04.11.11 | Charlotte Williams
Silence and snowfall; a fox and a girl, darting in and out of trees; pickled peas and mean apple pies. Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey's literary début The Snow Child (Headline, February 2012) is brimming with descriptions, opening up the wilderness of this most northerly American state, even as the truth of the story is hidden from its own characters.
Ivey says: "It was a tremendous learning experience for me. I discovered telling a story is just as much about withholding details as revealing them. It's an element of writing that I find exhilarating—keeping secrets."
The novel (which Little, Brown will also publish in February in the US) is a retelling of a Russian folk tale, Snegurochka, about a childless couple who sculpt a girl out of snow. In Ivey's story, it's 1920, and the couple, Mabel and Jack, have moved from Pennsylvania to Alaska, to escape the feeling of isolation and failure they had felt while surrounded by other families.
When the snow girl, Faina, appears to come to life, she creepingly becomes part of their lives, and those of a neighbouring family, Esther and George and their son, Garrett. But a sense of unease never quite leaves the narrative: "I wanted this lingering feeling that [Mabel] might be imagining it. Fairytales fascinate me. The ones you hear when you're little, they often have much darker endings than you think.
"I always knew that she was real and that was another impetus for the story. I loved the idea that I could invent a story where you could believe in those things."
Ivey worked as a journalist on her local newspaper for nine years, but says fiction is what she "always wanted to do". She started working at an independent bookstore, Fireside Books, when she took the plunge to focus on her creative writing—and still works there part-time. "I had a lot more creative energy when I started working at the bookstore; being surrounded by the customers and the other workers and all the different kinds of books . . . It is so stimulating to the mind."
She was waiting to discover a fairytale that she could set in her home, Alaska—a landscape that seeps deep into her writing. "Really it's the starting ground. The place is my muse." She first discovered the folk story while shelving books at Fireside one day, coming across a picturebook version and reading it on the spot. "It was kind of a magical feeling when I read it, I got this amazing tingly feeling."
Abandoning a novel that she had been working on for five years, Ivey immediately started researching and writing The Snow Child, working for two hours every night once her two daughters—one a new baby at the time—were asleep.
"It kept coming, it was like opening a box . . . I had a fire inside me." She laughs as she describes her "office"—her walk-in closet: "So behind me there are coats and Christmas decorations." When in full flow, she types directly on to the computer. "My thoughts fly much faster than my pen does," she says. "I'm just so glad my mum made me take typing classes at school."
Ivey's mother, a poet, also pointed her in the right direction when it came to getting published, urging her to talk to agent Jeff Kleinman when they went together to the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference. Kleinman asked to read her first 100 pages; Ivey hadn't brought them with her, but a few frantic phone calls to her husband and a broken fax machine later, Kleinman had them. He read them overnight and offered to represent her the next morning. "It was really one of those fate moments," Ivey says.
With her family, Ivey lives half in the wilderness, hunting caribou and moose, but also "going into town for pizza . . . We sort of straddle the two worlds. I think we have a little streak of self-sufficiency." Her next book will be "more adventurous and more epic", concerning an expedition on Alaska's Copper River.
The Snow Child has a wintery power, full of "star-lit fairies and fireflies", and its ending both uplifts and unsettles. "We can't reinvent endings, but what we can do is express the joy as it is there," says Ivey. "Although I knew this fairytale, I didn't know how it was going to turn out."