I’m extremely grateful to Vick Mickunas for taking time to discuss my novel & other ephemera, and more, for creating and sustaining the Book Nook since 1994. And grateful to WYSO for being such a fabulous radio station.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jahzerah Brooks to talk about my novel, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival. We talked for hours. Jahzerah asked fabulous, insightful questions. She understood and articulated things about my novel that I hadn’t seen. She helped me understand what I had done (consciously and unconsciously) among those pages. Our conversation opened new vistas for me. Jahzerah is a brilliant, thoughtful reader and writer, and it was my great fortune to spend time with her.
And today when I read what she made of our conversation, I got teary. (The hybrid interview—part essay and part Q&A—was published at Craft Literary.) Writing this novel took me a long time, and so much of the work was done without any notice or attention. Sometimes I felt like a feral weed, reaching into one little shard of light in order to keep writing. It’s hard for me to put into words the gift Jahzerah has given me with her time, care, and gorgeous writing. I am so grateful.
I’m very grateful to the fabulous Diane Gottlieb for taking time to interview me in this life-affirming conversation about writing, mental health, trauma, bodies, and the inner critic! Please do check out the interview at WomanPause. (Thanks, Diane!)
A couple years ago, when my daughter chose an advance reading copy of Tania Unsworth’s Brightwood at the library (a prize for the reading program), I had no idea we were in for such a treat. The cover looked a bit scary, so I decided to read it to her. (You can read the Kirkus review here.) It is a little scary. It’s also a lot beautiful and interestingly complicated: a tribute to Ms. Unsworth’s belief in the capacity and imagination of the child.
My daughter and I both fell in love with the book. I wrote a fan letter to Ms. Unsworth, and she replied, which began an imaginative and generous correspondence with me as writer-mother, and my daughter as reader.
As the paperback release was approaching, I asked Ms. Unsworth if she would mind my daughter asking some interview questions, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for the blog.
Merida and I hope you enjoy the interview. And of course we recommend you buy the book!
Describe Frank’s background.
Frank is not the main character in BRIGHTWOOD, although she probably thinks she is. She arrives at Brightwood Hall when Daisy (who is the main character), is in desperate need of help. Frank isn’t a ghost, although she does appear in black and white. She’s more like an imaginary friend – a very bossy and delusional one. She’s an explorer from a different time and place, and for the whole of the book (set in an English stately home) she believes she’s actually in the Amazonian jungle, pitting her wits against a rival explorer. But she has an odd way of getting to the truth, and her advice is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. She was my favorite character to write, and even though I finished the book some time ago, I’m not certain she got the memo. It’s possible she’s still out there, having all kinds of adventures without me.
What was your inspiration for writing Brightwood?
I loved the idea of writing about someone who has never once been outside their home. Daisy doesn’t know what lies beyond the gates of Brightwood Hall, and so she’s made the beautiful old house into a whole world. A kind of magical kingdom. When Daisy’s world – and her life – is threatened, she’s forced to confront reality. I felt that situation had the potential for a powerful story.
How did you get the idea for the non-human characters?
My best ideas come out of problems. The biggest problem I had when I sat down to write the book, was how to tell the story with only two characters. There was Daisy, all alone in the house, and there was James Gritting, the mysterious relative who turns up a little way into the story. Daisy’s mother is mostly not in the action at all. It is very hard to make things happen in a story without interaction between characters, dialogue, the exchange of information, and all that good stuff. Simply describing the thoughts in one person’s head makes for very dull reading! So I knew that Daisy had to have people (or a rat!) to talk to, even if they weren’t – strictly speaking – real. She would need to have an extraordinary imagination to do that. By creating non-human characters, I solved my problem of how to move the action along, and I also gained an insight into the character of Daisy herself. Two birds with one stone!
How long have you been a writer?
I’ve always been writing, even when I was quite a little child. I got my first book published when I was about 35.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
My dad was a novelist, and my mum wrote poetry, and I grew up thinking that writing was the best way to spend your life. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, although for a long time I told myself the opposite. I was frightened of failing at it. I thought because I found it hard, that meant I was no good at it. It took me a while to realize that writing is hard whether you’re good at it or not. And being frightened of failure doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It just means you’re frightened. And you can write while frightened. You can write while frightened, and while finding it hard. So that’s what I do!
What were your favorite books when you were a child?
I liked fairy stories, and Greek and Norse mythology, and historical novels about Vikings, and the Narnia books, and stories about animals like The Call of the Wild, and anything to do with adventure. Or ponies. Also, school stories, and comics, and poetry…I guess the answer is I liked everything!
To read more about Tania Unsworth, please visit her website.
Here’s the first installment transcribed. I will post more as time allows.
This spring, I’m teaching a creative writing course, and looking at a examples of well-written fiction and nonfiction, approaching reading as painters look at brushstrokes, to understand how the thing was made. I’m assigning The Mermaids because I love it, because of its economy, and its unity of place and action. I think it’s a great text to focus on.
With regards to the actual writing itself, it was one of those books that actually got smaller and smaller and smaller. I wrote it in a week, twelve years ago, when we’d just moved house, and I didn’t have anywhere to work. And every autumn, I get the urge to write a book again, and so I sat down, and I wrote three novellas, of which The Mermaids was one. I originally spent a fortnight, I only ever work for a few hours in the morning, and I spent a fortnight writing it, and then I typed it up, which takes a very long time for me, and I put it away. And I didn’t look at it again for three or four years, because…I don’t know what happens in America, but in England, novellas, short novels, were just a no-no for publishers, and I had another book on the stocks, and I put these three novellas to one side, thinking they would make a nice trilogy eventually. With The Mermaids, I much enjoyed writing it because as you may have guessed, that kind of language over anything much longer than that length isn’t sustainable. It’s very unreal language… it’s loquacious and it’s poetic…it hovers between language of the real world, and language of dreams. The book itself is posited on the notion of the existence of mermaids, of course, and we all know they don’t exist. So you have to take out of the equation, instantly, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. You can’t depend on your reader thinking, “Oh, I believe in mermaids, so I’ll read this,” or, “I don’t believe in them, so I won’t.” The language somehow has to reflect that lack of the concrete… the language itself isn’t concrete because the facts aren’t concrete, because the reality of the situation is that it all exists inside a girl’s head. She’s fifteen, just about to be sixteen which sort of turns her into a woman in the eyes of them all, so the language is the language of thought, and dream, and fantasy, as opposed to the language of the real world. Nowhere in the book is there a suggestion of time, and place. I know where it’s set, and the timing is about the mid 1930s. There’s a very tiny reference to a major war having been fought fifteen years earlier. And the language somehow has to be as timeless as the notion of mermaids, which is why the language is as it is, which is a consequence of the book having been revised and revised and revised downward. My manuscripts are invariably twice the size of the finished product because of the way I work. I work very organically. I know this sounds a little precious but I sit down, and I write for about two hours, and I produce 6000 or 7000 or 8000 words, usually a whole chapter, in the case of The Mermaids, five or six chapters, five or six pieces rather, and then I literally leave it a year, having written for two or three months, and then go back to see what’s there. I’m not a planner. I don’t work things out, I don’t know what happens the day after and the day after and the day after. I write and write and write until I’m exhausted, and don’t want to do it anymore, and then I go back to create some kind of order out of that particular chaos, and I create the form of the book out of what I’ve written, as opposed to worrying about what’s missing or what should be there. I see what I’ve written, and then I work out how to best structure it. And so the language, I suppose, is all there in the very beginning but you need then to create the spaces in the language. And I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s the most poetic thing that I’ve written. I’ve written crime novels where the language is completely different. But I’m also a writer who’s very aware of language. I love reading well-constructed sentences. I love finding out how meaning has come into being through language. One of the important things a lot of reviewers and critics never seem to want to know about, never want to talk about, is how something was actually created. It always concerns me that there’s a kind of belief that the thing was there, and what the writer’s done is give it some kind of meaning and structure. You scream at them and say, “No, it’s all been made up! It’s all come from my head, it’s all come from my imagination!” But it’s an intangible. It’s one of the things that they don’t know. And they don’t know about fine writing. You never see in a review, “Well, this is beautifully written,” well, they’ll say it as a throw-away, it’s like calling a meal “well-cooked.” It’s very edible. Well of course it should be! And writing should be clear and simple and straightforward. It should do what the writer wants it to do, and most importantly of all, for me, the writing should reflect the nature of the story being told. And that brings us back to the idea of this being fantasy, dream… it’s a kind of vaporous language, the language in The Mermaids. It’s very suggestive, and you can disagree with practically everything that’s written about the mermaids from the girl’s perspective. The counterpoint for that, of course, are the three men who are questioning the girl. And their language, and the writing which reflects and represents them, is very very different.
I’d like to pick up on several things you said, but I’d like to start with some very heartfelt praise about what you’re talking about in the language, because I’m very concerned with sentences and phrases. You have so many watery images and words and so much, I would say, hypnosis, within the sentences, that I felt the sentences and phrases were often mimicking the movement of waves on the shore. And it just thrills me when words are so beautifully steeped in the essence of the book.
Thank you for that. Do you know something, one of the greatest things for me in writing is being able to do that. It somehow doesn’t matter that the reader doesn’t pick up on it–it’s always nice when it happens–but it doesn’t matter, because the ability to put things in is more important than the ability to take them out at the end. And I’m a great fan of something called euphony where words simply look right, the tone… I mean I’m one of these ridiculous writers. I think James Joyce used to do it. I read a sentence and instinctively I know if it’s right or wrong. And if it’s wrong, and I don’t know why it’s wrong, I work out the number of syllables, and it’s a ridiculous way of structuring a sentence, but sometimes it is simply the number of syllables in a sentence which is wrong. And it’s not something you pick up, it’s instinctive, like walking or running, you know how to do the thing you do well, but it goes wrong sometimes and if you were that good at doing it, why does it keep going wrong? And yes, you’re right, there’s an incredible amount of watery imagery in The Mermaids, and there’s a lot of reflection, there’s a lot of looking glass, there’s a lot of surface of water, there’s a lot of the tide rising and falling, just as the tide rises and falls through the little village. And there are a lot of people changing direction just as the tide comes and goes, and there are lots of people being believed and disbelieved in equal measure. And I live at the seaside, I walk my dog on the beach once or twice a day, and I know what a difference living by the sea makes. I don’t suspect you get that there.
I sure don’t! Sadly.
It’s interesting about sound–it’s such an intimate connection with words and sound and how things look and sound. I remember being at a seminar that Cathy Smith Bowers, an American poet, was giving, and she handed out this chart of vowel sounds and the feelings that we get from different vowel sounds, and I realize that I hear that and I experience it intuitively, but looking at it now, on later drafts, I can see, “Oh, I have lots of o sounds here, what’s going on with that,” and then make more of it. In The Mermaids, there is a passage on p. 41 where you have such beautiful repetition: “She herself had told no one except the photographer, and had told no one else of what she had told and shown to him–told no one that he and she had gone back to the cave together before the sea had returned and filled it again…” and the repetition of “had told” was somehow very luscious. And the vowel sounds supposedly cause, in the reader, feelings of sorrow, awe, dread, gloom, heaviness, but also of calm and soothing, so it’s an interesting and very complicated way to look at sentences but it’s a poet’s look at sentences, I guess, and I love seeing that in prose.
Most writers who’ve served their proper apprenticeship–I mean, I’ve published, God knows, 20, 22 books now–and so I daresay that intuitively, you do pick up these things without being told what you’re doing. It almost seems preposterous to tell a creative writing student that there are too many i’s or too many o’s and why do you use the word “told” four times in two sentences? Well, one answer for that is it’s like a bell being tolled, and if you’re telling someone, you’re not simply whispering or speaking or saying or remarking or answering or suggesting, telling someone is a different thing entirely. I love deciding which words work best. And I think with things like The Mermaids, it is an allegory, and most allegories depend on a very very simple language… not childlike, but a language a child would easily understand. My first instinct on writing The Mermaids was to make it so a ten-year-old could read that book. And there’s not a word in it that they wouldn’t understand. I know it has a few dark shadows in the book which children wouldn’t appreciate, and I know it’s about puberty and adolescence, which a lot of people don’t want to sort of face up to, from either side of it, so to speak, but the language of the book is–I hesitate to use the word “biblical”–but biblical language is incredibly straightforward. If somebody’s saying something, it is “I said” “he said” “I said” “he said” and I think that that’s great. People worry about this; people worry in creative writing, they say, “Oh, you’ve used ‘he said/she said/he said/she said’” and I normally say to that, “Well, if we know who’s speaking, there’s no need to tell it, but by telling who said it, you’re making another point. It’s a bit like the old cliché about Raymond Carver, “Oh, God, he overdoes it,” but he doesn’t. “What’s the weather like?” he said, “It’s raining,” she said. “Is it?” he said. “Yes,” she said. It’s the “he saids” and “she saids” in that sentence that make it the desperate little conversation it is. And I don’t know how you can tell people that that’s a good thing or the right thing or the proper way to do it, but it is. Like most writers, you do intuitively know it.
And it becomes a metronome, sort of.
It does. And part of euphony, part of words looking and sounding right is of course the rhythm. I love the rhythm of words. I love words that somehow look to be doing the job they’re doing. In a very simple way, “he said/she said” does, but then you can describe the flow of water, the flow of seaweed, the flow of air, the flow of time, the flow of a narrative, the flow of a dress, the flow of anything. You can describe words using the same one, you can describe events using the same few words. Short stories, and novels, have to have some kind of cumulative effect. The nice thing about The Mermaids, from my side, is that, with it being only eighty pages long, I can control that flow from beginning to end. I would love that book to be read in a single sitting because there will be echoes and reflections throughout it which depend upon each other. You read the first ten pages of a novel, and by the time you get to page 400, there are meant to be echoes and reflections of 400 pages ago, so you might be two or three months away from that first page, whereas with something like The Mermaids, you’re very close to the first page still. It is, in a sense, like writing a piece of music.
I love what I’ve read of Marly Youmans’ work. Her words remind me of snowdrops. I’m using her story, “The Horse Angel,” for a class I’m teaching this spring. The story is quiet, lovely, and tender without being sticky-sweet. It’s also great example of how to do tricky maneuvers well, for example, using two points of view in a short story. In the story, Youmans performs feats that new writers are often told not to attempt, but shows why rules should be broken, if broken well. I am eager to read her forthcoming novel, Winner of The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction,A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage from Mercer University Press. I’m also honored to participate in the collective interview she’s giving at several blogs, in anticipation of the novel’s release on March 30, 2012. You can order the novel from the publisher here.
As I re-read your story, “The Horse Angel,” I noticed a fascination with layers of orphandom. Of the ghost in the mirror, you write, “…Edward and I thought that he looked as though he’d mislaid something of value and couldn’t think where it might be. Or maybe it’s his family he’s mislaid. Maybe he can’t find his way back to them.” The newly widowed Elsbeth dreams of her past, of being a sort of parent orphan: “…we are young man and woman again but changed, and often I hold my lost boy in my arms.” And Mary, the younger neighbor of Elsbeth was violently orphaned when her stepfather killed her mother and then himself. Your new novel, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, centers around the journey of a young orphan Pip Tatnell. What is it that compels you to write about the orphan?
Reading that quote from “The Horse Angel,” I immediately remembered the Rachel in Moby-Dick: how Stubb thinks that the captain of the ship has lost something, perhaps his watch, only to find that it is his precious son that he has lost to the sea. Some of my favorite characters are orphans—Ishmael is an orphan, and the indomitable Jane Eyre, and that other Pip from Great Expectations, and many more. “Orphan” is a state that often produces maximum trials and also may allow maximum freedom of thought and movement; it is automatically a condition set apart, a kind of state and place where dramatic things may happen. Fairy tales and stories often kill off the parents before or at the start.
I had not considered a relationship between “The Horse Angel” and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage until you mentioned the two together. Perhaps one of your students assigned to read the story will read the book and tell me about it!
Although I am reticent about such matters and don’t care much for author talk about family or personal life (I have a distaste for the idea of misfortunes being used as a sensational marketing “hook,” though it is often done), I will say that my family suffered a death of one of its members in my childhood. Such losses shape people and do not end or go away but leave traces. The sense that something is terribly missing can be quite strong and leave a child with the sense of being orphaned from the way the world ought to be. No doubt that childhood feeling colors “The Horse Angel” and A Death from the White Camellia Orphanage as well.
Comments from writers about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage:
“A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage tells of a young boy’s travels through the black heart of Depression America and his search for light both metaphorical and real. Writing with a controlled lyrical passion, Marly Youmans has crafted the finest, and the truest period novel I’ve read in years.” –Lucius Shepard
“Marly Youmans’ new book is a vividly realized, panoramic novel of survival during The Great Depression. There is poetry in Youmans’ writing, but she also knows how to tell a riveting story.” –Ron Rash
“In A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Marly Youmans gives us a beautifully written and exceptionally satisfying novel. The book reads as if Youmans took the best parts of The Grapes of Wrath, On the Road, The Reivers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and crafted from them a tale both magical and fine. Her rich language and lovely turns of phrase invite the reader to linger. Ironically, there is at the same time a subtle pressure throughout the novel to turn the page, because Youmans has achieved that rarest of all accomplishments: she has created a flawed hero about which we care. A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is one of the best books I have read.” –Raymond L. Atkins
From the cover:
After a death at the White Camellia Orphanage, young Pip Tatnall leaves Lexsy, Georgia to become a road kid, riding the rails east, west, and north. A bright, unusual boy who is disillusioned at a young age, Pip believes that he sees guilt shining in the faces of men wherever he goes. On his picaresque journey, he sweeps through society, revealing the highest and lowest in human nature and only slowly coming to self-understanding. He searches the points of the compass for what will help, groping for a place where he can feel content, certain that he has no place where he belongs and that he rides the rails through a great darkness. His difficult path to collect enough radiance to light his way home is the road of a boy struggling to come to terms with the cruel but sometimes lovely world of Depression-era America.
On Youmans’ prior forays into the past, reviewers praised her “spellbinding force” (Bob Sumner, Orlando Sentinel), “prodigious powers of description” (Philip Gambone, New York Times), “serious artistry,” “unobtrusively beautiful language,” and “considerable power” (Fred Chappell, Raleigh News and Observer), “haunting, lyrical language and fierce intelligence” (starred review, Publishers Weekly.) Howard Bahr wrote of The Wolf Pit, “Ms. Youmans is an inspiration to every writer who must compete with himself. I had thought Catherwood unsurpassable, but Ms. Youmans has done it. Her characters are real; they live and move in the stream of Time as if they had passed only yesterday. Her lyricism breaks my heart and fills me with envy and delight. No other writer I know of can bring the past to us so musically, so truly.”