Interview with Freddie Owens, author of ‘Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie’s Story’

Freddie Owens 2Our guest today is Freddie Owens, author of the Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story.

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.

Then Like the Blind Man 7What made you decide to become a published author?

Well, I started writing back in the 1970s, poetry mostly, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I had a couple of my poems accepted by Poet Lore, which was a big deal to me back then and wetted my appetite. My first writing desk consisted of an old door mounted on cinder blocks and set up in a clothes closet. I used an old Smith Corona typewriter and made carbon copies of the poems I wrote on onionskin paper. I remember the walls in that enclosure were of knotty pine and that directly to the rear of where I sat was the entry to a tiny bathroom with a sink, a mirror and a metal shower stall.

When it dawned on me in the early 90s that my heart was not into what I was then doing (practicing psychotherapy), I began to think again about writing seriously. I had been away from it for quite some time – though I had always found a way on occasion to write poems. I guess I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and that if I wanted to explore this thing that had been bothering me so long – this thing called writing – I had best get to it. I started experimenting with stream of consciousness and automatic writing – and by keeping a journal – and by developing the discipline of being on the spot each day before the proverbial blank page. I did that until one day my debut, Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story began to worm its way into consciousness. The notion that I might well become a published author, not just of a poem or two, but of an entire novel wormed its way into consciousness too.

Would you consider your latest book, Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story, to be a one of a kind?  How so?

Very much so. It tells a very complicated story simply and from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy in a southern vernacular that does not detract from the story or distract the reader. Thus the story comes off as believable from beginning to end. It is a sort of backwater Hamlet though the protagonist Orbie Ray makes very different and surprising choices than Hamlet did, choices that uplift without trivializing or sentimentalizing dark family psychodynamics. This is my opinion of course, and a good one it is. After all, I am the author.

What do you believe a writer should not do as far as getting his or her book published?

Well there are, of course, a lot of things a writer should not do but one that comes to mind immediately for me involves the process of sending out queries to agents and publishers. Don’t do this randomly i.e., haphazardly. Do your homework. Find out about the agent or publisher you’re contemplating sending a query to before you do so. Try to find some ‘in’, some ‘connecting link’ between that person or organization and your work. This may seem obvious but agents and publishers complain that many queries they receive are for work they have little or no interest in. Don’t be lazy. Shotgun methods don’t work well, if at all. Do the research!

What inspires you?

Okay, good one. Here’s an example.

I witnessed my grandmother wring a chicken’s neck when I was nine. It ran about the yard headless, spewing blood and flapping its wings as the life went out of it. For the chicken and for the boy I was too, there was something existentially irreversible about this, something horrific and final. I wanted to write about it, not so much just to describe the horrors of a chicken’s death but to say something about how I, a nine-year-old, experienced these. I wanted to get into the skin of the little boy I remembered and try to write from his point of view, which turned out to be quite fascinating. An alive, vibrant and vivid livingness manifested that I, as an adult writer, could not have matched without on a daily basis trying to slip into the boy’s world. This was not always easy to do, but once achieved, all sorts of possibilities for writing opened up. I’m talking about my book of course, Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story and its nine-year-old protagonist, Orbie Ray.

What is one thing you learned about your book after it was published?

I used to think that if I wrote a book I liked and was satisfied I had done everything possible to make it a worthy piece of writing and that if more than a handful of people liked it and of course some independent reviewers did too, then that would be success enough.  I think I did achieve at least this much, even as an independently published author – but since the advent of this ‘success’, the issue of earned money and how many books sold, etc. has reared its ugly head.  I find myself now stuck in a sort of marketing whorl that never seems to end. That sucks time and energy away from the actual work of writing – not at all what I had envisioned. Success becomes money becomes marketing becomes developing a platform and a brand and on and on and on. Success defined this way is so elusive as to be almost unachievable – unless of course one has large sums of money to throw at the problem. It gets to be like pleasure in life – relentlessly pursued, rarely realized and always followed by pain. One must remember not to forget to write!

Why do you love to write literary fiction?

I like to write so-called literary fiction because for me there’s more room to move about, freedom to evolve without the limitations implied by genre and/or formulaic kinds of writing. It’s messy and so I feel encouraged to rummage about as one might in an old attic with a flashlight late at night. This is not to say, however, that genre writing is necessarily over planned and therefore less artful. I daresay there’d be some dispute about that. I fantasize sometimes about writing the next Grisham-like blockbuster and see much artfulness in that type of writing.

Did any real life experiences find their way into your book?

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. These experiences did find there way into the narrative, directly and indirectly.

Aside from writing, what’s your passion?

All my occupations in life, including writing, I consider adjunct to a spiritual path begun when I was 26, depressed and living alone in East Lansing, Michigan. That was in the mid ’70s. I read (devoured) Carlos Castaneda’s books and books on eastern mysticism, The Electric Cool Aid Acid Test, Alan Watts, Colin Wilson, Ramana Maharshi etc. and must have discovered somewhere in my readings that enlightenment was indeed a possibility. I think something in my attitude changed as a result, though I can’t even today say what that change was exactly. It wasn’t a change for the ‘good’ as opposed to the ‘bad’; no, it wasn’t that simple. Suffice it to say something got let out of its cage and has been developing ever since.

What’s next for you?

There’s a sequel to Then Like The Blind Man in the offing. I’m also planning an audio recording of the book. And I hope to render it as a screenplay for the movies. There’s a link to the trailer I’ll leave here narrated by yours truly (http://bit.ly/1dnWwwN), which provides something of the sound and visual world of the book. Enjoy!

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