Interview: Eowyn Ivey - author of The Snow Child

Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child - interview

The debut author discusses her tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska

Give us five words to describe The Snow Child?
Alaskan. Wild. Magical. Rugged. Tender.

Name one author who should be more famous than they are now?
M Allen Cunningham. His novel The Green Age of Asher Witherow is one of the finest I have ever read; at the word level it is pure poetry, but the characters and plot are fascinating and surprising. Set in the 1800s, it tells the story of a boy growing up in a Welsh coal mining town in California. But it is about everything from faith to the dark mysteries of the natural world. At Fireside Books, where I work, we have made it a mission to tell readers about this novel, and in our small town he is a bestseller. But I wish that were the case everywhere.

What was the first book you read?
That’s almost impossible for me to recall. Since I was an infant, my mom has been reading to me. My earliest memories are of Little Bear children’s books and poems like ‘Cuddle Doon’ from 101 Famous Poems. As I got a little older, she would run her fingers under the words so I could follow along. And then at some point, I began reading on my own. But it is a kind of seamless transition. One of the first books I remember discovering on my own and really loving is The Boxcar Children, about a family of orphans who make a home for themselves in an abandoned train car. I was always drawn to the idea of children thriving in extreme situations, depending on their own wits.

What was the last book you read?
The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall. It has not been released yet; my publisher sent me an early copy. It is about a young girl who grows up in England but spends her summers in Hungary. It is so evocative of both places, but it is the twist in the plot that stunned me. It made me reconsider the entire story, and how I had perceived the characters. I highly recommend it.

Which book makes you cry?
I love it when a good book makes me cry, but I want it to come naturally. I want to fall in love with the characters, so that their sorrows and joys become my own. Let the Great World Spin, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, A Fine Balance: they all made me cry. Ultimately, it is life that can break my heart, and when an author accurately portrays a life and helps me see the depth of someone else’s experience, it can bring me to tears.

Which book makes you laugh?
I’m not typically drawn to ‘humour’ books. Often those that aim to be funny just don’t make me laugh. What makes me laugh is when a character surprises me. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson was a book I read recently that had me laughing out loud. There was something about the main character’s restraint and stuffiness that made his dry observations all the more hilarious to me. ‘He wondered briefly whether he was dying. Pity, really, that it hadn’t happened yesterday. They could have buried him with Bertie and saved everyone the trouble of coming out twice.’

Which dead author do you wish was still alive today?
Wallace Stegner. Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose are among my favourite novels. His characters are portrayed with such compassion and insight, and his prose is just beautiful. I really think he was a unique American voice, one who really captured Western United States. I wish he were still alive, writing more books.

What one thing would you change about the publishing world?
I think the publishing world is changing so fast, I don’t need to wish any more on it. It is an exciting but also frightening time, and I can see it from the perspective of both a bookseller and an author. Brick-and-mortar bookstores like the one where I work are struggling to stay open, which is a shame because I think many people would miss them if they disappeared. At the same time, incredible opportunities are opening up for authors and publishers to get their work out into the world through print-on-demand and e-books. Everyone is still trying to make heads or tails out of it all. In the end, I think the result will be the same: readers will find books they love. But in the meantime, change is something the publishing world has in abundance.

What plans do you have for book number two?
It shares some similarities with The Snow Child, set in historical Alaska with fantastical elements. But I envision it as more epic and adventurous. I was awarded an artist grant that enabled me to float the Copper River here in Alaska to research it. It was a fantastic trip; just me and my husband on a raft for five days, floating through one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. We had seals swimming up to our raft, glaciers calving around us, and brown bears watching us from shore. So far, this new novel has been a lot of fun!

The Snow Child is published by Headline Review on Wed 1 Feb.

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