Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gaps and generation

The launch posts for A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (several up already) have made me reflect on what I've said above the book being in part a kind of "filling of gaps" in family stories--not literally, but in a kind of search for wholeness or completion, even if it is not accurate to a family history.

I remembered Tolkien's use of philology and how that worked in a similar manner for him in The Lord of the Rings as a striking example of holes in material as being generative. Tom Shippey talks about Tolkien's inspiration as bedding itself in "literary gaps, errors, and contradictions" in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (p. 325). and how through comparative philology, he could feel his way back to concepts long vanished.  "However fanciful Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing', he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence" (p. xv).

It's the same idea, although in Tolkien's case a far more complex one:  the knowledge of early language giving rise to thoughts about word origins and a sense of the past that  allowed him to bridge uncrossable places in texts.  Hints and clues (the word for dwarf in various languages, mentions of elves, scraps of lost poems) gave rise to a whole world, much as the tip of an iceberg makes one imagine and half-perceive a great, visionary mountain of ice under the sea.

Mine is a very different sort of book, despite there being a journey in each, and the bridge-making relates to different sorts of gaps. But the inspiration comes down to the same thing: a longing to know and understand absences makes the writer dream up a kind of wholeness--not an accurate wholeness but one that is true to the story and to the bits of existing knowledge.

Launch interview, part 2: at Dale Favier's mole burrow
Launch interview, part 1: at Hannah Stephenson's The Storialist

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2 comments:

  1. How very odd, Marly - I've been cleaning and editing my blog archives, especially from my first year (2004). Of course I end up buried in rereading posts, such as about Tolkien and the languages he made up for Lord of the Rings. For example, he studied Finnish and used it to create Quenya. Oh, so many more intriguing connections and I'm a bit off topic and you are very busy....

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  2. Hi Marja-Leena--

    Anything to take a break from taxes and such! And you are not "anything"!

    Oh, yes, he loved Finnish--there's a story about him as a student, discovering the language and being unable to tear himself away from its lovely grammar and words even though he had a major exam.

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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.