'Still in my heart': Johnson City native and renowned author reflects on life, accomplishments

Jonathan Roberts • Nov 17, 2019 at 7:18 PM

Though he’s spent decades living in New York City, when John Bowers steps into the King’s Centre Building in downtown Johnson City, he feels right at home.

It was in that building where Bowers developed a love of literature inside his mother’s bookstore in King’s Department Store as an adolescent in the 1930s and 1940s. As he took a seat inside Main Street Pizza Co. facing East Main Street, Bowers reflected on his days as a youth — days spent in a city that is almost entirely different than it was in the early part of the 20th century.

“Everything has changed,” Bowers said. “But, every aspect of this is vaguely familiar. In a way I haven’t really left.”

And, to some extent, he hasn’t. From 1996-97, he served as the Basler Chair of Excellence at East Tennessee State University, and his wife, Lale, estimates they’ve visited Johnson City about half a dozen times over the last decade alone. One way or another, Bowers has always found his way back to Johnson City, if only for a visit.

“It attracts me like magic,” Bowers said. “Johnson City is still in my heart.”

Since he turned to writing novels in the 1970s, Bowers has published nearly a dozen —two of which, “Love in Tennessee” and “No More Reunions,” are set in East Tennessee, but as he’ll readily tell you, his time in Johnson City influences almost everything he writes.

“I didn’t really leave Johnson City,” Bowers says, pointing to his head. “I draw on it for material for anything I write.”

His first novel, however — set in Illinois — is his favorite and arguably most successful.

“The Colony” is “an autobiographical and perhaps slightly fictionalized account” of his time attending the Handy Writers Colony in Marshall, Illinois. The New York Times Sunday Book Review called the novel “a rich, powerful, funny and ultimately heart-breaking memoir,” while The New Yorker called it “an excellent, durable book that tells much more than it says.”

“I’m going to say ‘The Colony’ is just about my favorite book,” Bowers said.

But perhaps one of the most awkward moments of his writing career came when he interviewed New York Jets legend Joe Namath for a magazine article in the early 1960s. The problem? Bowers had never seen Namath play — and he is a die-hard New York Giants fan.

“Well, I didn’t mention it to him,” Bowers joked about his fandom.

That story is retold in Bowers’ 1971 book, “The Golden Bowers.” Aside from his interview with Namath, Bowers’ collection also has interviews with Janis Joplin months before she died in 1970 and actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered by members of the Charles Manson family in 1969. When Bowers talks of Tate, however, it’s clear her death still sticks with him.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Bowers said of her death. “I just couldn’t believe it; to me, she’s still alive.

“It was not real, it happened in a horror movie, and not to Sharon,” Bowers said.

And while those experiences still stick with him today, they never dampened his love for writing and telling stories. As his wife calls him, he’s “a writer's writer.”

“I’ve always loved imagination and getting away from the world,” Bowers said.

And he’s still not done. He says he wants to write about his mother and aunt, two big influences in his life, and his wife is collecting some of his previously unreleased short stories about his childhood in Johnson City under the title “A Ceremony of Innocence.” At 91 years old, it seems as though Father Time is no match for Bowers’ writing prowess.

For more information about John Bowers or to order any of his books, visit www.johnbowersauthor.com.