Insatiable curiosity, dogged research skills and a lack of any real agenda have made Oxford’s Mark Bowden a literary force to be reckoned with. What’s next for one of America’s most successful living storytellers?
One measure of the range of Mark Bowden’s curious nature may be found in his first job at the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1980, when he asked himself, “Now why would a cow need a bra?” The question arose from an assignment for the Inquirer’s Wayne bureau. “They received a lot of farm publications,” he writes in Road Work, a 2004 compilation of his newspaper and magazine pieces spanning more than 20 years. “The search for an answer led me into the strange world of animal husbandry.”
The story wound up winning a national award from a science association and was a harbinger of much bigger things to come for the eventual author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo. Bowden traces his success as a non-fiction writer covering a stunningly diverse range of topics to his roots in journalism and love for storytelling.
“Wide interests come with being a journalist. It’s the last refuge of a generalist,” says Bowden one early summer afternoon over coffee at a Borders in Glen Mills, not far from the 16-acre horse farm in Oxford he shares with his wife, Gail, and two of their five children. “Reporting skills are applicable to any subject. Regardless of the story, the process is the same: Research, interview and report until you arrive at an independent understanding.”
Independent understanding may explain how Bowden was able to convince the members of Delta Force and Task Force Ranger to talk about what was widely perceived as a failed mission in Somalia in 1993—the subject of his book, Black Hawk Down, and the 2001 film of the same name. By presenting himself as approachable and accurate, with no political agenda, he found that many were willing to talk. “It was cathartic for many of them,” says Bowden now. “And one of them had eventually wrote to tell me he no longer had to feel guilty about what he’d done.”
Black Hawk Down’s honest and balanced portrait of American soldiers wasn’t the only thing embraced by the American military. They also embraced Bowden as an expert in battlefield tactics and strategies, offering him numerous opportunities to speak at their colleges and functions, and making Black Hawk Down required reading at military academies. Not bad for someone who never served in the Armed Forces.
But, then again, Bowden’s never been a drug dealer, either—or a drug addict, for that matter. Yet he was drawn to two Philadelphia stories whose main characters were just that.
“When I first met Larry Lavin, I thought he was like me,” Bowden recalls of the face-to-face jailhouse interviews he conducted with the subject of what became his 1987 book, Doctor Dealer. “Here was an ordinary guy in college suddenly presented with the opportunity to deal cocaine,” Bowden says. “In college, someone once gave me a 10-pound bag of marijuana, offering to let me sell it. I refused. Larry didn’t.”
Bowden really got to know Lavin while interviewing him as he served a 25-year sentence for his crimes. As Lavin’s true personality revealed itself, Bowden realized he was even less like Lavin than he first thought. “Larry was driven to make money, which I’m not,” Bowden says.
“And he had a larcenous streak about him—something that drove him to want to get away with something, to put something over on people.”
A simple photograph led to another of Bowden’s books. “I was interviewing an American military officer for Black Hawk Down and became fascinated by a photograph he had framed on the wall behind him,” Bowden recalls.
It was a picture of the balcony where Medillin cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar had just been gunned down in a shootout with Columbian and U.S. forces. The image tattooed itself onto Bowden’s imagination—and soon he found himself on yet another unlikely journey, fueled by that insatiable and boundless curiosity of his. “In my research, I found a much richer character in Escobar, someone with an overarching ambition to be loved,” says Bowden of his work for the 2001 book Killing Pablo, which is coming to the big screen in 2009. “It’s what did him in. He wanted to become president of Columbia. He was charming, funny and genuinely loved by his family. I wanted to understand how he had rationalized his ruthlessness as a drug lord with those political ambitions. He did not lack character.”
Killing Pablo became the subject of a TV documentary in 2002, and Bowden is currently working on the screenplay for the film version, which stars Christian Bale.
Something that became the subject of yet another of Bowden’s wide-ranging “independent understandings” actually started out as a Philadelphia story. But in Bowden’s hands, it fashioned itself into a much larger, universal theme. It was the story of Joey Coyle, an unemployed South Philadelphia longshoreman who found $1.2 million in cash that literally had “fallen off a truck.” The story was originally a three-part magazine piece Bowden wrote for the Inquirer Magazine back when it first broke in 1981.
“I was fascinated with the hilarity and drama of Coyle’s story,” says Bowden. “I was originally taken in by his depiction in the press at the time as a kind of bumbling Robin Hood. But after he was caught (state law required that any amount over $250 couldn’t be kept without a good faith effort to locate the owners), I was drawn to what I thought was an even better story—the one about his drug addiction.”
For Bowden, “the found money became a metaphor for drugs”—which is exactly what he told producers at Walter Disney Pictures after they bought the movie rights to the story. “They called during dinner and asked bluntly, ‘Tell us in one sentence what this story is about.’ I told them it was a story about addiction—that, like drugs, money is an illusion that can transform your life in a moment.”
Not surprisingly, Disney didn’t want to make a movie about a drug addict. And what they did make—1993’s Money for Nothing, starring John Cusack—wasn’t very good, Bowden admits. But that brush with Hollywood would lead to better things—namely Black Hawk Down, a 2000 bestseller that attracted the interest of film producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “Bruckheimer is a real patriot,” Bowden remarked in an interview preceding the release of the blockbuster film of the same name, directed by Ridley Scott. “He saw the same nobility of purpose that I did in the story, and he realized its significance in the current context of the American Armed Forces.”
Ready for another medium, Bowden contributed a first draft of the Black Hawk Down screenplay, and Bruckheimer wound up using a great deal of it for the film. Bowden now expects to receive the main writing credit for the movie version of Killing Pablo, and he’s also completed a screenplay for Imagine Entertainment titled The King Cannot Enter, a tale about “rendition,” the extralegal CIA practice of snatching up terrorists and their transportation for interrogation in third party states. “The producers particularly liked the realism of the script,” Bowden says of The King. “But that’s the result of my actually having been to the places depicted in the screenplay.”
Bowden’s literary agent since 2002, Jennie Dunham sees more than just personal experience driving her client. “Mark really gets to the heart of a story,” says Dunham. “He goes beyond just showing us characters. He illuminates them in a way that others can’t and is able to put you right there in the story, with all of its emotional impact.”
MARK BOWDEN WAS BORN in St. Louis and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and, later, Baltimore. He attributes his roots as a writer to the influence of his grandmother and an early appetite for reading.
“My grandmother—whose maiden name was Schreiber, which is German for ‘writer’—taught a correspondence course in writing,” Bowden recalls. “My parents encouraged us to write letters to family members, and my grandmother always found positive things to say about what I’d written to her. It had the effect of making me think about the craft of writing, and her critiques made me believe I was really good at it.”
Bowden was also a voracious reader and grew up reading bible stories from a digest his parents subscribed to. He moved on to classics like Tom Swift, and then comic books. “I actually wrote to D.C. Comics telling them I wanted to write stories and draw,” he recalls.
“Amazingly, I got a letter back that said, ‘Well, go ahead and do it.’”
Oddly enough, Bowden fell into reporting purely by accident. “I took the required composition class as a freshman at Loyola University in Baltimore, and from that became the editor of the campus newspaper. But I had done very little actual reporting and had never given journalism much thought while in school.”
After college, Bowden was working as a cashier when he was offered a job as a reporter for the Baltimore News American. “I didn’t know anything about being a reporter, except that it beat running a cash register,” he says.
Bowden has an abiding interest in American and world history. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a three-volume biography of FDR and T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom are among his top reads. His favorite fiction authors include Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee, along with literary legends such as Hemingway and Twain. “It’s their level of craftsmanship as well as their abilities as powerful storytellers that attract me,” Bowden says. “And for me, Twain’s humor is as fresh and funny today as when he wrote it more than a hundred years ago.”
Bowden’s screenwriting success has plenty to do with his abilities as a storyteller. “The transition to the screen was simpler for me than for most journalists, because I’ve always been more motivated by story than reporting, whereas most reporters my age wanted to follow the Woodward and Bernstein track,” he says.
There was a point where Bowden may have found himself following that track himself. With two children at home, Bowden recalls in his introduction to Road Work, “[I] needed a better paycheck if I was going to stick with journalism.”
Bowden had been writing for what he called a “declining and little-read Baltimore paper.” The editor there encouraged him to interview with the legendary Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. Bradlee asked Bowden in the course of the interview what he thought was his greatest weakness as a journalist, to which Bowden replied, “I think I am a better writer than I am a reporter.”
Such candor is trademark Bowden, but may also have been driven by his knowledge that he already had a job offer from the Philadelphia Inquirer. And whether or not his candor had sunk his chances with Bradlee (Bob Woodward later called Bowden and called him an “idiot” for having made the remark), Bowden knew he had found a home with the Inquirer and its “shrewd” and “eccentric” editors.
“They seemed to share an interest in the things that most excited me about journalism,” Bowden wrote in Road Work. “What appealed to me most was the emphasis placed on creative writing.”
And stories few other newspapers, if any, were doing anymore. In 1982, not long after Bowden tackled the subject of animal husbandry and cow bras, the Inquirer’s executive editor at the time, Gene Roberts, dispatched him to Africa to spend several months writing about the potential extinction of the black rhinoceros. Such a trek—especially for a fresh young journalist—was virtually unheard of in journalism circles at a time of declining budgets and readerships. So famous became the assignment that, among his colleagues, Bowden became known as “the rhino guy.” To this day, Bowden believes the Inquirer is the only paper in the country that would’ve serialized three of his books (Finders Keepers, Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo).
Now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, Roberts has always been impressed with Bowden’s versatility and enthusiasm. “Mark could write about anything well,” says Roberts. “And he seemed to me at the time to be the logical person to get involved with a story like the African rhino.”
And Bowden probably understates his skills as a reporter, Roberts says. “Mark was always a very good beat reporter. He knew how to mine a story and worked well with sources. He is an accomplished ‘digger’ and has a way about him that makes him easy to talk to.”
Roberts points to the access Bowden was able to gain with the sources in Black Hawk Down as a testament to his skills as an interviewer. “Those were some very difficult people on a very sensitive subject for a journalist to approach,” he notes.
As Bowden’s current editor at Atlantic magazine, James Bennet echoes many of Roberts’ observations, adding that “Mark’s exhaustive reporting provides such detail as to create a granularity in his narratives that is almost cinematic in its ability for the reader to visualize the story.”
Recently, Bowden added an additional line to his professional resumé when he performed his own reading of the abridged audio book for the 2006 release, Guests of the Ayatollah, his account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. “It’s actually cheaper for the producers to hire the writer than a professional voice actor,” Bowden admits.
Whether or not he ever chooses to do the audio version of one of his works again, one thing he knows for sure: “I won’t do any more abridgements.”
WITH ALL THIS NON-FICTION work of past events to his credit, Mark Bowden doesn’t consider himself a historian. “Storytellers such as myself shape facts in a way that would not work in the academic world of straight truths,” he says, adding that history tends to concern itself with events long after all the actors in those events are dead.
Thus far, Guests of the Ayatollah is the farthest back in time Bowden has allowed his curiosity to travel. “It was some of my contacts from Black Hawk Down that had first suggested a book about the Iranian hostage crisis,” Bowden recalls. “At first, I was not interested in doing another book on a military venture that turned out to be a failure. But then I realized it could be a look back to what was the start of Islamic militarism. I thought the stories of captivity would be dramatic, and I looked around and found there wasn’t much that had been written about the events.”
Initially concerned about the accuracy of his sources’ recollections, Bowden fortunately came across an oral history of the crisis, 444 Days by Tim Wells—essentially a condensation of the voluminous interviews Wells had conducted. “This allowed me to check the accuracy of the accounts I’d be getting,” Bowden says.
Thirty-year-old Aaron, the oldest of the Bowdens’ five children, has followed in his father’s rather large non-fictional footsteps. The Florida State University grad started as a reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire but has since gone into documentary filmmaking, now working with the California-based Wild Eyes Productions.
“Aaron had always been interested in my work,” says Bowden, shifting into proud parent mode. “But for him, it was always from the more visual point of view. I guess that comes more naturally to his generation than it did to mine. He’s certainly more successful at this stage of his life than I was.”
But Aaron seems perfectly at ease sharing that success with his father. The two recently collaborated on a four-hour film documentary of Guests of the Ayatollah.
As for Dad, he’s currently at work on a book about the 1958 NFL Championship, which is due out in 2008 on the anniversary of the historic game.
Coincidentally, it’s the same subject David Halberstam had been working on before his death in a car accident last April.
“I was not aware David was working on the same book. I knew him, liked him very much and respected him enormously,” Bowden wrote in an e-mail following the award-winning journalist’s death. “If I had known he was working on the same project, I would have dropped mine immediately. As it is, I am pressing on with a strange mix of feelings about it.”
Bowden still writes a column for the Inquirer and is a national correspondent for the Atlantic. But he’s also contemplating the day when he’ll begin to phase out journalism in favor of more screenplays and fiction, including novels. He contemplates that future today from his horse farm in Chester County, where wife Gail can pursue her own career interest in riding dressage.
“She rides, and I’m just the handyman,” Bowden says of his new day job. “In fact, we have three tenants on the property, whom I believe are convinced I’m just the handyman.”
And should Bowden decide to expand the farm to include a small dairy herd, he’ll already know all he needs to learn about cow bras.
One of the best examples of Mark Bowden’s vivid, transportive nonfiction style can be found in this passage from his four-part 1982 Philadelphia Inquirer story on Zambia’s illegal rhino trade, which also appears in his book, Road Work.
[Abraham] positioned himself at a spot overlooking the water with a wide clearing behind him—“to see lion coming,” he explained. Below, a family of fat hippos grunted and wooshed as they floated peacefully, only their eyes, ears and round snouts above water. Their sudden roars echoed up from the water, breaking the stillness sharply. A crocodile lay dead still, sunning on the opposite bank, its mouth open wide, alert to opportunity.
Only the graceful arrival and departure of big gray-and-black herons altered this scene throughout the afternoon. At sunset, Abraham walked back to join the others for dinner. As the reds and golds of dusk faded to black, the carriers set fires blazing around the camp perimeter. The men sat around a central fire for several hours, telling stories, laughing. Then they stretched out fully clothed under blankets, rifles at their sides, to sleep.
When lions roared from the darkness beyond the fires that night, Prospa Myatwa stood up in the warm glow and urged his fellows to move their grass beds closer to me. He had sensed my uneasiness.
“It is normal for you to fear the lions,” he said, with his wide, gummy smile. “Facing the lions is not something you do often. It is our job to do it.”
Such is Bowden’s uncanny ability to put you right there.
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