Photography: Kevin Syms
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Judith Freeman prefers to think of herself as a writer of landscapes. Her novels can be so rich in descriptive passages that the characters inhabiting or passing though them often seem secondary to place and setting. The view to the north from her 1940s vintage farmhouse on the Camas Prairie is of gently rising ground, beckoning low hills and aspen-filled draws at the southern edge of the Smoky Mountains. Freeman often saddles her horse and rides off into these hills, just because (I think) they hold possibilities, and a person of imagination seldom denies such invitations.
Being born and raised in a large Mormon family in Ogden, Utah, marrying at 17, and becoming a mother at 18 was not exactly a career blueprint for the successful novelist Judith Freeman is today. Or perhaps, actually, it was, since much of her writing still touches on family and religion, things she now believes she married so young to escape.
The mid-70s found her in Sun Valley, where her first job was as night clerk at the Lodge (wasn’t everyone’s?). Subsequently Freeman taught alpine skiing, and worked as a dude wrangler for Sun Valley Stables. Somehow, she knew she would be a writer. Her first sojourn into print was as a stringer for The Idaho Statesman—“Low pay and relatively uneventful stuff, but hey! I was being published.”
Next a move to L. A., where she began writing reviews for the Herald Examiner, now defunct (not, I’m sure, due to Freeman’s contributions). During that time she made an attempt at a first novel, then left the manuscript in a closet for many years out of fear of showing it to publishers. After an editor accepted a book of short stories and wondered if she had a novel in her, out came the manuscript. With everything tossed but the main character and the first chapter, the rewrite became Chinchilla Farm, her breakthrough novel.
Reading Freeman’s first memorable read as a young girl was Alone, Admiral Richard Byrd’s account of being physically and mentally isolated in the landscape of the South Pole. Beyond that, she has little memory of books in high school. It was after her husband took a job as a counselor at McCallister College in the Midwest (she was a house mother, often younger than her charges) that Freeman’s horizons expanded and her reading life began: “A joy,” she says, “that has not abated since that time.”
Favorite Book After Chinchilla Farm was published in 1989, Freeman began contributing single reviews for the Los Angeles Times, eventually becoming a regular reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Reading as many as two books a week, mostly contemporary fiction, taught her “how much bad writing makes it into print.”
Now, four novels and one book of short stories later, Freeman’s drive to write remains strong. She claims to have no favorite book, but if she did it would be by Cormac McCarthy, who writes astonishing books, about—as you can perhaps guess—“landscapes.” >>>