The debut author of The Snow Child talks to us about her love of Alaska, the scariest thing that’s happened to her in the wild, lessons of life and love, and the importance of choosing joy — even though we can’t always make up the endings to our own stories.
Q: Did you always plan to write your first book about Alaska?
A: Yes. Alaska is the starting ground for me; all my writing, essays and fiction revolve around this place. It’s such a dominant force that it would be hard for me to ignore as a writer. People have asked me if I plan to ever write about a different setting, and I have to say no. I think there’s still a lot to be said about Alaska, and it’s the land I know and love.
Q: How much is your own life like those of the characters in this book?
A: There are certainly some similarities – we raise chickens and turkeys and have a vegetable garden; we hunt caribou and moose for our year’s meat; and we live in a somewhat rural part of Alaska. We chop our own firewood and heat our home with a woodstove, and we haul water because we live outside a public water system and don’t yet have a well. The most significant difference, though, is that we choose this lifestyle and always have other options. We have credit cards and paying jobs, and nearby gas stations and grocery stores. For Jack and Mabel, it truly is an issue of survival.
Q: What is your lifestyle like?
A: Like a lot of Alaskans, we straddle two worlds. We go to town for work and school. We have bills to pay. We bring home pizza on the weekends and watch movies in the evenings. At the same time, our family vacations are hunting trips on the tundra. And on a Sunday afternoon, we might be grinding our own hamburger or jarring salmon. I think Alaskans by nature hunger for independence. Many of us try to live a somewhat self-sufficient lifestyle, even as we participate in modern society.
Q: Which character in The Snow Child do you most identify with?
A: It’s funny, because none of the characters are exactly like me. And yet they all have a small piece of my own personality. I am bookish and at times melancholy like Mabel. I strive to work hard like Jack. I spend as much time as I can in the wilderness, and love to imagine how it would be to live like Faina. Like Esther, I once shot a bear in my own backyard; we turned the meat into delicious hot dogs and roasts. And like George, I love a good piece of pie.
Q: What is the most dire situation you’ve ever faced in the wild?
A: I have been so cold it scared me while out in the remote wilderness at temperatures of 40 below zero. I have gotten turned around in the woods and feared I had lost my way. But definitely the most terrifying experience was when my husband and I were trout fishing along a small stream and were charged by a sow grizzly bear. We came out of the dense brush to the streamside not knowing the bears were there, and she and her three nearly full-grown cubs all stood up on their hind legs. Then the mama bear came charging across the creek at us. I had always been taught that in this situation you are supposed to stand your ground – but before I knew it, I was running. When I realized my mistake, I stopped just in time to see my husband shoot his pistol into the water in front of the bear. He made a split-second decision, but it was the right one. The grizzly bear was startled by the shot and turned and ran with her three cubs back into the woods. I had nightmares about that moment for a long time after.
Q: Traditionally fairy tales have lessons to teach. What would you say are the lessons of your novel?
A: That life is mysterious and wild and sometimes terribly sad. But despite that, or perhaps because of it, there is beauty and friendship and love. There’s nothing new about this lesson, and yet I seem to have to learn it over and over again.
Q: How did you come up with the name Faina?
A: I wanted something that was unusual and had a beautiful sound, and I turned to Russian names. From what I could learn, Faina means “shining light” in Russian. It made me think of alpenglow, the way the mountains sometimes are on fire with pinks and orange tones at sunrise or sunset. Especially in the winter, when the mountains are white with snow, it is truly spectacular. And it is a fleeting, rare moment.
Q: Why did Faina not name her baby? Or the dog?
A: A wonderful question! I think it had to do with her wildness. It seems to me that names are a way for us to reduce something to a form that we can understand and control. Faina didn’t have that need.
Q: The death of the fox is shocking in many ways, and it’s after that that Faina decides to stay for the summer. Did the fox represent her guardian? Or more sinisterly, was she somehow its captive?
A: This is another interesting question! In an earlier draft, the death of the fox came when Faina was younger. But my editor wisely suggested moving it up in time, and I think it did lend this very interesting element to the story. It is as if the fox is her guardian or perhaps her most intimate connection to her wilder self.
Q: What about the idea of Mabel’s sister that we can change the story — “To invent our own ending and choose joy over sorrow”? In the end, the characters weren’t able to do that: Faina’s story had the same tragic ending as the fairy tale book Mabel reads. What does that say about life? What did you want it to say?
A: As I was writing this book, a dear friend of mine, a woman the same age as me with a young daughter of her own, died from cancer. It was a very hard reminder to me that we can’t choose who comes and goes from our lives. But I think what I wanted to express in The Snow Child is my deep love of life, even in the face of the sadness and suffering we encounter. We can choose joy, but we can’t make up our own endings.
Q: On a more hopeful note, is Faina perhaps the wolverine that appears at the end of the novel?
A: What a lovely notion! I hadn’t thought of it quite that concretely. But certainly, with the life of this little boy and the return of the snow, and in the reappearance of a wolverine in that same valley, I wanted to remind myself and readers that life and love, as fragile as they are, keep coming back to us in various forms.
Q: Are you working on anything now? If so, what?
A: I am working on another novel. It shares some similarities with The Snow Child – it’s set in historical Alaska and has some mythical, fantastical elements. But I’m imagining this story to be more epic and adventurous in scope. It’s still early in the process, but I’m excited about its possibilities.
Q: Who are some of your favourite authors and why?
A: Oh dear, this is always a dangerous question to ask me. I am a lifelong book lover who now works as a bookseller – I could fill up page and pages. I love the writing of people like Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich for their poetry and ability to cut to the quick. I adore the books of Larry McMurtry and Annie Proulx because of their distinct voices that never leave my head. Newer authors like Chad Harbach and Junot Diaz are showing us how important novels continue to be. I could go on and on and on…