Every so often a book comes along that coaxes me out of my usual reading genera (gothic trashy romance), especially when it is written by such an outstanding person as Marly. How many times do you actually get to ask your favorite authors or poets questions. I couldnt let an opportunity slip away when she had an open call for her readers to ask one question each in an online book launch. So I thought and thought about what to ask. Having not read the book yet I read the book jacket and took a good look at the cover. My copy came in yesterday after I already my question, but I think I would ask the same one anyway, even though its rather typical I suppose...below is my question and her Beautiful response.
Even though I am a professional research historian, every time I sit down to play with historical fiction for fun, I get stopped on the first line because it seems so daunting. How did you write your book and not get overwhelmed by the history part? Did his hat play any special role with that? I haven’t read it yet but it’s on its way!
As that is a photograph from the early twentieth-century you are contemplating (the jacket image), I can’t say that I deserve any credit for the hat—alas, since we both love hats! But Pip does go through a trial in which he needs a hat (and much more), so I think he would have been glad to have a hat like that one.
I wrote the first several chapters of A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage without looking up anything at all because I based the Orphanage on my paternal grandfather’s house in Lexsy, Georgia. This was a marvelous place for a child. It had danger: wild, child-eating sows (so we children were told); scorpions under the half-fallen cedar covered with trumpet vines; fire ants in the fields (one of my early memories is of standing and screaming in a fire ant bed); the rickety well; rats in the corn crib. The house hardly deserved more of a title than shack, but I thought it splendid—the sand yard a riot of flowers in cans, and the trumpet flowers or pomegranates or giant “hedge” of the first chapter in bloom. Chickens occasionally had to be chased off the steps, and once I remember that turkeys pursued me onto the porch and, after I vanished inside, stood gobbling at the screen door until my grandmother burst out, wielding a broom.
The summer time when I stayed with both sets of grandparents (my maternal grandmother lived in a big wedding-cake of a Queen Anne house that her husband had built in Collins, Georgia) has been a huge blessing to me as a writer. At the house in Lexsy, I lived a life that seemed far away and long ago. Yes, my grandparents then or eventually owned an electric stove, a 24-party line, plumbing to a kitchen sink, and a small tractor. But I saw plowing with mules, cooking on a wood stove, making of homemade turpentine, and demanding labor in the cotton and tobacco fields in hot weather.
My grandparents, Preston and Kate Youmans, taught me what the human face and form looks like when it is subjected to the character-molding forces of poverty, hard work, and the mighty Georgia sun. Certain elements of Lil Tattnall Tattnall—particularly her love of cooking—remind me of my grandmother, “Mommer” to her children.
Moreover, other threads in my family story guided my thoughts about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. Talk of my great-grandfather Nathaniel Youmans (alternately “Yeomans”) inspired me with childish awe. I, too, aspired to an astounding family of 22 children. Although it was long before I knew it, two illegitimate sons were brought up in the home with the other children. I was surprised when I learned about the two mixed-race brothers, and even more surprised when I learned that one of them was my grandfather’s very favorite brother in his long-ago childhood. This news set all my thoughts about history books a-kilter, and I realized that nothing was quite as described, even in the South.
As a result of these family linkages, the research for this book was rather different from other novels that I have set in the past, Catherwood (FSG, 1996) and The Wolf Pit (FSG, 2001.) With this one, I tended to look up small things when I needed them. I asked Howard Bahr (to whom the book is dedicated) to check me for train signal mistakes. I read anecdotes and articles about hoboes and trains and con men, looked for prices of Depression era farm work, and so on.
Many of the locations in the book are spots where I have lived for some time, and matters of weather and the look of things were familiar to me. But my best help was always my childhood and my visits to family places that were old-fashioned and had not changed much in decades. There I found that the past was a place that I could still reach.
Novel in pre-order: http://thepalaceat2.blogspot.com/p/death-at-white-camellia-orphanage.html
Recent poetry: http://thepalaceat2.blogspot.com/p/throne-of-psyche-mercer-university.html
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