Life on Page
March 28, 2018 | By Anne Kniggendorf (SF97)
Author Bill Kowalski (SF94) never would have predicted the twists and turns his life has taken.
However, thanks to his St. John’s education, he’s adaptable.
Kowalksi is a prolific writer, website and software designer, and teacher. Oh, and since 2016 he’s run a pickle business.
But, for his whole life what Kowalski really aspired to be was a professional writer. Though, somehow when he set out on that path as a freshman at Emerson College, he grew pessimistic about where his writing studies might take him.
“Somehow I had the brains to realize that was just going to lead me into a dead end, which probably would have looked like me becoming an academic teaching writing,” he says by phone from his home in Nova Scotia. He’s quick to add that he doesn’t see anything wrong with teaching writing, exactly, it just wasn’t for him.
So, he took a year off, worked, and wrote in his spare time.
As a teenager, Kowalski had visited St. John’s as a prospective student. He says he was amazed by what he observed, but the course load was intimidating.
“I was looking at just how intense it seemed and all the reading, and even though I loved to read and was a prodigious reader, I just felt like it was going to be too much for me at the time,” he says.
During his time out of school, his thoughts returned to St. John’s. His goal was still to be a writer, so when he applied to St. John’s, that’s the craft he hoped the college would help him hone. Once he began, though, he realized the work was even harder than he’d imagined.
“It wasn’t just information,” he says. “My entire way of thinking basically was broken, I realized, and needed to be torn down and fixed. That led to a kind of existential crisis in my junior year.”
Kowalski even stopped writing while he was at St. John’s, something he still puzzles over. He posits that the reading and thinking just didn’t allow him the mental space for that sort of creativity.
In the couple of years after graduation, he took a teaching job in a remote California desert town with another Johnnie and struggled to recover from the depression that had set in after junior year. But during that time, he also found his way back to writing.
And what he wrote did very well. His novel Eddie’s Bastard, published when he was 28 years old, landed him a four-book deal with HarperCollins. The book’s success allowed him to move to New York City, and time to do nothing but write. It was the life of a professional writer he’d dreamed about. He also met the woman he would marry.
A reviewer for The Guardian compared Kowalski’s first book to John Irving’s early work, even toying with the idea that Eddie’s Bastard was in line for the title “great American novel.” Unfortunately, in the mid-2000s, the publishing industry changed so that few authors were able to make a living simply by writing.
So Kowalski changed course. As an adult literacy teacher in Nova Scotia, he learned that his province had a 25-percent high school dropout rate and a very high rate of adult illiteracy. The books he’s writing now are mostly tailored to new adult readers. So far, he’s written seven for Orca Publishing. He describes them as stripped-down novels—no big words, nothing showy—but he loves the feeling that he’s helping people read.
Each of these books is around 14,000 words and deals with topics such as diversity and social injustice in settings like struggling neighborhoods or futuristic sci-fi prisons.
“You’re 45 years old and you’ve worked as a lobster fisherman or a woodworker or you’ve raised five kids, you’re not stupid, you’re not naïve, you just can’t read,” he says. “So, you don’t want to read Dick and Jane. You want to read stuff you can relate to.”
He also taught himself web design. He became prolific enough that a defense contractor hired him to build training software for military pilots, which is now his day job. On top of that, he runs a pickle business, started at the suggestion of a former restaurant reviewer who happened to eat one of his pickles.
He says his St. John’s education provided him with the flexibility to adapt to life’s twists and turns.
“I have fears, but none of them have to do with approaching new topics,” he says. “I feel comfortable approaching pretty much anything new. I’m not afraid to look stupid. I’m not afraid to ask a bunch of dumb questions. I’m not afraid to just throw myself into stuff. That all comes from getting up to the board and doing those ... Euclid proofs freshman year.”