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Interview: Richard Bowes on “Dirty Old Town”

Dust Devil on a Quiet Street by Richard Bowes Tell us a bit about “Dirty Old Town.”

The title is a song by Ewan MacColl, the great British Folk Song composer. It was written around 1949/50 when I would have been 5 or 6 and living with my parents in a housing project in South Boston.

His is a tough love song – the opening line is:

“I met my love by the gas works wall” and it goes on from there.

The “Pogues” did a version that attracted American attention.

My story is about two kids touched by magic, who are enemies, who are lovers a bit, who are related somehow and who grow up and grow old over the years.

One of them acts in a television series, set in the Boston of the Whitey Bolger Years and titled “Dirty Old Town.” The show reconstructs visuals of the tough old city of the narrator’s youth.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

A few years ago I wrote a piece titled, “Stories I Tell To Friends” for Mathew Cheney & Eric Schaller’s Wonderful Online Magazine, The Revelator.  In it I surprised myself by outlining the places I’d lived in Boston from 1944 to 1962 when I left.

I find myself now writing stories that fill in the details, especially those Surrealistic, Darkly Magical and Scary details which I well remember. “Dirty Old Town” has more than a few.


While many authors weave elements of their lives into their stories, less write fiction that is deliberately semi-autobiographical.  Why is it important to you to put so much of the details of your past into your stories, and how do you decide what details to alter and what details to leave unchanged?

Maybe the terms, “deliberately,” and “decide,” are misplaced.  I believe that most writers weave their pasts into their fiction. The autobiographical author is a tradition that goes back to E.T.A. Hoffman who put himself into his own Gothic horror stories. James Thurber (on whom I was raised by my parents) used himself – real or imagined – as often as not in his stories. Newspaper columnists, from Twain to Breslin, inserted themselves into their partially invented worlds.

Just this morning writing a contemporary ghost story, I remembered details of a famous homicide, which I knew about because I happened to work with someone involved. Will I use myself in this? Could be.


What would you want a reader to take away from “Dirty Old Town”?

This was a time. This was a place.  This was magic of a certain kind. The author’s memory and/or understanding may be askew. But this is what they have to share with the reader.


What are you working on now?

Stories for anthologies (Ellen Datlow’s “Black Feathers,” “Mad Hatters And March Hares” and others) that may lead back to memories I haven’t considered.  I have in mind a “Mosaic” or “Fix Up” novel in which Boston stories might find themselves. Wish me luck!

And thanks so much for asking!


“Dirty Old Town” appears in the May/June 2017 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here:

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If you click on the picture of Mr. Bowes’s most recent book, “Dust Devil on a Quiet Street,” you can purchase it directly from the publisher.


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