Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Builder of Bridges

March 30th is the Launch of A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage by Marly Youmans, from Mercer University Press. It won the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction. Lucius Shepard writes:
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.

We, of course, being bloggers, get to sneak backstage and waylay the producer among the properties. I asked Marly this question:
I'm curious about origins. Did the Depression come first, imaginatively -- with the story growing up, so to speak, inside it -- or did the story come first and then locate itself in the Depression?  & was there some particular book or film that turned your mind to that time?

In some families -- mine, certainly -- the Depression lives on as a place of origin: I think that my grandmother, who died quite wealthy, never threw away a paper clip or a rubber band in all her life: she never stopped storing things up in case the bad times came again. Did your family have "Depression legends"? Did they inform this novel?

And got this wonderful answer:
Dale, my mother remembers her family saving jars, paper bags, string, and so on.  They lost much hard-earned Georgia property during the Depression and had good reason to be saving.

Unlike most of my work, this novel is seeded deep in family story—not because I knew all my stories well, but because I did not know all of them well and longed to know certain ones better.  Large portions of my paternal family history remained a blur to me, despite my questions.

It’s possible to see how what I did not know about my father and his family triggered a story. My father’s childhood as a sharecropper’s son was what we would now call harsh, although he never called it so. Life in the deep South was not pretty for his parents, born three decades after the Civil War, and he was born in 1926, before the hard times of the 1930’s. He was pulled around in a box till the age of four, perhaps because he had some light cerebral palsy—later on he developed a number of neurological problems. But by the time he was seven, he was plowing on a cut-down plow. As a teenager, he ran away from home several times and rode the rails. Once he was discovered in Florida, a good distance from his home, 90 miles west of Savannah. At 17, he joined the Army Air Corps and fought in World War II as a tailgunner, and the miracle of the G.I. bill allowed him to attend college and graduate school and become a professor of analytic chemistry.

But from my father’s teenage years, all I knew was fragments.  His times as a runaway and as a teenage tailgunner were mysterious to me. I believe it is often not so much the fragments but the spaces between the fragments that lure a writer. We want to cross a gap, join one land mass to another. It can’t literally be done. But the gaps can inspire a new story and a new wholeness.

While Pip is not based on my father or any member of my paternal family, his life shares many family facts. The family house at Lexsy (the farm with the outbuildings and well, the four-room house with porch and giant hedge) is the blueprint for the Orphanage, and Pip’s rural life of labor and school is not much different from the life of any sharecropper’s child of the time. He does resemble my father in intelligence and his dash of neurological trouble. Like my grandfather when he was a boy, Pip chooses as his favorite sibling not one of his legitimate brothers and sisters but one of two illegitimate and mixed-race half-siblings brought up in the family after the death of their mother. In this way, like my great-grandfather, Pip’s father appears to be a builder of bridges, both real and metaphorical.

More about the book at Marly's place. I'm so looking forward to it!


Robbi N. said...

I agree that mysteries make humans, and particularly writers, want to fill in what is missing.

Elsa Louise said...

Sounds quite Faulkneresque, both the novel and your own family background, Marly.

I, too, really like that idea of filling in those parts of our lives that remain couched in mystery. Witness all the activity generated by those seeking answers on, e.g., Ancestry(dot)com.

Ah, and the wanderlust of catching a ride on a freight train. While it may seem alluring, at least to certain men folk, it was (and remains) more harrowing than romantic in reality.

Thank you for sharing.

Kathleen said...

What a thrill this is! Goes on the wish list!

marly youmans said...

Hi passers-by and commenters alike--

Should say to Elsa Louise that my father had a great dislike for Faulkner and felt he had maligned the deep South. Interesting, isn't it?

Also, that there are indeed some quite harrowing rides in the book.

And Kathleen, thanks for popping me on your wish list.

Dale, thanks again to you. I thought what Rachel-on-facebook said about historians being drawn to "fill holes" was interesting. As Elsa Louise points out, everybody is drawn to missing pieces. I was thinking about Tolkien and his study of philology, how fragmentary bits of text referring to dwarves and elves generated material for him.

Dale said...

Tolkien describes in one of his letters I think, coming across a fragmentary parchment, the only scrap of some vanished Germanic language -- East Gothic, or something like that. A list of kings' names, all vanished, nothing known of them but the list itself -- and being transfixed, tantalized, by it.

marly youmans said...


Think I dimly recall that and can certainly picture it--and then there is the list of dwarves (though it includes a Gandalf name, which is an elf-like name) from Snorri Sturluson that meant so much to him and furnished dwarf-names for "The Hobbit." You wonder if he was likewise bowled over...

He certainly thought that via philology--via mere scraps of words--one could feel one's way back to ideas and beliefs long since vanished. Tom Shippey talks at length about how Tolkien was lured by literary gaps, errors, and contradictions in ancient texts and how very unusual that was.