When you pay enough attention, you just know when an author has taken full command of her powers, and you realize that the future only offers a treasure trove of riches. Maybe she had a good debut novel, a so-so sophomore outing, but around the third or fourth book, they start putting out work on an entirely different level, and there’s very little looking back. Of course, there is also the opposite of that: a writer who bursts out of the gate with one or two instant classics, only to lose steam after that. You continue reading their books in hopes that they’ll recapture their former glory — and maybe they do once a decade or so — but it’s never as good as the early stuff. Helen Oyeyemi is neither of those writers.
Oyeyemi has been churning out novels since 2005’s The Icarus Girl, which is always mentioned as the book she wrote when she was 17 because that fact only makes the book more remarkable. If you were to start there and work through her books in chronological order, you’d see that Oyeyemi either possesses or is possessed by a sort of magic that guides her work, the kind that she’s always been good at using, and has commanded with a steady hand. With her latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, she looks close to mastering it completely.
I spoke with Oyeyemi about her latest book, her own influences, and about how she once again uses fairy tales to explore certain themes, this time taking the tale of “Snow White” to comment on race and family in her own unique way. Without spoiling too much or echoing Judy Berman’s Flavorwire review of the book, it all results in Oyeyemi giving us the first great novel of 2014.
Flavorwire: Myth and fairy tales influence and find their way into so much of your work. What’s the process? Do you think of an old story and let it guide you as you plan the novel?
Helen Oyeyemi: I think I tend to argue with the source story as I write my way into and out of its tropes — Bluebeard was really rewarding work in that respect, a story in which crossing boundaries has horrific costs — and I’d show up in front of my laptop every writing day, cheerfully ready to pit myself against that story’s rules. And at the end of it there was Mr. Fox.
Did you have any particular stories or fairy tales that you especially liked growing up?
I loved, and still love, Peter Pan, though it gets more and more frightening the older I get. Somehow I don’t think it would surprise J.M. Barrie to hear that. Also Hans Christian Andersen, who sends his characters on foolhardy quests after what cannot be (and sometimes they win… and oh, when they win!). I read “The Snow Queen” before I read Emily Dickinson, but re-reading it now it often makes me think of Emily D’s “‘Tis so much joy, tis so much joy!/If I should fail, what poverty!/And yet, as poor as I/ Have ventured all upon a throw…”
I want to talk about the time and place: could your novel have been set in a different period or somewhere other than New England?
Yes, it could’ve been set elsewhere in America, but not after the end of segregation, I don’t think. I’m considering segregation as a time period where the law openly acknowledged a relationship between one’s ethnicity (or at least perceived ethnicity) and the value placed on one’s life. Now everybody’s much more sneaky about it.
I was reading an interview with you in which the interviewer asks, “Do you prefer to write about women?” You responded that you’re sometimes asked, “How come the men in your stories don’t have such strong characters?” Does that sort of question bother you?
No. I can see how such questions would bother a feminist who turned out flawless prose. But in my case [laughs], I think interviewers that ask that mostly tend to be showing some friendly concern about my craft. It is interesting that some readers don’t think you’ve written a good book unless there’s a character in it that they consider a strong male character. But I find that more interesting than annoying.
Cultural acceptance in American society is a topic that fascinates me. I’ve seen people write about people from other countries moving here, changing their names, and doing things to make them seem more American. Yet black families that managed to pass as white isn’t something I’ve seen discussed all that much in fiction. What made you want to explore that?
It’s where the ancient folktale meets the lives we live now: standards of beauty still tend to favor a pale skin and Caucasian features, and the magic mirror in “Snow White” was keen on those attributes too.
I was thinking about your other books, how there was this noticeable Brontë and maybe even a Henry James influence. While there are definitely elements that call to mind Gothic and Victorian-era literature in Boy, Snow, Bird (the evil stepmother, rat catchers, mirrors), I realized your work is starting to make me think of writers like Orhan Pamuk, where I’m actively trying to spot influences in each book. Do different authors and works influence you from book to book, or does what you’ve been reading seep into your writing?
It’s a very, very nice bonus when people pick up on the stories that your story’s sprung out of, thank you. I think it’s more that there’s a general mesh of influence that I write through — the influence of a heap of quite different writers, from the somber to the madcap to the mercurial — and I just pull out different attributes for different books.
What have you been reading as of late? Anything great you’d suggest?
I just finished Kseniya Melnik’s Snow in May, and I recommend it; it’ll have you going around muttering: “brutal age, rough manner, nyet romantismy.” And I’m now reading Marcel Ayme’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls, which has some really startling stuff in it.