What an amazing story. I felt like I was reading a story about my own family. What was the reader response when “Chílde Phoenix” first ran in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet? Did most people seem to find their own story in yours?
The head of an over-busy writer and mother of three bears a fair resemblance to a sieve. I don’t recall any responses clearly, though I met some younger writers in the city who were fascinated by the story. I read it at KGB several years ago (Dan Braum was the other reader). My daughter asked me about the links between my life and the story. I rarely use elements from my life in fiction, but she recognized a relationship.
One of my favorite lines belonged to the grandmother: “The works of the little bodgy devils are many, many.” Her fingers twitched as she crossed herself. “Never name them, no.” It was delightfully out of context, as Phoenix points out. I took this to be a metaphor for the secrets any family has, the things we all understand must not be discussed. Are there specific devils-we-must-not-name that you had in mind at the time?
Perhaps it is enough to say that my father was an analytical chemist and my mother was a librarian, and that I was an intense and constant reader. The three of us suffered in different ways from the death of a child, who was with us “every furlong and fathom,” though not often mentioned by name. What happens in the story is like and unlike my family—as if taking place in a different, more volcanic realm of the multi-verse, with different and more excessive versions of us. And yet no doubt I am telling and not telling, even as I write these words: “Never name them, no.”
So you like the grandmother! She is not a bit like either of mine except in that she appears wildly different from those following her in the next two generations. When I visited my grandparents west of Savannah, I could go either to a sharecropper’s poor home or to a Queen Anne house built by my grandfather (belonging to a grandmother who had lost much in the Depression but still had the home). Both places appeared magical and strange, with mysterious nooks and crannies, an over-heated landscape, and unexpected dangers. My grandparents appeared very different from my parents, who had been to graduate school. So there was that gap that writers love—the unknown space to be bridged.
(I was surprised, rereading the story now, that the wild child Orson appeared in it—as he appears in Val/Orson (UK: P. S. Publishing, 2009) in a more important role, also involving a sort of sibling struggle. And the business with the feather reminds me of “The Horse Angel,” published in Postscripts/Edison’s Frankenstein 20/21.)
You are a poet, with two new books of poetry out this year. Where and how does your poetry cross into your prose? It’s easy for a reader like myself who is not a poet to identify a vivid and lyrical quality to your prose, but is that the whole of it? Do the two forms cross-pollinate in other ways for you?
Oddly, writing both poetry and fiction made me wish for my poetry to be more like poetry and my prose to be more like prose, as I did not want for the two to resemble each other. At the same time that I moved into fiction, I began using more and more formal tools in my poetry. I threw away most of my prior poetry and became increasingly bored by the writing of free verse (though I still read plenty of it.) I didn’t want my poetry to be mistaken—as so much poetry can be, these days—for what Tom Disch in The Castle of Indolence called prose clipped into pieces and lacking musicality, the mot juste, formal challenges, etc. Likewise, I became more interested in the idea of plot in fiction simply because most poetry has little in the way of plot. That is, I was still chasing the idea of prose being as much like prose as possible and poetry being as much like poetry as possible. My first book was a poet’s fiction that had very little concern for causality and plot and the connective tissue between scenes, but I became more and more interested in the form and shape of fiction as I continued writing novels.
So I would say that at first the two ways of arranging words pulled away from each other. Yet as I progressed, I was drawn to longer form and narrative in poetry. The Throne of Psyche (Mercer, 2011) and The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press, 2012) have a good many narrative poems and an interest in character. The blank verse Thaliad (Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2012) is a post-apocalyptic narrative that picks up the epic conventions and uses them for our own day, at the same time pursuing character development and causal chains of events. My 2012 novel, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, used a few blank verse lines as a kind of title for each chapter. And as your question suggests, I am strongly aware of sound and rhythm in whatever I write.
There are so many themes that resonated with me in this story: How we structure our reality around others; about parents as inscrutable beings to whom we don’t often attribute lives and feelings of their own; about letting go and letting the structure come apart and being okay with that. Are these themes that you revisit in your other work? Are there other themes you don’t feel you’ve explored but would like to?
To tell the truth, I never contemplate theme in quite that way, and I’d rather hear what somebody else perceived than to try and answer that set of questions. I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’d be especially interested in how somebody else saw that business about letting go and letting the structure fall apart! Last year’s novel certainly focused on a character for whom the world ravels before he runs away . . .
You’ve also been writing both adult and YA novels for many years, most recently A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage from Mercer University Press, just released this year. What else is coming up for you, and what will you work on next?
Last year was a busy one, as three of my books jumped into the world (work in three genres published in three countries), and I was also on the judging panel for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, along with chair Gary Schmidt, Susan Cooper, Daniel Ehrenhaft, and Judith Ortiz Cofer (William Alexander won for Goblin Secrets.) I wrote some poems and fiddled with others until December, when I finally started some serious polishing on The Book of the Red King, a collection of about 140 poems revolving around the figures of the Red King and the Fool and their friends. The Fool undergoes transformation in the course of the sequence, and there’s an alchemical structure to events and his changing life. The Red King, on the other hand, appears changeless despite the fact that his meaning is unpinned, and so he is sometimes one thing and sometimes another. He is all the things he is at once, it seems. I’m plotting with artist friend Clive Hicks-Jenkins to do The Book of the Red King as another decorated book like The Foliate Head and Thaliad.
I also began revising a set of three novellas that I wrote for my youngest child, now 15. The Aerenghast Trilogy is a three-in-one fantasy (The Infinite Library, Magna Wildwood, and Wizardry.) At the moment I’m dithering over whether there are too many characters, and how fast-paced it needs to be. My youngest likes shorter books and novels with lots of action; I hope it will be a boy-friendly story when finished.
After that I will probably see if I have enough poems outside the Red King poems for another book, and I’ll start fooling with a new novel. And I should mention that forthcoming from Mercer are two novels, Glimmerglass (a mad tale about a failed artist who begins to glimpse what she thinks is the muse in the woods near her home) and Maze of Blood (the curious outgrowth of a fascination with the deep-South life of Robert E. Howard.) In addition, Mercer will be putting out a paperback edition of A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage and bringing Catherwood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996) back into print.