of the film industry. While more than 60,000 books are published every year, fewer than 5% of authors make a living just on selling books. When I wrote Anticipation, I was really just a kid, a smart, ambitious one, but naive nonetheless. I had visions of my agent striking a blockbuster deal that would make me a few hundred thousand dollars and put me on television talking about how I wrote a book in high school. Years later, when I got over Anticipation being essentially a niche book for well-read fans, I realized the passion inside of me to write, the same reason I wrote Anticipation in the first place, was still strong, which is why I wrote Revenge. I knew I would pour 500 or more hours into just researching and writing the book (not even including promotion), but ultimately I love writing and I wanted to share what I learned about the movie with other fans, even if only a few hundred fans would ever read what I wrote. I think the passion for your work has to be present when you are competing in a tough industry.

My interest in book publishing, however, is for now strictly a hobby and not a profession. As with the film industry, where many people want to make a living at a job other people think is “cool,” very few people succeed; most are just hobbyists. The other common theme is hard work. Writing books and making movies (or music videos or commercials, etc.) is tough, exhausting, mentally and physically draining work, but the outside world sees the final products as something glamorous and special. Even though I love writing, much of the process is not fun, especially when you become stuck on a fact you know you read somewhere but now cannot find amidst more than 1,000 articles. Seven hours later, you finally find the quote or fact that makes the paragraph perfect, but the reader skims over what you wrote in a few seconds, with no clue how much work you put into perfecting the facts. Somehow, though, it is all worthwhile when a reader picks up your book, reads it, and tells you they enjoyed what you did.

LP: You’ve mentioned that it was hard to get publishers or media interested in your books. How do you explain that while Mugglenet was able to publish a book full of bogus Harry Potter predictions, get plenty of media interest, and go on book tours?

JB: I am not sure I can really explain the difficulty I had with generating media interest for the books, but with Anticipation the only city I was able to promote my book heavily was ironically the college town of Corvallis, Oregon, where I had graduated Oregon State University several months before the book came to print. The local newspaper featured me on the top of their front page! I was shocked, but I suppose not much happens in Corvallis anyway. The school newspaper also had me on the front page, which was a surreal experience because I had been reading that paper (and applied for the position of editor-in-chief once) for years and was still in town promoting my book when the paper was published (the day after my interview). When I went out to a local club the night of the paper’s publication, a few people came up to me and asked, “Hey were you that guy on the front page of the OSU paper?” It was kind of ironic considering I went through college without many people knowing my name.

LP: What was the most interesting fact you learned while researching either book?

JB: Of all the questions, I think this one is the toughest. I learned too many interesting facts to pick just one! I know that comes across as a copout, but I can come up with several that astounded me. I knew the midnight showings for Revenge of the Sith were a huge deal because my local theater used four of their twelve screens, compared to just one for the first prequel and two for the second, but when I read that in some cities entire multiplexes used every available screen to show the final prequel at midnight I was shocked! For my first book, I remember being especially surprised reading how well The Phantom Menace performed in Russia, at the time becoming the highest grossing movie ever in the country. I was happy to see that at least Titanic’s record fell in one country.

LP: What kind of feedback have you received from fans concerning both books?

JB: I have received excellent feedback from both books so far, which is really what keeps me interested in writing, especially Star Wars-themed non-fiction books. I remember one e-mail I got from a fan about Anticipation long after I had published it helped push me to write the second book. I knew I was going to write another eventually, but sometimes people underestimate their impact on another person. One simple e-mail from a stranger can sometimes change your life, if only slightly. The positive feedback about both books makes me feel that writing them was worthwhile. Most authors do not publish books for money or fame, but rather for the satisfaction of giving knowledge back to the world. I am happy to have written both books because at least fans have a source for information about past events they may want to recall at a later point.

To be continued…

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6 Responses to “Interview with Jonathan L. Bowen Part One”

  1. oxward321 Says:

    Cool, very cool. I can’t wait to read the rest.
    Are the any excerpts from his books? Also, where can you purchase them?

  2. Qui-Gon Jay Says:

    Amazon has ‘em both.

  3. Lin Says:

    I’ve read both of Jonathon’s books and can highly recommend them to Star Wars fans. They are so well-researched and really capture the…anticipation of Phantom and the vindication that was Revenge of the Sith. How quickly our memories fade of that time – dreading the end of one Star Wars film because we knew we were beginning another 3 years wait…but it was exquisite pain – you know what I’m talking about… the daily search for spoilers, photos, theories no matter how off-kilter, they were worth considering. Always welcomed are the experiences of other fans waiting just like we all were plus new “making of the prequels” things you never knew. Now we have these two books to take us back to that time that isn’t really long, long ago, but soon will be.

  4. lazypadawan Says:

    Nice to see you here, finally, Linda!

  5. Lin Says:

    Hey! LP!! – I love Jonathon’s books. and the only time I’m on TFN is to defend defend defend!!!!!

  6. Jonathan L. Bowen Says:

    Thanks so much for the kind comments :) It’s always nice to hear someone enjoys your work. We’ll see what’s next but I’m thinking of directing a Star Wars fan film later this year, I just don’t know yet what my schedule will be like, etc.

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