A writer like you: B.T. Lowry
Meet Bevis Lowry, a short story writer and novelist who, after studying art, spent ten years as a bhakti-yoga monk in South India.
He was born near the Rockies in Canada and got married less than a year ago. He and his wife now live in a village in West Bengal called Navadvipa, the place of nine islands, because the Ganges River divides the land into nine parts. He spends his time writing, meditating, and drawing (ideally at the same time) and loves spirituality, culture, creativity, and ecology. To open himself up to other cultures and ways of being, he reads both fiction and non-fiction.
Along with several short stories published in online magazines, he’s self-published a novel, Fire from the Overworld. It’s an alternate world fantasy about two young mystics. Through meditation and ritual, they journey to meet nature’s governing spirits, with the goal of sorting out why their land is withering up. He is currently working on a second novel, an alternate-world fantasy inspired by ancient India and the Americas.
You’ll love reading about how Lowry’s spirituality influences his work, his perspective on how writers can change the world, and his use of writing to understand all that is outside of himself.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
What has shaped you into the writer you are today?
Spending more than 10 years as a monk, practicing eastern spirituality had a big impact on me. Some of this was spiritual, but a lot was cultural. I've been outside my home country of Canada for so long that I can't help but see it as an outsider, comparing it with cultures in other parts of the world. Also, being inside a (somewhat) organized religious group has made me consider how jewels of truth are often wrapped in religious politics and local culture. My wife encourages me to write more directly, but I like alternate world fantasy because I can touch on cultural issues without pushing the hot-buttons that make readers stop listening.
What have you learned about writing so far?
I’ve heard it said that writing is the most abstract of the arts. There is nothing to see but symbols on a page. It rests with the reader to bring it to life. Margaret Atwood compared a book to a musical score; those who can’t read music will see only meaningless symbols, but those who can may manifest an entire symphony in their minds. Similarly, the reader uses the writer’s indication to imagine a world. It is a joint creation between writer and reader. Two people’s experience of a book will differ because of what they bring to it as readers. As such, reading is not passive but active, and an excellent way to develop one’s powers of visualization.
Why are reading and writing so important to you?
For me, writing and learning are intertwined. I write about things that interest me and I know a bit about, and that in turn impels me to learn more. For example, I learned about permaculture because I wanted more realistic ecologies in my stories. This in turn got me more involved in actual permaculture.
Writing helps me process this complex world, inside and out. My characters and I have similar struggles, though my life isn’t as dramatic as theirs. On the simplified stage of my story, I can begin to understand the complex forces we’re all dealing with. As a character moves through lessons, so do I. Of course, I have to do other personal work besides writing, but it helps me to see how everything fits together.
In that sense I see writing as allegorical. Not that it has to be heavy-handed and preachy, but I see fiction as a simplified metaphor for the real world, a representative sample of something far more complex and difficult to grasp.
How do you think writers can change the world?
I recently saw a good documentary by Ken Burns about Mark Twain. Twain wrote fierce satires against racism in particular, and because he was such a popular writer, he actually helped change how many people think. Someone interviewed in the film made the point that writing doesn’t usually change society from the inside, but from the edges. Tom Sawyer floated down the Mississippi with a runaway slave, and as they got to know each other, Tom’s view on his companion changed in a natural and funny way. So too did the outlook of many reading the tale. Big men like Abraham Lincoln eventually made laws for equality, but it was largely due to pressure from people in general. And a writer, though seldom in the political center of the world, can invite their readers to open their minds and hearts, and this change may gradually spread toward society’s center.
How do you define writer success?
For me, success as a writer means a few things. One is to narrow the gap between what I want to say and what I’m able to say. Another is that my writing brings me deeper into understanding what I write about. The last is that I find an audience, small though it may be, to be part of the cycle of writing, listening and writing again.
Do you have any tips for writing strong characters?
Look deeply at yourself and at those you know. Choose aspects of people you know to emphasize, or to combine with aspects of others. Just like it’s easier to draw an imaginary character if you have some real-life reference, it’s easier to write characters who share characteristics with real people. Characters fall into categories according to their age, gender, sexuality, political views and so on, but you’ve got to find the essence of their humanity. This requires introspection, finding what’s common to you and them. The arc they go through has to be a journey you’re taking yourself, even if you’re mostly finished, or think you are!
Do you have any tips for structuring a story?
There’s a yin-yang balance with story structure and inspiration. The structure should be like the riverbed in which the water flows. When my story seems too complex and sprawled out, story theory can help me find its spine again. There’s a lot of good story theory out there. My current favorite is John Truby, whose written a book called The Anatomy of Story. It’s got to be kept in balance though, or I end up writing formulaic stories. I suggest studying story theory, but dropping it from your conscious mind when you’re writing. It’s best for planning and editing, but the writing process itself is best left free.
How do you stay motivated?
Writing can be a lonely process. I’ve found it’s important to share writing with others, in a writing group perhaps. It’s also got to be meaningful to my personal life, if I’m going to spend many months on it. It has to relate with lessons I’m grappling with myself.
Describe your typical writing process or routine.
I wake up, meditate, take a walk, and sit under a tree and write. I like to write with pencil and paper first, keeping an eraser handy to correct words and phrases. Next I usually speak it into scrivener on my phone, then get into editing. Next is to share it, first with a small circle and then with larger ones, with the end goal of publishing it.
What writing advice would you give other writers like yourself?
What are you currently working on, and what makes you excited about it?
I’m working on my second novel, which is loosely based on the passing away of my own spiritual teacher, and what happened to his followers after he left. But it’s an alternate-world fantasy with strong ecological themes as well. I’m also getting into making short comics. I’m excited about the book because it’s an epic story that helps me remember what excites me about spiritual life, and what I’ve got to be careful about avoiding. The comics excite me because they open up visual storytelling possibilities.
What authors or books are inspiring you lately?
I’m reading Wade Davis, an anthropologist from Canada. Also Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert, and Simon Hass.
Where can we connect with you?
For comics and graphic art touching culture, spirituality, history and humor, I’ve just started an Instagram account: @bt_lowry_hieroglyphs. You can also explore my website.
Thanks, B. T. Lowry.
To free the writer today, let’s apply Lowry’s advice for writing strong characters. Write a list of intriguing or defining characteristics from the people you know. Think about what makes them human, the “essence of their humanity.” Choose a few characteristics from your list and start developing your character. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.
Enjoy your writing this week,