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I recently had the pleasure to read and review an excellent debut novel by the author, Freddie Owens, Then Like the Blind Man (Orbie's Story). It’s set in the backcountry of Kentucky, during the 1950's and the memorable voice of the first-person-narrator, nine-year-old Orbie Ray, was reminiscent to me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. His adventures also bring to mind novels like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I'm honored that the author, Freddie Owens, has agreed to do an interview with me about the book and what inspired him to write it. I hope you enjoy reading the interview he did with me, and that you will also enjoy reading his marvelous novel, if you haven't already.
Douglas R. Cobb: First of all, Freddie, I was wondering how much of Then Like the Blind Man was based on your own life and experiences. I read that you grew up in Kentucky, and lived for a time in Detroit, like Orbie and his family, so could you let our readers know how much of what happens in the novel is based on your own life? What other people/novels have inspired you, or were your favorites growing up?
Freddie Owens: 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 subterraneous 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 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) '... just at the right place'.
Douglas R. Cobb: Though Orbie is just nine, he has been forced through different things that happen to him to grow up fairly quickly. Your novel could be called a "Coming of Age," novel, even though Orbie is relatively young, because he is forced to question lots of the things he's grown up thinking he knows are the truth, like racial attitudes, what morality is, what sort of person his mother is, and what was really the cause of his father's death.
Would you tell us a little about your character, Victor Denalsky, and why Orbie doesn't like him very much?
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.
Douglas R. Cobb: What is it that leads Victor and Orbie's mother to drop him off to live for a while with his grandparents in Kentucky?
Freddie Owens: This is more Victor's idea than Ruby's. Orbie and Victor's relationship has deteriorated. Victor has proven alcoholic and physically abusive of Orbie and his little sister Missy and has on more than one occasion become physically violent toward Ruby. Physical abuse is almost always preceded and/or accompanied by emotional abuse, in this case in the form of ongoing belittlement and physical threats. Add to this the fact that Orbie and Victor are locked in a battle for Ruby's attentions. Orbie sees Victor as an interloper, an intruder whose eyes are filled with worms, "cutting themselves in there and getting mean". He is fearful for Ruby and his sister. Leaving Orbie at his grandparent's place is, for Victor, an expression of power and control to which Ruby in her desire to keep the peace naively acquiesces. Initially, Ruby and Victor assure Orbie his stay will be only two weeks. As we come to see, it becomes much, much longer than that.
Douglas R. Cobb: You are a poet, and also a psychotherapist. Have you ever dealt with, in a therapeutic sense (or in your own life experiences), anyone who was an alcoholic, like Victor? Did any of those experiences influence you as you wrote the novel?
Freddie Owens: 'Yes' would be my answer to both questions. One of the poems that appears in the novel as having been written by the character Victor is from a very long, prose poem I wrote as an ode to a cousin much older than me who was an alcoholic with a very large and generous heart. The title of the poem was Hillbilly Blue. The poem, except for its last lines, was destroyed in a fire that burned my parent's house down back in the seventies. These last lines read something like the following:
"And it is through him I bring the abyss into my own heart and ask if I am any better and how life might become worthy though steeped in this barroom darkness, this gray plastered wall which has cracked so pitifully and how we might take it along with us, this death, this alcoholic death and its untended women and children to the final stoic end of these worlds."
In the novel Victor wrote this to honor his father who had suicided - and I think it points up nicely a side to Victor worthy of our sympathy. Every heart I believe has unplumbed depths of love and goodness even when the owner (be he disturbed client or ordinary man) is subject to depravity.
Douglas R. Cobb: There are many memorable characters in your novel that Orbie encounters. like his odd but loving grandparents; the hunchback lady, Bird; and Neally Harlan. Have you ever met people like these, or did you create them from your own imagination? Which of these characters (or any others) would you say have the most influence on Orbie's life in Then Like the Blind Man?
Freddie Owens: These characters are mostly figments of my somewhat saucy imagination. People in my life loosely inspired some of them. My real grandparents loosely inspired Granny and Granpaw of the novel, though my real grandparents most probably would not have shared their enlightened view of race relations. Nor were they darkly mystical. Nor did they handle snakes. They were kind-hearted people though, and they liked to tease me (sometimes relentlessly), both features of which belonged to the Granny and Granpaw of the novel.
Moses Mashbone was a composite of coyote-like wise men I have had dealings with and/or have read about; one was a Shaman who lived in apparent squaller in Mexico who I went to for medical advice; another was a Hindu adept with a sweet disposition and steel-like spirit that would brook no compromise. I think of Don Juan in Castaneda's books and other magical beings in works by Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson. Bird may have come from one of these beings in combination with a crone-aunt of mine who used to grab me around by the neck with her knotted cane when I was a kid.
It's hard to say which of the characters in the book have the most influence on Orbie. All of them do, obviously but if I had to choose I'd say Moses Mashbone. Though he does not appear as often as some of the other characters, his influence is felt throughout. When present he overwhelms, exasperates and befriends. When absent he is the invisible hub of a wheel that powers the story forward toward its violent, semi-happy end.
Douglas R. Cobb: I've been skirting a perhaps very obvious question up until now, but I'll address it now: Why did you title your novel Then Like the Blind Man? It's a great title, but our readers might be curious as to why you chose it, over other possible titles.
Freddie Owens: The title morphed several times before I settled on it. Initially, it was Storms; then it became The Jesus Tree; then Harlan's Crossroads; finally Then Like The Blind Man. It comes from an old song by Hank Williams called I Saw The Light. One of the verses goes like this: "Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight, praise the Lord I saw the light." It's a positive sentiment, sort of reminiscent of finding a jewel in the rough. When God gives back your sight you see things - as did Orbie - as did Victor - good things, hard-to-look-at things.
Douglas R. Cobb: Like the novels of Mark Twain, and ones like To Kill a Mockingbird, you don't shy away from including the use of the controversial and derogatory "n" word in Then Like the Blind Man. To mark an era, and the people who lived in that era, I personally don't see anything wrong with using that word, but other people have a different view on that. Also, Samuel Clemens, I'd argue, used it to illustrate how wrong it was for white people to think that blacks were different than themselves, and lesser than themselves. What's your opinions on the use of this word in literature?
Freddie Owens: I agree with you. It marks the era, and as such is a powerful descriptor - in this case of racial prejudice and hatred, which was important thematically for Then Like The Blind Man. The writing of literature is an art engaged by the artist, the writer. Words are his paints. They can stand alone or be combined to produce different shadings and effects. I would not argue for gratuity in any of its forms whether it be gratuitous sex or violence or the use of the so-called 'n' word. This would be like a painter overusing the color red. It becomes a distraction. It says the artist in question has nothing important to say or that he has settled for putting his ignorance on display. Overuse or wrong use of the 'n' word would be like that. It would be a distraction. It would be racist. The word itself is just a word to be used skillfully or not. To ban it would be akin to racism. It would be racism in another guise. It would be censorship.
Douglas R. Cobb: Ruby, Orbie's mother, is the kind of person who might be called an "enabler." She is also the sort of woman who believes she can change the man she loves, through her love of him, and making him into a church-going man.
Have you met many people like this in your own life? Did you base her on anyone you actually knew?
Freddie Owens: I had a couple of alcoholic uncles who were constantly exhorted by family, friends, wives, mothers to change their ways. When seen clean shaven and white shirted (usually without a tie) in church, singing God's praises everyone would relax a bit, thinking at long last they had come to their senses. Then, of course, they would fall off the wagon again, pounding on doors and yelling at the moon in the middle of the alcoholic night. I may have put some of this collective frustration and hopefulness into Ruby and let her run with it. I also had examples like Farrah Fawcett's character in the movie The Burning Bed and Dorothy Allison's character in the novel Bastard Out Of Carolina, the mother, I forget her name, who sacrificed her daughter to rape to be with the man who raped her. You're right, Ruby was an enabler of the worst kind but she was struggling too - to sort out her own identity, mother, daughter, widow, wife - and to overcome her own addictions.
Douglas R. Cobb: It was apparent, as I read, that you had, and still have, a great love of Kentucky--at least, some aspects about it--and, you write about the state and the people who live in it in a poetic way.
How long did you stay in Kentucky? Did you think when you went there you were pretty much entering into an entirely different world?
Freddie Owens: As I said before, 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. The times I stayed there were 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 out 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, didn't it?
Douglas R. Cobb: Just a couple more questions to go, Freddie! What happened to Orbie's father's hand, and--if it isn't too much of a spoiler--could you let our readers know what was the real cause of his death?
Freddie Owens: I think Jesse's hand was mangled in a tractor's engine. I think this may have appeared in an earlier draft of the novel but did not make the final cut. I'd have to go back and read to confirm this.
I think I'd best not divulge the specifics of Jesse's death at this point. Suffice it to say that the book mimics the story of Hamlet but ends in a light very different from that tragic one. That, I think, is a pretty good clue.
Douglas R. Cobb: Are you currently writing another novel, or perhaps are you working on any poetry you'd like to tell our readers about? If so, how far are you along on these projects, and when will they be out, if you know?
Freddie Owens: I'm thinking of a sequel to Blind Man and have at this point only some rough 'thinking' notes scribbled. Much of my time now is spent trying to market Blind Man, which will be available November 15th. I've a fan page on Facebook and a website Freddie Owens.com . If you go to the Fan Page click on the 'like' button to preview an excerpt from the novel.
I read poetry at various venues around Denver from time to time (and in San Francisco as well) and am planning a collection of poems to be released hopefully next year. I've been writing poetry all my life - my first love if you will. It's satisfying in a wholly different way than is prose - but that's another interview.
Thanks Mr. Cobb, for your questions.
Douglas R. Cobb: Again, thank you very much for doing this interview with me, Freddie! Your realistic, sometimes heartwarming, and sometimes humorous, novel Then Like the Blind Man, is a novel that anyone who loves reading great literature like the novels of Samuel Clemens or ones like To Kill a Mockingbird will want to add to their reading lists. I wish you much luck and success in the coming years, and I look forward to reading/reviewing more of your novels in the future!
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