About The Author
Eowyn Ivey was raised in Alaska where she still lives, working as a bookseller at Fireside Books in the city of Palmer. She was named after Éowyn in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Having studied journalism and then creative writing, she was a reporter for the Frontiersman newspaper for nearly ten years and was a founding member of Alaska's first statewide writing centre.
Her first novel, The Snow Child, was set on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s. Marrying the isolation of the Alaskan wilderness with the desolation of Jack and Mabel's struggling marriage, it is a beautiful evocation of hope amidst bleakness, and a truly magical fairytale.
Her eagerly awaited second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, also set in Alaska, is a breathtaking story of discovery set at the end of the nineteenth century, as Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska's hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men and having to leave behind his pregnant wife, Sophie.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Eowyn about taking on different voices and eras, the real-life inspiration for Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, exploring the unknowable and how the way she wrote Sophie was in part a reaction to Mabel from The Snow Child.
Below that, you can read our first interview with Eowyn, about The Snow Child, in which she discusses Russian fairy tales, building snowmen and the bond between reading and magic.
Questions & Answers
The story is told mostly through letters, especially those between Allan and Sophie writing to each other in the 19th century, and Josh and Walt picking up their story in the present day. Did you always intend to use this very effective device as the main driver or did the decision only emerge once you’d started writing?
I’m so relieved to hear it described as “effective.” From the very beginning I imagined telling the story in this way; it grew organically out of the fact that I was reading all these primary sources during my research. I hoped that by recreating historical documents, it would lend authenticity to a story that is at times very fantastical. It was a lot of fun, taking on these different voices and eras, but managing plot and suspense was tricky. At one point I considered abandoning it and rewriting the entire novel in a more straight-forward narrative style. Right about that time I received some encouraging feedback from the judges for a grant I had applied for, so I stuck with it. In the end, I’m glad I did.
Although emails are quick and efficient, do you think they would do the job so well today, in terms of providing their recipient with such a rich and intimate reading experience?
Because of my age, having grown up without the internet or email, I am tempted to romanticize more old-school communication. But then my 17-year-old daughter will share something she is texting or blogging about, and I’m so impressed. She has friends in places such as Scotland and China and Florida, and they’re talking about books, films, opera and art, in addition to sending silly gifs and emojis. In some ways I think there is even more possibility for rich communication. But personally, on an aesthetic level, I am in love with 19th century letters, journals and sketches. It’s just a different time.
Was Allen’s expedition based on an actual historical trip to Alaska’s Wolverine River?
Yes, in 1885 a young Lieutenant Henry T. Allen led an expedition up the Copper River into the heart of Alaska, over the mountains and down the Tanana and Yukon rivers. It was an amazing voyage, considered the Lewis and Clark of this state. During the writing, I relied a great deal on his reports as well as the letters and diaries of men on his expedition. That being said, I completely fictionalized the characters and even the river itself. I wanted the freedom to tell my own story.
Through Sophie you capture the thrill of the new and exciting medium of photography. Did many women actually have the opportunity to become involved in this nascent art form?
That was a really thrilling part of my research – many women were venturing into photography at the turn of the century, especially once dry-plate technology was introduced and cameras became more accessible at the end of the 1800s. One of my primary inspirations was Cordelia Stanwood, a Maine ornithologist who in ways revolutionized nature photography, and her work appeared in major magazine and journals in the early 1900s. But there were many, many women photographing everything from America’s cities and working families to studio portraits and nudes.
Sophie is intelligent, strong-willed and brave: ‘I would place all my faith in something mysterious and joyful and surprising, even if it fails me in the end.’ Was she based on anyone in particular?
She wasn’t inspired by anyone specific, but I think she was my reaction to Mabel from The Snow Child. I cared about Mabel, and had a great deal of compassion for her, but at times her depressive personality wore on me. From the beginning when I set out to understand Sophie, I knew I wanted her to be more resilient, fierier and lighter of mood. It takes me years to write a novel, and it’s a lot of intimate time spent with a character. I have to confess, it was a pleasure to get to know Sophie; she is someone I could be friends with.
Allan is shown as a man of courage and integrity and yet he has no qualms about paving the way for the destruction of the Alaska natives’ indigenous way of life, even while he recorded it with admiration. As Josh says, ‘It’s ironic that such details would be preserved by the very man who would set off so much change.’ Could he really not have grasped what would follow the opening of the territory or does something else account for his duality?
I’m afraid the Colonel is very true to his time, and if anything more progressive than most explorers of the past. Many military leaders in 19th century America felt that Western expansion was good not only for white citizens but for indigenous people as well – it would bring medicine, education, housing and a “civilizing” influence. It’s a very ethnocentric view, and it was a strange experience for me to try to embody and write diaries from that perspective. But even though it is a novel, with lake monsters and women who turn into wild geese, I wanted it to be as historically accurate as I could manage.
There is a very tangible connection in the book between the fate of Sophie’s father, shrouded in myth and mystery, and the mysterious raven that haunts the expedition. Can you say more about this?
One reason I love writing novels is that it gives me a chance to explore the unknowable, the aspects of life and death and reality and belief systems that are too difficult or awkward to bring up in everyday conversation. It’s partly about accessing the subconscious, and letting metaphor and meaning develop over the course of 400-some pages. And it’s also about leaving some room for readers to form their own questions and connections.
As part of what must have been extensive research for the book, were you able to make any part of the journey into this territory yourself, and if so, what impact did it have on you?
The fictional Wolverine River is inspired by both the Matanuska area, where I grew up and still call home, and the Copper River, the site of the true-life expedition. Although I had fished for salmon in the Copper over the years, it wasn’t until 2012 that I went there with this novel and the expedition in mind. Earlier I mentioned a grant I had applied for. The Rasmuson Foundation is a wonderful organisation here in Alaska that supports writers and artists, and in addition to giving me much-needed encouragement, they also awarded me a grant to explore the Copper for research. So my husband and I spent a week that summer in an inflatable raft, floating a 100-mile stretch of the river that includes the canyon and foggy flatlands that are a part of the novel. It was an incredible experience for me, both as an Alaskan and as a writer, and a few of my photographs from the journey appear in the book.
What if anything survives of the native Alaskans from this region?
Native cultures are an incredibly diverse, widespread and vital part of Alaska. While all areas have been affected by Colonialism, many groups continue to live more traditional lifestyles and speak their own language. I encourage people to read books like Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by William Hensley, Blonde Indian by Ernestine Hayes, Shadows on the Koyukuk by Sidney Huntington and the many books by John Smelcer.
Can you say anything about your next project?
I wish I were better at multi-tasking as an author. Although I have a few ideas bouncing around in my head, it won’t be until I’m done touring and talking about To the Bright Edge of the World that I’ll be able to find the quiet time I need to write.
Below, you can read our first interview with Eowyn, about The Snow Child, in which she discusses Russian fairy tales, building snowmen and the bond between reading and magic.
Where did the idea of The Snow Child come from?
I work as a bookseller here in Alaska, and one winter evening as I was shelving books I came across an illustrated children's story. It was a simple retelling of the Snegurochka fairy tale. I had never heard of it. I read it standing there in the shop, and it was such a revelation! A magical fairy tale set in landscape that could be my own backyard. I soon found myself researching how the story has been told over hundreds of years, and imagining my own version.
What would have been the greatest challenges for people living in isolated Alaska in the 1920s?
I think being so much alone. The physical hardships - the cold and snow, the darkness and lack of creature comforts - would certainly have been challenging. But I find in my own life I can cope with all of that if I have the support of family or friends around me.
Is your book-within-the-book - the Russian fairytale from Mabel's childhood - based on a specific children's book?
Not really. I combined aspects of different versions and illustrations I discovered along the way, and I researched how books of that time physically appeared. Then I let myself imagine how I would want it to be. I wish that book really existed - I would love to hold it in my hands.
Why do Jack and Mabel think of the snow child so differently?
They are two very different people. Someone once suggested to me that Mabel was perhaps more open to the idea of magic because of all the reading and imagining she had done through her life. And yet she had always been doubted by others. Jack, on the other hand, is more pragmatic, patient, and willing to accept Faina for whoever she might be.
Are the snow child and the fox allegories as much as literal characters?
I hope not. What I mean by that is while they certainly both reflect some of Alaska's wilderness, its beauty and ferocity, I wanted them to be more than just symbols. I aimed to flesh them out and give them the complexity and unpredictability of real living things.
Which literary character would you most like to see come to life?
I know this isn't a very helpful answer, but none. I think part of the joy and charm I find in novels is that they aren't real. There's something comforting about knowing that all the goodness and splendour, and all the terror, is held and contained by the pages. When I close the book, the story stops and the characters wait for me to return. And I would hate to have that experience like when I watch a movie of a favourite book and am disappointed.
Do you like building snowmen?
Yes I do, very much. It's difficult where we live, though, because it is usually too cold - the snow is too dry and powdery to pack into a shape. But occasionally with early snowfalls or later, as spring nears, it will warm up enough for us to make snowmen. We have a large one in our yard just now, with a red scarf and carrot nose, that my husband and two daughters built months ago. Somehow, through all this winter, it has remained standing.
Can you tell us anything about what you're writing next?
It's still very early, but I am working on another novel. It will definitely be set in Alaska, and will have some fantastical elements but on a more epic, adventurous scale. I'm having a lot of fun with it.
Read Eowyn's blog, Letters from Alaska