Pulitzer Prize-finalist visits Tulsa, discusses complex new novel

On Monday the 18th, 108 Contemporary in the Brady Arts District hosted a book reading for Eowyn Ivey, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. That is to say the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, for which she was a finalist with her debut novel “The Snow Child.”
An Alaskan-native, Ivey is on a book tour for her second novel, “To the Bright Edge of the World.” It revolves around a group of men who set off to explore the Alaskan wilderness, encountering along the way native tribes and their very real folklore.
Eowyn Ivey worked as a journalist and then in a bookstore before publishing “The Snow Child” in 2011. Beyond the obvious accolade of being a finalist for a Pulitzer, it has also been published in over 25 languages.
This was Ivey’s first time in Tulsa, so of course she made an obligatory comment on the heat that was met with hearty laughter around the room. She invited the whole audience to come visit Alaska sometime.
As impressive as the buzz around “The Snow Child” is, and despite the countless questions regarding it during the Q&A section of the night, Ivey mostly spoke about and steered direction to “To the Bright Edge of the World.” A spokeswoman for Booksmart Tulsa described the genre as magic realism. Ivey later responded, saying that the genre wasn’t one she personally related to.
“I try to write what I want to read,” she said.
To research for the book, Ivey spent countless hours poring over 19th century documents detailing actual expeditions into the Alaskan wilderness, taking particular inspiration from a set of diary entries written by an expeditionist. From what I could gather, this is the style in which the novel is written: through journal entries.
In addition, Ivey mentioned that she wanted a map for the inner cover of the novel and hired an artist to draft one for her. She unwittingly gave the artist a huge challenge, because despite the novel being basically geographically accurate, lots of details are invented, such as a fictitious Wolverine River.
Ivey also spent a lot of time studying native Alaskan folklore and legends, using in particular an anthropology book by Richard Nelson. She used the myths she’d researched as actual events in her novel that the expedition would have to work through or overcome.
In the excerpt she read, for example, a group of the expeditioners decide they’re hungry and go to hunt some Canada geese. As they come across a flock, they notice a huge, interwoven group of women bathing in the pond the geese have landed on. They accidentally make some noise, and both parties are startled.
The way in which Ivey described the chaos was particularly arresting. She made great use of audial imagery, describing in effortless detail the way the honks of the geese mixed in with the screeches and cries of the women, as they all ran and flew around. The men, unwilling to risk hitting any of the women, stayed their guns and merely watched the spectacle.
Another group of natives were apparently also present and rained arrows down on the geese without care for the women. One was eventually pierced through and nailed into a tree, and as the expeditioners approached her they noticed something strange in the way she blinked, and in how her fingers were webbed with claws on the end.
The excerpt ended with the men returning empty handed and dumbfounded with what they’d witnessed. The whole scene was based off an old native folk tale about how men used to have to chase a woman if they wanted her, because otherwise she’d turn into a goose and fly off.
A short Q&A session began after she finished with the excerpt. She briefly discussed a myriad of topics, such as the prevalence of Russian folklore in Alaska and of photography in the novel. Regarding the latter, she used YouTube videos and 19th century camera manuals she found on Google Books.
She mentioned also how Alaskans call the season of spring “breakup,” because of the breaking of the ice that clogs the rivers and streams in the cold months. She was fascinated by the seeming brutality and violence of nature in this way, how great swaths of land were torn apart by merely the cyclical passing of time, a theme which apparently comes out in her novels.
Her mother is a fellow writer: a poet, specifically. Ivey’s method of critique is very secluded, limited to family members and her agent. She struck a deal with her mother in which they each shared pieces of their work with each other as it piled up, and they were only allowed to give positive feedback.
Her mother proved to be a helpful figure in literary life, pushing her to get an agent that would eventually help her publish “The Snow Child.” She described her mother’s incredulous, unbelieving response to learning that Ivey was a Pulitzer finalist. She also mentioned how her mother is a big fan of Lord of the Rings, and it is in fact where Ivey’s first name, Eowyn, comes from.
As the night started to wrap up, Ivey told us a humbling anecdote. During spring (or “breakup”), as the ice and frost was thawing around the Alaskan frontier, she was one day cleaning her hen-house. Given the particularly moist and warm time of the year, this was of course a particularly disgusting cleaning session. As she went about doing it, she suddenly thought “Wait a minute, I’m a Pulitzer finalist?”
Cleaning away in the hen-house, she reflected warmly on how her life hadn’t changed even due to her debut’s runaway success. She would continue doing what she loved, and one can safely assume she would have even if she’d never been in the running for a Pulitzer.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker