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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Questions for Thaliad

Mercer, 2012
Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Fr. Augustine Wetta's class at St. Louis Priory School (MO) is reading through a sequence of Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Carroll, and Youmans! I love being the little red caboose on that artful train. The students are reading Thaliad, and the wonderful Fr. Augustine a.k.a. Fr. Dude has allowed them to ask me two questions (although #1 is actually two):
QUESTION #1: How/why did you decide to kill off the most lovable character so early in the book? Did you feel guilty for doing it?

QUESTION #2: In your own mind, did Gabriel survive or die? If he died, then how?

DISCLAIMER: I warned them that there is probably no answer to #2. Once it’s published, the poem belongs to our imaginations. But the kids insisted. And the choice is theirs.
So hello to Fr. Dude's class, and let me see what I can do about these questions...


First, I'll tell you something about the writing of this book. Thaliad surprised me; I woke up one morning in the summer, all three of my children at home (i.e. not a convenient time to write), and the story was in my head and wanting o-u-t. Did I dream it? Did it pour in from a distant star? Who knows? I love that sort of thing, when a delicious sluice of words appears, but I don't pretend to understand why poems and stories sometimes happen in a great gush and yet at other times need some coaxing. I wrote the narrative swiftly, working around the events of my day and also late at night. Nothing seemed to need dreaming up; everything felt already there, unreeling in front of me. I know it was my mind and my words, and yet the writing felt wonderfully strange, the events inevitable. That's one way of saying that the death of Gabriel was not so much chosen as simply dreamed.

But when I think about the book now, I am sure that he was the most vulnerable one--and in the chaos of departure and driving north, he was the one who disturbed the others with what they had lost. He grieves. He weeps. You're right--he is the most lovable character. For the sake of the book, that lovable nature was important. He leaves a Gabriel-shaped hole that can never be filled. For Thalia, surely his death is the beginning of inwardness. It is an event that can never be erased or un-remembered. For all of the young travelers, it brings the kind of quiet in which questions spring up.

You know, I did get some reproaches for Gabriel's disappearance from the book! But no, I did not feel guilty for his loss. Do you feel guilty for what you do in a dream? Most of the time, probably not--and a book is a kind of "guide dream." (I do remember, however, being stirred while writing by the growing knowledge of what was coming toward him.) Besides, I have plenty of real-world errors to feel guilty about; everyone does, eventually, I expect. And we hope to learn from those things and change and grow, rather than feeling frozen by guilt. Certainly the group is challenged and made thoughtful by the loss.


One of Clive's interior vignettes
"Did Gabriel survive or die?" 


Okay, that was a smart-aleck response, but what strikes me is that I held more than one idea in my mind at once. Emma does the same thing. She connects the fearfulness of the great river and the bridge with the sea, where Gabriel would have been with family, and yet would have known the slap and tidal drag of waves, perhaps the cold slide of a shark near his body. It's ominous, that conjunction, and suggestive. Does he throw himself into the water in his panic and fear? Perhaps. She also imagines and even prays (praying for the past is interesting) that he was swept up to some "ashless paradise" by a "messenger." Death and an angelic salvation hang equally in her  mind.

What lay outside my knowing is not in the poem. You see, I am in exactly the same position as Emma. I do not know precisely what happened to Gabriel. I may be afraid that he hurled himself into the water, but I don't know. I may hope that something beyond human knowing intervened. But I still don't know. The fact that I don't know makes the story that the poem tells stronger and more uncanny. A work of art should not give up all its mystery. There should be a kind of residue left afterward. Mystery tugs at us. It has power.

p. s.

It's possible that I didn't answer #2 to your satisfaction. Feel free to ask another question.

p. p. s.

Emma is the name my mother would have named me, had it been her turn to name a child. While I don't have a lot in common with this Emma, we do share a passion for storytelling and books, and the village where I live is the model for hers.

p. p. p. s.

Fr. Dude was my student last summer at Antioch, and he was a splendid one! You are lucky to have such a teacher. 


  1. What a lovely idea to have the students ask questions about your book. I love your answers! And how I agree with your words about mystery.

    1. Hi Marja-Leena--

      Yes, it's sweet, isn't it? Glad the answers passed muster.

      Your art does definitely chase after things we can't know... Mystery from the past, mystery of transformed things of the world.

  2. (Erroneously appended at first to your previous posting, here is the correct placement. Shame on me.)

    Ah, still teaching even after all these years . . . well, it is teaching, isn't it. The students are more fortunate than they will ever understand. This will be one of the singular and grace-filled moments in their reading adventures. You go, girl!

    1. Ah, thanks, Tim. And dedicated teaching is a great gift to students, those makers of the future world. So thank you.

    2. I was thinking the same thing R.T. an d Marly. What a wonderful teacher and writing you are.

    3. There you go, Tim! A good compliment--

  3. Postscript: Does the student interaction tug at your heartstrings, calling you back to the classroom?

    1. It is lovely, but I prefer to communicate through written words! And the occasional writer-teacher gig...

  4. Excellent answers. It's funny that people resist the idea that a writer might not know something about her story, might even desire the ignorance, the unknown areas that surround the story (not to mention the unknown areas within the story). What's not on the page is anyone's guess, and I mistrust authors who make claims beyond the actual text of the book.

    1. Yes, I agree!

      And the thing is, the writer does know the mystery fully *as* mystery, and knows how important it is for the mystery to remain as it is.

  5. To the class: Fr. Augustine sent me an account of your responses and comments. I was so pleased and tickled! Thank you so much.

    1. It is so kind of you to reply--and at such length! The kids actually cheered when I showed them your response. I think it is something of a shock to them to discover that authors are real, living people.

    2. I overheard one of the kids boasting in the hall: "Room 6 is famous now!"

    3. Very glad not to be unreal or dead!

      On Facebook there were lots of comments about this--everybody loved the idea that your students read the book and even wrote fan fiction!

    4. Yay for Room 6! I just got the package!

  6. What is forthcoming from the fertile imagination of Marly Youmans? I'd like to be Mocked with style once again, so I'm hoping you are going to do another Smokey Mountain novel. But let me know, I can pull strings and get my humble comments about it in print.-- Greg Langley

    1. Hah, your reviews do not deserve to be called "humble"! When I was at FSG, everybody raved about you, you know--one of the few remaining book review editors, and one everybody liked. I am always thrilled to have a Langley review.

      Right now I really need to finish up some work that has been lying around, almost finished, for eons. As in years! That means:

      --The Book of the Red King - poems about the King and the Fool
      --The Aerenghast Trilogy - a children's fantasy which I will rename so that people can pronounce it
      --poetry book(s) - I need to order the heaps and maybe quarry out a book or two
      --short story collections - I have enough for a big children's collection and an adult one. A lot of them were commissioned stories, and I need to get them together.

      The next book out is "Maze of Blood," the one inspired by the life of Robert E. Howard.

    2. I will attend closely to this blog and will get a copy when one is available.

    3. Should have asked you if you wanted to be on the Gimmerglass AIQ, but I was assuming there were no more reviews now...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.