A CONVERSATION WITH EOWYN IVEY

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Writers & Books: How important was storytelling when you were growing up?

Eowyn Ivey: I grew up in a family of avid readers. My father has his degree in English literature and my mom is a poet with her Masters in creative writing, and although they had unrelated day jobs, they both have always loved to read. Books were a constant presence in my life. My dad was always building more shelves, and my mom was always bringing home more books to fill them. When we were dating in high school, my husband used to joke that our house was like a library—even if the television was on, everyone would be reading.

W&B: As a child did you tend to read adventure books, or those set in a natural landscape?

Ivey: Yes to both! Some of the first books I read on my own and adored were The Boxcar Children, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, Little House in the Big Woods. Like a lot of young readers it seems, I was drawn to stories of children in extreme conditions, surviving by their own wit and skill, and I think that partly fed my desire to tell the story of The Snow Child.

W&B: Your mother, the poet Julie LeMay, named you after a character in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. Did that put any pressure on you to read (and love) Tolkein (or poetry)? 

Ivey: No, it’s funny because I never gave much thought to my name when I was younger. I would sort of appease grownups when they asked where it came from—is it Celtic? Yes, I’d say. Is it Irish? Yes. Is it Welsh? Yes. It seemed too complicated to explain its real origin. When I was about 9, I tried to read The Lord of the Rings and found the books confusing and, frankly, kind of boring, so I skipped ahead, found a few sentences with my name and then put them aside. I went on to read The Hobbit several times, and it’s still one of my favorite books. It’s an awful confession coming from a reader and writer, but I’ve watched The Lord of the Rings movies and enjoyed them, but still haven’t made my way through the books. As for poetry, I feel blessed that it was so much a part of my life that I never had to make any distinction about whether I liked it or not. It just was, and some of it I loved, and some of it I didn’t understand but still loved.

W&B: When did you start writing and in what form did you first work?

Ivey: As a child, I think I identified as a reader more than a writer. I did like to write stories with fantasy premises, such as talking cats and alien-inhabited planets, and sometimes I would make them into little books, but it seemed like just another form of playing and inventing, not anything someone would pursue as a serious occupation. 

W&B: Tell us how the story of The Snow Child came to you. I have read that you called it a “lightning-strike moment” that involved a “tingly” feeling….

Ivey: It really was an inspiring moment for me as a writer. I was working alone at Fireside Books one night, getting ready to close, when I came across a children’s picture book illustrated by the Alaskan artist Barbara Lavallee. I know a lot of Alaska children books, but strangely I had never seen this one before, and I read it standing there by the shelves. It was called The Snow Child, and in just a handful of sentences it told the Snegurochka fairy tale. An old man and woman are filled with sorrow because they can’t have children. One night they build a little girl out of snow and she comes to life. After I finished reading it and started to walk back to the register, I was struck by this elated, spine-tingling sensation and I thought, “This is it. This is the story I want to tell.”

W&B: You have shared in other interviews that you were already writing a different novel when this story came to you. Did that other novel have Alaska as a setting and will we ever see that novel completed? And might it also have magical elements?

Ivey: Yes, my discovery of the fairy tale was both one of my most thrilling moments as a writer and my most challenging. I was working on a completely different novel, also set in Alaska, and was probably three-quarters done and had invested nearly five years in it. For a while I tried to resist the temptation of Snegurochka because it seemed foolish and irresponsible to turn my back on all the hard work I had done on that first novel. But that first novel was modern realism, and it had some plot problems, but more than that it felt like a grind to work on it. With the fairy tale, it was as if I had been handed permission to tell the kind of story I really wanted to tell—a magical story set in my own backyard.

That first novel won’t ever see the light of day. It was my “practice run.” But I’m still attached to the characters and have since written some short stories about them.

W&B: How important to you as a native Alaskan is writing about the setting and landscape of the Last Frontier, as the state is sometimes called, or the “great land,” which is what the Aleut word “Alyeska” means?

Ivey: At least right now, I can’t imagine writing about anywhere else. This is the place I know and love, but it is also an emotionally complex subject for me as a writer. There is a lot about Alaska and my relationship with it that I don’t understand, and so I think it could keep me occupied for some time.

W&B: In many ways, the book reads as a love letter to the Alaskan wilderness.

Ivey: That’s a wonderful comment. I did have something like that in mind, but I also believe that in order to truly love a place or person, you have to see it wholly—not just as a postcard or airbrushed image. I wanted the novel to depict Alaska in a more three-dimensional light.

W&B: It does indeed explore the complicated aspects of the region. What kind of research about early 20th-century homesteading (for example) did you have to do for this book?

Ivey: This really wasn’t a research-driven book for me. So much of Jack and Mabel’s lifestyle is similar to how a lot of people still live in Alaska—hunting wild game, raising a garden, making homemade jams and sourdough. I wrote very much from my own experiences. However, I did research the campaign to bring homesteaders to Alaska in the early 1900s. I also interviewed an elderly man who was raised on a farm in the Matanuska Valley in the 1930s, because I wanted to get the details correct as to how much industrialized equipment they might have had. Even a decade after Jack and Mabel moved to Alaska, there was very little.

W&B: The novel was first released in Norway, another region of snow and ice. Was that connection intentional? How was it received by Norwegian readers?

Ivey: The Snow Child’s path has been a complete surprise for me, including its trip to Norway. When the book was acquired here in the United States by Little, Brown and Company, it was simultaneously picked up by publishers in several other countries, including Norway, UK, Italy, Germany and France. The publishers choose their own translators, covers and publication dates. Pantagruel, my Norwegian publisher, chose to release earlier than anywhere else. So months before any bookstores here in Alaska had it on their shelves, I was receiving emails from readers in Norway, and it went on to be a bestseller there. It was astounding! And now I think we’re up to 25 or so translations being distributed in 30-some countries.

W&B: I have seen a selection of those different international covers on line—very interesting! In terms of the narrative, how did you find a balance between fairytale inspiration and serious, even life-and-death adult tale? Did you find yourself revising Faina’s world to make it more realistic or more magical?

Ivey: This was one of the elements of the story that most excited me—the idea of setting a magical fairy tale in the harsh landscape of Alaska. There was something in that contrast, that juxtaposition of the ethereal and the brutal, the mythical and the wild, which appealed to me. As for Faina, early on I had chapters written from her perspective, explaining how a little girl could survive in the Alaska wilderness (thinking back to those adventure stories of my childhood) but my agent suggested taking those chapters out, to allow her to be more mysterious and unexplained. And he was absolutely right! The enigmatic aspect of her character was important to the novel.

W&B: Along with the mystery that is Faina, another element that is especially noticeable about this novel is the complex characterizations, including the characters’ inner lives. You so often successfully show, don’t tell (as the saying goes) how they are feeling, which leaves the readers to do a bit of work themselves. This is especially true of Mabel. How do you develop your characters?

Ivey: Thank you again! It was a really different process from other fiction I have written. Often I think of a character and then wonder what will happen to them, and so find my way to a plot. With The Snow Child, I had the basic plot, so the process was reversed. I was asking myself: Who are these people? How did they come to Alaska? Why are their lives so filled with sorrow? How will they ever come to think of Alaska as home? As I was writing, I discovered new aspects of their pasts and personalities, and I would weave those back through the story. 

W&B: How did you come to include Jack and Mabel’s experience of losing a child?

Ivey: Both the fairy tale and my personal life convened here. I was pregnant with our second daughter when I came across that picture book at Fireside. I was thinking a lot about how it would feel to want children and not be able to have them. About this time, a screening blood test revealed that our unborn baby was at a high risk for a type of genetic disorder that would result in her death within days of being born, if not in utero. It required us to have further testing, and as we waited for the results, I read a lot about the disorder and families who had dealt with it. It is a tremendously heart-wrenching grief these parents endure. We were fortunate—the final tests came back negative and our daughter was born healthy. But the experience was very much with me as I wrote Mabel’s character. 

W&B: How significant was it that Mabel be an outsider to Alaska? Is her experience based on any historical figures?

Ivey: This was very important for me. I grew up in Alaska and in ways probably take it for granted. I wanted to see it through new eyes, and I wondered what it would be like to come here for the first time as an adult and be miserable. How could you grow to think of this as home? What would that look and feel like? Like a lot of extreme places, Alaska attracts people who don’t always know what to expect. Many of them live here for a winter or two and then leave, but some stay. I’m interested in those who stay.

W&B: And how important was it that Mabel is unable to read the book about Snegurochka, as it is in Russian? 

Ivey: I liked the idea of Mable interacting with the Snegurochka fairy tale, of being aware of the many possible versions but not being handed her own fate. I wanted it to be something like remembering a dream: you can’t make out all the details or recall the specifics, but it still has a strong visceral effect on you. By giving Mabel the childhood memories and the illustrations, but having the words be in a language she doesn’t know, I hoped it would allow for this kind of surreal interaction.

W&B: On a related note, some readers have commented that you did not include quotation marks when Faina speaks. At what point did you decide on this strategy and why?

 Ivey: I’m so glad you mentioned this! A lot of readers don’t notice it at all. Others think it’s a typographical error. But some do notice, and it’s always interesting to hear what the effect was on their reading process. It came about when I first began writing the dialogue for Faina. When I put the quotation marks around her words, it was as if I had yanked her to the ground. Suddenly she was too ordinary, too loud, too present. I experimented with taking out all quotation marks—I’m a fan of writers like Cormac McCarthy who have handled dialogue in different ways—but that wasn’t right either. Then it occurred to me that I could use punctuation as another character trait for Faina. So whenever she is part of a conversation, there are no quotation marks. I hoped it would lend something unearthly, soft and eerie to her voice.

 W&B: It certainly does, furthering her enigmatic presence, I think. In the novel there is a focus on strong women. How did you come to explore the varied relationships between Mabel and Esther and Faina?

Ivey: I’m not sure how best to express this, but my goal wasn’t necessarily to create strong women. I was just interested in the many different ways people cope and love and live their lives. I suspect that if I had set out to create a certain type of character, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying to me. Instead, I wanted to discover these people, to find out how they are surprising and resilient, fragile and remarkable.

W&B: Mabel and Esther both are certainly “resilient, fragile and remarkable,” as you say. They are such endearing characters yet they are so different, at least initially. How did each evolve as you wrote the book?

Ivey: I have to confess that it was such a relief, not just to Mabel, but to me as a writer when Esther popped into my imagination. She wasn’t part of my original outline or idea for the story, but I was so happy when she appeared. By the nature of the story, Mabel is kind of a downer. She is suffering and depressed. I realized that Esther could help show her how to survive in Alaska. She’s sort of my quintessential Alaskan woman—strong and independent but also very caring and generous of spirit. 

W&B: Esther and Mabel both end up being mothers as well. Which brings me to the idea of the orphan, which is a familiar trope in literature. One writer has stated that orphans are “at once pitiable and noble” and they are therefore considered rich characters. And the ubiquitous snow child stories are necessarily of an orphan. How do you see the orphan functioning in the reader’s psyche?

Ivey: It was interesting because as I was working on The Snow Child I began to see the archetypes everywhere—the person who longs to be a parent and magically creates a child (the gingerbread man, Pinocchio, Rainbabies, etc.) and the orphan child who is always slightly on the outside (Harry Potter, the Boxcar Children, Anne of Green Gables.) I don’t understand our fascination with these types of characters, but I certainly share it.

W&B: There are also many examples of the “wild child” in literature—both fiction and nonfiction. How does Faina fit into that tradition?

Ivey: If I would have kept those original chapters that described Faina’s life in the woods, then The Snow Child very much would have been in that same vein. We would have seen the day-to-day details of her life. It’s strange to say, but now that those chapters aren’t part of the story, I’m not even sure they’re true anymore. I only know as much about Faina as Jack and Mabel do. 

W&B: There are scenes in which it appears that Faina might also be a changeling…. 

Ivey: Exactly! At some point as I was working on the story, I realized that I wanted to keep both those possibilities alive throughout the story—that Faina is a flesh-and-blood orphan with the skills to survive, and she is a magical being who has come to Jack and Mabel out of ice and snow. Just as I was excited about the contrast of fairy tale and gritty homesteading story, I liked that Faina embodied these two contrasting truths.

W&B: I have read that the name Faina is Russian for “light” and has Slavic origins meaning “crown.” What does it mean to you?

 Ivey: That’s wonderful that you discovered that. I think character names can lend a lot to a story. Although I didn’t want to be too heavy handed, I wanted the snow child’s name to be lyrical, to be of Russian origins in honor of the Snegurochka roots of the story, and also to have some deeper meaning. I imagined her bringing light into Jack and Mable’s lives, and I also liked the connection to alpenglow, a common phenomenon in Alaska when the snowy mountains are aglow with the low, setting sun.

W&B: I have seen that phenomenon in Alaska myself, along with the aurora.… The fox is also an important character in the book (and is a crucial visual element of the U.S. paperback book cover). We have a display of the book that also includes several versions of a red fox, which will also serve as the focus of our scavenger hunt this year. How and when did the fox come into such prominence in the book?

Ivey: I first came across the fox in Arthur Ransome’s 1916 translation of the Snegurochka fairy tale, and it sparked a vivid image in my mind of Faina running through the trees with this red fox. As my story developed, the fox became more important. I saw him as a symbol of Faina’s wildness. It was my talented editor Andrea Walker who helped me take it farther in seeing the connection between Garrett and the fox and his relationship with Faina. I don’t want to give too much away. But I’ve enjoyed seeing him on the various covers of the book. 

W&B: The Snow Child is evocative, very much a sensual book, with great attention paid to the senses. Do you work toward that within a narrative or do scenes come to you through the senses?

Ivey: Thank you! I do tend to use all my senses when I’m trying to imagine myself into a fictional scene or situation. But I also make a conscious effort to weave in more sensory detail during the revision process, with hopes that it will allow the reader deeper into my story. 

W&B: The book is also (and obviously) very cinematic. Has it been optioned for film?

Ivey: There has been some interest in a film, but nothing definite. The UK composer Eric Wetherell is working on producing The Snow Child as an opera. Our oldest daughter is an aspiring opera singer, so I’ve been learning a lot more about the form, and it’s amazing to imagine my story being translated to the stage like that.

W&B: What a fantastic family connection! Tell us: you were a newspaper reporter for a decade; what is the difference for you between reporting and writing fiction?

Ivey: I received my degree in journalism because I wanted a practical way to have a career as a reader and writer, and I ended up working at the Frontiersman newspaper here in my hometown in Alaska. In ways it was a really exciting time in my life—I wrote a lot, edited a lot and formed some lifelong friendships. But I have to admit, I never had a real passion for journalism. I’ve always been drawn to fiction, both as a reader and writer. I feel closer to Truth, to the elements of life that cut closest to the bone, in fiction because it’s not hamstringed by fact, if that makes any sense. So I was really following my passion when I left the newspaper business to work as a bookseller.

W&B: What did you learn about publishing with this very successful first book?

Ivey: I’ve learned that as a market it is even more baffling and capricious than I ever imagined, and that as a business it is filled with people who are wonderfully passionate about books. But as a writer, I can’t think about “publishing” when I’m writing. I have to think about the stories I’ve loved and the story I want to write, and try to remember to be fearless and honest.

W&B: Speaking of truth, what are the similarities between the lives of the characters in The Snow Child and your family’s contemporary existence in Alaska? I know you forage and hunt and live semi-off the grid with your husband and daughters. What modern conveniences do you have that Mabel and Jack, for instance, do not? How does your life now differ from your childhood in Alaska?

Ivey: In ways, much of The Snow Child is informed by my own experiences in Alaska, first as a little girl growing up here and now with my own family. But there is a distinct difference between my real world and that of the novel—we have all the modern conveniences and we have the safety net of technology. As much as we rely on hunting as a part of our lifestyle—we eat primarily wild fish and game—we aren’t going to starve if we don’t get a moose during hunting season. We live in a rural area, but we are on a road system that can get us to Anchorage, and via the airport, anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. We have the internet and smart phones and snowmachines (what most people outside of Alaska call snowmobiles.) We go to the grocery store every week and can have avocadoes in February if we want them and pay for them with a credit card if we need to. But we also pick wild blueberries on the tundra; fill our freezer with caribou roasts and salmon fillets; harvest carrots, peas and radishes from our garden; heat our home with wood; and trade chicken eggs for blueberry mead from our neighbors. Like a lot of Alaskans, we straddle these two lifestyles, one that is tied to the land and aims to be self-sufficient, and another that is very modern and American.

W&B: Do you see a movement toward a more traditional, back-to-the-land lifestyle? We certainly read a lot about it here in the lower 48, even in urban environments.

Ivey: There does seem to be a growing interest in that direction. I hear more about people growing gardens and keeping chickens, even in urban areas. I think the more we all understand about where our food comes from the better.

W&B: It is important to note that besides writing a best-selling novel, your vocation is as a bookseller. How did you get into bookselling? Can you tell us about the store Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska? (I twice spent several weeks in and around Palmer but it was before the shop opened.) I worked in a used/antiquarian bookstore here in Rochester for many years and often miss it. What do you particularly enjoy about being a bookseller?

Ivey: Palmer is so fortunate to have Fireside books! I went to work there in part because I thought it would be fun but also because I hoped it would help me become a better writer. As a reporter I had no creative energy left to write fiction at the end of the day. Going to the bookstore was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did working as bookseller teach me a lot about books and readers, and fill me rather than deplete me as a writer, it is where I found the specific inspirations for both The Snow Child and my current project.

W&B: It is interesting that a previous “If All of Rochester…” author, Ann Patchett, after several successful novels, opened a bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, where she has lived for most of her life. Novelist Jonathan Lethem co-owns a used bookstore in Maine (and there are other examples). What are your thoughts on the future of independent booksellers in this age of big box stores and online retailers?

Ivey: At least here in Palmer, Alaska, the independent bookstore is a kind of sanctuary for artists and writers and readers, and the community would suffer without it. Unlike larger retailers, I think independent booksellers can respond more nimbly to the specific desires of their customers, and they can provide this unique service of handselling, of finding the right book for the right person. This is unbelievably important for both authors and readers. But it is not an easy time for bookstores, as anyone can tell you. This is a time of huge change for all of the publishing world, and I think it’s hard to predict how it will shake out.

W&B: Has becoming a successful writer changed how you read?

Ivey: Not really. I sometimes get an early peek at books that are coming out as publishers seek endorsements, but I had access to advance reader copies also as a bookseller. I still read a mix of new releases and classics. I still feel like I’m searching for those unique books that surprise and inspire me. Because I’m right in the middle of my new novel, I find I’m not reading as much fiction as nonfiction and poetry, which feed my work without distracting me from my own story.

W&B: That’s interesting. As a bookseller, what are some titles you could recommend (old or new) to people who enjoyed The Snow Child?

Ivey: Unfortunately, I’m not at Fireside Books anymore. When I was writing The Snow Child, I was only working a few hours on weekends and evenings, and my book event schedule quickly became a conflict. But I’m in the store nearly as often now, shopping for books and visiting with my friends there.

However, once a bookseller, always a bookseller. I always enjoy sharing my favorite books. For those seeking more about Alaska, Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, The Raven’s Gift by Don Rearden, Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, Two in the Far North by Margaret Murie, The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley, and The Stars, The Snow, The Fire by John Haines are some of my all-time favorites. Of recent novels I’ve read, I really admire The Returned by Jason Mott, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, and The Round House by Louise Erdrich.

W&B: What a rich list! Of course, we are looking forward to your next book. Many sources on the Internet have revealed its title to be Shadows on the Wolverine, which leads me to believe the setting will be the same as The Snow Child. What can you tell us about the story?

Ivey: You’re one of the first people to make that connection! Yes, it is the same setting. Although it is based on real places here in Alaska, I invented the Wolverine River for The Snow Child because I wanted the freedom to play with the geography, and I decided to return there with my newest novel. Shadows, however, is set nearly 40 years earlier, in 1885, and is inspired by a true-life military expedition that traversed Alaska. In my telling, Lt. Col. Forrester ventures up the Wolverine River with a sergeant and private to explore the heart of the territory. As they travel deeper into the country, they encounter the mythology described by the land’s indigenous people. It is also the story of Sophie Forrester, the colonel’s pregnant wife, who waits for his return at Fort Vancouver. She is wrestling with her conscience and trying to find the courage to tell her husband about her past, but she is also on the cusp of making an inspiring discovery.

I’m telling the novel through journals, letters, and other documents. Some of my favorite parts to write in The Snow Child were the letters between Ada and Mabel, so I am having a lot of fun with this new project.

 


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