Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child
Eowyn (pronounced A-o-win) LeMay Ivey was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters. Her mother named her after a character from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Prior to her career as a bookseller and novelist, Eowyn worked for nearly a decade as an award-winning reporter at the Frontiersman newspaper. The Snow Child, her debut novel, is scheduled for release next week in the U.S. and has been chosen by The Oprah Magazine as a “top ten” must-read book. I am honored and thrilled to feature Eowyn Ivey in this week’s Birth of a Novel.
MARIELENA ZUNIGA: For some of our followers, your name and book may be new (but not for long). Could you tell us a bit about your personal background?
EOWYN IVEY: I grew up in Alaska and still live here with my husband and two daughters. My mom is an avid reader and poet, and she named me after a character from the Lord of the Rings. I must have inherited her love of literature, because I now work as a bookseller at Fireside Books here in Alaska. My husband is a fishery biologist, but in addition to our day jobs, we strive to live a somewhat self-sufficient lifestyle. Like many Alaskans, we have a vegetable garden, pick wild berries, hunt moose and caribou to fill our freezer, and fish for salmon.
ZUNIGA: What is the premise of your book The Snow Child and its characters? What gave you the idea?
IVEY: I was on shift at the bookstore one winter evening several years ago, shelving books, when I came across a children’s illustrated fairy tale. It told of a man and woman who couldn’t have children and were sad in their old age. But one night they built a little girl out of snow and she came to life. It was a simple little story, and I quickly read it standing there by the shelf, but it was a revelation. I had found it – the path into the novel I had always wanted to write, a magical story set in the Alaska wilderness. So my tale begins with Jack and Mabel, childless and struggling to find happiness. They move to Alaska to homestead in 1920. One night they build a little girl out of snow, and the next day they catch glimpses of a child running through the forest.
ZUNIGA: I’ve noticed that fairy tales are being revisited in today’s TV shows and films – and now in your book. What do you suppose is behind this resurrection in our culture?
IVEY: It is fascinating, isn’t it? I’ve been wondering what it says about our culture. Are we craving the magical, wanting the extraordinary to be possible? Growing up I read a fair amount of fantasy, along with any other kind of book I could get my hands on. But I was always disappointed that the magic had to happen in another, imaginary world. I wanted to find enchantment in my own backyard. And I must not be alone. More and more I see stories that set mythical or fantastical tales in the everyday world. Like all trends, it’s a little mysterious.
ZUNIGA: You found your agent in an unusual way. Could you please share that experience with us?
IVEY: I still count my blessings on that one. I was attending the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference here in Alaska with my mom, Julie LeMay. We had each gone to learn more about our craft. While I know a lot of writers go to these events with plans to pitch their story to an editor or agent, I had no such intention. I wasn’t finished with the manuscript, and I wasn’t thinking about publishing possibilities.
But my mom encouraged me to talk with the visiting agent, Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. I admired many of the titles he represented, and my mom kept prodding me, so I signed up to speak with him. I figured at best I would get some ideas about how to pitch the novel if and when I completed it. Much to my utter delight and shock, he asked to see the first hundred pages of The Snow Child.
But I hadn’t brought the manuscript with me! I was on the phone with our neighbors, trying to track down my husband who was outside cutting wood, so he could drive to the nearest library and fax the pages. Finally, we got them to Jeff, and I thought “Wow, that was a fun roller coaster.” But still I didn’t think anything would come of it. Then, the next morning at the conference, Jeff offered to represent it. I actually had to sit down when he told me. It was staggering. I’m so glad I followed my mom’s advice. Maybe that’s the lesson – listen to your mom.
ZUNIGA: How important was rewriting and revision to your book – and how much did you do?
IVEY: I am a constant, in-process reviser. I want each and every word to feel right, for the language to strive towards a kind of harmony. It slows my writing process, and in ways can seem like a waste of time. Often those pages I’ve agonized over, I cut out later. But the only way I can enjoy writing is if I feel like that sentence mattered, and the next one after it. I also had some very talented readers – my husband, my mom, my agent, and my editor. They all had different strengths and insights, and they really helped me see where I could improve the manuscript along the way. I find revision to be an intensely challenging but satisfying process.
ZUNIGA: What were your feelings when you learned that The Oprah Magazine selected your novel as one of its “top ten” must read books?
IVEY: I think I had a kind of out-of-body experience, like this must be happening to someone else. I bought the magazine at the airport on my way to New Orleans for a book event; I was certain I was going to open it to page 111 and it would all be a mistake, The Snow Child wouldn’t be there after all. But there it was!
And really this is just one crazy, wonderful thing that has happened with the book. It was also picked by Barnes & Noble as a Discover Great New Writers selection, Waterstones in the UK chose it for their prestigious “11” award, the Christian Science Monitor named The Snow Child #1 of six books to read in 2012, and it just hit #1 on the Norway bestseller list. As a bookseller, I knew I would be incredibly fortunate to be published at all. Never did I dare to hope that Little, Brown & Co. would acquire it and all this would happen. It’s really amazing!
ZUNIGA: What authors have influenced you and why?
IVEY: I always find this such a difficult question because there are so many. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little girl, and I have fallen in love with so many books. But I think the first novel that really stunned me, that made me want to be a better writer was Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Then there are novelists like Toni Morrison, Charles Frazier, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, people who I read with the deepest admiration. But I’m constantly discovering writers – Chad Harbach, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safra Foer, Richard Flanagan, William Vollman, Yoko Ogawa … and just as it’s difficult to stop listing authors, it’s a challenge for me to figure out the common denominator. I love good writing, storytelling that weaves poetry into the words. I like funny books and sad books, disturbing stories and magical stories. I just want it to be honest, to be something from a writer’s heart that he or she is giving to me as a gift.
ZUNIGA: Why did you become a writer? Did your work as a reporter help or hinder your writing process and how?
IVEY: The written word has always fascinated me. I didn’t always know I would be a writer (at different points in my childhood I wanted to be a brain surgeon, a cow girl, and an astronaut.) But I always knew that I loved books. I went into journalism because I couldn’t figure how else to really earn a living as a reader and writer. I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to write. So I spent nearly a decade as a reporter for our local newspaper. I don’t regret those years – it was a great training ground for a writer, producing that much copy each week, enduring brutal edits, writing something and letting it go the next day without another thought. But as much as I value those years, I was never truly happy as a newspaper writer. Fiction was my true love, and when I decided to leave journalism and work as a bookseller, I suddenly found I had the energy and inspiration to begin writing novels.
ZUNIGA: How do you balance family life, working at a bookstore and your writing?
IVEY: This is a challenge for all of us, isn’t it? The funny thing is, like many writers, I complain about not having enough time to write, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have a very full life, and I’m grateful for that. And, perhaps as a former newspaper journalist, I thrive under pressure. When I know I only have this one hour to write before I have to take our daughter to school or cook dinner, then I make that hour work for me. I suspect that if I had a leisurely lifestyle, I wouldn’t write a word.
ZUNIGA: What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is struggling with rejection?
IVEY: Oh, it’s awful. Rejection is so much a part of the process for all of us, and it’s excruciating. It’s difficult to keep up in the face of it, but unfortunately I think that’s what we have to do as writers. Just keep trying again and again. But I think if you do it for the love of it, because you love to read and you love to write – that’s something no one can take away from you, no matter how many times they say no.
ZUNIGA: Any final words you’d like to add about your book, yourself or the writing process?
IVEY: I would just encourage writers to read – read everything you can. I envision books as a kind of timeless literary conversation, and the best way I can make my own small contribution is to know what has already been said, to try to understand it and appreciate it.
For the book trailer on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSS0lK6Fy24
Eowyn Ivey’s website: http://www.eowynivey.com/