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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Marly Youmans Talks About “The Salamander Fire”

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.]

Marly Youmans is the author of novels and stories, fantasy, and collections of poetry. Val/Orson, a forest romance inspired by the legendary tale of Valentine and his “wild child” twin, Orson, appeared in 2009. Forthcoming are: two collections of poetry, The Throne of Psyche and The Foliate Head ; and two short novels, Glimmerglass and Maze of Blood. [Photo Credit: Rebecca Beatrice Miller, 2009]

Charles Tan: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What is it about salamanders that interests you?

Marly Youmans: Thanks for asking me. I’m looking forward to reading The Beastly Bride interviews.

Since you reviewed my 2009 book, Val/Orson (PS Publishing), and now have read “The Salamander Fire,” I suppose it was inevitable that you should suspect me of a high degree of obsession with salamanders! But Val/Orson just had a few stray salamanders that happened to wander over its pages, while “The Salamander Fire” ties together the furnaces of glassblowing and the ancient idea of the salamander as a creature born of fire and able to withstand it (perhaps because they crawled out of logs meant for the hearth and then hotfooted it back to dampness?) Fire salamanders are an appealing image, especially since it’s a contradiction–salamanders need to be moist. Somehow the colors and shine of the wet salamander became mixed up in my mind with the sheen of glass. The fire was already transformative in nature, glassblowing being all about transformation, and so I imagined a glassblower’s struggle to bring a salamander out of the flames. The creature would have to be glassy in appearance, it seemed to me, and afterward it would have to undergo metamorphosis beyond what was expected in traditional lore. And the process would resemble early alchemy to the extent that reaching the difficult goal of creation would enact changes in the maker.

CT: In your endnote, you mention the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Could you tell us more about this place, and why it makes a great setting for stories?

MY: This “backcountry” region was a fecund spot for traditional ballads and stories, myth, handicrafts, and lore. One of the lucky things in my life was that I spent my high school years in Cullowhee, North Carolina, a tiny university town tucked deep in mountains that were still unmarred by development. I still return there every year. This world proved full of strangeness: bobcats that dug up our culvert at night, laurel hells, bears, possums that camped out in the front yard trees and refused to go home, moonshine, ice-cold streams with ruby silt, and odd words that weren’t in the dictionary. Many of my classmates showed distinct speech and culture ways and were descendants of the Scots and Irish who settled the region. Cullowhee means “valley of lilies” in Cherokee, and we were only a skip away from the border to another realm, the Qualla Boundary.

The traditions of the place were valued on campus but not hidden inside locked cases. Librarians in the university archives let a curious teen root through their collection, including wonderful old scrapbooks and personal items that had belonged to Horace Kephart (writer of Our Southern Highlanders and one of the founders of the Smoky Mountains National Park.) During my high school years I read a good bit about the Scots and Irish settlers of the mountains and their culture ways, and I also read a lot about Cherokee mythology and culture. Many local people had seen bones of the Cherokee Little People on campus (Dean Bird, the late father of several schoolmates, had kept the tiny skulls and bones of Little People on his desk.) People who worked construction told tales of breaking into their smooth-walled tunnels, now obscured by campus buildings.

Much later, I twisted the Scots, Irish, and Cherokee materials together in a number of stories and in two fantasy novels, The Curse of the Raven Mocker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) and Ingledove (FSG, 2005). An online story of mine that comes out of this region is the reprint of “Tall Jorinda” at Strange Horizons.

CT: I enjoyed the tone and voice of “The Salamander Fire”. How did you settle on this type of language and style?

MY: I’m not sure that I should answer this one for the simple reason that I’m not sure a writer like me has any business fiddling around in her guts to find out the answer. I tend to be an instinctual writer, feeling my way toward certain rightnesses that I don’t investigate in an analytical way while I’m writing. That doesn’t mean I’m not in control, but it does mean that I don’t want to analyze my control, that I want it to remain beyond words. It’s not until revision that I think in a more analytical mode.

When I’m making the sorts of decisions you’re talking about, I’m in more of a dream mode. The story not yet written is a kind of fire burning in the head, a vision of the ideal that one can never, never attain, and the effort is to strive to match it as closely as is possible.

I’m glad you liked those aspects of the story.

CT: Since you’re also a poet, how do you decide that a piece works better as a short story instead of a poem?

MY: Usually I have a pleasant sense of a poem approaching, so I don’t have too much trouble with that sort of decision. I do think of poems, stories, and novels as all flooding from the same source. It’s just that they go into containers with different shapes and have varied relationships to time. Tom Disch said that there’s no better feeling in poetry than “the lyric gush,” and I think he’s right.

Occasionally one form will lead to another. I wrote a poem about a boy catching a football, the whole thing couched in extravagant terms and showing him reaching for a sky that seems to him limitless and deep. And right now I’m polishing a three-part fantasy that I wrote for my third child. The three adventures are contained inside a football frame that could have come straight out of the poem, though I didn’t think of it at the time.

Writing in multiple forms, I find that each affects the others. I was first a poet, and it was only after writing stories and a brief novel that I became dissatisfied with many elements of my poetry. I wanted to tell more stories in poems; I wanted to stretch my poems and make them bigger, make them do more. But at the same time, writing fiction made me want to make my poems less like broken prose. I wanted them to move closer to the condition of music. It was also after writing stories that I began to move toward formal restriction in my poetry.

In my first novel, I was definitely a poet and hadn’t much conception of plot and felt that such an item could only be a silly, artificial framework: a great foolishness on my part, since any structure can be re-invented. Since then I’ve grown to respect all the tools handed down from the past, whether from poets or storytellers, and feel that they are all of interest. But I imagine that a reader can tell that I am a fiction writer who writes poetry–or perhaps I am a poet who fictates! I tend to pare down my novels, to like cutting, to like the rhythm and pauses of language, and to be in love with the sounds that words make when put together.

CT: What is it about the Beastly Bride concept that appeals to you?

MY: As the subject for an anthology, it is a bright thought because there are so many permutations of the shapeshifter myth–it has great range and possibility, as The Beastly Bride shows. I found that what was most potent about the idea was its fertilizing power. One metamorphosis gives rise to further transformations. The salamander bride confirms and embodies what the farmer knew only as words, and the lawyer tosses away the soul he doesn’t value and is thereby changed and lost to the human world. The act of striving after the salamander’s creation transforms the glassblower’s art, and then the metamorphosis of the salamander transforms his world.

1 Comment on EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Marly Youmans Talks About “The Salamander Fire”

  1. susanna // May 25, 2010 at 7:08 am //

    wow, I was totally blown away by the glassblower image and the transformation of his world. Thats some powerful stuff. Its amazing what transforms us and worthy of exploration. 


    great interview. 


    I love watching the Salamanders and geckos run around outside. 

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