Interview with Eowyn Ivey
I must admit that it was indeed the cover that caught my eye when browsing for a new book last summer at my local bookstore. The blue of a girl’s jacket showing behind a white tree, and the red of a fox a few neighboring trees away. Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (Reagan Arthur / Back Bay Books 2012) captures everything I love about storytelling. It is entertaining, it is educational, and it has powerful healing capabilities. It was such a thrill to get into contact with Eowyn and ask her about both her first novel and her writing process. I must here make a shout out to Fireside Books for making it possible.
— Tiffany Jimenez
MARY: In a previous interview, you mention that you started working at an independent bookstore in order to spend more time writing fiction. Before that, you worked as a journalist. What made you decide that you wanted to write fiction? How did you find the transition from journalism to fiction writing?
EOWYN: I’ve always loved novels, especially as a reader, but I went into journalism for practical reasons—I wanted to write for a living, and I knew that’s very difficult in fiction. After nearly 10 years at our local newspaper, though, I found I didn’t have any time or creative energy at the end of the day to work on my own writing, so I decided to make some changes, and that’s when I went to work at Fireside Books. I think the combination of those two occupations—newspaper reporter and bookseller—was good for me. At the paper, I was producing an incredible amount of copy every week, on deadline, working with a variety of editors and always with the reader in mind. But then at the bookstore, I was able to rediscover what I love about writing, all the beautiful books and great discussions about literature and art, and at the end of the day I felt replenished rather than drained. That’s when I began to really put time into my own fiction, and the transition felt exhilarating.
M: Before discovering the Russian fairy tale of the snow child, had you written any other pieces related to fairy tales? What drove the narrative for you? The “magical quality” of the plot, or the characters themselves?
E: That’s a great question—I hadn’t ever written anything along these lines, and I think that was an important aspect of The Snow Child. All of a sudden I discovered this other element that could be a part of my stories, and it was exciting. Before that, I had written some short stories and nearly completed another novel, but they were all straightforward, modern realism set in Alaska, and there was a spark missing. When I came across the Snegurochka, or snow maiden, fairy tale, it was like I had found a key that opened up this other box of potential. The fairy tale provided the barest of structures, and gave me permission to bring in the fantastical, but I still had to come to understand the characters and their motivations, and that drove the story for me.
M: Other than the fairy tale, how did you craft Jack and Mabel’s characters? Which character (out of the entire novel) did you find the most difficult to illustrate?
E: Jack and Mabel grew very organically out of questions like what would it be like to live in Alaska in the 1920s? What kind of people would venture here and how would they perceive this place? And what would it feel like to be unable to have children when it is one of your greatest wishes? The most interesting character for me to write was Faina, and I learned a lot in the process. I found out that sometimes fiction is about leaving space for mystery, of keeping secrets and not revealing everything I know, or think I know, as the author. I had many chapters written from Faina’s perspective, and I ended up stripping them out and leaving more to the imagination.
M: After you found the snow child fairy tale, how did you decide where to set your retelling of it? Why Alaska? Why 1920?
E: The only thing I’ve ever been sure about in my fiction is that I want to write about Alaska. I grew up here, and I love Alaska, but it is a complex place and I have complex feelings about it. Snegurochka is set in a northern landscape very similar to my backyard, and I saw that the fairy tale could be a vehicle for my writing about Alaska. But I wasn’t initially sure what time to set it in. At one point, I considered placing it in modern day, but I always joke, and it’s true, that I had this realization that if there is a little girl running around in the woods today, certain authorities are involved and the next thing I knew I was picturing helicopters and state social service agencies swooping in. So part of it was a desire to protect the story. But also I liked the aesthetic of horse-drawn wagons and lamplight, and the idea of people leaving everything that was familiar to them and coming here to homestead in the 1920s.
M: It is always interesting to hear what the writer’s regimen is. How was fitting “writing time” into your schedule before/during The Snow Child and how has it changed now?
E: It would have been very difficult to write The Snow Child if it hadn’t been for my husband. At the time, we were building our house as we lived in it, he is a fishery biologist and I was working part-time at the bookstore, our oldest daughter was 8 and our youngest had just been born. But each evening, Sam would say, “I’ll put the girls to bed, you go write.” So I would have this precious hour or two every day, and I felt like I couldn’t waste a minute of it.Then my writing life changed dramatically. I left the bookstore when The Snow Child came out because my schedule became so crazy. I wrote a few essays and short stories during that time, but mostly I found it difficult to write at all. It seems I work best when my life is predictable and routine.
Now I am in the fortunate but strange position of staying home to write each day. I’m revising my newest manuscript and, outside of the normal duties of a mom, I usually have most of the day to devote to that. The only downside is that I don’t have the rush of adrenaline, that sense that I only have this one hour to write, so I have to trick myself. My friend and fellow-novelist Andromeda Romano-Lax recently wrote a blog post about an app called Pomodoro, which divides your day into manageable chunks. I was skeptical, but I started using it recently and it’s great.
M: Who is your coveted “first reader”?
E: Over the years I’ve participated in manuscript critiques, classes, workshops and writing groups, but in the end I realized that my best first reader is, and always has been, my own family. My husband Sam is my source for many plot ideas and overall useful information—would this kind of knot work for this? Would a black bear behave in this way? And our two daughters are both avid readers, so they talk with me about where my story is going and the influences they see in my work, which is uniquely helpful. Many evenings when they all get home from school and work, I will read my newest chapters to them, and they’ll give me feedback and ideas and encouragement.
Once I have a good chunk to share, my next readers are my mom and dad. Until then I won’t have shared much of what I’m working on, only a vague idea, so that they can read it fresh. My mom, Julie LeMay, is a poet and talented editor. She is great at identifying larger themes and questions in the manuscript. And my dad has an English degree and reads more than anyone else I know, so I trust his opinions a lot.
Outside of family, though, my coveted first reader is my agent, Jeff Kleinman. Before I worked with him on The Snow Child, I had no idea that agents could be such amazing editors. He tells me what is working and what isn’t. He always expects the most from me, and while it makes for hard work, it is invaluable.
M: You have a range of work—reportage, essays, short fiction. As a reader, what do you find yourself drawn to?
E: Novels have always been my true love as a reader. I read a lot of classics and debut novels, but some of my favorite modern writers are Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, Ali Smith, David Mitchell, Larry McMurtry, Wallace Stegner, Kazuo Ishiguro—I could go on and on. Subject matter and genre don’t seem to matter as much as the writing and the ideas behind it. But when I’m actively working on a novel, I find it hard to read fiction. I’m not sure why; maybe it feels like competing voices in my head or something. So when I’m writing, I tend to read more poetry and nonfiction. I just finished, and loved, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, about her experience training a goshawk for hunting, and now I’m enjoying Blue Latitude, about Captain Cook, by Tony Horwitz. My newest favorite book of poetry is Gabriel by Edward Hirsch.
The Snow Child is Eowyn’s debut novel. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in London’s Observer Magazine, Sunday Times Magazine, Sunday Express Magazine, Woman & Home Magazine, the anthology Cold Flashes, the North Pacific Rim literary journal Cirque, FiveChapters, and Alaska Magazine.