Interview with Michael J Bowler, author of “Spinner”

Do you mentor?

I have mentored kids in some fashion or other since I was a teenager. As an adult, I’ve spent thirty-three years mentoring boys through the Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Los Angeles. I’m currently on my eighth Little Brother, Alula, who is ten years old. I have also spent over thirty years mentoring kids at various YMCAs in weight training and fitness, and I’m a thirty-two year volunteer working with incarcerated kids within the L.A. County and California juvenile justice systems. I am a huge proponent of mentoring and adoption, subjects that recur in all of my books.

How do you think concepts such as Kindle, and e-books have changed the present or future of reading?

For many people who love to read, but don’t have the space or funds to buy paperback and hardcover books, these devices are perfect. They save space and money. As a teacher, I worked with kids who had various learning disabilities. Some have visual processing issues, which make books difficult to read. These electronic devices often have a robot voice that will read the story aloud while the reader follows along. Even kids who simply have vision problems will benefit because the font can be made as large as needed. Kids – my target audience – read most everything on their phones or tablets, so in that regard eBooks are essential to help capture that demographic. Personally, I still prefer a real book in my hands, but I’m also very strong on conservation and want to save trees, so I embrace the electronic book format wholeheartedly.

What’s your favorite movie based on a book?

The Lord of the Rings. Those three films were simply one long movie, just like the book that was broken into three parts by the publisher. I thought the director, screenwriters, actors, production designers, composer – everyone did an amazing job of bringing that story to life. It is one of my favorite movies of all times.

Which character(s), created by you, do you consider as your masterpiece(s)?

I’d say Lance, the teen hero of my Children of the Knight series, is my most complex character because readers who follow the series watch him grow up on the page over a five year period from an orphaned, abused, distrustful, confused, and traumatized boy into a principled, decent, caring, strong-willed young man who becomes a youth leader to millions. Portraying such an arc was tricky, but based on the reviews and opinions of those who have read the series, it seems I succeeded.

If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?

I do quite a lot. If part of the story is set in a place I haven’t been to, I Google the layout of the area, the population, cultural norms, and use Google street images to actually see the city or location in question. I want to be as accurate as possible in my descriptions so that someone living in that city/town/community might think I’d actually been there in person. In Once Upon A Time In America, Lance and his fellow young knights of the Round Table travel up and down and across the country. I had been to a few of the places they visited, but not most, so I spent many hours researching those locations. That book and the previous one also dealt with amending the U.S. Constitution, so I needed to research the process so I would accurately depict it.

In case one or any of your books honor the big screen, which book would you like it to be?

All of them. LOL Actually, I’d love for my Children of the Knight books to be adapted because I feel those stories contain positive messages and themes, in addition to revealing harsh realities many American kids face, realities that are ignored in the media. I also would love to see Spinner adapted so moviegoers can see that kids labeled “special ed” can be just as brave, resourceful, capable, and honorable as the characters that usually popular horror or paranormal movies. The relationship between my characters defines friendship goals and that’s something else kids should see on the big screen.

How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

I listen to soundtrack scores from movies when I write. That is my preferred genre and has been since I was in elementary school. Depending upon the mood I want to create in a scene, I pick tracks that I think will help me generate it. Often, the movies from which the music comes have nothing to do thematically or even genre-wise with what I’m writing. My favorite composer who has helped me write some of the most emotional scenes in all my books is the late James Horner. His music can make me cry. Brilliant stuff.

It is often said that in order to write something, you must believe in what you are writing. Do you agree with that?

For me, this is true. I need to be invested in my characters, the plot, and the overall message of a story in order to give it my best. No matter what people say, every story conveys messages to readers. In my case, having a deep investment in the experience I hope readers take from my book keeps me focused on those messages and how they might be interpreted. Some books seem sloppy to me. It appears the author is trying to say something, but then the story goes off on a plot-driven tangent that muddies the message or actually negates it. That might be intentional, but most of the time my sense is that the author didn’t have a clear vision before starting.

Ever learned anything thing from a negative review and incorporated it in your writing?

Some negative reviews are completely unhelpful. I had one review of Children of the Knight where the reviewer hated the book because Lance, who is Latino, had green eyes. His eye color is an important trait throughout the series. I have also worked with Latino kids my whole life and have known a large number who had green eyes. But some reviews, especially of my early work, indicated that I would sometimes tell, rather than show, information about a character. Those comments were helpful and I learned from them.

Did you ever change sentences more than five times just because it didn’t hit the right notes?

I’m OCD when it comes to tinkering, and yes I have re-written sentences five times or more. LOL Partly, I do this for flow and pacing. Prose isn’t that different from poetry or song lyrics. There is a pace one sets – length of sentences, number of adjectives, prepositions, etc. – and if a sentence suddenly veers from the pattern, it jars the reader. That change of pattern could be intentional to force the reader to pay more attention, in which case I leave it alone. But if I just see it as disruptive, I modify it. Also, choice of words means everything when it comes to how a reader might interpret a scene or even a single sentence. It goes back to what I said before, about what messages the author wants readers to take away. Words have power, and they mean what they say. We must choose them wisely.

Have you received any awards for your literary works?

Yes, and I’m always humbled to receive them. Here is a list of my books that have won awards. Two are currently Finalists in the Wishing Shelf Book Awards, with winners to be announced April 1. A Matter of Time (Silver Medalist from Reader’s Favorite), Children of the Knight (Gold Award Winner- 2013 Wishing Shelf Book Awards; Reader Views Honorable Mention; Runner-Up Rainbow Awards; Honorable Mention – The Southern California Book Festival), Running Through A Dark Place (Bronze Award Winner – 2014 Wishing Shelf Book Awards), There Is No Fear (Finalist – 2015 Wishing Shelf Book Awards), Spinner (Winner – Hollywood Book Festival; Honorable Mention – San Francisco Book Festival; Bronze Medal from Readers’ Favorite; Literary Classics Seal of Approval; Runner-Up – Southern California Book Festival; Honorable Mention – Halloween Book Festival; Finalist – 2015 Wishing Shelf Book Awards), and Warrior Kids: A Tale of New Camelot (Honorable Mention in the London Book Festival and The New England Book Festival; Finalist – 2015 Wishing Shelf Book Awards).

Do you attend literary award ceremonies? Do you prepare a perfect speech for that?

I have attended a few, but only those that are fairly close to Los Angeles because travel is expensive. I did go to Miami for the Reader’s Favorite Awards in 2012, but no speaking opportunity was afforded the winners. For Spinner I spoke at three of the awards dinners and always talked about the kids I’ve worked with who inspired my writing. Here is a snippet of what I said: “If there’s an overall theme to Spinner it’s this: no matter what we look like or how much money we have or how smart we are, no matter our race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation, no matter our abilities or disabilities – at the end of every day we’re all the same. We’re all human. We’re human first and everything else second.”

Are you working on something new at the moment?

Yes. My latest book is being edited right now and then I will shop it around to agents to determine if there is any interest. This story involves two Filipino brothers, one in grad school and the other just starting high school, who create a costumed “super” hero (embodied in the older brother) for the purpose of inspiring the apathetic people of Los Angeles to step up and contribute toward making their city better instead of waiting for someone else to do it for them.

Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?

There are bits and pieces of me in a number of my characters, especially Lance, Alex, Vincent, Dennis, Arthur, Jamie, Bradley Wallace (to name a few.) Those are main characters, but I puts parts of me into secondary ones, too, quirks or interests or habits of mine. None of my characters is wholly like me – I’ve fractured myself all over the place. LOL

Do you pen down revelations and ideas as you get them, right then and there?

I usually type them into an email on my phone and send them to myself. If I’m driving, Siri takes down what I want to remember and emails it to me.

Although all books say that all the characters in the book aren’t real or related, but are they really all fictional and made up?

Most of my characters have traits or aspects of people I have known, especially all the child and teen characters. Those characters come into their own during the writing process and often do not even resemble the person who I thought of initially. Just like people, characters evolve and grow.

Doesn’t it bother you that when books are turned into movies, they are often changed to suit the audience needs?

A book should never be altered to suit audience needs or wants. They do have to be altered to suit the medium of film, which is completely different than prose. Some books that are visual and action oriented translate to the screen easily and effectively. Books with many internal monologues and soul-searching of characters are less easy to adapt. The screenwriter has to create visually what is going on within that character, and often that necessitates changes to the story. I’ve written both books and screenplays, and even adapted my own books into scripts, so I understand the challenge.

What is your motivation for writing more?

I think my books for teens contain worthwhile role models in the characters and positive messages that are too often absent from teen fiction today, especially with the plethora of dystopian fiction, a genre I’m not fond of. I want kids to feel empowered and hopeful after reading one of my books. I don’t want them feeling that the human race is doomed.

What advice would you like to give writers who are struggling with their first novels?

Finish it. No matter how bad you might think your work is at the moment, finish that book. If you can’t finish what you start, how can you ever be an author? Once you finish, set the draft aside for a week and then go back to revise. Nine times out of ten you will find much you want to keep and revise, and not so much you want to reject. Over time, you will forge that rough draft into a polished story as long as you don’t give up on it.

Is writing book series more challenging?

Yes, but mainly for this reason – often in series I find an author contradicting something he or she set up in an earlier installment. For a series, it’s important to backwards map – know how all your plot threads will end and where your characters will be at the conclusion of the series, and then back up to the beginning to pave the way for the ending you already have locked in. That doesn’t mean you might not change certain aspects of the ending or the fates of certain characters. But, by knowing the endgame, it’s much easier to write all the roads that lead to it without dropping threads or forgetting to pay off something you set up in book one or two.

Have you ever marketed your own books yourself?

Only two of my books were released by indie publishers and the others I self-published. As far as marketing is concerned, I had to do it all in both venues, and marketing is not my forte. I’ve learned a lot about promotion over the past few years as I’ve struggled to bring attention to my books and have learned that marketing is much harder than writing. My books are aimed at teenagers and I’m beginning to conclude that indie publishers or self-publishers don’t stand much of a chance getting their work in front of teens. Without reviews from the major journals, like School Library Journal, those adults who work with teens won’t even know your book is out there. And these journals only review books from the big publishers, near as I can tell.

Do you believe attractive book covers help in its sales?

I think cover art is everything. I love book covers and often buy books I don’t plan to read because I love the cover so much. LOL But seriously, our eyes are drawn to the cover first, so if it isn’t catchy the book could be dead on arrival.

Who are your books mostly dedicated to?

I always dedicate my books to people who have inspired me over the years, especially the kids I’ve been privileged to know and work with.

Do your novels carry a message?

Yes. My overriding theme is that in life we must do what’s right, rather than what’s easy if we want society to get better. I also write a lot about the value of friendship, which I believe is the most powerful form of love. And since I am a huge proponent of adoption, most of my books bring disparate people together to form a kind of family unit based on love and commitment, rather than blood and DNA.

Tell us about your writing style, how is it different from other writers?

I don’t know how different my style is, but I tend to think outside the box so I guess my writing reflects that way of thinking. I’ve always loved movies and have a background in filmmaking. I visualize scenes in my head before I ever write anything down. I’ll even “see” dialogue scenes and “hear” the characters interacting in ways I’d likely not think of if I tried to just sit and write from scratch. So when I do sit down to the keyboard, I describe scenes as I saw them in my head, almost like a movie.
I imagine “camera angles” that will cover everything a reader might want to “see” in a given scene, and then try to fit every element together. I also sometimes have multiple POVs within the same sequence, though I try to make these as seamless as possible. Again, that is something of a movie technique. A director will “cut” to different actors within any given scene, and I do that with my often-extensive casts of characters. I might have ten characters in the same scene, and I feel readers want to know what all of them are doing. Thus, I see my role as screenwriter and director when I create a novel. And like any good director, I allow my “cast” to improvise more often than not. I’ve had characters say and do things I never thought of, simply because I allow them to play out their scenes in my head numerous times before I type those scenes into the computer. So I suppose I do have an unusual style because I have an unusual way of thinking. Ha!

Which book inspired you to begin writing?

As an 8th grader, Thomas Tryon’s The Other blew me away and really cemented my desire to be a writer. I was so stunned by the ending that I immediately read the book through a second rime to figure out how the author had so cleverly tricked me. It was a masterpiece of writing and a very moving story in its own right.

What did you want to become when you were a kid?

I wanted to be an astronaut for as far back as I could remember. I watched every thing NASA did and followed famous astronauts like my friends followed rock stars. Sadly, when I got to high school I learned I didn’t have the math skills, and that my hearing loss precluded me from that career. I was devastated.

Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?

I usually read any review I happen to see, but don’t obsessively look for new ones. I will only thank the reviewer if he/she posted the review on their blog. I never respond to comments unless they are directly addressed to me.

If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?

For sure I will trim Children of the Knight when the terms of the contract are over and the book reverts to me. Hardly anyone read it anyway, so I will trim and tighten it up and self-publish like the others in the series. I want the formatting to match and make it clear on the cover that this one is the first of a series, something the publisher wouldn’t do.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

I revise and revise and revise! LOL I am an obsessive tinkerer. In so doing, I catch most typos, but not all. At some point, I have a professional editor go through it.

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?

I am something of a loner, but I’m not sure that’s true for all writers. I tend not to think like other people so it’s hard for me to find social groups that I fit into. My hearing loss made me shy growing up because in groups of two or more I’d often mis-hear what was said and give the wrong reply. Of course, those non-sequitur answers got me laughed at a lot, so I learned to be quiet and listen more than I spoke.

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

I’ve always been someone who has a long-range view of life, and long range with people means the next generation – the young, kids and teens. In my opinion, most media today sends negative messages to kids about how to behave, how to live their lives, doom and gloom and the sky is falling. I believe kids need hope more than fear. I also think every kid should see himself represented in teen fiction, so my characters are the ones most Americans like to pretend don’t exist: kids of color, gay kids, marginalized kids, poor kids, kids with disabilities, gang members, and incarcerated kids. These are the kids I’ve worked with my whole life and I know them to be amazing human beings. My goal as an author is for teens to experience empowerment and hope; to see themselves in my diverse characters; to read about kids who face real-life challenges; and to see how kids like them can remain decent people in an indecent world.