Owen Essen — JohnFox Interview

Owen Essen lounges in an old leather chair.

TheJohnFox.com: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Owen Essen: The most recent literary pilgrimage I went on was to Cuba. I’ve been a big Hemingway fan since I was in high school. He’s a writer I look up to very much, so it was incredible to be there and get to visit his home, which is still exactly as it was when he left it, to visit the dock where Pilar tied up, the setting of The Old Man and the Sea. I got to drink mojitos at the hotel Ambos Mundo where he started writing For Whom the Bells Toll, and then do more drinking at La Floridita where Papa helped invent the modern daiquiri. It was a strangely powerful experience.  

TJF: Does writing energize or exhaust you?

OE: It depends. When it goes well, when it flows and feels real, it’s energizing. It feels amazing. When it feels forced, or you can’t get past something, it’s very exhausting. Often times it’s also fairly cathartic. Especially when it’s something emotion. It might be really intense while you’re writing it, but afterwards you kind of feel better.

TJF: What are common traps for aspiring writers?

OE: I would say getting too caught up in rules and formulas. I studied film and television at The Savannah College of Art and Design for a couple of years and I took a lot of screenwriting classes there. I learned some useful stuff, but I also felt there was a risk of getting so caught up in story theory that you forget to say anything original, or else the original thing you’re trying to say gets diluted because you’re trying to make it conform to someone else’s rules. I think story theory can be a useful thing to be aware of, but it’s also important to just be raw sometimes, to just write what you feel and what you dream rather than forcing yourself to be too analytical about it. I meet these young people that’ve spent years in school getting one creative writing or screenwriting degree after another, and you read their stuff and it’s technically perfect but it’s kind of boring and doesn’t feel all that sincere. I feel like they’d be better off taking the money they spent on that masters degree and using it to travel around the world for a year or two.


Owen Essen standing beside a small airplane.
Owen learning to fly a plane. Photo by John Foley.


TJF: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

OE: It’s a balancing act. You have to have some amount of confidence to put yourself out there and after you’re out there to convince other people that you matter. But you have to be able to learn from other people as well. I always try to be hyper-confident about where I’m going, but be humble about where I am at any given time.

TJF: What is your writing Kryptonite?

OE: I hate having music on when I’m writing. I’m pretty anal about that. Music is a powerful thing and it really can transport you. But you can’t always control where it transports you emotionally. When I write, I try to really get inside the world of the story, inside the mind and soul of the character. Unless you’re specifically cultivating a playlist for that particular scene, it’s very unlikely that the subtles of the music are going to match exactly the subtleties of the scene you’re writing, so I feel the music therefore tends to hinder your ability to get to the soul of what you’re writing. So I never write with any music on whatsoever.

TJF: Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

OE: I’m not sure what that is, but I’ve definitely read some stuff that was hard to get through. Russian realism can be killer!

TJF: Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

OE: I’ve thought about it. The anonymity could be liberating. Especially if I ever ended up writing a saucy erotic novel or something like that.

TJF: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

OE: I try to tell stories that draw from my life or from the lives of people I’ve known, and in doing that I like to think my work is original in some way. At the same time, I don’t shy away from archetypes, because I think they have a certain amount of power. Often times when there’s something we as humans or we as society respond to, we respond to it for a reason, usually because it’s important to us in some way. Now, if I can give an original twist to something primal and archetypal, I think that’s great.


Owen Essen stands beside Hemingway's yacht.
Owen stands beside Pilar, the famous yacht of Ernest Hemingway. Taken in Cuba by Jeff Essen.


TJF: Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

OE: Writing is a versatile art form and different people bring different things to the table, so I won’t rule it out. Maybe you’re funny. Maybe you have some cynical insightfulness as a cold hearted rock. But I don’t think people should try to write something they don’t feel. It’s insincere and dishonest.

TJF: Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

OE: I’ve only finished one book at the moment, therefore so far they’re all stand alone. In the future, though, I like the idea of having different stories intersect. As I wrote Three Eyed Man, I was definitely planning how certain characters would come back in the future. My expectation is that most books could be read on their own. There is no particular order. But as you read more of my stuff, you may begin to pick up on the complicated web that holds it all together.

TJF: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

OE: As far as per penny value goes, my notebooks. I get them for eighty eight cents a peice and I carry them with me everywhere. I have piles of them in my room. I’m an obsessive scribbler.

TJF: How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

OE: I think a lot of readers like to be challenged, so those things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I never try to be jarring unless there’s a specific reason to be jarring in the context of the story. I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller. Writing is the medium, and I use it in whatever way I feel best serves the story and best creates the experience I’m envisioning. I don’t try to make it difficult for difficulties sake, but if something difficult is necessarily to best serve the story, and it often is, then I’ll go for it.   

TJF: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

OE: A lot! As I mentioned, I’m a constant scribbler, so I have lots of stories somewhere between concept and completion.

TJF: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

OE: An owl. They’re great thinkers and great observers and they aren’t afraid to go to dark places. Plus there’s an owl on the Essen family crest!

TJF: What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

OE: I’ve never told anyone that I based a character on them. If anyone’s figured it out, they didn’t ask me about it. Obviously they’ve all been significant to me in someway. Sometimes they were big pieces of my life, sometimes they were fleeting encounters or friends of friends that just made a big impression on me for some reason. There’s a part of me that would really like to tell people that I based a character on them, because I hope that it would be touching or exciting to them in someway. Sometimes I feel like I have an easier time articulating what certain people have meant to me by writing about them under the guise of a work of fiction as opposed to saying it to their faces. That’s another reason part of me wishes they knew. But on the other hand, characters tend to be flawed. I don’t want to go into writing a character feeling like the person it’s based on is looking over my shoulder, or will be. I want to be able to have flawed characters and be able to speculate on what they’re secretly thinking without worrying about offending one of my friends. I don’t feel I owe them something for writing about them so much as I wrote about them because I owed them something. Or, more accurately, I wrote about them because they meant something to me.  


Owen Essen lounges in an old leather chair.
Owen Essen at his family’s home in central North Carolina. Photo by Bett Wilson-Foley.