Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Conversation with Helen Oyeyemi

Every once in a while, I am lucky enough to stumble across a book that I completely fall in love with by accident. No one has pointed it out to me. I have heard nothing about it. No one has lifted it off a shelf and pressed it into my hands and said, in a fervently bright tone, “oh, but this is so exactly your kind of thing.” Instead, we have met by chance. It’s like stumbling into a stranger on the street and discovering that, not only are they quite kind about the jostling, but they are also someone you would be happy to sit down to dinner with.

Mr. Fox is Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth novel. It is the story of Mr. Fox, a famous writer, and the two women he loves: his wife, Daphne, and Mary Foxe, his once imaginary muse. Mr. Fox has a habit of murdering the women in his stories, and Mary Foxe is determined to make him stop. She sends them both through a labyrinth of different incarnations and different lives, examining things like love and violence and the importance of how a story gets told.

When I picked up Mr. Fox, it was jumbled up with a bunch of other review copies, and I only moved it to the top of the stack because the illustration on the cover caught my eye. And then I began to read, and I read, and I read, and I couldn’t put it down. Mr. Fox was unusual. It was full of magic, yes, and charm and wit; but it also had an astringency, and a warmth that persisted despite the dark oddness of it. It made me happier for reading it, and a little sad that I had finished so quickly.

Helen Oyeyemi is twenty-six. She wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, when she was 18. She graduated from Cambridge and has lived in many cities, growing up in London and landing most recently (at least at the time of our correspondence) in Berlin. Her work is often compared to those writers of darkly fantastic or oddly surreal stories that the literary world holds dearest. Haruki Murakami, for instance. Or, Edgar Allan Poe. She won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award for her third novel, White is for Witching, and Mr. Fox has already been selected for O Magazine’s Fall Reading List.

But that is not why you should read Mr. Fox. You should read Mr. Fox because it is very good (even if I have spoiled the possibility of you coming upon it by chance) and because Helen is, as you will see below, a sharp delight.

Photo of Helen Oyeyemi,
credit Saneesh Sukumaran
Megan Kurashige: Where did Mr. Fox begin? Was there a particular moment when you knew you wanted to write this novel?

Helen Oyeyemi: Mr. Fox began when I was in Paris—it was springtime, so romance was on my mind, and I was also reading Rebecca, which is very romantic, in a psychopathic sort of way.  It was the first time I'd read that book, and it opened up the Bluebeard narrative for me. Bluebeard used to be one of my least favourite fairytales—never been much of a one for blatantly didactic stories, wasn't impressed by the heroine having to be rescued by her brothers, &c &c—but reading Rebecca brought other aspects of the story out for me, aspects that are actually central: the repulsive, attractive figure of the wife killer and the psychology of fidelity, the demands made by romantic allegiance, &c.

So I re-read Jane Eyre, which I already loved, and the Bluebeard elements of that book came through more clearly post-Rebecca, and then I looked into Bluebeard variants—the German variant, Fitcher's Bird, which still really disturbs me, and the English variant, Mr. Fox, where the heroine, Lady Mary, proves a perfect adversary for Mr. Fox the wife-killer, because naturally no Englishwoman will put up with any of that sort of baroque, melodramatic nonsense. It was when I read the English version of Bluebeard that I saw my two characters and rubbed my hands together with glee; before that I'd really just been toying with writing a Bluebeard-type thriller, but of course was intimidated to the point of paralysis by Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Wide Sargasso Sea

MK: How much research did you end up doing on the story of Bluebeard?

HO: I read essays on fairytales—the marvelous Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, Margaret Atwood, and this website, The Journal of Mythic Arts, was an absolutely brilliant resource—and I read retellings of fairy tales...Anne Sexton's Transformations was a book I read and re-read whilst preparing to write Mr. Fox. Good times. 

MK: The structure of the book is a bit unusual, but all the stories within the story seem like the perfect shape for a narrative that delves so much into the idea of fairytales and stories themselves. Did you set out with this structure in mind?

HO: I didn't. I wanted to tell a straight story that stayed within a logical time frame and location, but it was just impossible. There's something dynamic in the relationship of the two characters, even in the original fairytale—they battle with words, it's a battle over who dictates reality, and it became necessary for reality to go elastic in order to show what's at stake. Of course, I say this having written the book. While I was writing it, I was just following an unspecified instinct and having fun. Yes, fun!

MK: There is such an impressive range in the different parts of the book. Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe, in their different incarnations, manage to be funny and charming, brutal and sad (among other things!). What was it like to explore so many facets of the same characters?

HO: Very happy-making. Though not at all safe; which is probably part of the happy-making. There were times when I was purely inventing and imagining, high as a kite, and times when I suddenly came to earth and got a little bit too close to the truth of my own life (strangely, some of the more fantastical stories in the book are the ones that do that) and I'd never see it coming.

MK: There are so many unusual contrasts and satisfying rhythms in your prose. I’m curious about how your stories appear to you while you’re writing them. Do you hear them in your head? Do you see them like a film?

HO: Ah, thank you. I like the question, though it's difficult to answer. Somewhere between hearing it and seeing it... basically it's all about the narrative voice for me, I go with the narrator, so it's a matter of being the narrator and remembering what the narrator remembers, so it happens in the way that a memory happens.

MK: Are there any books that have particularly excited you lately? Are there any films or pieces of art or music that have piqued your interest? Our readers are always fascinated by the current furnishings of authors’ heads.

HO: Well, well. My favourite books so far this year have been The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott, Jesse Ball's The Curfew, Alina Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, and The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns. They don't have a lot in common in terms of style, but each one delivered beguiling, fully-imagined, all-consuming thrills—I'm talking about falling asleep with the book beside your head and then beginning reading again immediately as soon as you wake up thrills. I wonder if I'm allowed to say that I love Almodovar's The Skin I Live In even though I haven't seen it yet... I just trust him. I like art: the surrealist Remedios Varo has been a recent discovery. Papilla Estelar, that painting of a girl patiently feeding the half moon with a teaspoon (what is she feeding it? it seems to be sky), is just tremendous, and that's only one. 

MK: I’ve read, in other interviews, that you’re a frequent traveler and have lived in a number of different cities. Why did you choose to leave London? Do you think that your travels have affected your writing? Where do you see yourself heading next?

HO: I like cities and their different personalities; I like making friends with them, London is alright, but we aren't best friends or anything, so I'm looking for a best friend. We've got to choose each other. I don't think my travels affect my writing all that much— here I am in Berlin, working on something set in England—and I feel too embarrassed to type the name of the city I'm going to next, because it's actually a city I've already lived in for a little while before deciding it wasn't for me. But I recently changed my mind. (This city isn't London. But it feels a bit like getting back together with a blatantly unsuitable boyfriend—you don't want to tell anyone unless you're getting married...)

MK: Why did you choose to tell much of this novel from within Mr. Fox’s point of view?

HO: Partly to see if I could do it, and partly to further humanize him. As a character, Mr. Fox began very much in the mould of a certain type of male writer, and it was fun making guesses at what it was like to be that kind of writer.

MK: Why are you drawn to the magical and fantastical in your work?

HO: They're extreme states, and they correspond with human emotion for me. Márquez caught me early. I also like absurdism and surrealism; basically, it's difficult for me to even approach anything close to objective reality.

Mr. Fox is published by Riverhead/Penguin and will be released on September 29, 2011.