Interview with Eowyn Ivey – author of The Snow Child

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Thursday 30th August 2012

“…a touching and truly exceptional portrayal of heartbreak and hope.” Those were my words in March, after I’d read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child for the first time. Six months on, Eowyn’s debut novel is still one of the most memorable books I’ve read all year. It’s out in paperback in the UK today – and I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview her about it.

I understand you were named after a character in The Lord of the Rings. Did you read JRR Tolkein’s books as a child and what did you think of them?

Eowyn: I have to confess, I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. I tried several times when I was younger. After a chapter or two, I would lose interest, skip ahead until I found my name in the text and then put it down. Somehow I could never get past all the complexities of the world and battles. However, I did read The Hobbit when I was a child, and have read it several times since. It’s one of my favourite stories. I love the characters and the simplicity of the quest. It’s very endearing.

Did you enjoy writing as a child? And if so, what did you write?

Eowyn: I read a lot when I was a little girl. And occasionally I would get in a certain mood, often on a rainy, boring day, or when I was feeling thoughtful and melancholy, and I would write stories. I once wrote a story about a planet inhabited by talking cats, and another about a little boy who disappears into the reflection in a puddle. In high school, English literature and writing classes were my favourites and I realised I wanted to find a way to earn a living with words. But never did I imagine I would someday have a career as a novelist.

You have worked as a journalist and a bookseller. What impact did these jobs have on you as a writer?

Eowyn: I would like to think they helped shape me both as a reader and a writer. As a newspaper journalist, I often wrote 10 or 12 articles in a week. I strove for clarity and conciseness and making each word do as much work as possible. I worked with editors and did a lot of editing myself, which is tremendously useful in learning the basics of the English language. But the downside is that the job was demanding, and I had no energy or time for writing fiction. My work at Fireside Books has been the opposite – it’s a source of inspiration and creative rejuvenation. I’m surrounded by books and ideas and people who love both. As a bookseller, I’m constantly discovering new books and authors and seeing how people have broken the very rules I spent years learning as a journalist.

Could you tell me about how and where you found the inspiration for The Snow Child. Was the book straightforward to write and how long did it take you?

This is a perfect example of how Fireside Books has been quite literally a source for my inspiration. Several years ago I was working an evening shift when I discovered a little paperback children’s book that retold the Snegurochka fairy tale. I had never come across the story before, and I quickly read it standing there among the shelves. It was an incredible experience – I just knew this was the storyline I had been seeking. For nearly five years I had been working on a different novel, and I abandoned it to begin The Snow Child. In less than a year, I had a first draft. I felt inspired in a way I had never been before as a writer. As quickly as it came, though, I never knew exactly where the story was going until I wrote it.

The Alaskan landscape is beautifully portrayed in The Snow Child. What are the main characteristics of Alaska that you wanted to convey in the book?

Eowyn: I think like a lot of extreme locations, Alaska has become somewhat mythologised and romanticised. But what I love about this place is its complexity and contradictions, and that’s what I hoped to bring to the page. The northern wilderness is both awesome and delicate, beautiful and frightening.

The winter is so hard for Jack and Mabel, the two main characters. When you were growing up did you experience a similar sense of isolation during the winter months?

Eowyn: That was one aspect of writing The Snow Child that I really enjoyed as a writer – the challenge of seeing Alaska through eyes so different than my own. I have always loved the extremes here, the wind and snow and dark of winter, the lush green and midnight sun of the summer. And there is a sense of loneliness and isolation, but for me that has always made the camaraderie of neighbours and friends somehow all the sweeter. As a child, I found it exciting, and I still do. But I have always wondered what it would be like to come here for the first time as an adult and to not immediately love it. That’s what I had to imagine as I told Jack and Mabel’s story.

Do you live in a remote part of Alaska now and is it in any way similar to Jack and Mabel’s homestead?

Eowyn: Like a lot of Alaskans, we straddle two worlds. We live along the road system, so can drive easily to Anchorage and all its urban opportunities. We live near a small town, where we work, shop for groceries, go to the movies. But our home is in a relatively rural area, and we share some similarities with Jack and Mabel – we hunt moose, caribou and bear for meat, raise a vegetable garden and chickens, fill our freezer with salmon and heat our home with a wood-burning stove. There is an independent spirit here, and a lot of us strive for a certain amount of self-sufficiency.

Where do you write now?

Eowyn: Wherever I can find a quiet spot in my home. Right now I’m at a little sewing table in my bedroom where I can look out our back window toward Castle Mountain. Usually I am easily irritated and distracted by noises, like my daughters arguing or my husband talking on the telephone, so I’ll sometimes even put in earplugs. Then, once I’m particularly engaged with a project, I can write standing at our kitchen counter with the radio blaring, the phone ringing, and everyone talking at once and it doesn’t faze me.

Are you working on your second novel? Is it set in Alaska and can you give any hints as to what it is about?

Eowyn: Thank you for asking! I am working on another novel, although it is still early in the process. It will share some similarities with The Snow Child – set in historical Alaska with some mythological, magical elements. But I also want to continue to stretch my wings as a writer, to break some of those rules I learned, and try something new. I’m having a lot of fun.

Thank you so much to Eowyn for a fascinating and illuminating interview – and to Sam Eades at Headline for organising it. And for those of you about to read The Snow Child, trust me, you are in for a treat.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review, £7.99)

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