Wednesday, March 26, 2014
PUYB Virtual Book Club: Q&A with Historical Fiction Author Freddie Owens
A poet and fiction writer, my work has been published in Poet Lore, Crystal Clear and Cloudy, and Flying Colors Anthology. I am a past attendee of Pikes Peak Writer’s Conferences and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and a member of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver, Colorado. In addition, I am/was a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist, who for many years counseled perpetrators of domestic violence and sex offenders, and provided psychotherapy for individuals, groups and families. I hold a master’s degree in contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
I was born in Kentucky but soon after my parents moved to Detroit. Detroit was where I grew up. As a kid I visited relatives in Kentucky, once for a six-week period, which included a stay with my grandparents. In the novel’s acknowledgements I did assert the usual disclaimers having to do with the fact that Then Like The Blind Man was and is a work of fiction, i.e., a made up story whose characters and situations are fictional in nature (and used fictionally) no matter how reminiscent of characters and situations in real life. That’s a matter for legal departments, however, and has little to do with subterranean processes giving kaleidoscopic-like rise to hints and semblances from memory’s storehouse, some of which I selected and disguised for fiction. That is to say, yes, certain aspects of my history did manifest knowingly at times, at times spontaneously and distantly, as ghostly north-south structures, as composite personae, as moles and stains and tears and glistening rain and dark bottles of beer, rooms of cigarette smoke, hay lofts and pigs. Here’s a quote from the acknowledgements that may serve to illustrate this point.
“Two memories served as starting points for a short story I wrote that eventually became this novel. One was of my Kentucky grandmother as she emerged from a shed with a white chicken held upside down in one of her strong bony hands. I, a boy of nine and a “city slicker” from Detroit, looked on in wonderment and horror as she summarily wrung the poor creature’s neck. It ran about the yard frantically, yes incredibly, as if trying to locate something it had misplaced as if the known world could be set right again, recreated, if only that one thing was found. And then of course it died. The second memory was of lantern light reflected off stones that lay on either side of a path to a storm cellar me and my grandparents were headed for one stormy night beneath a tornado’s approaching din. There was wonderment there too, along with a vast and looming sense of impending doom.”
I read the usual assigned stuff growing up, short stories by Poe, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Scarlet Letter, The Cherry Orchard, Hedda Gabler, a little of Hemingway, etc. I also read a lot of Super Hero comic books (also Archie and Dennis the Menace) and Mad Magazine was a favorite too. I was also in love with my beautiful third grade teacher and to impress her pretended to read Gulliver’s Travels for which I received many delicious hugs.
It wasn’t until much later that I read Huckleberry Finn. I did read To Kill A Mockingbird too. I read Bastard Out of Carolina and The Secret Life of Bees. I saw the stage play of Hamlet and read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle too. However, thematic similarities to these works occurred to me only after I was already well into the writing of Then Like The Blind Man. Cormac McCarthy, Pete Dexter, Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Conner and Joyce Carol Oates, to name but a few, are among my literary heroes and heroines. Tone and style of these writers have influenced me in ways I’d be hard pressed to name, though I think the discerning reader might feel such influences as I make one word follow another and attempt to “stab the heart with…force” (a la Isaac Babel) by placing my periods (hopefully, sometimes desperately) ‘… just at the right place’.
Freddie Owens’ latest book is Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie’s Story.
Visit his website at www.FreddieOwens.com.
Thanks for coming to the book club, Freddie! It's great to have you with us. I love coming of age books especially the kind you have written. Can we start out by having you tell us where you got the idea for Then Like the Blind Man?
Freddie: Well, two memories served as starting points for a short story I wrote that eventually became the novel, Then Like the Blind Man / Orbie's Story. One was of my Kentucky grandmother as she emerged from a shed with a white chicken held upside down in one of her strong bony hands. I, a boy of nine and a "city slicker" from Detroit, looked on in wonderment and horror as she summarily wrung the poor creature's neck. I watched as it ran about the yard frantically, yes incredibly, as if trying to locate something it had misplaced as if the known world could be set aright, recreated, if only that one thing could be found. And then of course it died. The second memory was of lantern light reflected off stones that lay on either side of a path to a storm cellar me and my grandparents were headed for one stormy night beneath a tornado's approaching din. There was wonderment there too, along with a vast and looming sense of impending doom.
I especially love Orbie. Can you tell everyone a little about him?
Freddie Owens: A funny thing happened on the way to the completion of my first novel. On a daily basis I found myself entering or trying to enter the skin of a nine-year-old boy, trying to see the world of the novel entirely from his point of view. I suppose I should thank the 'Novel Muse' for giving me such an opportunity. I mean it was fascinating. And your question gets to the heart of this one thing I was trying to do, i.e., show how dependent the world is on one's point of view and how one's point of view in turn is dependent on the world. I mean Blind Man is told from Orbie's point of view, right? The reader sees Victor through Orbie's eyes. Victor therefore is a function of how Orbie sees him, and how Orbie sees Victor is in turn a function of Victor's influence. He deceives and threatens Orbie's point of view, challenges it, at times violently, but in the end Orbie's view prevails, though profoundly transformed - as does his world.
Now, Victor Denalsky is not your typical villain. He is extremely complex, confusedly so, yet he seems somewhat cardboard-like in the beginning, almost stereotypical (intentionally so). I think this is because Orbie's viewpoint is still rudimentary; he sees things in black and white nine-year-old terms, a parallel I suppose to the racist attitudes he displays early on. Victor is seen by Orbie to have some good qualities, he's a war hero, he's been in battles, he's very good looking and has what seems to be a very friendly relationship with Orbie's father, Jessie, and his mother, Ruby. An ominous quality enters all this however after Orbie's father is killed in an accident at the steel mill and Victor moves in on his family and vulnerable mother, bringing with him the smell of toilet shit and beer and dead cigars.
Victor becomes the bad guy; the hated stepfather in Orbie's eyes and everything enters hell from there on in until Orbie's sensibilities are awakened in Kentucky. He has certain experiences there with his maverick grandparents, with the black community of Pentecostal snake handlers and with the Choctaw shaman, Moses Mashbone. He finds he can’t maintain his prejudices in an environment of humor and vibrant fellow feeling. Even his tightly nursed hatred of Victor begins to unravel. As his world (in spite of everything) becomes sweeter, happier, it becomes also more and more perplexing, posing questions worthy perhaps only of the nine-year-old wunderkind, paradoxical questions like, "How can you save what you want to destroy?" As Victor becomes increasingly monstrous, increasingly alcoholic, increasingly violent, we see also that he becomes oddly repentant, has himself been spiritually wounded, becoming worthy of a deep though uninvited sympathy. This all takes place in Orbie's point of view, of course, which in turn is subject to the influence of the world of Kentucky and Harlan's Crossroads, which again is subject to Orbie's point of view. Like I said, fascinating.
Kentucky is one of my favorite states - love the back country. Can you tell us if you had to go there for research, have you been there before and why did you choose Kentucky as your setting?
Freddie: Actually, I was born in Kentucky but grew up around Detroit. I would sometimes spend a week or two, once I spent six weeks, in Kentucky, staying with cousins or with my grandparents. And yes, it was an entirely different world for me, providing some of the best and worst times of my growing up years. I had a great time on a dairy farm with several of my cousins, milking cows, hoeing tobacco, running over the hills and up and down a creek that surrounded the big farm. I remember too, periods of abject boredom, sitting around my grandparent's place with nothing to do but wander about the red clay yard or kill flies on my grandmother's screened in back porch. Some of this did come out in the novel – in that character you love, Orbie.
What is the most favorable thing people have said about your book?
Freddie: Well, Kirkus Review gave the book their highest rating. They gave it a starred review, which is how they designate a book of exceptional merit. It got great reviews also from Publisher's Weekly, The San Francisco Book Review, Midwest Book Review, ForeWord First and several others.
The most favorable thing came not from any of these big reviewers however; but from a reader who wrote to say how she was so saddened when the book came to an end because she wouldn't get to hang out with the book's characters any longer. She said she hoped I'd be writing more about these characters in the future, that I'd find a way to continue the story. Which, of course, was very gratifying to hear.
How neat that this is your debut book. Do you have more books on the horizon?
Freddie: Well, I'm currently thinking of doing a screenplay for Then Like The Blind Man. I've actually started the work, which is a challenge since I know nothing about screenplay writing – but I'm learning. I'm reading and I'm learning. I also have begun jotting a few ideas down for a sequel and hope someday to be able to say to the lady saddened by my book's having come to an end, Hey gal, look here! There's more!
Is there anything you'd like to say to your readers and fans?
Freddie: Writing – especially great writing – is the mind's gift to itself. Reading is the mind's way of opening the gift. If in it one finds emptiness filled to the brim, then I say, so much the better, dear reader. Read on.