Greetings, all. I recently had the great pleasure of reading Kent Sievers’s novel, LITTLE MAN. It is a contemporary thriller-mystery set in Omaha focusing on a homeless everyman, Alex, who yearns to reconnect with his daughter while avoiding the turmoil of the street and the mounting menace of a zealous killer. Kent and I are both Fiction Works authors and members of the Nebraska Writers Workshop. While our books are different in subject matter, they share connective tissue with these two organizations. They also both make use of the word “repent”, though with radically different context. And the two stories involve fathers and the bonds tying them to their lost daughters.
I recently interviewed Kent about his book and was delighted by the insights he provided:
1) Alex’s struggles with just surviving the street were as compelling as the mystery of the killer. What inspired you to write a story about a five-foot tall homeless man as the central protagonist?
To help you understand how I arrived at my decision, let me give you a little of my background. I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona in a family business located between a busy homeless shelter and a welfare housing project. From the loading docks I witnessed and often had to deal with all manner of violence, addiction and desperation that accompanies life on the street. In the early 80s I was working as a newspaper photojournalist and noticed cardboard and plastic tent cities popping up all over the old neighborhood. Whole family’s living out of their cars were adding themselves to the usual mix of street people and the results were often tragic. For weeks after finishing my late shift at the paper, I’d wade into the homeless camps with cameras in hand, earning trust, taking pictures and drinking gritty coffee boiled up in rusty, #10 cans. Long story short, the front-page story that came out of those late nights brought a flood of generosity. I saw those who were desperate to climb out of homelessness find help and those who preferred the street (don’t kid yourself, there are a lot of freeloaders out there) take advantage of the windfall and move on. Because I was comfortable navigating that often unseen world, I became the go-to guy when homeless issues surfaced wherever I was employed.
Alex was inspired by a real man who lived in a doghouse on the fringe of Omaha’s north downtown. We met while I was shooting a story on a brutal winter’s impact on Omaha’s homeless population. Now, the real Alex was far from the American dreamer/everyman I created for LITTLE MAN, but I liked the guy and I suppose the made-up Alex was my way of giving the old fellow the sort of life I wished for him.
Several years ago when I finally gave into my need to write fiction, homelessness seemed the logical starting point and Alex, who had died years before, seemed the perfect witness. To make him fit, I did a “what if,” placing a good portion of my 50+-year-old, non-college-educated self in Alex’s shoes, then let my imagination fill in the rest.
2) You deftly portrayed the wintertime city of Omaha as a “character” in your story. What went into the research of the settings of this book, both above and below ground?
Time spent navigating snowdrifts, shelters, dumpsters and soup kitchens with the real Alex played a big part in getting to know the area. Other familiarity was gleaned while on various news assignments, but a lot of the knowledge came from just stopping in to visit the places I found interesting. I’ve had readers send me pictures asking if they’d found the location of a setting in the book and I’m touched that they felt compelled to look. Some of the buildings are there, some have been demolished and other were purely made up in my head. My version of life inside the shelters and soup kitchens was an amalgamation of every shelter I’ve ever been in with a smattering of imagination thrown in.
As to the below ground settings, I love that you ask because I had a great time writing it. The underworld was a mix of imagination, a now-demolished building in the north downtown and a tour of a water-eroded cavern beneath an abandoned apartment complex in north central Omaha. I’d gone to the apartments to shoot a picture for a story on their pending demolition and ran into a shady bunch of copper scavengers who wanted to show me something “cool.” It made for an interesting picture, but I was really happy to make it out uninjured and with all my possessions intact.
3) The Michael antagonist was just plain creepy. How did you wrap your mind around writing such a disturbed person? Did you have any inspiration for his motivations or behavior?
Michael is a disturbing “what if,” born of many sources. Several years ago I shot pictures for a series that examined how the state of Nebraska deals with the issue of mentally ill children. During months of talking with professionals and families and documenting the worst and best case scenarios, I gained a better understanding of the endless complications and heartbreaking damage it can do.
Since mental illness and homelessness often go hand in hand, I wanted it to play a big part in the novel. I’d learned that some believe a trigger for schizophrenia in teenage boys may be sexual abuse by a trusted friend or family member. I have no idea if that is theory or documented fact, but it stuck in my head and resurfaced when thinking about Michael. The “what if” I built around Michael was a perfect storm of what could happen when horrific child abuse collides with greed and indifference. Trust me when I tell you that it was difficult to let my imagination wonder into those dark corners. Antagonists can be fun to write but Michael was not. I worried his sickness might be too much for some readers and struggled with balancing the need to show a profoundly disturbed man while keeping the perversion and violence from seeming gratuitous.
4) Your novel has a lot of food for thought regarding society’s tendency to sweep the vulnerable, the forgotten, and the sick under the proverbial rug. If you could put this story in the hands of a policy maker, what do you hope this person would glean from it?
As a working journalist I have to be careful not to take sides on public policy, but I think all would agree that the issue of mental illness is something that deserves constant, clear-eyed and non-political examination.
5) What haven’t I asked you that you want your readers to know?
I’d like readers to know how much appreciate their taking time to read the book. Moving from telling stories with a camera to telling stories with words was a scary leap, but once I realized the grandeur and scope the process offers it became a joyous addiction. Hopefully readers will want more, because I have a head full of characters and an imagination that has found its perfect outlet.