Spotlight Author: Mark Bowden’s Recipe for Success
For Mark Bowden, the recipe for success has always been pretty clear. “Be stubborn,” he advises. “Find a way to do work that you really want to do. If you do well, people will want to read it.”
Mark Bowden has followed this mantra since his days as the Editor-in-Chief of the Loyola Greyhound student newspaper, long before acquiring fame for household staples like Finders Keepers, Killing Pablo and Black Hawk Down, long before working as a contributing editor for the renowned Vanity Fair, long before amassing fame and awards for his pieces in historically famous publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Philadelphia Enquirer, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone. But make no mistake; Mark Bowden has made a name and a fortune for himself by being stubborn, by writing what has interested him as a storyteller. Of course, it hasn’t always come easy.
“Nobody was interested in my writing,” Bowden jokingly admits of his earliest years as an upstart journalist after graduating college in 1973. “I was an English major with a B.A. from Loyola. I was working at the supermarket.”
So although Bowden never had a real interest in newspaper reporting, he started working the day after graduation, eventually landing a fulltime gig as a staff writer on the now-dead Baltimore News-American. For the author, the newspaper was “a godsend” because it doubled as a paycheck and a way for him to develop and hone his storytelling ability. In 1979 Bowden began working as a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and in 1987, he published his first book, Doctor Dealer, a story about an Ivy League-educated dentist who also ran a multimillion dollar cocaine dealing operation.
After Doctor Dealer came books like Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo and Guests of the Ayatollah, long, arduous projects that required comparable levels of ambition, cunning and bravery from Bowden to the actual characters he was writing about.
Bowden says: “For me, I’m usually writing about things that I know nothing about. The challenge is immediate. I think, ‘Holy shit, how am I going to do this? Can I do this? The problems are very real.”
And other times, the problems get, well, too real. Reminiscing about his visits to Somalia in order to write Black Hawk Down, Bowden remembers the constant peril he found himself in. “I was terrified. It was really a dangerous place and I didn’t know enough to really be safe there…I got in over my head. If I’d known in advance, I wouldn’t have done it. But part of the genius of being ignorant is that you do stuff most people wouldn’t normally do.”
As much as Bowden may seem like a thrill-seeker, he’s really just a family man (he’s a married father of five) and intensely curious. The author claims that he’s attracted, not to subject matter, but to the potential of a possible story when picking his projects. “I’m constantly thinking, ‘Is there a story there? What is the story? Is this an essay, is this a narrative?’ These questions pop up again and again.”
More than anything, though, Mark Bowden is a teacher, and an inspiration. He taught Literary Journalism at Loyola for some years, and this fall marks his first semester teaching on the University of Delaware staff. His lessons are often colorful and informative, but what sticks with you is Bowden’s passion for his craft. You see a man who smiles a lot, often speaks in exclamations and is quick to make a joke. In his long, rewarding career, he’s met and interacted with countless characters whose lives are simply too unbelievable to be made up. He thinks he has the best job in the world, and he actually might. His enthusiasm stays with you- it fortifies you.
When Bowden read journalists as a boy, legends like Gay Talese and Truman Capote, men who broke boundaries and left imprints on society, stood out. He remembers thinking, “that’s a great life. How cool would that be?”
I don’t know, Mark Bowden. You tell me.
You tell me.
(Written by Greg Howard)