Interview With Michael J Bowler
Today we have an interview with author Michael J Bowler by guest reviewer Josh. To find Josh’s review of Children of the Knight click here
Kazza K: Michael J Bowler gives the single most honest and heartfelt interview I have ever had the pleasure of reading. This is a man who has spent his life dedicated to making disadvantaged youth feel like they mean something to someone, to society. Thank you to Josh and Michael J Bowler for making this interview happen.
Josh: I understand you have a background working with children and teenagers in California. Could you elaborate on your motive for starting this?
Michael J Bowler: It’s hard to define a “motive” for doing volunteer work. Even as a teenager, my one innate gift seemed to be the ability to relate to kids younger than me, much more so than kids my own age. I never fit into any of the high school cliques or groups. Anyway, in college I did some volunteer work with kids and adults and enjoyed both, but the younger ones always took precedence because of the way I think. Most people in this country, and definitely businessmen and politicians, think in the short run – the next profit quarter, the next election, etc. I could always see further down the line to the future, maybe because I loved Star Trek and science fiction as a kid. But children and teens are the future of this country, and this world, and that’s why I chose to focus my energies on them, and which is why I became a high school teacher despite having a masters degree in film production. I started out as a volunteer Big Brother to a fatherless boy in L.A. shortly after getting out of grad school, and later saw something in my church bulletin about volunteering with youth in detention. I’m not sure why, but I went to the juvenile hall one night to try it out, and never left. I fell in love with those damaged kids. They opened my eyes to the real horror stories in this society. And yet, as damaged as they were, as much as they’d acted out anti-socially or criminally, they were still kids — abused, abandoned, neglected, tortured kids who really should have given up years before – yet they still retained that gift all children are born with – hope for a better life and a better future. They touched me and inspired me. No matter what they had done, they felt comfortable enough with me to share their innermost pain, fears, and hopes. I listened, I sometimes cried with them, I loved them, but I never judged them. Sadly, all the horror stories told in this book are true, related to me by more than one kid over the years, degradations I couldn’t even imagine having to live through. So my motive for sticking by these kids is twofold – love and hope. Can kids change if given a real chance? Absolutely? Will most of them? Positively.
Josh: What inspired you to utilise the legend of King Arthur?
Michael J Bowler: 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 the high school where I taught. 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, sex offenders 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.
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, unloved, and who’d learned nothing but bad behaviors, these kids engaged in nothing but antisocial, destructive, and criminal behaviors. That’s where all of their negative energy and pain 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 posses of rejected kids we have roaming our streets today, especially here in L.A. 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.
Josh: In your dedication you mentioned that certain characters like Lance, Jack, Esteban, Reyna and Mark were inspired by real persons. How closely do these characters resemble those you’ve met in your work?
Michel J Bowler: Most are composites, though the names are real names of kids I worked with over the years and those specific kids were the initial inspiration for those characters. Lance is a mix of several kids, but mainly a youngster named Ricky who used to tell all the kids and staff at juvenile hall that I was his dad. He was so convincing that staff called me into the office one night to quietly tell me they and I could get into trouble for being a volunteer in my own son’s unit – that was against probation policy, for obvious reasons. I had to convince them that I was not Ricky’s father, but that I didn’t mind playing along if they didn’t. Since Ricky was well liked and, like Lance, enchantingly charismatic, they agreed to play along, and that made Ricky very happy. The character of Lance also has a lot of me in him. I always felt on the outside looking in, always unworthy of being loved and wanted, always something of a loner, never quite fitting in with any group. That’s probably why I 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, like those 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 those 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.
The character of Mark is closest to my heart, and to the real boy I knew, which is why I singled him out in my dedication. He was one of the first kids I met at juvenile hall. I’ve never told this story because I’ve always been embarrassed by my actions, and saying I was young isn’t a really good enough excuse (though I was very naïve, having grown up in a reasonably small city in Northern California.) Mark was very much like the boy in my book. He’d been abandoned on the streets and had done drugs, but not heroin that I can recall. Anyway, he was an amazingly likeable seventeen-year-old who I used to visit every Wednesday evening when I’d go to his unit. Sure, I’d see other kids, too, but always spent part of the hour with Mark, and he was always really happy to see me. He had no family – just relatives out of state, so no one ever visited him except me. He was at juvenile hall doing a psychological treatment program for about nine months, so I got to know him really well. Except for one thing that I found out by accident many months after I’d met him – Mark had never told me he was gay. Everyone in the unit knew it and they assumed I did, too, but like I said, I came from a rather sheltered upbringing and had only known gay kids in my theatre department in college. Anyway, it didn’t bother me, because nothing about these kids ever did (except the way they’d been abused all their lives.) Mark knew this about me, so I wondered why he’d never told me.
We did talk about it, mainly because some people (adults as well as kids) in that unit were condemning him for being gay (which was how‘d learned about it.) He seemed embarrassed that I had found out, which I didn’t understand because he was still the same likeable kid to me. Finally, Mark turned eighteen and left. He got sent out of state to live with an aunt and uncle. Shortly thereafter, he wrote me a letter, and I finally understood why he had been so reticent about the gay issue. He confessed in his letter that he had fallen in love with me and wondered if I might feel the same about him. He included his phone number. To say I was flabbergasted is an understatement. I’d had no idea, not even a clue, that he felt that way. As intuitive as I can be about other people’s (especially kids’) feelings, I’d missed that completely. Now, however, recalling other kids telling me how much Mark really liked me began to make sense.
In any case, I called Mark and we talked on more than one occasion and I explained that a relationship between us of that nature wasn’t possible. He wanted to move in with me and, I confess, that kind of freaked me out – maybe because no one had ever been that attracted to me before. I told him that would be a bad idea based on how he felt, but like all youth, he retained the hope that I would change my mind and the future he envisioned might yet come true. So one day there was a knock at my door and when I opened it, there was Mark. He’d flown into L.A. with all of his worldly belongings and wanted to live with me.
Here’s the part I deeply regret. I said no. I honestly didn’t know how to handle this situation and thus handled it very badly. I offered to drive him to a friend’s place and he could stay there, which is what ended up happening. But the hurt and rejection in his eyes continues to haunt me. I was the one person he’d allowed himself to become emotionally attached to and I’d rejected him when he was probably at his most vulnerable. Were that to happen now, or even back then when I’d become more mature, I’d have let him stay at least until he figured out a direction for his life. But I didn’t do that, unfortunately. It’s probably the biggest “if only I could go back and change it” moment of my life. This was in the days of no cell phones or Internet, so keeping in touch happened only by pay phone to land line. Plus, I never actually knew where he’d gone to live, so I had no way to keep tabs on him. I saw him one other time when he called me and wanted to meet up. We talked for a bit, but it felt awkward. Maybe he hoped I’d changed my mind. Like I said, hope never dies. He was barefoot and possibly using drugs again. I couldn’t be sure. But he had “friends” he could crash with and said he’d be all right. And then he walked away, and I never heard from him again.
Now you understand the “dedication” in my book with better clarity. I should’ve done more for Mark despite how he felt about me. I was the adult, after all, but I acted childishly out of fear and uncertainty, rather than compassion and understanding. I vowed never to do that again, and from that day forward any kids that have needed my help got it. Without hesitation. Mark would be in his forties now, and to this day I hope and pray he found someone and made a real life for himself – a happy life. See, I still have hope, too.
Josh: I took a lot out of reading Children of the Knight but I would like to hear your thoughts on the main message of the book.
Michael J Bowler: There are a number of themes and messages in this book so it’s hard to pin down the main one. On the micro level, Jack’s words, “It’s the things we don’t say to each other that make the biggest difference” really encapsulate people today, especially young people. Everybody texts and emails and runs from here to there in a frantic race to “have it all” and we’ve forgotten how to communicate real feelings to each other while we still have the opportunity to do it. Another primary message is that in our society today young people are inundated with “self-centered” media messages, and 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 Children of the Knight, the kids learn that the way to make this world and this society better is to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. 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. But probably the overall message celebrates the innate “sameness” of kids. I’ve worked with every kind of kid over the years, from the rich to the nerdy to the criminally inclined to the emotionally disturbed to the gang affiliated, with gay kids and non-gay kids and everything in between. The message of Children of the Knight is that all kids are innately the same. They’re just kids and none of them should be marginalized or discriminated against for any reason, but only encouraged and loved so they can become good adults. My books celebrate the sameness of kids, not their differences, which is why the gay boys are portrayed the same way as the non-gay boys. They fall in love, they’re heroic, they’re happy or sad, they fight, they make friends, they have hopes, and they have dreams. I would love for these books to reach a broad spectrum of the reading public, especially people who might not ever read anything about gay kids or who don’t personally know any gay kids or gang members, and who might just come to realize that these boys are the same as any other boys and not something to be feared or hated. Deep inside, they’re no different – only a factor of their birth or factors in their upbringing have created a veneer of differentness. So the message is––our differences ultimately don’t matter because at the end of the day we’re all just human.
Josh: Redemption seems to be a theme in Children of the Knight. Is this something you strongly believe in?
Michael J Bowler: Absolutely! As adults, we give other adults we like opportunities to change and redeem themselves, but as a society we refuse to give that same chance to kids. People who favor a politician’s ideology will forgive him or her anything and even re-elect them, despite said politician having committed criminal or unethical acts. But kids? Hell, no! America is the only country in the world that incarcerates children for life without the possibility of parole. No rehabilitation. No second chances. In other words, they’ll grow up, grow old, and die in prison, never having been given a second chance to get it right. Most never even had a first chance, given their upbringing. We are a disgustingly disposable country. If something breaks we just throw it away and buy a new one. We don’t fix anything anymore, including broken kids, kids who are broken because of the adult-created society they were born into. America’s throwaway mentality has extended to children, and that’s beyond shameful. Lock them away forever, out of sight, out of mind. Just make new kids. That’s America today. Throw away the kids rather than fix them and the problems that created their anti-social behaviors.
This trilogy is about second chances and redemption. I’ve known literally hundreds and hundreds of kids over the years, and all but maybe one or two were infinitely redeemable. Even one boy the courts declared to a sociopath changed his thinking and his life because he was given a second chance, and because people like me refused to give up on him. As Arthur says when Lance explains that TV, with all its depictions of bad behavior, is often aimed at kids to keep them busy: “If you or other children do the things the images doth be doing, are you punished by thine elders or the authorities?” The answer to that question is yes. Look at the “zero tolerance” policies schools have adopted, policies that tend to target the very kids who need the most support. Kids join gangs because they grow up with a lethal absence of hope, and no support from adults. Do they have hopes and dreams of a better life like all kids? Of course they do, but the media and the powers that be vilify them and vow to put them all into prison rather than nurture them and show them a better path in life. There’s almost no one out there who isn’t capable of redemption if given the chance. We just don’t want to do that in this country. As Lance says about life in California: “I’m fourteen-years-old. I can go to prison, but I can’t drive a car.” That’s pretty sad.
Josh: Can you give us any insight as to what will be coming up in the rest of the trilogy? When will we be getting these stories?
Michael J Bowler: The whole trilogy is about second chances and acceptance and redemption, and these overriding themes will be vividly depicted in the two continuations. Some states put kids as young as eleven into adult court and try them as adults because they did something wrong. If they’re adults when they do something wrong then they should be adults when they do something right. This idea becomes the driving force of Book Two – the campaign by Arthur and his knights to earn kids fourteen and older the right to vote in California, not to mention the right to drive a car and drop out of lousy schools in order to work.
Book Two, Running Through A Dark Place, begins exactly where Book One ended, and Book Three begins where Running concludes. They really are all parts of a single story spanning approximately four years, so it’s a real coming of age tale as the main characters grow into young adults in their fight for children’s rights. The second book focuses on California and the third one takes the crusade to a nationwide level, bringing Arthur’s kids from the barrios of L.A. to The White House, a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and beyond. Book Three, And The Children Shall Lead, will feature a lot more action than in either of the other two, with two Native American teens joining the crusade, and a mysterious villain determined to kill Arthur and destroy his crusade. It will truly be an epic conclusion.
I’m nearly finished with the first draft of And The Children Shall Lead, and will then begin revising it. I will also continue revising book two, though I currently have two meta readers going through the current version and am awaiting their responses. Running Through A Dark Place will be tricky to market and review. First of all, readers will have to have read Children of the Knight because I don’t plan on including a “What has gone before” synopsis at the beginning. Also, something so monumental happens in the first two chapters that it would be a major spoiler for either a publisher or reviewer to give it away. However, that event is what drives the next two books, and the characters, forward in directions they might not have taken otherwise. This game changing event was set up and hinted at in the last third of the first book and careful readers can look back and find the clues, but it’s still going to be a major balancing act to talk about the book without giving anything away. Running will also be darker than the first, hence the title. In addition to the continuing fight for children’s rights, it will take some of the main characters to very painful places in their lives, and Arthur will discover that fighting to right the wrongs perpetrated by adults against children can have some devastating consequences. It will also depict more directly the effects of laws that adultify kids, especially when it comes to incarceration. A new teen character named Michael will likely be very controversial, yet he is a major catalyst for much of the action and many of the choices the other characters make. He’s a poster boy, if you will, for the kinds of laws that want to conveniently pretend kids are adults only when they do something wrong.
Every character thread set up in Book One will be paid off during the course of the trilogy and those plot threads that begin in Book Two will be paid off in Book Three. I believe in following through on everything I set into motion because those are the kinds of stories I like. I love the details, and the journey characters take along the way, and I hate it when authors don’t satisfactorily wrap things up or pay off something they began earlier in a series. Having said that, books two and three are much longer than the first one. While I didn’t realize it when I began, changing the entire country is a massive undertaking, at least if that change is going to seem plausible within the context of my fictional tale. If nothing else, these books will show kids just how much power they really have over adults, should they ever decide to band together and use it.
As to when they will be out, that’s uncertain. As of yet I have no commitment from any publisher on Running Through A Dark Place, so it’s possible I will have to self-publish them both. If I do, that means I need to save money to have them professionally edited and proofread, so that puts any specific release date in limbo. I’d like to have Book Two out in the first half of 2014 and Book Three by the end of the year, but like I said, that depends on a number of factors. But both books will get out there at some point.
Josh: Can you tell Greedy Bug readers what other book/s you are working on?
Michael J Bowler: I have several more novels outlined, in various genres, though most could be YA since they all feature strong teen characters. What I’ve got laid out are: a supernatural horror story wherein a group of misfit learning disabled kids are the heroes; a realistic “superhero” story about a twenty-three-year-old Filipino grad student and his poetry-loving fourteen-year-old brother who create a costumed crime fighter to inspire the apathetic people of Los Angeles (I wrote the outline and story for this one way before Kick Ass, and it’s not comedic); a time travel teen romance involving a mysterious gramophone; and a science fiction/action tale about a genetically engineered, indestructible weapon that falls into the hands of a violent street gang. All of these are ready to go – I just haven’t decided which one to write first. I’m leaning toward the time travel romance because it features a new twist on the ever popular “love triangle” scenario teen girls seem to obsess over, but I may go with the horror one. We’ll see. Hopefully, my stories will connect with readers the way books connected with me growing up. Books always gave me somewhere to go, with characters I could love and become attached to, set within stories I hated to see come to an end. I even learned valuable life lessons from books. As a result of these experiences, I knew even before entering high school that I wanted to try my hand at moving others emotionally through storytelling the way I had so often been moved. That was always my dream, and you can’t give up on a dream, right?
Greedy Bug: Thank you to Michael J Bowler for such a heartfelt interview with Josh. It is much appreciated by all at Greedy Bug Book Reviews.
Michael J Bowler: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I greatly appreciate your time.
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