Interview: Freddie Owens, Author of 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’.
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 grandparents' place with nothing to do but wander about the red clay yard or kill flies on my grandmother's screened-in back porch.
When did you begin writing?
When it dawned on me back in the early 90s that as a psychotherapist I was going nowhere, I began to think about writing seriously. I had been away from it for quite some time – though I had always found time to write poems. I realized I wasn't getting any younger and that if I wanted to explore this thing that had bothered me for 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 page, whether blank or not. I did that until one day my debut, Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie's Story began to insert and insinuate itself into my words.
I should add that originally I started writing way back around 1970, I believe – mostly because I didn't know what else to do with myself. My first writing desk consisted of an old door supported with cinder blocks I 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.
What is this book about?
Well, Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie's Story may be described as a sort of backwater Hamlet or a rural-American version of Hamlet, you know, where the stepfather is suspected of murdering the father by the father's surviving son, though in this book intriguingly different choices are made by the story's protagonist, Orbie Ray, the feisty nine-year-old with racist attitudes and prejudices ready made for propelling a family drama. It's set in the segregated South of the 1950s and told from the boy's point of view in an easy to read and judiciously written vernacular. Of course that would be my opinion since I'm the author; I might add however that it is also the opinion of many others who've read the book. Kirkus Review, for example, gave it a starred review, which is their way of designating a book of exceptional merit. You can read that review here @ https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/freddie-owens/then-blind-man-orbies-story/
Finally there's a link to the book's trailer, which I think gives a fair summary of its content and tone. Here it is: http://bit.ly/1dnWwwN
What inspired you to write it?
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.
Are you a member of a critique group? If no, who provides feedback on your work?
I've been a member of several such critique groups over the years but am not now involved with any. Feedback at these groups was helpful, sometimes crucial and sometimes not helpful at all; I think one has to take things with a grain of salt and sometimes with a large grain of salt; I think one has to remember oneself and not let what other's say taint one's vision. I've worked with author's Rebecca Hill (Among Birches) and Judith Guest (Ordinary People). I've worked with British authors James Friel and Carol Clewlow. And I have an editor, a good one (Dave King @ http://www.davekingedits.com/). If you're an aspiring writer reading this I think you should find a good editor, one you can afford and trust. A literary agent in New York also helped me considerably, especially toward the middle part of the writing; he gave a good amount of his time advising me, which I'll never forget. I won't mention his name here, as this is not what he does for a living. Suffice it to say one needs feedback from time to time. I do at any rate – and when I get to the sequel I'll be looking for more.
Who is your favorite author?
I have many favorites and can't settle on just one. To name a few, there is Cormac McCarthy, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Pete Dexter, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oats, Hermann Hesse, John Updike and Dorothy Allison. And many others...
Was the road to publication smooth sailing or a bumpy ride?
After many years of 'almost' and 'no' or 'yes but we wouldn't know how to market it' from agents and publishers alike, I've opted for 'certainly' and 'yes' instead, taking all my marbles to Amazon's Independent Publisher's Assistant, Createspace, which has become home base to my phantom publisher Blind Sight Publications. Blind Sight Publications (aka Freddie Owens) published Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie's Story – a bumpy ride to say the least.
What is the best investment you have made in promoting your book?
The jury is still out on this one. KDP's free days work well (in which one gives away one's Kindle version for free for a chosen number of days); this is good for getting readers and customer reviews (though these are not always helpful). I think, if one is going to pay for a review, one should go to reputable reviewers like Kirkus or ForeWord's Clarion. I think such reviews may help decide a reader one way or another, though this is not a slam-dunk. Virtual book tours have potential. Pump Up Your Book (http://www.pumpupyourbook.com) has several good options for tours and Dorothy, their CEO, is a delight to work with. There are many other things I've done and that one can do, but in spite of my own book's having received many good reviews and accolades, sales have been moderate at best. The book did climb recently into Amazon's bestseller ranks, which is not necessarily indicative of a lot of sales since many of Amazon's categories are structured to allow bestseller rankings to books with only a handful of sales. Be careful where you spend your money for promotions, especially if you're self-published. Spend wisely.
What is up next for you?
A sequel. Then a sequel to the sequel. Then fame, glory, money and more money. Then old age. Then sickness. Then death. Always death.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Well, I guess I should be more circumspect in public and not say that it astounds me that so many people now have read Then Like the Blind Man and actually like it. In fact, there's been a surfeit of praise. I'm tickled of course but is this possible? Am I not dreaming a pleasant dream from which I'll awaken one day to discover the harsh truth, i.e., that the book is sub par, mediocre and yet another example of self published claptrap? I ask myself this. And I'm a little embarrassed, I guess. I mean I'm out there now, publicized in a way I'm only gradually getting to know. It's sort of like having been behind locked doors for years and years and finally finding a key of sorts and using it to open the door and stepping out into the sunshine - where everything is now exposed. The temptation, of course, is to crawl back, go back inside, shut the doors, shut out the over bright lights. Seems odd and a little disconcerting at times but I seem to have an abiding affiliation with the darkness, more so than I do with the light - it is the darkness that interests me, that causes me to explore. But that requires light, doesn't it? I need the light; but I love the darkness.