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Marly Youmans discusses her novel, 'The Wolf Pit'

by Jewett, Leah Wood Issue: Fall 2002

Double helix of black and white

Marly Youmans'novel, The Wolf Pit,is the winner of the2001 Michl ShaaraAward for Civil WarFiction sponsored byJeff Shaara and theU.S. Civil War Center.Other works include: Little Jordan (DavidR. Godine, Publisher,1995); Catherwood(Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1996); The Curse of the Raven Mocker, a fantasy novel setin the Carolina and Tennessee mountains (Farrar, Straus& Giroux Books for Young Readers, Fall 2003); and Claire,a collection of poems (Louisiana State University Press,Fall 2003). Recently Youmans completed another novel,A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage.

Civil War Book Review (CWBR): What inspired you to writea novel about the Civil War?

Marly Youmans (MY): Well, if drops fall on stone for longenough, a bowl is formed which can hold water: for ayear or so my eldest child pelted me with facts and storiesabout the Civil War, until at last one day I caught myselfdreaming up soldiers and slaves. Our family made pilgrimagesto battlefields at New Market and Gettysburgand elsewhere, heard a rabid secessionist rant in a fieldof wildflowers near Pendleton, South Carolina, attendedreenactments, visited museums, and read. Battles andLeaders of the Civil War weighed down my son's bedsidetable. Fragments of shell, mini? balls, Confederate bills,and daguerreotypes became favorite gifts. My son felt thejab of a two-pronged dilemma: Confederate soldiers in hismother's family tree; a stark black-and-white morality thattold him that his ancestors were on the wrong side.

CWBR: The Wolf Pit follows the stories of two very differentcharacters experiencing war in their own ways. Whatled you to Agate, a young enslaved woman, and Robin, aConfederate soldier? Why do you believe their stories arebest told through different points of view?

MY: A writer who rejects outlines and lists and orderlinessand likes surprise and instinct, I admit that I alsodon't pillage characters from life. I prefer the pleasures ofmake-believe¨figures who emerge from my head like anAthena, mysterious, complete, newborn.

After months of occasionally daydreaming aboutpeople in The Wolf Pit, I woke one morning havingdreamed the opening chapters of the book. In pursuingdual narratives, I obeyed the dream. But in the past I havebeen attracted to writers who braid several voices together,particularly Faulkner and Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone)and (The Woman in White.) From the very beginning I picturedthe shape of the book as a helix, two stories twistedtogether but independent.

Since I don't want to be regarded as a chaotic primitive,I'll point out that I am orderly in my own way¨the way ofa plant leafing out, I hope¨and that I am hard-nosed andruthless in revision.

CWBR: Is it essential for us to know them in order to understandthe war?

MY: No. I don't believe that's the purpose of art, to elucidatea problem or an enigma. What I try to do is to pursue theever-new conflicts of heart and mind, to make a thing oftruth, beauty, and vigor, to wrestle with the angel of artuntil he gives me a blessing.

Fiction rescues the anonymous and unseen soul out ofthe maw of history, and in that sense we feel and know inthe realm of the past¨if the book keeps its promises to thereader. I dislike tales that outfit contemporary woes in thefancy dress of earlier centuries.

CWBR: Many novelists would have followed the clich?dpath to an amorous relationship between these two characters.Did you consciously avoid that direction? How isthe story more effective with Agate and Robin never meeting?

MY: I knew from the beginning that they could never meet.And in retrospect I see that the helix of structure works asan emblem of the way black and white were twisted closetogether in the South but in some important ways nevertouched. The two stories hold up a mirror to the housedivided against itself that cannot stand¨like the crackedmansion reflected in bloody pools. Yet on the level of thespirit and sensibility, Agate and Robin bear certain similaritiesand are kindred, and milia is a kind of motherto Agate as well as to her own children. So there's a strongtension to the helix, created by likenesses andby the chasm between one race's situation and the other's.The reader's natural impulse to foretell an encounter ormatch is opposed by the cruel facts of life.

I may have some tendency to subvert expectation: ina novel I began last fall, the beginning appears rather likethe start of a murder mystery. Instead of a narrowing to adiscovered victim, the story widens and embraces all asguilty¨at least, that is what the protagonist concludes.

CWBR: What does a female author bring to Civil War fictionthat perhaps a male author does not?

MY: As mother of a daughter and sons, I know that all I wastold about gender as a young woman was mistaken: girlsand boys are astonishingly different. Yet whenI write, I write out of a part of me that is not allied tofemale or male. However, I have thought about being awoman in connection with this book¨I've wondered howI could have deprived myself so long of the great swoopand verve of men in action. With Catherwood I discoveredthat I liked to describe dynamic, powerful motion. To writeabout something like the eruption that formed the PetersburgCrater is sheer terrible delight.

Being a woman and a writer affects me in more practicalways; as my youngest child was not yet in school, Idrafted this book after my children's bedtime, finishing upeach night some time between one and four in the morningand stumbling out of bed¨hair standing on end andshooting sparks¨at seven to get the older two ready forschool.

CWBR: The image of the pit recurs throughout the novel asa metaphor for war. Why this symbol? What about it resonatesmore than other representations?

MY: The pit where slaves pray and where Young Masterdies, the paddled holes where slaves sing, the scooped-outhollow for Sallie's pregnant belly, the wolf pits in the Oldand New Worlds, the Crater, the trenches in which soldiersare thrown, the grave: all these and other such thresholdsof death and birth and rebirth have their being because anovel is a living thing that creates resemblances. In gropingtoward the light, it tends toward images most kin toits deepest sources, just as flower, fruit, and leaf are kinto the taproot in the ground. And what all those imagesmean and how they relate to one another is not for me totell, because the fullness of meaning and knowledge lies intheir mystery.

CWBR: You mentioned that your novel was first publishedin 2001, and was released just after September 11. Hadyou started writing The Wolf Pit afterwards instead, doyou think that the tragedies of that day and world eventsover the last few months would have let you to write a differentnovel?

MY: The story was altered by events for at least a few readers;for them, the birth of the Petersburg Crater was a kindof faraway echo to the destruction of the towers. And thenovel I drafted in the fall was influenced by September11 in certain curious specifics and, at times, in mood.Yes, I imagine it would have seeped in and added its ownsomber dye.

review of INTERVIEW:

Marly Youmans discusses her novel, 'The Wolf Pit', by Jewett, Leah Wood, Civil War Book Review, (Fall 2002).