A Review of Val/Orsen and an interview with Marly Youmans
Val is a boy who is brought up in the forests of large old trees in California. He prefers to be outside; perhaps because he was born there. His birth was precipitated by Val's natural father; a brute who accuses his heavily pregnant wife, Belle, of sleeping with another man and then slaps her face again and again:
'Unwieldy in late pregnancy, she crawled to get away, The door was ajar; she hoisted herself and staggered into the woods. The downward plunge was sheer panic, breath harsh against her throat, legs moving off-kilter, arms hugging her belly. A quarter mile from her house, she tripped and plunged to earth. An enormous pulse took control. Her water broke, one wave after another soaking the ground until dabbles of blood and green smears of meconium decked the fronds. 'Belle produces first a child called Orson who is mysteriously taken away by a passing stranger, and shortly after that delivers Val, his twin. Although it is Val who narrates the book, it is the shadow of Orson who dominates it. Her first-born arrives with a caul obscuring his face, and this little-known and little-seen child leaves behind a persistent and all-consuming longing.
Marly Youman's work bridges its own fantastical space. It is a charmed forgotten world into which the modern day somehow seamlessly intrudes. The effect is startling. In Val/Orson, as in all her work, there is the atmosphere of a myth. It is not just the basis of the story - the separation of twins at birth - but the general ambience of the piece. Extraordinary things are accepted with a fairytale nonchalance: in this tale for instance there are tree-sitters. They are not introduced; why they are there and what they are doing has to be gleaned from the text, and this gives the whole setting depth and power. It manages to incorporate important messages about the environment as well as give a highly satisfying tale of loyalty and search for identity. For a novella there is an impressive range - from mesmerising accounts of fairy stories to gripping and realistic accounts of childbirth.
The book is only available, so far, as a limited edition signed copy. It is a beautiful thing - well crafted inside and out - and I intend to treasure my copy.
Marly is the author of seven books: a collection of poetry, Claire (Louisiana State University, 2003); two fantasies for young adults set in the Southern Appalachians, The Curse of the Raven Mocker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) and Ingledove (FSG, 2005); and four novels, Little Jordan (David Godine, Publisher, 1995), Catherwood (FSG, 1996), The Wolf Pit (FSG, 2001), and Val/Orson (P. S. Publishing, 2009). She has received various awards for her writing, including The Michael Shaara Award for 2001. A native of the Carolinas, she now lives a stone's skip from the often snowy banks of James Fenimore Cooper's Glimmerglass with her husband and three children.
Questions on Val/Orsen
CD: When did you first learn about the myth of Val and Orson? What aspect of the story inspired you the most?
MY: I can’t say, really; it seems like one of those things that was always present. As a child, I was fond of legends and fairy tales, so I suppose that I encountered the twins long ago.
I’ve always been attracted by “wild child” tales, and Orson is very much a wild child with leaves in his hair and passion in his heart and no proper manners anywhere. The Wolf Pit uses the figure of the wild child, and I suppose that Catherwood forces the wild on a child, and I can think of other figures in my writing who are wild and strange and at home in the wilderness. But I was definitely searching around for an idea that would put people into trees in a natural way. One of my first stories has a girl who meets her future husband in a tree; later on, they climb into trees to escape from a flood. So I suppose the image of people in trees is, for me, deep-rooted.
CD: Are there really 'tree sitters' in California? If so, please tell me a little more about them. If not, please tell me where the idea sprang from.
MY: Tree sitters are artists of civil disobedience, I suppose. Thoreau would have made a good one. They occupy old-growth trees, often on private lands, to protest the razing of ancient forests, to save individual trees, and to slow down clear-cutting while battles over land are fought in court.
CD: Even though it is set in California you live nearly the other side of the country. What made you want to set your book in such a different place?
MY: I wanted the big trees! More than that, I had in mind a book that would feel like a Shakespearean forest romance. My California is a place of the mind, as much as Shakespeare’s Illyria or the Forest of Arden. It is there and nowhere. Interestingly, Catherynne Valente (who wrote the introduction) found the story true of California. I liked that.
CD: All of your work seems to evoke a spiritual involvement with the natural world. Where does this come from?
MY: When he was a teenager, Jonathan Edwards wrote that the soul was made up of a series of fine threads—something like a harp, it seems to me. The better part of mine seems to be rather leafy and rain-dashed.
CD: Your work also seems to have a fantastical edge - it is subtle in Catherwood, less so in your children's stories - and there is still a hint of it here. Have you always been drawn to fantasy? What do you like about it the most? Have you a favourite author?
MY: When I was in first grade in Louisiana, I received a slip-cased set of the Alice books. I read and reread those books for many years—and others, of course, but those above all. In Gramercy and Baton Rouge I found magical sights, although very different from the landscape of Alice. The combination of an excessive, strange, beautiful place and those excessive books worked on my mind and no doubt warped it a little, so that I have never found it difficult to believe in impossible things, or even to believe in six impossibles before breakfast. There is a fragment of the White Queen in me.
My first favorite, then, was Carroll, but I did like a number of fantasy writers when I was growing up, particularly George MacDonald. But I was a passionate reader and willing to read anything that fell my way—my mother was a librarian, so a good many books did fall my way! I’ve read a lot of fantasy with my children, particularly Diana Wynne Jones—the Chrestomanci stories and Howl’s Moving Castle and more—and Leon Garfield and lots more.
Right now I am reading all of the Potter books to my youngest—his current request for bedtime.
And you ask “what do I like about it the most”: one of those good, simple questions that are hard to answer. Perhaps it’s a certain kind of joyfulness that comes from flying free of the usual boundaries, or perhaps it is something about the sense of childhood that lingers around fantasy—the condition of being a child is the condition of not fully grasping the rules of the world and of going forward on insufficient information, and fantasy returns us to that state.
CD: You also write poetry - which do you like writing & reading the best - poetry or prose?
MY: Nothing can compare with the feeling of going to the fount of things when writing a poem—the wonderful, up-flinging drops, the sense of an irresistible sluice of word. I also love to write fiction, though, so I must like what I am writing at the moment. As I get older, I find that I like reading poetry more than fiction. I’m always going back to Yeats, though I’m reading Michael Hamburger’s translation of Celan at the moment… No, I must be fibbing to myself because I’m rereading Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales and loving them as much as ever. Perhaps it’s what I’m reading at the moment that matters, just as it’s what I’m writing at the moment that I like best.
I shall just have to take cover with Whitman and insist on contradicting myself and containing multitudes.
CD: I really like the structure of the book - particularly the way the chapters are very short. It works well. Is this something that was planned or just happened?
MY: From the start I wanted short chapters, leaves on a tree, light and airy.
CD. Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
MY: I squished a pearly one between my toes at Tanglewood one summer.
And I recall a goose-bumped horror from my first residence in Yankeedom: I stumbled upon neighborhood children squatting around an immense tub of sand, a sort of bad castle covered with horrible stretched-out slugs, spotted leopardish things. I knew they existed already because the night we moved into our house, my mother stepped on one. We had to get a flashlight and examine the slime, unsure what madness had befallen us. Luckily we moved back South three years later.
Then there’s Hodmandodish you, of course…
CD: What is your proudest moment?
MY: My Southern ancestors squashed out most of my pride long ago—a hundred years back, at least. But probably it was holding each of my children for the first time.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
MY: Yes. Shan’t talk about them. I am a believer in reticence, a lovely old virtue that should be revived, especially around celebrities.
However, I would say that nearly dying is a very good thing and helps one appreciate all the days after. The trick is managing the “nearly” part; go too far, and it’s no good at all.
CD. What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
MY: I can’t answer this one; it’s like trying to point to a particular teardrop of water as Niagara slams over the rocks. There are just too many drops.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
MY: As a writer: I would shuck my inability to rejoice in marketing. As a human being: I’d like a more retentive memory.
CD: What is happiness?
MY: Rain on leaves (see above.)
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
MY: If it’s winter in this outpost of the North, I check for snow. If it’s summer, I check to see if the morning hordes of tourists are bundled up or wearing reasonable clothes. And for snow. I always check for snow.