Stillwater has many authors who write everything from nonfiction to fiction to poetry and more. This month’s featured author is an automotive journalist and in the interest of full disclosure, we must acknowledge that he also happens to be the husband of SLM’s editor.
SLM: Please introduce yourself to our readers by sharing your background and ties to Stillwater.
JB: While my family moved around a lot, I was born in Tulsa and grew up mostly in Ponca City. My parents were OSU alums, and I dreamed of attending OSU myself after high school. In 10th grade, we moved to Colorado Springs, but I eventually made it back to Oklahoma to go to Oklahoma State University in 1997.
Growing up, the longest we ever lived in one place was 9 years, otherwise, we would move every couple of years. I never expected to find myself living in one town for 10 years, much less twenty-three. Stillwater has a way of grabbing ahold of you and you don’t want to leave.
SLM: What is the focus of your writing?
JB: My work is focused primarily on automotive tech, that is to say, “how-to” articles and books. I have built my career on teaching people how to actually complete a project. My stories and books go beyond the casual discussion of what a part is or does, and gets deep into the details on how it works, how to install or fabricate, and how to use whatever component or system that project is dealing with.
SLM: How did you get started on your writing career?
JB: Most people take a round-about path to get to their eventual careers, my path was very much a spaghetti string loop of twists and turns. I went to college for Athletic Training; I planned on being a physical therapist for athletes. Instead, I ended up spending the last 17 years writing for every major automotive hobbyist magazine in the country.
It all started when I applied for a job at Cartunes on Sixth Avenue in Stillwater. I loved car audio, and had done some installs for myself and friends, and I needed a job. I worked there for two years and moved on to Audio Midwest when it was still at Ninth and Main. Over the next three years, I built up a little bit of reputation in the car audio industry as a competitor in dB DragRacing, garnering an award for being one of the Top 100 Installers in the country in 2002. This led to a position at Rockford Fosgate as a plastics designer, designing vehicle-specific kick panels and subwoofer enclosures for Audio Innovations (owned by Rockford Fosgate at the time). I was always looking for a way to take things to the next level, and so I submitted some article ideas to Model Electronics Magazine, a car audio industry magazine. This was all in an effort to build my professional reputation, and you could say it worked, within six months of my published article, I got a call from the editor of MuscleCar Enthusiast Magazine. They wanted me to write an article for them and they said they would pay me for it.
I was completely taken aback, I had never expected to become a paid author. Within two years of that moment, I had so much writing work that it was starting to eat into my day job, so I left my position at Audio Innovations and took a shot at writing full time. Fourteen years later, I have written thousands of tech articles, eight books, published countless videos, and even built a few high-profile cars for the biggest automotive event in the world, the SEMA Show, which is held in Las Vegas every November.
SLM: Which came first, your interest in writing, or your interest in cars?
JB: I am pretty sure I was born a gearhead. I didn’t grow up building cars, but I have always been fascinated by them. Like most boys in the 80s, I built model cars, played with RC cars, played a lot of racing video games, but I was not reading car magazines, I couldn’t tell the difference between a Camaro and a Mustang, but I knew I really liked cars in general. It wasn’t until my early teen years that I even started helping my dad work on our family cars, and that was just out of necessity. My dad liked cars, but wasn’t a gearhead. His dad was a mechanic, and I think that pushed him away from the fun side of cars, which is working on them in my mind. I actually fought the idea of working on cars myself. I hated it, but as it happens with so many other things in life, sometimes the thing we think we hate ends up becoming our passion, and when I got my own car, it was very different. I LOVED to work on it. Not mechanic work, mind you, customizing cars quickly became my real passion, and that has stuck with me to this day.
If you were to ask any of my teachers up through high school (with the exception of one, my high school newspaper teacher), they would be appalled at the very idea that I became a writer. I always enjoyed creative writing, but I hated English and Composition in school. It wasn’t until that high school newspaper class that I found that I had a voice. I didn’t write school news, I created a music section in our paper, The Rampart Rampages. I managed to get access to all kinds of local music venues that I legally couldn’t enter but somehow convinced them to let me in because I was a member of the press, to do band reviews. This also led to getting a bunch of in-person interviews with various local bands and even a few pretty big-name bands, including a personal highlight of being backstage with Flotsam and Jetsam, which was the biggest band I met at the time.
SLM: Did you ever think you would become a published author?
JB: In my delusions of grandeur, I would fantasize about being a big-shot, but I never really expected to be an author, it was a bit different than that. I had always wanted to see my name in a magazine. While that concept has absolutely gone away with the relative ease of being published on the internet, back in the 1980s and 90s, if you got your name in a magazine, that was The Big Time. The first time I attempted to do such a thing was in 1989. I had a subscription to CarToons Magazine, which is basically a comic book for gearheads. It is the single publication that is responsible for my transition from “boy who likes cars” to “full-blown gearhead that wants to know more.” It was absolutely transformative for me. I liked to draw, so I sent in some of my artwork to the “Reader’s Rides” section. I followed all of the instructions, including putting my name on the back of each drawing; however, I made photocopies of my drawings, keeping the originals, which had my contact info on the back, the copies did not. So I sent in drawings they could not publish.
My second attempt came during my ninth grade year. My dad did some storm chasing, and I would tag along, with my dad’s Nikon Nikkormat to take pictures. One night, we had a very large F4 tornado come through Kay County. I sent the pics I took to the local newspaper, but they already had one of their beat photographer’s photos for that storm. But they provided me with great feedback on my photos which I took to heart. Over the next few years, I got close a few times but was not successful at getting any of my photos published until 2003.
SLM: What have been some of your biggest challenges as an author?
JB: That is an easy one. This single hardest part of being a writer, at least for me, was the rollercoaster ride of income. Getting published in and of itself clearly took me many years, but the reality is that was not the hardest part. Once you get published and start to build a name for yourself, the hard part is putting food on the table and paying the mortgage. Once I left my career in the car audio industry, I had no fall-back income, if I didn’t sell stories to publications, we didn’t eat. So that hustle, the day-to-day grind of being a working full-time journalist was tough. Today, it is recognized as the “gig economy”, but twenty years ago, you were just a freelancer, and that is a tough row to hoe. In recent years, entire publishers have shut down overnight, so you have to find more outlets and creative ways to market your content. It took years to get a solid footing. Today, most of the print publications I built my career writing for are gone.
SLM: What are some of your biggest accomplishments as an author?
JB: One of the things I am the absolute proudest of is having my books included in the Library of Congress. Magazine articles fade away fairly quickly, being monthly periodicals, but having your books in the Library of Congress feels long lasting.
One of my books, “How To Swap GM LS-Series Engines Into Just About Anything”, has been on the best-seller list for 11 years and counting. That would likely be considered my greatest success and biggest accomplishment overall for my writing career up to this point.
SLM: Where can readers find your work?
JB: If you are interested in reading some of my articles, books, or watching some videos, you can find my work on HotRod.com, StreetTechMag.com, RedDirtRodz.com, CarTech Books, RedDirtRodz page on Youtube, or the NAPA Know-How blog page.