With Marly Youmans~
I am excited about discussing your poetry and writing through an email interview. After reading some of your written work, some reviews, and several blog posts, I formulated these questions for you.
- I would like to know some background information about you. What was your advanced education like over the years? When did you realize you wanted to write or what triggered you to become a writer and a poet?
My mother always says that she knew I would be a writer when I was in second grade. I expect it was fairly obvious, as I refrained from taking a single tentative step until a year-and-a-half old, though I was speaking in little paragraphs by eleven months. (I was talkative enough to coerce adults into taking me exactly where I wished, I suppose. Perhaps I could have been a director…)
You asked about education—I attended Hollins, Brown, and UNC-Chapel Hill, and later taught until receiving tenure. Poet William Harmon always says that advanced degrees for a writer are like a diamond collar on a mutt, and I tend to agree! Though I liked teaching, I quit because I found that for me, writing and teaching did not go together quite as well as I had been assured by others. I’m glad that I had the courage to give up my tenure and promotion.
Writers come from passionate readers, and as a child, I navigated the world through books, and often avoided parts of the world I didn’t so much like (math class, for example) with a book. I was the sort of child who hoards flashlights and reads under the covers, who takes books to the bathtub, who reads under her desk at school, and who reads from the end of school until bedtime.
The curious thing is how I shifted from poet to poet and fiction writer. One day, a dear friend, and colleague said to me, “What does the world need with another poem?” Though I could give an answer that satisfied me, I was stopped by that question and didn’t write a poem for a year. As a result, I started writing stories on the weekends. Stories led to bigger stories and to novels.
- In writing your book, Catherwood, how did you come up with the idea for this book, what was your writing process like during the constructing of the book, and how did you get it published?
Catherwood began when I was listening to Wanda Fish’s folk music show on Albany Public Radio. A guest mentioned that the idea for her song came from a story about her grandmother, who had lived on a farm in Vermont. One day she wandered off the farm and was lost for three months, rambling up into Canada. The idea of a woman stepping out of her daily life and vanishing appealed to me. As a mother of small children, I found the idea of that happening with a child along to be much, much larger.
I wrote the novel on the landing of the stairs at C-4 Fernleigh-over in Cooperstown, while my husband was an intern at Bassett Hospital. I had a table on the landing, and I could see my children playing in the living room below through the stair railings. I sat down to write whenever I could. My husband was quite busy, and our first two children were small, so I wrote in bits and pieces and certainly not in any hush and peace. It was often snowing…
My then-agent, Thomas F. Epley, sent the manuscript of Catherwood to Elisabeth Dyssegaard, an executive editor at Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. It arrived on a Monday and was accepted two days later, so it was a quick, easy transition from finished manuscript to accepted book. I’m still pleased with making her cry and go to check on her little son.
- The title of the book (Catherwood) is unique. I am pondering where it came from–can you give me some background information. Did this project involve intense research on your part? In addition, you captured the feeling of this period and the brutal undertakings present in this era—how did you come by these ideas and what made you interject the some of the detailed information through written letters?
I’m not sure where the name came from. I had thought of using it with another story, but this character took it for her name. In keeping with the naming ways of her time and place, Catherwood was the name of dead sisters who preceded her (though she is adopted and therefore no blood relation to them.)
Well, I kept a notebook of research materials—vocabulary and phrases and culture ways from her district in England, information on plants and fungi, architecture, trans-Atlantic travel, Westover, the Albany fur trade, metaphysical poet Edward Taylor, etc. (Nobody notices that Edward Taylor is in the book, but he is.) I felt comfortable with that period because I’ve had a long love for seventeenth-century poetry and prose.
It has been too long for me to accurately conjure why I used an epistolary mode in one part of the book… But I enjoyed playing with dialect in the letters—not too much, not too little, not too alien from our own language. Perhaps they seemed interesting to use when traditional letter writing appeared to be dying-out in our own time. In that era of migration, letters were all the people back home would ever have of your life after departure, and so they were precious. They stop when Catherwood vanishes, of course.
- What made you pick this setting and this distinct era for Catherwood? I am intrigued starting on page 28 where there is a discussion about exchanges. Then, you injected a bit of humor into the conservation between Cath and Mr. Lyte on page 29.
I did consider the time setting with a good bit of care. The original anecdote I heard about the singer’s grandmother wasn’t set all that far back in time, and it seemed not entirely believable that such a thing could happen around 1900. I wanted to push it back, but I did not want to bump into major historical events, and I did not want it to feel impossible because too close to our own century. The eighteenth century seemed out because there are so many exciting colonial and federalist events that a writer can’t ignore. The seventeenth century gave me an emptier wilderness, fit for such a story. And then I loved the period’s literature…
The conversation on the pages you mention is full of ignorance and guessing. I liked the idea, present in early descriptions of the New World, that it is a fabulous place. Sometimes the landscape appears Edenic, in keeping with the idea of a New Jerusalem—an image dear to the dissenting Christians who escaped the Old World—but just as often it appears wildly strange, and Catherwood’s imagined monkeys “with the whiskered faces of old men” are of a piece with that attitude.
- When I read a particular passage on page 76, in Catherwood, it reminded me of a similar passage in the novel The Road. The passage I am referring to involves searching for food in the woods. It is a small joy when she finds the morels. (One of my favorite mushrooms, I think hunting them is so exciting) How did you picture this scene? You captured it so well.
I haven’t read The Road, but certainly, the hunt for food is a primary need in any survival tale. I’ll probably have to skip answering about the morels, as it’s hard to think back twenty years to a long-ago book. I do remember doing research on mushrooms and eventually asking a question or two of a mycologist.
- After reading some of your poetry, I will tell you that I am very fond of The Black Flower about Iris, and The Exile’s Track. When you write poetry, do you think about structure, punctuation, rhythm, and sound as you write, or it this something that seems to flow naturally and is it automatic for you? (Sometimes, these elements only become clearer to me in the revision process.)
I’m fond of blank verse and don’t have much need to think about line length any time I’m working with a pentameter line. (If not, I probably wouldn’t have written a book-length poem like Thaliad.) Usually, I have some sense of the shape of a poem as I begin, or else it quickly resolves soon afterward. I tend to work instinctively in both poetry and fiction. With prose, that may mean that I throw away a large chunk of a manuscript—the story in Catherwood began much earlier in the original draft. I believe that cut passages leave a kind of cast shadow behind, that they’re still partially present in what is left. With poetry, it tends to mean that I wait until a poem comes to me rather than forcing one. Usually, with both, the first draft appears pretty clean and smooth, but that’s often deceptive—I change and tweak and polish later on.
With the two poems you mention, I was aware of the form they would take from the start. “The Exile’s Track” flowed out swiftly after a night walk down to Otsego Lake to see the northern lights, paler and somehow more odd than I had ever seen them. With “The Black Flower,” I knew it would be a small poem because I knew so little about Iris Chang but felt so touched by an account of her death. I let the rhymes choose where I went. I love that aspect of rhyme—that it gives a freedom beyond the mind because it sends the poet in a direction she might never have considered. My black iris was in bloom in front of the house when I wrote the poem.
- What sets you in motion to write poetry?
If I haven’t written a poem in a long time, I might try to coax one into being, but in general, I wait for a poem. Every now and then, I have a great torrent of poems. The best flood came back in 2010, I think it was, when I wrote the poems about the Fool and the Red King that are a manuscript called The Book of the Red King. When I find time to finish going over all the poems, I’ll send it out as a book. I wrote one, two, or three related poems every day for three months. It was an insane, delightful, delicious experience, and I hope it happens again. I’ve had that sort of thing occur before, but it never lasts more than a month as a rule.
So you can see that I don’t do what people tell you to do in writing books and in creative writing classes. I do not sit down every day to write. I do not have set hours. Instead, I tend to be intense and wild to write during a period when I’m working on a book. Afterward, I may lie fallow for a while. I don’t think the method matters—just the work. I don’t believe in any rules for a writer that are not simply a description of what works for the individual.
- What is your revision process like and how do you go about editing your own writing?
I read a piece over and over again until I quit (or almost quit) seeing new problems. The issues get smaller and smaller as one revises until they don’t matter. If I’ve made a major error of structure, I may attempt to correct by lopping large portions, moving sections, and adding new pieces.
The book that just came out last month, Glimmerglass, didn’t have any major re-structuring. It had a natural, not-too-complex form, as it focuses on someone who is a decent human being but who needs to wake up, to pursue life and art more closely, and be changed by that chase. She needs a larger life, as do many people. It’s a kind of transformation tale that deals with interior and exterior pursuit and aspiration, and even uses the ancient idea of the somnium as a force for revelation in one part of the novel. I’m fond of exploring ancient, out-of-use forms in both poetry and fiction.
But a novel that will come out in a year, Maze of Blood, has gone through a lot of changes. It has been accepted several times by several publishers and taken back by me several times. Recently I asked for it back from the publisher and completely re-ordered the book. While that’s a mad thing to do, it is now a better book, and I don’t quite see why I didn’t think of the improved order earlier. It’s the only novel I’ve written based on the life story of an historical figure—the pulp writer, Robert E. Howard. At some point, I realized that a chronological structure was just deadly because readers would often know “what happened,” and yet the structure might suggest to them that “what happened” is what the book conveys and considers important. Yet this book was about something different. In addition to radical re-organization, I added a new first chapter and an entirely different closure.
- You seem to be a visual person, and you write about nature. (I consider myself a visual writer that is in tune with nature) Is this how you perceive yourself and your writing, and what motivates you to write about certain subjects?
Right now, I’m at my mother’s house on a mountaintop in Cullowhee, North Carolina. The leaves of trees and shrubs are dripping with rain, and faraway mountains are rising out of a cloud. Both my parents had a love of nature, and my mother taught me the names of many native plants when I was small. I’ve always been fond of the names and lore of wildflowers. I still love to go about the woods, and this week I have gone on the Blue Ridge Parkway to see monarch butterflies, gone walnut-gathering along the Tuckaseegee River, and gone hiking up Fisher Creek and elsewhere to see the fall wildflowers.
You say that I am “a visual person,” and I suppose that is true. I find a lot of the great virtues in nature—truth, goodness, beauty, wild variation, and yielding with grace to time and change—and I have long had many friends who are painters and visual artists.
I’m not at all tempted to explore what calls me “to write about certain subjects.” The reason is that I am not one of those logical writers who decides what to write about and makes an elaborate outline and character charts. I just get carried away by what Thomas Disch called the “lyric gush” of poetry or by a narrative or a character who leaps onto stage in the little theatre of my mind.
However, I don’t have any objections to orderly, tidy writers who like to make charts and outlines and plot out the backstory. In fact, I admire them because they seldom have to chuck hundreds of wayward pages! But it doesn’t matter how a writer arrives at the finished novel. It just matters that the work be good.
- In your novel The Wolf Pit, starting on page 16 about the man and his carriage, I was pulled into your storyline by your details in this scene and your descriptions about the setting. As I continued to read on (pg. 17), I was struck with how you pick the right details to include as you describe Mr. Cobb’s appearance. From these details, I am able to picture him, and I can envision his personality and mannerisms.
How do you know what to include when you are building your characters, scenes, and images for the reader?
I’m glad you found something to like in that scene…
Again, I’m fairly instinctual in these things. I tend to be moving toward what feels like a rightness. As far as characters go, I feel that they simply appear with some degree of life of their own, and that they reveal more and more to me as I get to know them better. I have the feeling that they are complete from the start. I enjoy the lovely, magical sensation that stories or poems pour in from elsewhere.
As for settings and cultures of characters, I had the huge gift of spending time every year in childhood at a Georgia sharecropper’s shack and also in a big, ladylike Queen Anne house in a small Georgia town, and these visits taught me early on that worlds are very different, and that people are not the same in various places and times. My family moved a great deal when I was a child, and these Georgia places were continuities and touchstones in my life. Since both Georgia homes felt like places from history, I managed to travel back in time every year. One site felt practically medieval, and the other often seemed to be located in the late nineteenth century. When I have written a book set in past times, all this fluidity in moving from one era to another has been a help to me.
I am allergic to the “costume drama” sort of book, where the setting may look right, and the clothes and so on, but the characters have opinions and often political ideas imported from our own time rather than from the period of the book. This sort of mash-up of cultures grates on me as a reader. I try to stay clear of that common tendency.
Often I choose settings and times where I feel comfortable and have some knowledge. If I do research, I try not to do so much that I feel compelled to use it, as that way leads to info-dump death. My ideal is a Goldilocks “just right” of not too little and not too much. A lot of novels with historical backdrops spend too much time proving that they’re really in the correct time and proper place. That effort to convince becomes embarrassing pretty quickly. What is brushed-in needs to be light, the synecdoche that suggests a whole, the right details that imply a world
Thank you for your time!
J. E. Cook
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