Yesterday I reviewed Helen Oyeyemi’s marvelous (in every sense of the word) new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. Ms. Oyeyemi graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.
How would you describe the inception of Boy, Snow, Bird? What was the writing process like?
HO: the idea of writing a wicked stepmother story had been in my mind ever since i’d read Barbara Comyns’ novel, The Juniper Tree, which is a retelling of the fairy tale of the same title from the perspective of the wicked stepmother (poor, poor woman – i mean the wicked stepmother, not Comyns…Comyns’ narrative voice is so wonderfully eldritch, a mix of light and grit in proportions that only she can master.) it took me some time to get into Boy’s voice – perhaps i was worried about the difficulties she was going to have in terms of trying not to do harm when she’d been harmed herself.
Much of the novel takes place in a small town in Massachusetts. Was there a particular reason for this choice? Did you visit the area to get a sense of the landscape, or conduct other kinds of research for the novel?
HO: i have a dear friend who lives in boston; we drove up to worcester after i’d finished writing the book so i could see how completely imaginary the small town near worcester in my book is. massachusetts is linked to emily dickinson and louisa may alcott in my mind, so i think of it as a place where my kind of woman can flourish: a good place to send Boy to, i think.
HO: Anne Sexton’s take on Snow White, in her collection, Transformations, affected the way that i read snow white – that image at the end of the poem, the wicked queen dancing herself to death in red hot shoes. for me Anne Sexton’s retelling exposes a notion that’s woven into the story: where there are two beautiful women, one must pay a price – a price for both women’s beauty, perhaps. most of the characters in my own retelling are wise to this notion, and don’t accept it.
Boy, Snow, Bird confronts — always with grace — difficult issues of race, gender, family, and aesthetics. What’s one question you hope readers ask as they come away from the novel?
HO: i hope a reader leaves the story wondering how to get better at seeing other people, or at least seeing through our own halls of mirrors.
As readers may know, you’re a prolific writer, with five novels and two plays to your credit already. What’s next on your writing horizon?
HO: o dear…your guess is as good as mine. but i’m looking forward to it, whatever it is.
My thanks again to Ms. Oyeyemi for her time and her thoughtful answers.