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

Then Like the Blind Man 7 Freddie Owens is the author of Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie’s Story, a coming-of-age novel about a boy who learns of his family’s dark secrets that has been highly rated by Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, The San Francisco Book Review, and Kindle Nation. You can purchase your copy from Amazon here.

See below for the official book trailer and book description from Amazon:

If you wanted to destroy something, why would you want to save it too?

A storm is brewing in the all-but-forgotten back country of Kentucky. And, for young Orbie Ray, the swirling heavens may just have the power to tear open his family’s darkest secrets. Nine-year-old Orbie already has his cross to bear. After the sudden death of his father, his mother Ruby has off and married his father’s co-worker and friend Victor, a slick-talking man with a snake tattoo. And, when Orbie crosses paths with the black Choctaw preacher, Moses Mashbone, he learns of a power that could expose and defeat his enemies, but can’t be used for revenge. When a storm of unusual magnitude descends Orbie stumbles on a solution to the paradox, one both magical and ordinary. Question is, will it be enough?

Freddie Owens 7Freddie is a poet and fiction writer, who has been published in Poet Lore, Crystal Clear and Cloudy, and Flying Colors Anthology. He is also a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist, with a master’s degree in contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Here is part of his official bio:

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.

Freddie was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about his writing, his inspirations, and his plans for the future. He’s also shared an excerpt for his book, Then Like the Blind Man.

S.R.: What is your background? How long have you been writing and when did you know you wanted to write a book?

F.O.: Thanks Sabrina for inviting me to do an interview.

My background? Well, let’s see. I’ve worked as a purchasing agent for many years; then as a salesman. As a kid I bombed out trying to sell magazine subscriptions door to door. I was a gas station attendant before old school became new school became old school again. I worked on the assembly line at Fords. I helped refurbish the interior brick walls of the basic oxygen furnaces at The Ford Rouge Plant in Detroit. One summer when I was eighteen I dug ditches for Bechtel Pipeline in the Allegany Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Let’s see. In the mid eighties I became a Buddhist and decided to enter a Master’s program at Naropa University to study something called Contemplative Psychotherapy, learning to work with my neurotic mind while at the same time discovering through meditation aspects of brilliant sanity – but that’s a whole other story. I became a Licensed Professional Counselor and set up private practice in Boulder. I worked with men and groups of men court ordered to counseling for domestic violence, very hard work indeed. I worked also with so-called ‘normal neurotics’ but to this day can’t say whether normalcy is a real quantity or simply a convenient myth.

All these occupations I considered adjunct to a spiritual path begun when I was 26, depressed and living alone in East Lansing, Michigan. That was 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 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’s not 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.

I started writing back there too, the 1970s, poetry mostly, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. 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 the practice of psychotherapy, I began to think again about writing, seriously this time. I had been away from it for quite some time – though I had always found a way 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.

S.R.: What inspired you to write Then Like the Blind Man? How did you come up with the story?

F.O.: Two memories served as starting points for a short story I wrote that eventually became 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. 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.

S.R.: What books, if any, influenced you while writing your book?

F.O.: Well, this is an interesting question because ‘influence’ is an interesting word. It’s akin to insinuation, nuance, tone and the real. And these were qualities I looked for in the books I read during the time I was writing 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 the writing of ‘Blind Man’ 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’.

S.R.: How long did it take to write Then Like a Blind Man? What is your writing process?

F.O.: It took about five years to get a decent first draft completed – and probably another two or three to get it in its present finished form. My writing process consisted of beginning to sit in a designated place each day (a basement room next to the furnace was my initial spot) at more or less the same time of day, usually in the afternoon, with the intention to write. My time frame was three hours, more or less (mostly more). It did not matter whether I wrote anything. Some days I spent just staring at the computer screen yet I would consider this a successfully competed writing session. I kept the discipline up and in time I think my mind began to adjust itself, began to set itself in sync with the discipline and then things began to develop.

S.R.: Did you have beta readers and/or editors?

F.O.: Oh, I had help to be sure, plenty of it. I worked with authors Judith Guest, Rebecca Hill, James Friel, and Carol Clewlow. Extensive editorial work came from Dave King. A literary agent, Ned Leavitt, in New York, impressed with the story, took it under wing for a time, helping me iron out some of the roughs. Robin Mizell, another agent, made important suggestions as well.  I was also involved with several writing groups and received valuable direction while involved. I think that for me it was crucial for my story’s development to receive feedback from folks in these groups, all of whom where writers. As a result, surprising twists and turns in the story could come into play. Nuanced shadings and tonal adjustments were also made possible.

S.R.: How and why did you decide to go the indie route instead of the traditionally published route?

F.O.: After many years of ‘almost’ and ‘no’ or ‘yes but we wouldn’t know how to market it’ from agents and publishers alike, I opted for ‘certainly’ and ‘yes’ instead, taking all my marbles to Amazon’s Independent Publisher’s Assistant, Createspace, which has become Blind Sight Publication’s home base (sort of). And that’s a one sentence answer to a very, very complicated question, to be sure.

S.R.: Are there any similarities between you and the main character, Orbie? If so, what? What advice might you give him if you met him today? 

F.O.: Yes. We both have a tendency to jump to conclusions though this is tempered by a passion for the truth. We also share an ability to describe the world in vivid sensual terms. We are wary of the motives of men. And we also love our mothers. If I met Orbie today, I’d advise him to pay attention as his story has only just begun.

S.R.: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

F.O.: I hope they take away a vivid sense of the characters and the place of the story. I hope they feel a little saddened not by the story necessarily but at the story’s coming to an end. I hope they end with a wish that the story could go on.

S.R.: What are you working on next?

F.O.: 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 gives a little taste of the sound and visuals of the book.

I want to thank you for your questions Sabrina. I enjoyed answering them – or at least trying to do so.

An excerpt from Then Like the Blind Man, by Freddie Owens

Thank you Freddie! And now a special treat – here is an excerpt from Freddie’s book, Then Like the Blind Man.

CHAPTER ONE

EVERYBODY ON EDGE

Thursday, June 6th 1959

Momma and even Victor said I’d be coming to St. Petersburg with them.  They’d been saying it for weeks.  Then Victor changed his mind.  He was my stepdaddy, Victor was.  It would be easier on everybody, he said, if I stayed with Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky.  Him and Momma had enough Florida business to take care of without on top of everything else having to take care of me too.  I was a handful, Victor said.  I kept everybody on edge.  If you asked me, the only edge everybody was kept on was Victor’s.  As far as I was concerned, him and Momma could both go to hell.  Missy too.  I was fed up trying to be good.  Saying everything was okay when it wasn’t.  Pretending I understood when I didn’t.

Momma’s car was a 1950 model.  Daddy said it was the first Ford car to come automatic.  I didn’t know what ‘automatic’ was but it sure had silver ashtrays, two of them on the back of the front seats.  They were all popped open with gum wrappers and cigarette butts and boy did they smell.

One butt fell on top a bunch of comic books I had me in a pile.  The pile leaned cockeyed against my dump truck.  Heat came up from there, little whiffs of tail pipe smoke, warm and stuffy like the insides of my tennis shoes.

It rattled too – the Ford car did.  The glove box.  The mirrors.  The windows.  The knobs on the radio.  The muffler under the floorboard.  Everything rattled.

We’d been traveling hard all day, barreling down Road 3 from Detroit to Kentucky.  Down to Harlan’s Crossroads.  I sat on the edge of the back seat, watching the fence posts zoom by.  Missy stood up next to the side window, sucking her thumb, the fingers of her other hand jammed between her legs.  She was five years old.  I was nine.

I’d seen pictures of Florida in a magazine.  It had palm trees and alligators and oranges.  It had long white beaches and pelicans that could dive-bomb the water.  Kentucky was just old lonesome farmhouses and brokeback barns.  Gravel roads and chickens in the yard.

Road 3 took us down big places like Fort Wayne and Muncie.  It took us down a whole bunch of little places too, places with funny names like Zaneville and Deputy and Speed.

Missy couldn’t read.

“Piss with care,” I said.

“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”

“No.  Piss with care, Missy.  That sign back there.  That’s what it said.”

Missy’s eyes went wide.  “It did not.  Momma’ll whip you.”

Later on we got where there was a curve in the road and another sign.  “Look Missy.  Do not piss.”

“It don’t say that.”

“Yes it does.  See.  When the road goes curvy like that you’re not supposed to pee.  But when it’s straight, it’s okay; but you have to do it careful cause that’s what the sign says.  Piss with care!”

“It don’t say that.”

“Does too.”

We crossed a big pile of water on a bridge with towers and giant ropey things looping down.  On the other side was Louisville, Kentucky.  After that was just small towns and little white stores with red gas-pumps, farm houses and big barns and fields, empty fields and fields of corn and fields where there were cows and horses and pigs and long rows of tobacco plants Momma said cigarettes was made of.

I had me a war on all the towns going down.

Tat Tat Tat Tat!  Blam!  There goes Cox Creek! 

Bombs away over Nazareth! 

Blam! Blam! Boom!  Hodgekinsville never had a chance!

“Let’s keep it down back there!” Victor said.

“A grenade rolled into Victor’s lap!” I whispered.  “BlamOOO!  Blowed him to smithereens!”

I wished Momma’d left him back there in Toledo like she said she would.  She was always threatening around like that, but then she would get to feeling sorry and forget all about it.  She’d been mad ever since Victor spilled the beans about Daddy.  Victor was mad too, drinking his beer and driving Momma’s Ford too fast.  After Louisville he started throwing his empties out the window.

I liked to watch them bust on the road.

“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.

**

It was the end of daytime and a big orangey-gold sun ball hung way off over the hills, almost touching the trees.  The Ford jerked over a ditch at the foot of a patchy burnt yard, thundering up a load of bubble noises before Victor shut it down.

“Get off me,” Missy said.

“I ain’t bothering you.”

“Yes you are.”

“But Missy, look!”

A big boned woman in a housedress had come to stand in the yard down by the well.  She was looking into the sun – orange light in her face – standing upright, sharp edged and stiff, like an electrical tower, one arm bent like a triangle, the other raised with the elbow so the hand went flat out over her eyes like a cap.  She stared out of wrinkles and scribbles and red leather cheekbones.   Her nose was sunburned, long but snubbed off at the end, sticking out above a mouth that had no lips, a crack that squirmed and changed itself from long to short and back to long again.

Missy’s eyes widened.  “Who is that?”

“Granny,” I said.  “Don’t you remember?”

I saw Granpaw too, sitting squat-legged against Granny’s little Jesus Tree.  He was turning in one big hand a piece of wood, shaving it, whittling it outward with a jackknife.  The brim of a dusty Panama shadowed his eyes.  In back of him stood the house, balanced on little piles of creek rock.  You could see jars and cans and other old junk scattered underneath.  It was the same dirty white color as before, the house was, but the sun ball had baked it orange, and now I could see at one end where somebody had started to paint.

As we got out of the car, the big boned figure in the housedress let out with a whoop, hollering, “Good God A Mighty!  If it tain’t Ruby and them younguns of hers!  Come all the way down here from Dee-troit!”  Blue-green veins bulged and tree-limbed down the length of her arms.

Victor stayed out by the Ford, the round top of my ball cap hanging out his pocket.  A gas station man had given it to me on the way down.  It was gray and had a red winged horse with the word ‘Mobilgas’ printed across the front.  Victor had swiped it away, said I shouldn’t be accepting gifts from strangers.  I should have asked him about it first.  Now it was in his back pocket, crushed against the Ford’s front fender where he leaned with an unlit cigar, rolling between his lips.  The sun was in back of him, halfway swallowed up by a distant curvy line of hilltop trees.

“Hidy Victor!” Granny called.  “Ya’ll have a good trip?”

Victor put on a smooth voice.  “Fine Mrs. Wood.  Real fine.  You can’t beat blue grass for beauty, can you?”  A long shadow stretched out on the ground in front of him.

Granny laughed.  “Ain’t been no farther than Lexington to know!”

Granpaw changed his position against the tree, leaned forward a little bit and spat a brown gob, grunting out the word ‘shit’ after he did.  He dragged the back of his knife hand sandpaper-like over the gap of his mouth.

“I want you just to looky here!” Granny said.  “If tain’t Missy-Two-Shoes and that baby doll of hers!”

Missy backed away.

“Aw, Missy now,” Momma said.  “That’s Granny.”

Missy smiled then and let Granny grab her up.  Her legs went around Granny’s waist.  She had on a pink Sunday dress with limp white bows dangling off its bottom, the back squashed and wadded like an overused hankie.

“How’s my little towhead?” Granny said.

“Good.”  Missy held out her baby doll.  “This is Mattie, Granny.  I named her after you.”

“Well ain’t you the sweetest thang!”  Granny grinned so big her wrinkles went out in circles like water does after a stone’s dropped in.  She gave Missy a wet kiss and set her down.  Then her grin flashed toward Momma.  “There’s my other little girl!”

Momma, no taller than Granny’s chin, did a little toe dance up to her, smiling all the way.  She hugged Granny and Granny in turn beat the blue and red roses on the back of Momma’s blouse.

“I just love it to death!” Granny said.  “Let me look at you!”  She held Momma away from her.  Momma wiggled her hips; slim curvy hips packed up neat in a tight black skirt.  She kissed the air in front of Granny.

Like Marilyn Monroe.  Like in the movies. 

“Jezebel!” Granny laughed.  “You always was a teaser.”

They talked about the trip to Florida, about Victor’s prospects – his good fortune, his chance – about Armstrong and the men down there and that Pink Flamingo Hotel.  They talked about Daddy too, and what a good man he’d been.

“It liked to’ve killed us all, what happened to Jessie,” Granny said.

“I know Mamaw.  If I had more time, I’d go visit him awhile.”  Momma looked out over the crossroads toward the graveyard.  I looked too but there was nothing to see now, nothing but shadows and scrubby bushes and the boney black limbs of the cottonwood trees.  I remembered what Victor’d said about the nigger man, about the crane with the full ladle.

 “I want you just to look what the cat’s drug in Mattie!” Granpaw had walked over from his place by the tree.

 “Oh Papaw!”  Momma hugged Granpaw’s rusty old neck and kissed him two or three times.

“Shoo!  Ruby you’ll get paint all over me!”

Momma laughed and rubbed at a lip mark she’d left on his jaw.

“How you been daughter?”

“All right I reckon,” Momma said.  She looked back toward Victor who was still up by the Ford.  Victor took the cigar out of his mouth.  He held it to one side, pinched between his fingers.

“How’s that car running Victor?” Granpaw called.

“Not too bad, Mr. Wood,” Victor answered, “considering the miles we’ve put on her.”

Granpaw made a bunch of little spit-spit sounds, flicking them off the end of his tongue as he did.  He hawked up another brown gob and let it fall to the ground, then he gave Victor a nod and walked over.  He walked with a limp, like somebody stepping off in a ditch, carrying the open jackknife in one hand and that thing, whatever it was he’d been working on, in the other.

Granny’s mouth got hard.  “Ruby, I did get that letter of yorn.  I done told you it were all right to leave that child.  I told you in that other letter, ‘member?”

“You sure it’s not any trouble?” Momma said.

Granny’s eyes widened.  “Trouble?  Why, tain’t no trouble a-tall.”  She looked over my way.  “I want you just to look how he’s growed!  A might on the skinny side though.”

“He’ll fill out,” Momma said.

“Why yes he will.  Come youngun.  Come say hello to your old Granny.”

“Orbie, be good now,” Momma said.

I went a little closer, but I didn’t say hello.

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

“I hope so Mamaw.  He’s been a lot of trouble over this.“

Veins, blue rivers, tree roots, flooded down Granny’s gray legs.  More even than on her arms.  And you could see white bulges and knots and little red threads wiggling out.  “I’ll bet you they’s a lot better things going on here than they is in Floridy,” she said.  “I bet you, if you had a mind to, Granpaw would show you how to milk cows and hoe tobacco.  I’ll learn you everything there is to know about chickens.  Why, you’ll be a real farm hand before long!”

“I don’t wanna be no damned farm hand,” I said.

“Boy, I’ll wear you out!” Momma said.  “See what I mean, Mamaw?”

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

The sun was on its way down.  Far to the east of it two stars trailed after a skinny slice of moon.  I could see Old Man Harlan’s Country Store across the road, closed now, but with a porch light burning by the door.

A ruckus of voices had started up by the Ford, Granpaw and Victor trying to talk at the same time.  They’d propped the Ford’s hood up with a stick and were standing out by the front.

Victor had again taken up his place, leaning back against the front fender, crushing my ball cap.  “That’s right, that’s what I said!  No good at all.”  He held the cigar shoulder level – lit now – waving it with his upraised arm one side to the other.  “The Unions are ruining this country, Mr. Wood.  Bunch of meddlesome, goddamned troublemakers.  Agitators, if you catch my drift.”  He took a pull on the cigar then blew the smoke over Granpaw’s head.

Granpaw was stout-looking but a whole head shorter than Victor.  He stood there in his coveralls, doubled up fists hanging at the end of each arm, thick as sledgehammers – one with the open jackknife, the other with that thing he’d been working on.  “Son, you got a problem?”

“The rank and file,” Victor said.  “They’re the problem!      They’ll believe anything the goddamn Union tells them.”

Granpaw leaned over and spat.  “You don’t know nothin’.”

Anything,” Victor said.

“What?”

Victor took the cigar out of his mouth and smiled.  “I don’t know anything is what you mean to say.  It’s proper grammar.”

“I know what I aim to say,” Granpaw said, “I don’t need no northern jackass a tellin’ me.”  Granpaw’s thumb squeezed against the jackknife blade.

Cut him Granpaw!  Knock that cigar out his mouth!

“Strode!”  Granny shouted.  “Come away from there!”

Momma hurried over.  “Victor, I told you.”

“I was just sharing some of my thoughts with Mr. Wood here,” Victor said.  “He took it the wrong way, that’s all.  He doesn’t understand.”

“I understand plenty, City Slicker.”  Granpaw closed the knife blade against his coveralls and backed away.

“Ain’t no need in this Strode!” Granny said.  “Victor’s come all the way down here from Dee-troit.  He’s company.  And you a man of God!”

“I’ll cut him a new asshole, he keeps on that a way,” Granpaw said.

Momma was beside herself.  “Apologize Victor.  Apologize to Papaw for talking that way.”

“For telling the truth?”

“For insulting him!”

Victor shook his head.  “You apologize.  You’re good at that.”

Over where the sun had gone down the sky had turned white-blue.  Fireflies winked around the roof of the well, around the branches of the Jesus Tree.  Victor walked around to the front of the car and slammed the hood down harder than was necessary.  “Come on Orbie!  Time to get your stuff!”

I couldn’t believe it was about to happen, even though I’d been told so many times it was going to.  I started to cry.

“Get down here!” Victor yelled.

Momma met me at the car.  She took out a hankerchief and wiped at my tears.  She looked good.   She always looked good.

“I don’t want you to go,” I said.

“Oh now,” Momma said. “Let’s not make Victor any madder than he already is, okay?”  She helped bring my things from the car.  I carried my tank and my box of army men and crayons.  Momma brought my dump truck, the toy cars, my comic books and drawing pad.  We put them all on the porch where Missy sat playing with her doll.  Momma hugged me one last time, got Missy up in her arms and headed to the car.

Victor was already behind the wheel, gunning the engine.  “Come on Ruby!  Let’s go!”

“You just hold on a minute!”  Momma put Missy in the car and turned to hug Granny.  “Bye Mamaw.”

“Goodbye Sweetness.  I hope you find what you’re looking for down there.”

“Right now I’d settle for a little peace of mind,” Momma said; then she hugged Granpaw.  “I’m real sorry about Victor Papaw.”

Granpaw nodded.  “You be careful down there in Floridy.”

“Bye Momma!  Bye Missy!”  I yelled.

Momma closed her door and Victor backed out.  I hurried down to where Granny and Granpaw were standing.  The Ford threw dust and gravels as it fishtailed up the road.

Granpaw tapped me on the shoulder.  “This one’s for you son,” he said and handed down the piece he’d been working on.  It was a little cross of blond wood about a foot high with a burnt snake draped lengthwise along its shoulders.  Granpaw moved his finger over the snake’s curvy body.  “Scorched that in there with a hot screw driver, I did.”

It was comical in a way, but strange too; I mean to make a snake there – right where Jesus was supposed to be.  Like most everything else in my life, it made no sense at all.  Momma’s Ford had disappeared over the hill.  Pale road-dust moved like a ghost into the cornfields under the half-dark sky.  It drifted back toward the skull of Granpaw’s barn, back toward the yard.  I stood there watching it all, listening as Momma’s Ford rumbled away.

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