questions and answers with marly youmans

Marly Youmans is a familiar name here on the Artlog. She was one of the half dozen who appeared within the covers of The Book of Ystwyth: six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, published last year, and she also wrote the chapter Fire in the Labyrinth for the monograph published by Lund Humphries. 2011 was a busy year for us, because my painting Touched appeared on the cover of her book The Throne of Psyche, making three publications we collaborated on in twelve monthsI produced the image for the cover of her novel Val/Orson in 2009, and readers at the Artlog will have been privy to the progress of my design for her latest collection of poems, The Foliate Head, forthcoming from Stanza Press this summer.
March 30th is the launch date for A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Marly’s new novel from Mercer University Press, and it comes already garlanded with laurels, having won the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction. To celebrate the book Marly agreed to a Q & A session on the Artlog. My first question came about not least because for Val/Orson I’d tried to imagine what the twin brothers of the title looked like, and at the time I recall worrying whether Marly would be comfortable with the double portrait of them I’d produced. She was, and quickly approved the cover. Here, prompted by me, she expands on how she feels about the appearances of her characters.
Martin Amis has the following to say: ‘When I’m writing a novel, I very rarely have any sort of mental picture of any of the characters, what they actually look like.’
His words took me by surprise. As a painter I have to think a lot about appearances. Other things too, of course, but whether painting the Virgin Mary, or Angel Gabriel or Saint Francis preaching to the birds, finding an identity… conjuring a physical presence for the subject… is paramount.
Do you have the appearances of your characters very clearly defined in your mind’s eye as you start out on the journey of crafting a story?
I should have expected a painter’s question, and it’s a good one. In fact, I read the question and felt quite blank for a moment. I wasn’t sure what I did.
That’s in part because a character’s voice, spirit, and way of thinking are so important to fiction or certain kinds of poetry (first-person narratives and dramatic monologues.) Figures tend to appear suddenly and seem fully formed in my mind—as if they just walked in the room—but I know them better and better as I go on.
With A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, I knew in my bones how the people of the landscape and time looked because I saw people much like them each year of my childhood. Mr. Jimmy, the sheriff, and his accompanying men were the sort of Georgia people I saw every summer in overalls or khaki work pants and white shirt, their faces changed and often rendered harsh by hard outdoor work, their bodies lean. The women tended to be sturdy-looking, their faces full of character and sun-beaten.  In my mind’s eye, the minor characters are sharp and colorful, but not as wedded to their appearance as a person in real life—parts of them are mere suggestions, and I could easily have changed their appearance from one writing session to another because their voices and spirit are more important.
For Pip Tattnall, I had a clear picture right away, including his ranginess and face (he was a definite Youmans male relation, good-looking with a face headed toward the square, and with slightly sharp features.) I was less definitive about, for example, the cousins, whose appearance was similar but less defined in my mind. Lil Tattnall Tattnall was quite distinct in some ways, her hair (and those hairpins), her build and the way she carried herself, and the odd, small patterns on her clothes. In fact, the first think that drew my mental eye was the patterned cloth of her dress and apron.
But it wasn’t particularly important to me precisely what her features were like, while her nature and her voice were essential. If those things are rendered, the reader will sense a face, at least dimly—perhaps quite specifically, if the character conjures up someone.
How wedded to those appearances would you find yourself were a novel of yours to be adapted to a screenplay? If an actor spoke your words, would the sounds jar for you if too far away from what you have in your head? Someone once suggested that my angels might one day be the subject for a drama or dance, and that got me thinking on how I’d feel about relinquishing that which has been so carefully imagined and constructed. How would you feel Marly?
My feeling is that your angels have already been the subjects of drama. And I like their dramatic sense and dramatic timing quite well already.
I’ve only once had a book optioned, so I’ve never had to think much about film. However, the question is related to the smaller issue of whether a book jacket conjures the characters in a way that feels right. I’ve seen writers become quite upset when it’s perceived as not right. The photograph of the young man on the jacket of the new book was not “my” Pip in appearance; how could he be? But again, if I capture him by voice and description, readers will meet someone fairly close to “my” Pip Tattnall.
Most of the time, movies don’t strike me as being particularly like books, even when they are inspired by books.  Each does different things well, and each needs to stick to its own strengths rather than trying to be something else. I would care more about a movie being a good thing of its kind (and that would be one with well-written dialogue!) than that it slavishly followed a book.
Comments from writers
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

14 thoughts on “questions and answers with marly youmans

  1. Clive, I just put up the first chapter at Scribd, so anyone can read it there or download it from Scribd.

  2. great questions! Its interesting that the picture on the book jacket is not what you pictured Pip to be like. I think these questions are ferreting out some cool insights. Yay for the on line book launch!

  3. Fascinating questions and answers, Clive and Marly! Thank you both. I have a vivid visual imagination and have refused to see certain movies made from favorite books, mostly those I loved as a child. But I love movies too and am usually able to make the distinctions Marly describes.

    • Hi Beth. A recent adaptation that I had expected not to like but ended up loving, was the film that Spike Jonze made of Where the Wild Things Are. I was all prepared to hate it, but it won me over. He created a world very different from Sendak’s island, eschewing the picture-book visuals for something grittier and real. (More Lord of the Flies than toy-theatre pretty.) The monsters themselves were simply fantastic. Big, dirty and blundering. Moreover they were in-scale and present throughout the filming, created through brilliant costume-engineering, with just a little digital tweaking to aid the facial expressions. The results are compelling on screen, because the actor playing Max really is among giant, hairy creatures rather than having to imagine what the animators would put in later, and it shows in his performance. You can practically smell these beasts! Jonze did a grand job on this.

  4. thank you for this interview–i’ve always wondered how an author deals with her characters being overtaken by an actor/actress– sometimes i just can’t watch the movie, because the particular characters matter too much to me. in my (tiny) opinion, it’s better if the movie’s just based on the idea, maybe, more than actually a reproduction of it?

  5. Thank you to you both for sharing this conversation. I am an avid reader and much prefer the book to the film. I struggle when the film doesn’t get the right voice, looks or sometimes even the costume to fill my imagination the way that the magic of words do. Once I open the pages I am totally immersed in a story, period, weather, people, food, smells, sounds etc and I don’t really need a film to take me beyond what my imagination conjures up. Ooh and if there’s a series of the books then I’m in my element, just greedy for words. 🙂

    • I’m with you on all of that. I’d have to think very hard indeed to come up with the title of a novel I’ve greatly enjoyed that has been adapted into a film of equal or even surpassing merit, though I can think of a good many adaptations from novels to films that have been disappointments. As a child I loved Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I await with dread any news of it being adapted to the screen, a fate it has so far avoided. (I’m afraid I really disliked the radio adaptation of the novel done a while ago, brimful of the most terrible noise!)

      For me nothing quite captures the imagination like a book, though I do love film. I just prefer a film to be a work in its own right, rather than it spoil my experience of a well-loved book. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass was made into a pretty dire film, whereas the stage adaptation of the His Dark Materials trilogy… of which The Golden Compass was one book… was wonderfully achieved. Perhaps the stylisation necessary for a stage production has the capacity to leave the source material untainted, something that rarely happens with the all-too-literal approach of the film-maker who comes with his or her box of visual trickery guaranteed to cross every t and dot every i previously left to the imagination. CGI has liberated film-makers to be able to visualise anything, and yet I find myself so terribly weary of it.

      Oh, I’ve thought of one. I enjoyed Charles Laughton’s film-dircting debut The Night of the Hunter more than I did the Davis Grubb novel on which it was based.

      • Sometimes the book comes after the film, as in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Perhaps that’s how it should happen instead. ; )

      • Thank you, Clive–

        Saw some tweets of this, too, so your questions are getting around!

        I like “The Night of the Hunter” as well–never read that novel though. Must say that I’ve succumbed to a good many Austen films because I always think it will be fun to see actors play with the witty dialogue. But the books are always better.

        When I was young, I watched a lot of foreign and domestic films, but once I started writing fiction I was less interested (or maybe it was because I moved to places with less variety, and then Hollywood became fond of “product.”) I had a fear of being too influenced by movies because so many books do seem to be unduly influenced–form and content by someone who appears to be hoping for a movie deal.

        • Austen’s novels are cover-to-cover dialogue. Reading them, for me, sets up the most wonderful sense of being present. I read and re-read pages of conversations, giving myself up to the author’s creation of characters through their words.

          Film, by contrast, is a visual medium, and the dialogue has to be pared down to make room for all the bucolic landscapes, National Trust interiors, bonnets, bodices and furbelows, and I really resent that, no matter how thoughtful the adaptation. It means that Austen films end up like those join-the-dot drawings we did as children. Do you remember them? There would be intact details of a picture floating around in a sea of white paper with snail-trails of dots to guide the infant pencil. In Austen film adaptations you get the same effect. The juicy bits of dialogue are left intact, though surgically removed from the text and scattered into a sea of music-swamped visuals. Oh I’ve seen them all, of course, those ‘Heritage’ adaptations, with their liberal sprinklings of nationally-treasured character-actors, breeches-clad bounders and pallid ingenues. But the ratio of words to music-smothered-visuals in them just make me want to run away to a quiet room, close the door, and settle down alone with Jane Austen.

          I think I’ve turned into a grumpy old man! (Sigh!)

            • What seems best about (most) film adaptions is that very pressing need to read the source material. A new version of Snow White is soon to be released, I confess I am seduced by the imagery , but far more interested in dusting off old fairy tales.
              Kudos to Marly Youmans, eager to read the new book, thanks for the insight.

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