Interview with Marly Youmans

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.


More about the novel can be found at Marly Youmans’ blog.

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.”

Wanda Gág

I read Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, three times today. Several months ago, it was my toddler’s favorite book, but we haven’t read it recently. My daughter brought me the book for today’s third reading, and said “We haven’t read this book in a long time!” (This phrase, like many others she says, are echoes of things my husband and I say to her, but I still find it charming.)

The book, recommended to me by Jim Krusoe, is wonderful. A lonely old man goes out in search of a cat for his lonely old wife, finds a hill full of them, and can’t decide which is best, so brings them all home. The cats are thirsty and hungry, and subsequently devour a pond and hills full of grass on their way. Once back at the homestead, the cats start a huge rumble because each thinks it’s prettiest, and the old man and woman take cover. Once things are quiet again, only one scraggly waif remains–saved because no one bothered about it. The couple assumes all the other cats ate each other. (My husband assumes the little waif ate them all.) The old man and woman adopt the waif, bathe and feed it, and by the end of the book, it’s healthy and charming, and the couple is no longer lonely.

The illustrations are amazing.

According to the Wikipedia entry, Wanda Gág sounds like she would have been interesting to know.

“She eventually received a scholarship to study art in St. Paul. She supported her younger siblings as best she could by sending money home, but underwent great conflict over the choice between pursuing her creativity (what she called her “Myself”) or becoming a commercial artist.”

Her “Myself.” Too often, I ignore my “Myself.”

Soon, I need to find my Myself a pond to drink dry, and hills of grass to devour.