Note: Below is a reposting of the feature I wrote for Northfield.org on the new novel A Wretched Man by Northfield writer R.W. "Obie" Holmen.
Northfield writer R.W. “Obie” Holmen’s newly-published novel, A Wretched Man, begins with a vivid evocation of the landscape of the ancient Middle East. Readers are often surprised to learn that Holmen has never visited the Holy Land, and that the landscape he so brilliantly evokes is the creation of the writer’s imagination, assisted by some meticulous research.
Holmen began working on his novel almost four years ago. He was interested in writing a historical novel about the Apostle Paul, a complex and controversial figure who, in Holmen’s view, was responsible for much of the development of early Christianity. Holmen spent three years researching the novel, working to get the history, the characters, and the setting “as realistic as possible.” At the same time, he worked at “honing the craft of being a storyteller.” Holmen, a former trial lawyer with a B.A. in history, had to learn how to write fiction.
As a novice fiction writer, Holmen found the classes and community at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis invaluable for helping him learn the craft of fiction. Taking classes at the Loft was, Holmen says, “a first-rate experience.” The Loft also brought him into contact with the writer Kate St. Vincent Vogl (author of Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers), who worked with Holman as an editor and writing coach. Vogl read Holmen’s draft and came back with “notes on virtually every page” that helped him “color between the lines” and add to the depth of his characterizations.
A draft of the novel was completed in the fall of 2008. Holmen worked with Vogl in the first months of 2009, and in May 2009 was ready to beginning working with Bascomb Hill Publishing Group, a small publisher in Minneapolis.
The past year has been spent producing and marketing the book, something that’s entirely different from the creative process of writing, but which Holmen still finds exciting. Now that the book is in print and available in bookstores and online, Holmen has a pair readings and booksignings scheduled in Northfield—at Monkey See, Monkey Read on Tuesday, April 20 at 7:30 pm, and at the Northfield Public Library on Saturday, May 15 at 1:00 p.m. He’ll also be Paula Granquist’s guest on ArtZany, her arts program on KYMN radio (1080 AM), on Friday, April 16, at 9:00 a.m.
The early reviews of the novel have been excellent. Barrie Wilson, a theologian at York University in Toronto, says Holmen's novel "opens up the reality of the world of Paul and his contemporaries in a way no other work does." Rev. Jeffrey Bütz, a theologian at Penn State, calls the book “a stunning fictional account of the early church that reads like real life.” He calls it “a story that will both shock and inspire any Christian who is truly searching to find and follow the historical Jesus.”
But Holmen insists that his novel is “historical fiction, not Christian fiction.”
At the center of the novel in Paulos, the Apostle Paul, and his struggle against James, the brother of Jesus, to define the message of Christianity. It was Paul, Holmen says, who insisted upon the divinity of Christ, and who began to shape many of the “rituals, symbols, and myths” of Christianity. Holmen is also interested in understanding what lay behind Paul’s attitude toward homosexuality, since Paul’s writings has historically provided much of the Biblical support for “gay bashing.” Holmen’s conclusions are compelling and controversial.
Obie Holmen grew up in Upsala, Minnesota, attended Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota, served in Vietnam, and worked as an attorney in St. Cloud for twenty years before his retirement in 1999. He and his wife recently moved to Northfield, attracted by the community’s rich intellectual and cultural life. Obie remains active in the Lutheran church, and writes a regular blog, Spirit of a Liberal, that explores religious issues from a progressive standpoint.
R.W. Holmen’s A Wretched Man is available locally at Monkey See, Monkey Read, the St. Olaf Bookstore, and the Carleton Bookstore. Holmen will be reading and signing books at Monkey See, Monkey Read on Tuesday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m., and at the Northfield Public Library on Saturday, May 15, at 1:00 p.m. You can view a "trailer" for the novel here.