An Inside Look with Tony Abbott
(Author of The Summer of Owen Todd)
*This was a new feature I added to the blog during the summer of 2016. It was a shot in the dark that it would work, but much to my surprise; it took off and over first season I conducted 22 interviews with a variety of authors.
*It has been such an honor to connect with authors and "chat" about their novel, characters, and thoughts about the story.
*I ran a series of interviews for Season #TWO over the summer of 2017. It was great to get back to these conversations, that I decided to run Season #THREE during the 2017/2018 school year.
*Thank you to Tony Abbott for being the SIXTH author of the third season. I truly appreciate it.
*Here are links to the first THIRTY-EIGHT interviews…
*I was fortunate enough to receive and ARC of this novel. I had heard some amazing things about the story. When I got the book, I began reading and couldn't stop until I finished. The story was one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching ones I've ever experienced.
*Tony Abbott was kind, gracious, and giving with his answers to the questions. It is an honor to post huis responses with my "Inside Look" feature.
*Here is a link to my review of The Summer of Owen Todd
by Tony Abbott (Released October 17, 2017)
How Did You Come to Know Owen?
First of all, I love how the interview questions concern the story from the inside, assuming that a “character” is as real as the rest of us—this is certainly how I view the people who emerge in this and other novels I’ve written. As I’ve described elsewhere, the basic story of a boy who is abused came from a friend of my wife. Coming from outside is new for me, but almost immediately—and other writers will probably say the same—I began to hear the people in the drama; hear and see them, as if watching them on a screen, and soon afterward to feel what they are feeling. In the case of Owen, I see his face as a little downturned, with a frown or a squint, maybe because of the sunlight, but not only because of it. He is thinking, considering something. He retained that image throughout the story. Not to sound too deep-dish about it, but I think writers lean in to look and listen when such images occur to them.
What do you think is Owen's most admirable quality?
Owen respects his parents, loves them, and deeply loves his sister and his grandmother. That love shows he comes from a very good place to begin with. Owen likes Sean a great deal, feels protective of him, probably, but hasn’t really needed to go outside his comfort zone in their relationship yet. They do a lot together, but Owen has his own things, too, and he’s protective of them, as well. What happens over the summer in this book presents Owen with an extraordinary situation. A dilemma that few boys his age, or any age, have to deal with. I think, after all the arguing with himself that he does, and wanting to dodge the problem, Owen finds in himself—because of his ability to love—the strength to act. That’s a value he’ll now always have.
Is there anything you wish Owen would have changed or done differently in his story?
He does take his time acting, doesn’t he? He’s Hamlet here, hoping to reason away the terrible thing staring him in the face. But it’s also something about which he has no education. No one tells boys to watch out for older men, not in the way they need to be educated, so he is hampered in his ability to see the way forward for himself and Sean. Owen’s delay probably couldn’t be helped. He’s not a superhero, just a boy. So I guess, for there to be a story at all, Owen had to take his time. I love Owen, and I feel bad for him and for his confusion and self-punishment.
What do you think Owen can offer to other children that are experiencing similar situations to what he went through?
Well, it dovetails off of that last question: Because they see Owen casting around for any way for his friend’s problem to simply fade away—all the while Sean is being hurt more and more—readers may not have to. Owen in a way is the sacrifice, isn’t he? It’s that question of educating children. If a reader sees the drama of Owen and Sean, he or she may act sooner. Certainly, of the children who come to know these two boys, most will understand Owen’s situation better than Sean’s. Lord, I hope they do. Owen could very well be one of their friends. Everybody knows an Owen. Empathizing with him is almost a given, I think. In itself, that may be what he offers them. A person just like them in a bad situation.
How did you research Owen and the circumstances he found himself in?
There are different kinds of research. One is the sort where you talk to people and read and travel, and I have done that quite a bit over the years and for this book, too. But what appeals to me, what makes any sense to me, is the person in the story. You can’t really install themes and motives in books, certainly not in books for children, and what appeals to me about writing for children is the life of the child I’m writing about. If I can create (wrong word) a living being, I have done what I set out to do. Regarding Sean’s situation of being molested by an adult man, yes, there are books, at least one horrific one, and other sources to consult. You read them and you extract what you understand the characters may need, but I find it true time and again that if your character is a real person, you have already invested him or her with all attributes of character that are noted in research. If that makes sense.
Do you and Owen share any similarities?
It’s probably a common thread in my work to look at people, mostly boys, at a certain moment of crisis when all that’s happened to them comes to a point: a question is asked, and answering it is the crux of the story. Things are different after the question has been answered—or begins to be answered. I love that moment. In writing. I tend to shy away from real moments of confrontation, and I think Owen shares this with me. He loves deeply without being able to say it with any eloquence. He is a stumbler in many things. He loves go-karts. Oh, yes.
What was the hardest scene to write about Owen?
Something happened in the writing of this book that hasn’t happened before or since, which is that I could only work on it for a couple of hours at at time before it got too much. The tension and the pain of the story wore on me after only a few pages and I had to walk away. Get up from the desk. Walk around. Do something else. I didn’t want to get too far away, I didn’t want the thread to break, but I was exhausted as I am not normally. When the scenes are very tough, like Sean and Owen on the porch in the rain, I knew what I wanted from that scene, and I knew I could do it, but even a page worth’s of dialogue would take more out of me. This was new for me. I was in Owen’s head, and it’s the fatigue of what he was dealing with that made it hard to go on.
Who do you think was Owen's biggest supporter and why?
That prize would go to his grandmother, with his little sister a close second. His parents are supportive, of course, as mine were of me, my mother especially, but I find age and experience are often more helpful to a child because they come from a little farther away. The same with Ginny. She shouldn’t be able because of her age to help much, and she doesn’t at all get what has happened to Sean, but she is there for Owen always. AND she will be there for Owen to protect and love his whole life. After his grandmother passes away and Sean leaves town, that bond between Owen and Ginny is forever.
How do you think children, like Owen, process and understand such evils in the world, like what look place in the story?
I think most children know that really bad things exist; they can’t help but be aware of darkness, even if it’s vague and distant. They may not know of body counts or home invasions or ugly things of that sort, but children are fearful and confused from early on. They don’t want evil anywhere near them, and for the most part it doesn’t come close. The problem with what happened to Sean is that it was dressed in respectability and familiarity. A child has few defenses against evil that slides into the family so easily. It’s subtle and it has studied to be, to fool and charm before striking. My hope is that readers finding Owen and Sean’s story will become more aware of the trembling vibrations around them, the moods and undercurrents among the people they meet that are often overlooked. An aware child may have lost some innocence, but they may be less open to victimization. They may go to their parents and teachers, trusted adults, and speak at the first sign of something “off.” They can stand up for what they can, but in any case, they can talk about it. If we abandon the idea that for children this world is a sort of Disneyland and be more sober about it, children will benefit. You know, they talk about transparency in politics (ha!) and in the church and in banking and so forth, I think there has to be transparency to children, too. We have to tell them the truth and deny nothing.
What do you think Owen is doing as this present time?
Oh, well, the kart track is open and will remain open until roughly Thanksgiving, so he is probably there. If it’s a summer without Sean, as most (but maybe not all) summers will be from now on, he’ll be thinking about what Sean is doing now; he’s never far from thinking about that. Maybe he and Ginny are doing something together—outdoor theater, a ball game, buying school supplies. Maybe Owen and his dad are showing Ginny how to drive a kart. Maybe they’re at the beach in Wellfleet. He’s out there, I know that. My wife and I are going to the Cape in September; maybe we’ll see him at the Chatham Squire, eating fish and chips. I’ll wave.