An Interview With Helen Oyeyemi: “Nothing Happens Without My Teapots”

Author Helen Oyeyemi discusses orderly magic versus chaotic magic, the importance of wearing blue mascara while writing, and her new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird.

Piotr Cieplak

Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels: The Icarus Girl, The Opposite House, White Is for Witching, Mr. Fox, and her most recent, Boy, Snow, Bird, which appears stores this week. I first encountered her work when I found a copy of Mr. Fox someone had left behind in my office during a fellowship in Leipzig, Germany, last year, and decided it was lucky, as I had just seen a fox outside my house. The startling wit and inventiveness of the book kept me good company, and so when Granta chose her for its newest Best of British Novelists issue last spring, I thought, Of course.

Oyeyemi herself seems to belong a little more to the world than just one country, though — will Granta ever do a Best Novelists of the World issue? She has been writing her uncanny, fierce oeuvre all while moving from Paris to Berlin to New York to Prague, as if she were on one single, long adventure, punctuated by these publications. The newest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, takes up the legend of Snow White, that famous ingénue in the woods, dancing with her dwarves, her evil stepmother plotting her destruction, and sets both of them down in the woods of what is most likely Vermont in the 1950s, a fairy tale remade into a novel about passing as white.

The evil stepmother is remade into Boy Novak, a white-blonde runaway with black eyes, who leaves her father’s home to make her fortune away from him in a small town chosen as it is as far north as the bus will go. There she marries a widower named Arturo Whitman, who has a daughter, Snow.

Allegory can reveal what realism can’t — and vice versa. What Oyeyemi does here is mix their powers, filleting the American landscape by setting this fairy tale inside of it, and the resulting novel is by turns quixotic, bewitching, funny and intense, a revelation. The reviews are coming in strong: “gloriously unsettling,” says the New York Times; “The risks Helen Oyeyemi takes … are astonishing in their boldness,” says the Los Angeles Times; The Onion’s AV Club calls the novel “utterly enchanting and oddly eviscerating”; the Washington Post’s Ron Charles said, “While staying rooted in a largely modern, realistic setting, Oyeyemi captures that unresolvable strangeness in the original fairy tales that later editors — from Grimm to Disney — sanded away.”

Helen and I exchanged emails this week to talk about the novel, and the following exchange is drawn from them.

The press for this novel says you are retelling Snow White, but that isn’t quite what this is, is it? There’s something else.

Helen Oyeyemi: Oh, retelling Snow White is what I set out to do! But I had to come at it slant because that’s how I tend to read fairy tales: In this case I was watching the role of the magic mirror and pursued the line of thought and the feelings it provoked.

What was the part of Snow White that provoked you until you wanted to begin?

HO: Retelling a story can be a way of arguing with it, or testing its architecture for false walls — I was always a bit incredulous that the mirror in the original story got away with the things it said. Also I didn’t feel the wicked Queen’s heart was really in her attempts to kill Snow White: It wouldn’t have been difficult for her to make sure she got rid of the girl on the first try. It’s the story that wants/needs her to try again and again. So I imagined someone experiencing wickedness as a bit of a hassle, and that someone is where the wicked queen blends into Boy.

I love this idea of arguing with it by retelling it — and when you speak of false walls, it makes me think of that mirror. It’s like you pushed through it and made a door, so you could begin with us in the point of view of the wicked stepmother, taking us in through her life before she ever gets to the mirror.

HO: Yes, that’s how the telling of it had to be, otherwise her past would just be an explanation of her rather than something she really, really lived. I also took an interest in how Boy’s understanding of herself as rather an awful person is influenced by her father: I don’t just mean that he half convinced her that she was bad, but that she wants to go forward as the kind of baddie who creates problems for other baddies. There’s a sense that on some level the rat catcher would be proud that she doesn’t allow people to sit comfortably.

Piotr Cieplak

Boy seems like the easiest of the characters here to know and write, but then I love an adventuress — was she the easiest? And how did you find the characters of the half sisters, her stepdaughter, Snow, and then her daughter, Bird?

HO: I love adventuresses too. But I found Boy very tricky, because she isn’t really sentimental and I am — oh, horribly so. The sort of musings I enter into when writing to friends from a new city are absolutely unbearable, and Boy would just keep that stuff to herself. There was quite a bit of deleting things she wouldn’t say when I was writing in her voice. There was a lot less deleting with Bird; this made me uneasy. She’s a mimic and so am I and I wonder if being somewhat hard-hearted doesn’t come with being a mimic, regardless of whether it’s literary or auditory voices you throw. As for Snow, I felt sorry for her. I hadn’t expected to feel that. So then more room was made for her.

As a fellow mimic, I think you’re right — though I’d say it also makes it easier to tell when people are lying. But maybe that’s just hard-hearted. What then was the biggest obstacle in the novel’s writing, and how did you take it on? And what have you learned from writing these novels up until now that is the same, novel to novel?

HO: At one point during the novel something became very clear to me about one of the characters, and I knew that it was true to the rest of what had been written but when it came time for Boy to see what I’d seen I grew afraid that by writing on I’d make the book impossible to care for. So I was afraid, but that was the only reason I had for not putting the words down, and it wasn’t a good enough reason on its own, so I finished the book as it is. Each book has been so different for me to write.

And that is, in fact, what makes the book go from exciting to great: that act. I won’t spoil it for our readers here. Something I admire so much about the novel is how you tell an old story that everyone thinks they know — Snow White — and then you turn it into a way to tell us another old story: that of racial passing, one central to both North and South America. The entire continent, I think you could say, has a simultaneous obsession with racial purity and passing — and the one obsession creates the other. Did you have that in mind at the start, or did you find it in the writing?

HO: I did expect that the characters were going to have to engage with this obsession with purity, and I must say that in that sense it was most discouraging that some of the bleakest tropes of an ancient central European folktale could play out just as logically centuries later on another continent.

Passing involves that primal confrontation with the self — it begins with self-scrutiny and ends with either failing or passing the test of “looking like one’s self” — the self one hopes others believe one is. This confrontation is denied to your half sister characters, Snow and Bird, when they don’t show up in mirrors. What was that choice, of invisibility in mirrors for the sisters, about? A connection that they cannot deny and cannot also see?

HO: I think the two sisters have a connection that makes them pretty much unable to believe in any such thing as a static, unified self. At times Bird and Snow’s need to look at each other and register their sisterhood is more important to them than the image each projects as an individual, and I expect those are the times when mirrors get a bit of scared of them.

There’s a common writing caveat that magic should best create as many or more problems as it solves in literary fiction — do you have any thoughts on that? Or is that just a mistake, telling enchantment what it can and cannot do?

HO: The magic in any particular story will do what it will do, regardless of what it ought to do. Sometimes I like a magic that brings order and redistributes resources in almost exactly the same way money does, and sometimes I like a chaotic magic that’s reminiscent of another effect of money … (If we’re going to look at power dynamics within fiction at least let’s keep an eye on all sources of power!) So it all depends.

Given your very international life, it’s interesting to me that America is in your imagination in a big way, the setting of your last two novels. Was there a uniquely American inspiration for this novel that you can share with us, a moment where the novel began here for you? Or is America just a landscape you’re not done with yet? And if so, do you have a sense of why?

HO: I spend a lot of time in imaginary 20th-century America — due to films and books and music from the Jazz Age onward, really. So setting up my own little corner of it has come naturally. But actually I never feel quite locked into the specifics of setting; I just choose a place and hope we’ll all hallucinate its characteristics together (isn’t this how city life tends to work?).

I imagine you living in some sort of vast loft full of books and the pieces of various monsters and angels, but given how often you’ve moved, what have you found essential to maintain for yourself, whether you are in New York, London, Prague, Paris, Berlin, etc.? What are your non-negotiables in a place so that it lets you get to the work you do?

HO: Nothing happens without my teapots — different teapots for different teas — and it’s good to able to go for riverside walks and find out a bit about the personality of a city’s river; it’s especially good when the bridges suit the river. I’m most fond of the Vltava and the Seine, each of which seem to me to exhibit varying degrees of waywardness, and the Danube, where time passes through the water in dark clouds as you stand on the riverbank trying to make a friend understand that the Danube is in actual fact a green river while your friend tries to make you understand that it’s a blue river just as the waltz suggests.

You left your MFA program after a year. Based on that choice, do you have any advice to give those who have stayed in a program?

HO: I only lasted a semester on my MFA program, but you know, that program offered the best of everything: I was taught by the likes of Victor LaValle and took an excellent history faculty course on medieval marriage customs. To those in MFA programs I’d say stick with it if you can but don’t feel bad if your mind is crooked like mine is and you find you’ve got to leave.

Do you have any personal superstitions you keep, and is there one you can share?

HO: I can recommend wearing blue mascara whilst writing. I’m telling you, it really adds something.

***
Alexander Chee was born in Rhode Island, and raised in South Korea, Guam, and Maine. He is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Ledig House, the Hermitage, and Civitella Ranieri. His first novel, Edinburgh(Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award, and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, and a Book Sense 76 selection. In 2003, Out magazine honored him as one of its 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His essays and stories have appeared in Granta.com, Out, Tin House, TriQuarterly, The L.A. Review of Books, and Apology. He has taught fiction, nonfiction writing, and the graphic novel at Wesleyan University, Amherst College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Columbia University, and is currently the visiting writer at the University of Texas at Austin New Writers’ Project. He otherwise lives in New York City and blogs at Koreanish.

His second novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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