Wednesday, May 16, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey and I met this winter. We were in one of those big halls, sitting behind stacks of our books, while booksellers rushed and roamed. I liked her immediately and though I hadn't yet read a word of her (wonderful) debut -- THE SNOW CHILD -- I had the feeling I was with a real writer -- one who seemed to be keenly smart and warm and really human, real, genuine. Those traits can translate sometimes onto the page -- but not always. In this case, they have. And it's my great pleasure to introduce Eowyn Ivey -- if you haven't already met her on the page. 

Here goes:

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

The Snow Child really did come to me in a sudden jolt of inspiration. I was shelving books at Fireside Books where I work here in Alaska, and I came across this little paperback children's story with illustrations. It was a retelling of the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka, about an old man and woman who build a child out of snow and she comes to life. In all honesty, I have never had a moment like that as a writer. Right then I  knew this was the storyline I had always been seeking. BUT, that spark lit a fire that I had to keep going. Sometimes the fire crackled along nicely, but other times it was like I was feeding wet twigs into a dying fire while it rained on my head. Inspiration is a wonderful feeling, and one that keeps me going as a writer, but bringing that initial burst to fruition, at least in my case, demands a lot of tedious work that sometimes feels a bit like drudgery.  

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Absolutely. Alaska is where I start as a writer. I never come up with plots or characters and then think, "Where should I set this?" Instead I start with the place and search for a story I can set here. I think artists often have mysteries they are trying to solve, resolution they are seeking, through their creative process. As a writer, I am still trying to figure out this place and what it means to me.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I both resent and need deadlines. I left the newspaper business in part because I hated always having deadlines looming over me. And yet, I can't seem to write without one. Like my grandmother says, it's not that I work well on deadline, that's just the only time I work. One reason I finished The Snow Child was because I figured out a way create my own illusion of time pressure. My mom, Julie LeMay, is a poet, and we agreed that each week I would give her a new chapter and she would give me a new poem. Nothing terrible would have happened to me if I didn't come through, but I felt like I had made a commitment. Apparently I have to trick myself into making my own deadlines in order to get anything done.

Writing Tip #38 for Aspiring Writers.

Write what you like to read. This is so obvious, and yet it took me years to figure it out. I got my degree in journalism because I needed a practical way of making money, and I don't regret that decision. But in my free time I wrote nonfiction essays, because I thought that was logical. I don't love to read essays. I don't love to read newspaper and magazines. What I devour are novels, and I always have. I think I wasted a lot of time writing other stuff because I didn't follow my heart.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

I have one of those crazy, dreamy, fairy-tale kind of publishing stories. I was about three-quarters done with The Snow Child manuscript when I attended the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference here in Alaska. My mom and I went because we wanted to learn more about our craft and visit with other writers. But when we got there, I saw that the presenting literary agent was Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management, and I recognized some of the amazing titles he had represented. My mom encouraged me to sign up to talk to him, but I balked. My novel wasn't finished. I wasn't ready to talk about it. But finally she convinced me. I sat down with Jeff and told him what I was working on, and to my complete shock he asked to read the first 100 pages. But I hadn't brought the manuscript with me! I spent the afternoon trying to contact my husband, who was outdoors cutting wood, so that he could go to the nearby library and fax the pages to the conference. The fax never came through. Eventually, I got an email version to Jeff. It was all very exciting, but I figured nothing more would come of it. But the next morning, Jeff approached me at the conference. He said he had read the manuscript and wanted to represent it. I literally had to sit down, I was so overwhelmed. Nearly four years later, and The Snow Child has landed on bestseller lists in the US, Norway, the UK, and is being published in around 30 countries. I never would have dreamed.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

As a bookseller, I am frightened of this question. The publishing world is changing so fast, and brick-and-mortar bookstores are the casualty. As a reader and writer, though, I think this is a really exciting time. Technology is allowing people to get the books they want more quickly and easily, and writers have more ways to get their work into the marketplace. In the end, I'm not sure the basics will change. There will always be readers. There will always be writers. And there will always be people we can look to for recommendations, whether they are booksellers or bloggers or reviewers. In the end, the written word will survive, whatever the format.

Eowyn Ivey was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters. Her debut novel The Snow Child is a New York Times bestseller published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown & Company. Ivey works as a bookseller at Fireside Books.

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,