Eowyn (pronounced A-o-win; her Mom named her after a character in The Lord of the Rings) Ivey came to Fireside Books about seven years ago after working as a reporter with the local newspaper for nine years. She’d had the realization that her heart wasn’t in journalism and that she wanted to work more closely with fiction and literature. “I asked myself ‘If I could work anywhere else in our community, where it would it be?’ Ivey says. Fireside, which was a relatively new independent bookstore at the time, was the first spot that came to mind. Ivey was already a regular customer, and when she went in to apply, co-owners David Cheezem and Melissa Behnke told her that, coincidentally, they had just recently decided they needed a full-time employee. “It felt very serendipitous,” Ivey says.
Ivey’s novel, The Snow Child, will be published in February by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown & Co. She talked with us about the double life she leads as an author and a bookseller.
What’s it like working at Fireside? Fireside Books is on main street in Palmer, a quaint and kind of artsy small town with a farming background. When I come in Saturday morning, I brew the coffee. (Our motto is “good books, bad coffee” but it is actually pretty good.) I turn on some Putumayo jazz or folk music. The bookstore is small and packed full, but neat and organized. It somehow manages to feel both cozy and light and airy. The floors and shelves are a golden, varnished wood, and customers who come in say it smells wonderful—like books and fresh brewed coffee.
Usually within minutes of turning on the OPEN sign, a few of my favorite customers come in, like the older man who swaps stories with me about gardening and snowstorms and old-time Alaska. Then a new customer will arrive, like the woman who, when I asked if she needed help finding anything, said “That’s what I love about a bookstore. If you knew what you were looking for, you’d miss out on half the fun.”
For the rest of the day, I receive new books, shelve, alphabetize, process and clean used books that customers bring in for credit, help people find and order books, answer phone calls, arrange the weekly Indie Bound bestseller display, banter with the customers and my co-workers. Fireside Books attracts some of the more interesting, thoughtful, diverse people in our community. It is not unusual for several conversations to be going on at once—two teenagers in the young adult section talking about a new manga series, the owner and a customer standing near the counter discussing poetry and politics, two women from the same book club in the bestseller section choosing their next pick, and a mom reading a picture book to her little boy in the children’s section. It is a very stimulating, joyful place to be.
Sometimes Alaska feels like another wilder country to us here in the lower states—and, as testament to that, there’s your engaging list of ‘Hateful Things‘ on a recent blog post, which you wrote, you acknowledge, to balance out the wondrous things you usually write about your home state. It makes me wonder what hateful and wondrous things you’d say about bookselling in the last frontier. Oh, this is great! I had so much fun writing that blog post. I can’t say these are exclusive to Alaska, however.
* Strippable returns – hateful, hateful things!
* One welcomes a customer through the door, only to have the person petulantly hold out a Kindle and demand “Why isn’t this thing working?” Which is apparently the fault of the local, independent bookstore. Oh, the oblivious discourtesy!
* New editions with movie covers.
* The notion among some smallish children that it would be helpful if they pushed all of the books to the back of the shelves.
* One politely accepts a resume from a potential applicant, only to have the person suddenly look up and ask “Wait, which store am I at?”
* A book that the computer says is in stock but, despite much searching on one’s part, does not appear in the front window display until after the customer has gotten in her car and driven to an Anchorage store. The book becomes a hateful thing, regardless of the title.
* Ordering too many of the wrong title and not enough of the right one. Detestable!
* A grandmother presents one with the vaguest information: Her 10-year-old grandson wants the fifth book in a series. She knows not the author or title or even a few words from any of the titles. All she knows is it isn’t about dragons. Could it be The Last Olympian in the Percy Jackson series? “That’s it!” exclaims the customer, and one has to refrain from seeking a high five from the elderly woman.
* The extreme good taste of one’s customers, as displayed by the IndieBound bestseller lists.
* An author event in which all but two books sell, and the next day a customer comes in and says, “I’m so sorry I missed it. I need a copy for myself and my neighbor. Are there any left?”
* One recommends a favorite book (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) to an avid reader who never likes anything. Several weeks later, one is crossing a street in town when the reader yells from a passing car “I loved it!”
* A customer buys her first book of poetry after discovering Jane Hirshfield’s poetry on a rafting trip.
* One man inquires after a certain Tom Clancy book just as another customer brings that exact title in for used credit. (It actually happened!)
* ARCs. Glorious, abundant ARCs.
* Employee discount.
We’d love to hear your handsell for your forthcoming novel, if you want to practice on us. Here’s the funny thing: I LOVE handselling books. It’s something I take some pride in, being able to match people with a great read. Fantastic titles such as The Green Age of Asher Witherow and Tinkers would have gone unnoticed in our store if we didn’t literally take them off the shelf and hand them to our favorite customers. And yet . . . the thought of handselling my own book makes me want to hide under the counter; I have this sort of innate discomfort with self-promotion. But it’s something I’m trying to get over, because I am really excited about The Snow Child and can’t wait to share it with readers.
I based The Snow Child on a Russian fairy tale about an old man and old woman who cannot have a child of their own and so build one out of snow. When she comes to life, their wish seems to have been answered. While this sounds like a fantastical story, the novel is very grounded in the Alaska wilderness where I grew up. There’s this interesting contrast of an ethereal, fairy-tale child, and the beauty and brutality of life on a homestead. I’ve been fortunate to already have some wonderful reviews and endorsements. It’s been described as dazzling and enchanting, unnerving and honest. Robert Goolrick, the author of A Reliable Wife said, “If Willa Cather and Gabriel García Marquéz had collaborated on a book, The Snow Child would be it.”
Whew. I guess I can come out from under the counter now.
So The Snow Child is like the Alaskan love child of Gabriel García Marquéz and Willa Cather? I think you buried the lead there! I guess I did bury the lead. It still takes me a few sentences to build up to those grandly self-promoting lines. I physically cringe when I repeat it, not because I’m not incredibly flattered, but because it makes me so uncomfortable.
Let’s try something that might be more comfortable. Let’s hear your dream display for The Snow Child. I don’t know if this is true of all bookstores, but we have this amazingly artistic group of employees, so I can’t wait to see what they do with the display this February. I’m picturing delicate, ornate snowflakes swirling across the front window, and a sort of Russian/art deco script announcing the arrival of The Snow Child, but I have a feeling Ruth Hulbert, Katie Renn and Mary Ann Cockle will come up with something better than anything I can imagine. I do know that my dream display includes stacks and stacks of The Snow Child, and they would all sell and there would be enough for everyone and not a single one would have to be returned, ever.
How does being a bookseller influence the way you write—or does it? This is a great, complex question. The Snow Child absolutely would not have been born if it weren’t for Fireside Books. But on a more subtle level, working as a bookseller informed me on trends and markets and what readers want. I can’t say it influenced what I wrote—it’s a shortcoming of mine that I’m able to write only what I really, really want to write. But it helped me recognize when I had an idea I thought might be exciting to other people, too. Working at Fireside also clarified my taste as a reader and writer. And because I’ve seen great books sit ignored on the shelves (For instance, we’ve had this one copy of The Great Explorers by Robin Hanbury-Tenison in almost every major display at Fireside because we all love it, but we can’t sell it to save our lives.) I’ve watched all the changes with self-publishing and e-books, and I know this is a strange, fickle business. That has made me all the more grateful for the support The Snow Child already has from other authors, booksellers, sales reps, and Little, Brown & Co.
Will you tell us a little bit about your process as a writer? When did you know you had a novel on your hands? When do you write? What energizes you? One of the reasons I left the newspaper business and joined Fireside Books is because I wanted more time and energy to write. What I didn’t expect is how stimulated I would be by the actual work as a bookseller. To be constantly surrounded by all these ideas and stories and art!
I had been trying for years to finish my first novel. But one day I was shelving books in the children’s section and I came across a used, inexpensive paperback children’s book about the snow child. I quickly read it there in the store, and I just knew. This was it. I became a bit obsessed—researching the original Russian fairy tale and imagining my own version. Though I tried, I could not force myself to finish that first novel.
By this time, our second daughter had been born. I wrote The Snow Child mostly at night after the baby had gone to sleep. I read chapters aloud to my husband and oldest daughter, and then each week I gave a new chapter to my mom, Julie LeMay, who is also a poet. I spent nearly five years working on that first, unfinished novel. I had a first draft of The Snow Child in less than a year. It was an incredible feeling to have that kind of motivation and energy and inspiration. It was this perfect storm of working at Fireside Books, gaining confidence as a writer, and having the support of my family.
What has it been like seeing the publishing process from the other end of the counter? It’s kind of fun, like holding a book in your hand and finally flipping it over so you can see the back cover. It’s still the same book, but I am seeing it from a different side. Just like the upcoming dinner at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s tradeshow in Portland. Years ago I attended as a bookseller with Fireside owner Melissa Behnke, and we sat at the author feast. Authors were coming to the table to tell us about their books. This October, I’ll be one of the authors, and it’s such a thrill! And yet somehow it’s also calming. These are my fellow booksellers. I don’t feel nervous. I’m looking forward to talking to everybody about . . . well, books.
Will you create a dinner for us with some of your favorite Alaska authors? There are so many amazing, diverse writers in Alaska right now, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to share a meal or drink with, and many others I hope to someday. But since this is hypothetical and my daydream, I’m going to choose authors who are now deceased and so, unfortunately, I will never be able to invite to a real dinner party.
Definitely first on my guest list would be Margaret Murie (1902-2003). Her quietly observant voice in Two in the Far North is a constant influence to me as a writer. She was adventurous, kind, self-deprecating, clever and selfless—everything I admire.
Joseph Enzweiler (1950-2011) was a rugged, independent poet who captured so much loneliness, beauty and hard work in his poetry. He is the only guest I was fortunate enough to have actually met, at a writing conference. A group of us stood around a campfire on a beach and talked about John Haines’ stunning essays and the woes of a poet going on a book tour. But I did not have nearly enough time to visit with him.
Fred Fickett (1837-1928) is one of my research subjects right now. He was a member of an 1885 military expedition that has been described as the Lewis & Clark of Alaska. From his journals and letters, he seems like a brave, charming and funny man. And there is so much he left out of his journals that I want to know.
Dale DeArmond’s (1914-2006) wood engravings of Alaskan folklore and mythology are my current inspiration. I have a copy of Tales from the Dena, which she illustrated, and I am completely enthralled. I would love to meet her, to be able to tell her how much her art work has meant to me and to learn everything I could from her about Alaska’s mythology.
The dinner party would be a potluck at our home, because that’s how we do it around here, but also because I would be curious to see what everyone else would bring. Would Joe make a homemade cake? Would Fred bring a salted ham?
I would make a pot of homemade salmon chowder and bread fresh out of the oven, and I would have several bottles of wine and some Alaska IPA ale on hand. It would be winter, and there’d be a birch fire in the wood stove. My husband and daughters would be there, too. During the course of the meal, I would ask my guests a thousand questions about their vision of Alaska, their writing and art. But I would never stop to take a single note or photograph because I would want to be wholly in the moment.
Fred and my husband would end up talking about the Copper River; Ms. DeArmond and my youngest daughter would draw bears together. Margaret would insist I call her “Mardie,” and Joe would bring in more wood for the fire. None of us would want the evening to end. But, inevitably, the guests would file out the door into the black night, my daughters would change into their pajamas, and my husband and I would sit and stare at the empty bottles and piled dishes, but we would be too tired and content to clean up.
6 responses to “Good Books, Bad Coffee, Great Company: Eowyn Ivey’s Wondrous Alaska”
Great interview. Excellent questions. I’m so glad you asked about a dinner. The answer provided ideas for my book list and the dinner description was extraordinary. It sounded so wonderful that I wish to be invited.
Wonderful, thoughtful, thorough interview– loved hearing about the life of a debut author who is also a bookseller promoting the love of books in my home state. Go Eowyn!
For more on Eowyn Ivey, I have an INTERVIEW with her coming up on her debut novel ‘The Snow Child’.
You can go to my WordPress blog (Novel Girl) for more info! The post is titled “Upcoming: author interview with Eowyn Ivey (the Snow Child) and “Art of Writing” sessions.” Here’s the link: http://wp.me/p1WPf3-4j
Please drop by for more on her, the interview and ‘The Snow Child’ (including where to pre-order your copy RIGHT NOW).
Hi, readers. For anyone interested, I’ve interviewed Eowyn on my blog. Find out why “The Snow Child” is one of the top picks for 2012 and why everyone’s talking about it: http://rebeccaberto.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/author-interview-eowyn-ivey-on-her-debut-novel-the-snow-child/
Hi ! Eowyn…wanted to let you know i have just finished your mythical adventure of your book “The Snow Child ” could not put it down ! can understand how it became one of the top picks in 2012… I belong to a book club here in Oxford Ct. and am wondering if you have any literature, pamphlets, etc.. you may be able to send about Palmer, Alaska and something about your life in Alaska ..if a cost is due ,am willing to pay… there are about twenty ladies that participate..please keep me informed, our book club is posted for the 25th of September 2019 Regards, Carol Laurino
Thanks for visiting NWBL and reading this classic Eowyn Ivey post. We have passed along your comments to one of our favorites. Cheers.