We're talking to Marly Youmans, author of A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. And, OK, those aren't camellias but azaleas in the picture, but it's definitely Marly. This is part 2 of a two-part interview that began yesterday.
BETH: Among the books that you've written so far, what's unique or special for you about this one? (By that I mean special about the characters or story.)
MARLY: In A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, I addressed some questions that rose up in my childhood and were never answered to my satisfaction. When my father was a poor sharecropper's boy, he ran away from home several times and rode the rails. I know that once he was found in Southern Florida, but that's about all I have to tell; I wish that I knew more. I knew the places where he grew up, knew that he left home at seventeen and became a tailgunner in World War II--knew that he went to Emory on his return. I could remember something of his time as a graduate student at LSU, before he worked as a professor of analytical chemistry. But I knew little about those teenage years and what the rails (or being a tailgunner, or learning to fly during the Korean War, for that matter) meant to him.
Other questions about our family remained an enigma. My great-grandfather Nathaniel was a bridge builder in south Georgia who fathered twenty-two legitimate children, as well as two mixed race children. After the neighbor lady who was the mother of these children died, the two little boys were brought up in the family. One of them was my grandfather's favorite brother. These bits of news out of the past startled me and made me realize that the history I had been taught was only a partial thing.
Often an absence or a mystery is what draws a writer to a story. With language I toss some bridges over gaps, and though my words cannot conjure missing family history, they can conjure a story, an angle of vision, and a sort of rightness and fullness.
BETH: Do you feel your craft as a novelist advances with each book? What were the particular challenges you faced in A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage?