First, let me take a moment to say hello and welcome to my guest, Harmony Ink author Michael J. Bowler. It’s always a pleasure to have guests in the hot seat…erm, I mean interview chair.
Why don’t you start out by introducing yourself (where you call home, how long you’ve been writing, etc.)?
I’m Michael Bowler, but all the kids at the gym and juvenile hall call me Mike, so that’s fine. I grew up in Northern California, but went down to Los Angeles for grad school and stayed there. I’ve been telling stories and writing stories my whole life, even in elementary school and it was always a dream/aspiration of mine to be a writer. Life, of course, often gets in the way, but the beauty of dreams is it’s almost never too late to make them come true.
Please tell us a little bit about your current release. What inspired you to write this story? How did it come about?
It’s called Children of the Knight and it’s a contemporary, gritty urban fantasy. Why the fantasy angle? Here’s the genesis and my reasons for writing the book and its two sequels. I’ve been a volunteer within the juvenile justice system of Los Angeles for almost thirty years and a high school teacher for twenty-five. The idea for this book goes back fifteen or twenty years when I got to know and understand gang members better, as well as other disenfranchised youth I met within the system or at my high school. I saw the success of Homeboy Industries here in L.A. and the effect its founder, the always inspiring and charismatic Father Greg Boyle, had over gang members, even to the point of having enemies work side by side and ultimately become friends. I talked with lots of gang members, homeless kids, gay kids, drug addicts, high school drops outs, and many who combined more than one of these “offenses against society.” I got to know these kids – they were the ones I gravitated to, and they to me. They seemed to know instinctively that I was open to them and would not shove them away or reject them like most grownups had already done and continued to do.
Over time, I began to wonder what might happen if an adult, a strong leader, came along and united these marginalized kids and turned all their collected might toward positive endeavors. As young people who'd been rejected and unloved, these kids had engaged in nothing but antisocial, destructive, and criminal behaviors. That’s where all of their negative energy and feelings were being directed. After all, since society had rejected them and who they were as human beings, they rejected society and all its conventions and phony platitudes about doing what’s right. Society had wronged them so they felt they had the right to wrong society. But if that negative energy and “might” could be collected, harvested almost, by someone who made these kids feel loved and important and who convinced them that working together made them much more formidable than working alone, they could effect real change in society for the good, not the bad, and the adult world would have to pay attention.
It seemed to me that the time of King Arthur with all the warring, feuding groups and clans of ancient Britain seemed very much like the gangs, tagging crews, and other possess of rejected kids we have roaming our streets today, especially here in LA. It wasn’t a big leap from that thinking to the idea of King Arthur, himself, with his philosophy of “might for right,” bringing together these lost kids and sparking a revolution.
Another reason I wrote this book was so these disenfranchised kids could have some heroes of their own to root for. Gay boys (more than girls) are mocked and bullied and made fun of to the point that a huge number, relative to the overall teen population, commit suicide or attempt it. There are also an inordinate number of gay kids in detention, roughly fifteen percent, and I’ve personally known a large number whose rejection by society and their own families led them to drugs or other negative choices. As a consequence of those choices, they ended up in juvenile hall. Teen gang members are vilified and excoriated in the media or made into mere thugs by Hollywood. Abused kids often suffer in silence because they are too afraid or embarrassed to tell anyone what happened to them. These kids need more stories about them, with characters like them, in settings they know – like the inner city, lousy public schools, run-down housing projects, or even street corners that become home when they’ve been kicked out of the house by cruel, unfeeling parents.
The teen characters in my book have all been screwed over by their parents and/or society for most of their lives, even rich girl Reyna, and yet they rise to the level of heroic when given the opportunity. They overcome their past abuse, neglect, and rejection to become young people of great significance, achieving results adults could only dream of. Lance, the main character, is a particularly strong role model - a kid rife with fears and insecurities and deep-seeded pain who overcomes these traumas to inspire the city and the world. All these ostracized kids, more than most, need positive images of themselves, and my book, in its own small way, seeks to provide those images.
I also hope to mainstream for general readership these kids that society disdains. As much as I want gay kids, the abused, and the gang-affiliated or former gang-affiliated kids to read this book and its sequels, I really want so-called “regular” teens and adults to read it, too. Many teenagers honestly don’t know anyone who’s gay or in a gang or even who was abused. I’ve met plenty of adults, and too many kids, who want nothing to do with, as Reyna puts it in my book, “Those people.” On TV and in movies gay boys are usually portrayed as stereotypically effeminate, and so non-gay kids laugh at that and think all gay boys fit the same mold. The gay boys in my book are not the least bit feminine but are, in fact, quite badass, brave, and rather epic. I want readers to know that gay boys, like non-gay boys, come in all shapes and sizes and talents and are, in fact, just like every other boy.
Same goes for the teen gang members. According to the news and the media, they are nothing more than monsters. But in reality, for anyone willing to take the time to know them, they’re no different than anyone else’s kids, except they grew up with a lethal absence of hope in circumstances most of us wouldn’t wish on our enemies. Most gang members I’ve gotten to know would love to have never gotten caught up in the lifestyle. They have dreams and aspirations and want a good life, just like non-gang-affiliated kids.
Sadly, there are even a lot of people who don’t take abuse seriously as the reason behind some teens committing criminal acts. Trust me, physical and sexual abuse of kids is rampant in this country and most of it goes untreated. Especially with boys, that internalized pain and humiliation will rise to the surface eventually and the result won’t be pretty. So yes, I’d like “mainstream” readers to walk in the shoes of these kids so they can maybe understand them a bit and therefore not be so quick to judge them.
Long answer, I know. LOL
What inspired you to write Young Adult stories?
I’ve worked with kids and teens my whole adult life, even when I was a still teen myself, in various capacities. I understand them and actually enjoy spending time with them (ha!) so writing YA seemed a natural fit for me.
Is there an underlying theme in your stories?
In our society today, young people are inundated with “self-centered” media messages, and even witness in their daily lives far too many examples of adults who celebrate the “If it feels good, do it” and “It’s all about me” philosophies. In my King Arthur trilogy, the message is that the way to make this world and this society better is to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. There are a lot of other themes, as well, about the dangers of adultifying kids and how we need to spend more time really communicating with each other as human beings, rather than through computers or text messages, but that is the main one. Thus, my characters face difficult moral challenges and have to decide if they’ll take the easy way out or make the harder, but right, choice, the one that will serve the greater good.
What drew you to write M/M fiction? What sub-genres do you enjoy the most?
I wouldn’t say I “decided to write m/m fiction.” Until about a year and a half ago I didn’t even know what “m/m fiction” meant. Ha! But I have known lots of gay kids and I sponsored the GSA at the high school where I taught for many years. I’ve seen boys fall in love with each other, and girls too. I know from my experience with them that it’s no different than m/f love. It’s just the way some people are wired. Seeing the way two boys in love are so vilified in this country, I wanted to include such teen characters in this series of books that deal with marginalized kids. By the third book in the series, the “two boys in love” are the movers and shakers of everything that happens and genuine heroes in their own right. The things they accomplish are astonishing, but they don’t accomplish them because they’re gay. They accomplish them because they decide to accomplish them. I think all kids, not just gay ones, should see characters like that and accept them as a normal part of the amazingly diverse tapestry we call “humanity.”
As to what sub-genres I like, I mostly read YA/paranormal/fantasy/horror and some contemporary if the story sounds interesting.
“They” tell us that writers should write what they know—do you think that’s true? Why/why not?
In some sense that’s true. But we can all learn about things we don’t know from the Internet, so research is pretty easy these days. But if we’re going to write certain types of characters I believe we need to hang around those kinds of people, the way actors do, to pick up the cadence of their speech patterns and the kinds of mannerisms typical of certain people and ages. I find many YA authors clearly spend no time around modern-day teenagers because their characters NO NOT talk like teens and often don’t act like teens. They all talk (and think) like adults.) I’ve seen too many books where every teen character sounds the same, and even young kids who are eight or nine talk just like the seventeen year olds. That drives me crazy!
I couldn't agree more with you on that one! Dialogue in general is a major sticking point for me as a reader--but my teen aged daughter is a SO much less forgiving than I am :)
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? (the spark, the research, character oultines…?)
I love the feeling of completing that first draft and then going back to revise. Especially with a long book like these last two, I forget particular moments along the way and it’s fun to rediscover them the way a reader would. Ha!
What’s your least favorite part of the writing process?
I’d say researching locations that I haven’t personally visited. In the two sequels to Children of the Knight there are a lot of locations I needed to use that I didn’t know personally, especially in the third book. These are actual places – cities or hotels within cities – that some readers will have visited so I had to search high and low for enough information and enough pictures of the locations to make the setting realistic. That’s why writing this third book has taken almost twice as long as each of the first two.
What’s your favorite part of the publishing process? (writing the story, working with an editor, working with the art department, marketing, etc?)
Overall, my experience with Harmony Ink was amazingly positive. The entire process was very affirming from beginning to end, from the cover creation through the editing and on to the final product. All the people were great to work with and easy going and the final book looks, in my opinion, beautiful inside and out. I couldn’t be happier! I can’t speak for other publishers, but Harmony Ink was fantastic.
What’s your least favorite part of the publishing process?
The one area Harmony Ink seemed to drop the ball (for me personally as a new author) was informing me about the release process and marketing and promoting. I did not know any of their other authors and had no real clue that almost all the marketing is done pre-release and if reviewers aren’t interested in your book prior to release, it’s kind of a done deal as far as publisher promotion because then they’re onto the next release. I’ve since been learning things about promoting the book myself and have made the best effort I can, but it would have been super helpful if my publisher had explained the process and what they were planning and what they hoped to accomplish. That way I might have been able to help when it counted the most.
I noticed that Children of the Knight is the first book of a trilogy. How does writing a trilogy differ from writing a stand-alone story?
You have to know exactly how the third and final book will end so that everything from the beginning of the first book builds to that pre-planned conclusion. These books of mine are populated with a lot of characters and the goal of this “crusade” to change the way the entire country treats its children is epic in scope and required me to delve into the education system, the criminal justice system, politics on both local and national levels, and a whole host of other areas within our society and their impact on the youth. It’s been a daunting challenge, but also a lot of fun. My trilogy is one long book, actually, as part II begins exactly where I ends and III begins where II leaves off. The total story covers about four years in the lives of these kids, so it's a genuine coming-of-age story. I loved taking the journey with my kids and bearing witness to their growth and maturity and accomplishments, especially given where they came from in the beginning. They go from the barrios of L.A. to the White House and beyond, and I think readers who read all three will be glad they stuck around for the ride.
Do you listen to music while you write, prefer absolute silence, run off to the coffee shop…? If you do listen to music, can you name a few songs off your playlist?
As an avid soundtrack collector, I always use music from film scores when I’m writing to help me create the mood for certain scenes, especially those involving action or deep emotion. Children of the Knight was no exception. What people often find very odd is my choice of film scores. People ask, “What does that movie have to do with your story?” The answer is, “Nothing. It’s the mood created by that particular score, not the source movie, that inspires its use.” Five scores I used for this book were King Arthur, by Hans Zimmer (no brainer, there); Backdraft by Hans Zimmer (a fire fighter film); Armageddon by Trevor Rabin (a disaster film); The Amazing Spiderman by James Horner (super hero film); and the one I used the most was The Greatest Game Ever Played by Brian Tyler - a period movie about golf that should have nothing to kids or King Arthur, and yet the score was by turns rousing and heartbreaking and absolutely the perfect backdrop for my story and characters. And don’t get me started on the sequels! Can we say 10,000 B.C for both? That’s a weird, hybrid caveman movie. Amazing score!
What advice would you give to a writer who’s just starting out but who hasn’t been published yet?
Write the story you would like to read and then solicit a publisher. I think if writers try to copy a current trend or write to a niche that isn’t theirs just to get published, the resulting book will not be very good. Writers are readers first and foremost, after all, and should write what they enjoy reading.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing? (hobbies, time with friends?)
I workout with weights and do some kind of cardio daily because I’m addicted to exercise. Ha! I love reading, naturally, and I love movies. You might have figured out the movie thing from the music I listen to while writing. LOL I also do a lot of volunteer work with juveniles in detention, with kids at the YMCA, and with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Do you have a favorite character (of your own creation)? What makes that character special to you?
Lance from the Children of the Knight books is my favorite, hands down. He’s filled with all the insecurities that plagued me in adolescence (and to some extend still do – Ha!) and yet he manages to rise above them, to overcome them and deal effectively with whatever it is that confronts him. He’s decent and caring and yet tough as nails when he has to be. He manages to look beyond the surface and find the good in everyone. Plus, he’s tenacious and never gives up and strives to do the right thing as often as possible. Growing up I always felt isolated and on the outside looking in, even with my family. I felt unworthy of being loved and wanted, always something of a loner, never quite fitting in with any group. That’s probably why I always gravitated to other kids like that as a teen and why, as an adult, I tended to work with the lost and disenfranchised and marginalized kids, kids with learning disabilities or those who were gay or emo or something else not quite “mainstream.” I’ve been hearing impaired my whole life and from grade school all the way through college I never met anyone even close to my age who was hard of hearing. I got made fun of and picked on by other kids as a child, and was often told by my parents that, “You can hear when you want to.” So when kids tell me their parents say they could choose not to be gay if they wanted to, I can relate to that kind of ignorant foolishness. In a sense, my so-called disability made me feel isolated, yes, but also made me more empathetic to others who society isolates for other reasons. I try to bring these feelings and emotions to life in my characters, even the gang members who often feel the same way, but are too “hard” to openly admit it.
Do you miss your characters when you finish a story? Do you try to come up with ideas for sequels, or are you too excited by the prospect of a new project to feel sad that the previous story is over?
I will undergo withdrawal when I finally lay to rest the Knight Trilogy. I’ve lived with these characters on and off for more than fifteen years – that’s how long ago I conceived this storyline – and I’ve been writing and living with them 24/7 for the past year and a half. It will be very sad to say goodbye to them, but I do leave the door open to revisit the characters down the line when they’re older to examine the repercussions of what they accomplished in the first trilogy. It seems most of my books either lend themselves to sequels or I set them up that way. I suppose it’s because I loved series books as a kid before series books became the “in thing” they are today. LOL Anyway, I could easily write sequels to all of them if the interest is there from readers.
Of all of the stories you’ve written, which setting or location (city/country/time period) has been your favorite? Why?
That’s easy – Titanic. Yes, I know it sank, but I’ve been fascinated by that ship since childhood and it’s a primary setting in my paranormal romance “A Matter of Time.” Writing those scenes were the best because I felt like I was on board that ship, walking those decks, soaking up the elegance and opulence. I wanted to be my main character, Jamie, who was partially based on me and, like me, had always fantasized about what it might feel like to walk those decks. He got the chance and, though him, so did I. Of course, walking the decks and figuring out how to get off before the ship sinks are two different matters, as Jamie soon discovers. Ha!
Do you have any heroes or people you look up to? (Real life mentors, public figures, fellow authors, living or dead). If so, who and why?
I had two amazing English teachers in high school and three in college who really inspired me and encouraged my writing. They spent lots of time helping me shape my ideas and thoughts and express them in ways that others could read and enjoy. Plus, the high school teachers had such a positive, nurturing influence on me that I wanted to go into teaching as well as writing so I could perhaps touch the lives of kids the way they had touched mine. On the non-education side, Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle, who runs Homeboy Industries and who’s dedicated his life to disenfranchised kids and adults, is a friend and mentor and a personal hero of mine. I’ve learned an extraordinary amount about humility, decency, compassion, and unbending resolve from this remarkable man.
One of the hardest things for an author to take is a bad review. How do you handle those one and two star reviews?
So far I don’t have enough reviews to answer that question. Ha! Actually, on Goodreads there is one “1-star” rating for my book, but no review to go with it. That makes me curious as to why that reader rated it so low because I think the book is well written and crafted with strong characters. It’s not Shakespeare, obviously, but it’s a solid piece of writing. To me, “1-star” means the book is egregious and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book I didn’t think had some literary merit. The lowest reviews for my book so far have been three stars. I recognize that everyone’s taste is different and that we don’t all like the same kinds of stories. If a book is well-plotted or written, but doesn’t happen to be my cup of tea, I won’t downgrade it. I’ve read several books this year by my own publisher that have gotten rave reviews and I feel like maybe those people read a different book than I did. Unlike many people, however, I won’t post a review (unless it’s for a bestselling author) that is less than three stars, so those authors whose books I had problems with won’t have their feelings hurt by me. After all, nobody forced me to read their books.
|Children of the Knight was just named a finalist|
in the Rainbow Awards!
What are your favorite movies of all time?
I love The Wizard of Oz (who doesn’t, right?) But I think my all-time favorite movie (it’s at least in my top 3 or 4) is an obscure little film called They Might Be Giants that starred George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. I never tire of this film because, even as a kid and even though the characters were middle-aged, I could relate to the story and the message. I supposed it’s because the theme of the movie is that sometimes what we dream is better and more palatable than real life and it’s okay to live in those dreams if the real world becomes too much to bear. I think that’s why I love writing because I can live with my characters and help them deal with various situations. I can create a world I’d like to live in rather than always having to deal with the real one I inhabit.
What are your favorite TV shows of all time?
As a child and young adult: Dark Shadows and Star Trek. As an adult: Starman, Star Trek The Next Generation, and Beauty and the Beast (not the remake).
Can we just pretend that the "remake" doesn't even exist?! Seriously. But I'd better stop there, otherwise, I'm going to hijack Michael's entire interview!
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you have a favorite musical artist?
As mentioned before, my favorite type of music is a movie score. I like rock and roll, especially classic rock, but my favorite “artists” are people like John Williams, the late Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Hans Zimmer and Brian Tyler, to name just a few. Hey, what can I say – I’m weird like that. Ha!
What television shows are you currently watching?
The Walking Dead. While zombies aren’t that scary, the writing and acting and wrenching human drama is gripping. Not many shows make me cry, but that one can. I spend so much time writing I don’t have time to get caught up in any other shows.
What’s in your CD / MP3 player?
Almost all film score music. Even when I work out, that’s what I listen to. The right music in my ears while I’m running gives me all sorts of plot or scene ideas, including specific lines of dialogue. I couldn’t be a writer without my music.
What’s next on the horizon for you? WIPs, writing goals, personal goals…?
I’m not sure the status of my two follow-ups to Children of the Knight as far as publishing them is concerned. As of now, the first book hasn’t generated any real interest from the constituency who regularly buys and/or reviews Harmony Ink books. It’s getting strong support from “mainstream” reviewers and teen readers, but the bottom line is sales for any publisher, so we’ll see how that goes. Somehow, the sequels will be out in 2014 so those readers who loved the first part can finish the journey. After that, I have several more novels outlined, in various genres, though most could be YA since they all feature strong teen characters. I have a supernatural horror story, a realistic “superhero” story, a time travel teen romance, and a science fiction/action story all laid out and ready to go. Of course, if I don’t make any money at this writing gig I’ll go back to tutoring or into personal training. But I plan to stick with the writing for as long as I can afford to. Can’t give up on a dream, right?
Thanks again, Michael J. Bowler for being here today! You can find Michael on the web at http://www.michaeljbowler.com, http://sirlancesays.wordpress.com, or on Facebook.
Children of the Knight is available through Dreamspinner Press.