“Axe-grinding and message spoil what you make”: An interview with Marly Youmans

“We have a convention that calls some stories realistic,” says the novelist and poet, “but even the most mundane stories reach toward the fabulous, striving to make what human beings cannot make, a world populated by living beings.”

Marly Youmans (Photo: Rebecca Beatrice Miller, August 2013)

Novelist, poet, and story-teller extraordinaire Marly Youmans, author of fifteen books, has been described as “the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers” and “a novelist and poet out of sync with the times but in tune with the ages” by John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, and a writer whose “grasp of technique in poetry and fiction stunning, and her imagination boundless” by novelist and poet Philip Lee Williams.

Her most recent novel, Charis in the World of Wonders: A Novel Set in Puritan New England, published earlier this year by Ignatius Press, was called “2020’s Best-kept Literary Secret” by poet and critic Jane Greer in her CWR review of the novel, stating the story is “broad and deep, sweet and savage, funny and terrifying, and just plain grand.”

Youmans recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about her work overall, her latest novel, and her advice to aspiring writers.

CWR: When and how did you realize that you wanted to pursue a creative, writing life? Who and what were some of your formative influences?

Youmans: Probably I was doomed to be a person who makes things out of words from the start, as I was an odd baby who talked in paragraphs well before her first year was over but who absolutely refused to take even a first tentative step until around eighteen months. And I can’t say that I ever “realized” in the sense you mean, although my mother says that she knew when I was in second grade that I would be a writer. (So that would have been age 6 and 7. I once said third grade and she was indignant!) I expect that I was just in deep and paddling before I knew what was happening.

Many writers sprout from obsessive readers, and I was certainly that. Children did not have so many possessions when I was little, and I can remember clearly being given a slipcase with the two Alice books when I was 4 or 5 by Mr. and Mrs. Ellis G. Porter in Baton Rouge—alas, I cannot remember the wife’s name. She worked at the State Library of Louisiana with my mother, and the Porters presented me with the wondrous books that bent my mind for years to come and then promptly let me watch a horror movie set in a hospital with skeletons that came to rickety life. That also bent my mind for years, particularly the scene in which a skeleton pushes a baby-occupied carriage over a cliff. I recall owning fairy tale collections (The Fairy Tale Book illustrated by Segur, a hand-me-down set of the My Book House books, and a few more) and some good anthologies of fiction and poetry, including a copy of Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasure of Poetry that I wore to bits. I also owned some flora-and-fauna nonfiction.

My mother was a librarian, my father a professor of analytical chemistry, and books were always streaming in and out of the house. And my mother was careful about what I read. Dickens! George MacDonald! Classics! No comic books! Roaming the stacks was a great pleasure for me, and I often stumbled on books that became favorites, like Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago. In high school, I had the daily run of Hunter Library at Western Carolina University (Cullowhee, North Carolina), where my mother was head of serials. I had a multitude of reading jags and passions—Jarrell, Dickens, Plath, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Cherokee mythology, native American poetry, Chinese poetry, Yeats, Frost, Faulkner, etc. (I remember my father disliking Faulkner. A sharecropper’s child in south Georgia during the Depression, he thought Faulkner got the story of poor whites wrong. One of my genealogy-obsessed relatives tells me that I’m some sort of cousin to Faulkner—luckily, it’s through my maternal line.)

CWR: Several of your novels and poems are historical, set in the Civil War era or, as with Charis in the World of Wonders, among the Puritans. What draws you to particular historical eras or cultures?

Youmans: Though I never planned to write books set in the past, I’ve followed stories where they led, into the seventeenth century (though those two are planted in different times and hold characters from different migration streams), into the nineteenth century, and into the Depression years. Those are places (time being a peculiar sort of place) where I feel comfortable—the older times because of readings in literature and documents, and the Depression because it’s not so far a reach for me. Since I spent time every childhood year on a tenant sharecropper’s farm in Georgia, it was easy for me to conjure the house and farm at the start of A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer University Press, 2012.)

The three books set deeper in the past had very different seeds. With Catherwood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), I heard an anecdote about a singer-songwriter’s grandmother becoming lost on the edge of her farm in Vermont and wandering off, lost for six months. The idea seemed much more believable and more risky when pushed back farther into time and into a less inhabited landscape. That book came early in my move from poetry to fiction, and a good portion of Catherwood arrived in dreams.

The Wolf Pit (FSG, 2001) began because one of my children was obsessed with military history, particularly the Civil War, and he wanted to know why my family history lay on the Confederate side. By second grade, he was the sort of child who would narrate battles, ask to attend re-enactments, and keep notebooks of an imaginary world with its own histories and battles. His fascination with the Civil War must have been contagious.

Though I have referred jokingly to Charis in the World of Wonders as a Southerner’s attempt to understand where Yankees come from, I think the novel is one of those “distant mirror” stories revealing both peculiar bonds to our day and transformations over time. I like H. S. Cross’s comment on the novel as presenting “the collective madness of witch trials as one of many destructive forces in the world—on a level with Indian massacres, concussions, and drowning. As such, the hysteria seems less alien, our modern complacencies less sure, leaving behind the uneasy suspicion that we may be as prone to collective madness as they are, and as blind to it, lulled by the tools we vainly depend upon, just as they depend on their brimstone preaching, to save us from destruction.”

While I tend to be lured by dreams, words, and images more than by ideas when I begin a story, I meant from the start to show the way that the seventeenth-century godly (as those we call Puritans called themselves) thought about female heroism, so different from the qualities attributed to the stronger-than-men wonder women and “Mary Sue” characters who populate our recent blockbuster movies.

CWR: And how do you go about researching and immersing yourself in those worlds? Specifically, what has been your approach to language and idiom when it comes, say, to writing the dialogue for a Puritan character?

Youmans: Here I suppose that I should confess that my focus areas in grad school were American literature to 1900 and the English Renaissance. While I chose to leave academia after tenure, I have found a solid, old-fashioned, and historical base to be useful. Certainly I read a lot of material that I probably never would have read otherwise, and I had the good luck to study before theory began to transform English departments.

Take Charis in the World of Wonders as an example; I had a decent grounding in the literature and documents, and looked back over some of them. As an alternate Fellow, I also spent nine days at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts—a gift for which I thank them—looking up minutiae of Boston laws, regulations, town offices, modes of address, goldsmith’s contracts, cookbooks, early histories of Haverhill and Andover (now North Andover), letters, etc. I considered regional words connected to the English regions from which the godly migrated. My favorite source was a fascinating two-volume set from the Reverend Robert Forby (1759-1825), The Vocabulary of East Anglia : an attempt to record the vulgar tongue of the twin sister counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, as it Existed in the Last Twenty Years of the Eighteenth Century, and Still Exists: with Proof of Its Antiquity from Etymology and Authority. Many lost words can be fully understood in context, and are enlivening and wonderfully strange: nabbity, niffle-naffle, naughty-pack.

We have a convention that calls some stories realistic, but even the most mundane stories reach toward the fabulous, striving to make what human beings cannot make, a world populated by living beings. All our created sub-worlds depend on a sort of sleight-of-hand belonging to the mind and spirit. Out of a mixture of early American works and lost words and my own dreaming may rise something that does not sound like, say, a Samuel Sewall or an Elizabeth Saltonstall, but is flavored by many voices and many readings. And if I am bold and clever enough at making, my story may hope to capture some of the energies of life.

CWR: As Jane Greer notes in her recent CWR review, there is a lot of bad Christian fiction. But isn’t it true that there’s just a lot of bad fiction, period?

Youmans: What a wondrous review that was! I thank her.

The sea of words has little minnows and parasites and angelfish and great big sperm whales. That’s how it is in every age, surely. (Whether I’m talking about writers as fish or books as fish, it’s the same!)

While I may love and reread or else reject certain books along the way, I leave it to the sieve of time to net and judge the whole. I don’t worry about such things but simply follow the dream-line of what I am making.

CWR: And what are the main flaws and failings of so much fiction today?

Youmans: The current output is so vast that I can’t pretend to be some sort of long-bearded sage and pontificate about the state of fiction. I suppose that the largest threats to the free mind of a maker in our current moment include politically-correct ideas that seek to constrain the writer and cancel the mind’s liberty, as well as to shape academia and publishing. The temptation to peddle message appears strong, and message is a sword that slays story.

CWR: What are you currently working on?

Youmans: Right now I’m writing poems because I have a lot of family responsibilities that need attention. I’m just back from a month in North Carolina with my mother and will be helping several of my children pack up and move from New York this month. So there’s no swath of time for a novel at the moment.

CWR: What advice do you have for young or aspiring novelists and poets?

Youmans: Who am I to be handing out little flowers of advice? Forewarning is not much help. Yet here I am, a Cassandra strewing the blossoms of would-be help, much of it opposed to current ideologies:

• Remember that culture has always been a marvelous Silk Road populated by traders who swap influences.

• Don’t let anything deprive you of knowing the major writers who came before you, whatever their gender or color. They are your forebears and your inheritance. Read them. Stand tall on their shoulders!

• If you write about the past, do not populate that faraway land with sensibilities from your own era.

• Axe-grinding and message spoil what you make.

• If you wish to be a poet, you should master meter and rhyme—no matter what sort of poems you want to publish. The world is littered with plausible poems that lack bone, muscle, rhythm, swing, and song.

• As a writer, you are a little mote in a big world—perhaps also a little mote in a big country. Do not let yourself be broken by the fact that luck is so important in the machinery of publishing and may well sweep by, never noticing the little mote of you.

• You are also making yourself when you make stories and poems, so make yourself out of strong materials.

• If you cannot help but persist as a writer, do so. If you find that you can’t persist, that’s fine. Many curious and interesting paths wind through the labyrinth of the world.

• Play with your words.

• Be riddled by light.


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About Carl E. Olson 1153 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

2 Comments

  1. She gives excellent advice for aspiring poets. I always wondered why so many of today’s poets seem to think that poetry is just charming or striking prose broken up into odd lines. Why bother to write something that has no characteristics that make it memorable?

  2. What a wonderful interview of a fascinating person!

    Her intellect is electric!

    Thanks, CWR, for being a website where ideas and opinions are allowed to arc, flash and spark!

    Where creativity is not feared and where the reality of history is not only acknowledged but respected.

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