Helen Oyeyemi has published four novels, starting with The Icarus Girl (2005), the story of an eight-year-old girl and her doppleganger. The Opposite House, which followed in 2007, tackles issues of migration and cultural identity as experienced by Maja, a twenty-something singer whose family moved to London from Cuba when she was a child (SH review here). Her third novel, White is for Witching (2009), is both a haunted house story and a tale of possession, set in Dover and Cambridge in the early 2000s (SH review here). It won a Somerset Maughan Award and was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. Oyeyemi's most recent book is Mr Fox (2011), a novel in stories about the relationships between writers and muses, men and women, and reality and art (SH review here); new novel Boy, Snow, Bird is forthcoming from Picador and Riverhead in 2014. Earlier this year she was included in the fourth Granta list of the Best Young British Novelists. She currently lives in Prague. This interview was conducted by email in August and September 2013.
Niall Harrison: Having just re-read your four published novels through for this interview, one of the things I hadn't quite realised before is that they all feature protagonists struggling with uncanny doubles or counterparts of some kind. In some cases they're ghosts or spirits, in others gods or other supernatural entities, in Mr Fox the relationship is writer/muse . . . What do you think draws you to this sort of relationship?
Helen Oyeyemi: Impressed that you read all four novels! In answer to the question, I'd say that I've been going on a case by case basis with each book—mainly so that I get to tell the story in a style and register that feels right for that particular type of story—and so conflict between characters is specific to the narrative. To me, White is for Witching is a haunted house story, Mr Fox is a Bluebeard story, The Icarus Girl is a doppelgänger story, and so on.
Amongst the things I was reading before my haunted house book, for instance, was Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and I read that as the tale of a seduction, the seduction of a lonely woman by a house with a very particular taste, and that gave me the basis for the relationship between Miranda Silver and 29 Barton Road. Except that Miranda wants out. And then telling Bluebeard my way meant recognising that the source tale already involved a battle of words—I considered that permission to borrow from the tones of two different genres of Golden Age Hollywood that I love, both of which tend to involve gender warfare, film noir and screwball romantic comedy. There's also the fact that I'm a narrative junkie with a great respect and affection for the established structure of stories, but a need (either compulsive, or worse, postmodern) to dismantle that structure, just to see what happens. It's possible that this business as usual/tear it all down approach generates an energy that plays out as uncanny in the books I write.
NH: How do you feel about The Icarus Girl now? Do you feel that you’ve done everything you want with that type of voice? I hesitate to use the word 'accessible', but it struck me as the most emotionally direct of your books (which I'm sure has a lot to do with how young Jess is). A couple of times I even wondered whether, these days, it would be published as YA.
HO: O, I've heard the YA connection being made to The Icarus Girl, and there's also been the question of whether Mr Fox is a novel or a short story collection. In both situations I just think a book is a book—if there's a story in it and I'm interested in the way the thing is told then I just read the book without thinking too much about what to call it. So I accept The Icarus Girl as it is, since I doubt I'd be able to write in that voice again. I probably don't have that voice anymore. There are others waiting their turn . . .
NH: If not doubles, do you feel there are themes or influences that you do return to, or is each book its own separate project?
HO: I can see a continuity in terms of the way The Icarus Girl makes reference to other stories and to poetry, but otherwise each book is its own project.
NH: Do you find the project comes before the voice, or does it vary? And are you a writer who plans, or do your stories develop in a more organic, intuitive way?
HO: Usually a central idea comes first, then working out how to do it. White is for Witching was carefully planned and written with attention to a narrative motion that I've found powerfully disturbing in books that are narrated by multiple voices—I'm thinking of Dracula and The Woman in White, the way events unfold and then fold back in again. But the other things I've written tend to come together much more intuitively, so I've just been able to get on with sentences. Writing a sentence makes me happy! Writing a whole novel makes me anxious.
NH: That makes sense to me; I felt that White is for Witching was a very precise book. Because of the section set in Cambridge, it's probably also the book of yours I connect with most personally—I went to Oxford, not Cambridge, and I'm obviously from a very different background to your narrator there, Ore, but I recognised the intensity of the place. Can you talk a bit about how you approached that section, and what you wanted to convey about Cambridge as an institution?
HO: Pigeon holes, cross/nosy/gruff/surprisingly lovely porters, eight-week terms, the terrifying privilege of being taught in such small groups (and therefore having to pretty much discourse on texts you read while half asleep) . . . but how was your Oxbridge?
I didn't want to convey anything in particular about Cambridge as an institution—it seemed as if apprehending any objective characteristics of the place was impossible for us first years. We'd all overachieved our hearts out to get to the place and once we were there it was like the unveiling of the Sangrail, with the Holy Ghost appearing to each of us in different forms. I'd thought that a state school, council estate background would cease to be relevant once I got there, but for the first year at least, it felt like where we came from took an active role in what we were able to make of the Cambridge experience. Things loosened up in second and third year, but the first year was definitely intense, so I'm glad I was able to put that across.
NH: All your novels strike me as political to a greater or lesser extent, but White is for Witching seems to me the one that is most directly about systems of oppression and prejudice, in addition to individual choices. Was that in your mind at all when you were writing it? In particular, do you see the book's fantastic elements as integral to its politics in that way?
HO: It was important to me to make room within the gothic genre for stories that make some of its themes explicit. Old-school vampire tales are rooted in a horror of otherness, the monsters being visible minorities with 'strange' accents invading 'our' communities and consuming resources. I took a grim pleasure in twisting the lens around so that the host environment became the source of the horror. It makes sense to me that the obstacles faced by a less favoured class of UK immigrant could be experienced as supernatural, impossible to evade, appease or outwit. Insofar as fantastical elements can articulate mental or emotional states, I think that in presenting a fragmented reality they invite you to seek out unspeakable sources of pressure that exist outside of the narrative frame. This is not to say that the supernatural in fiction is only important when it codifies the relationship between the individual and society, but if you're like me and find that you can only reach a very shallow stage of sleep for days after reading a scary book then you might as well get twice the bang for your buck.
NH: White is for Witching was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award, and (I believe) following that you served as a judge for the 2011 awards. Can you talk a bit about that experience, how you approached it? We have an awful lot of awards in the SF field, but the SJs do seem to me to serve a type of fiction that wasn't well-served before. And they've produced some really interesting winners.
HO: Unfortunately, circumstances prevented me from helping to judge the awards in the end, but for a couple of months boxes full of submissions arrived once or twice a week and there was some really good stuff in there, stuff I hadn't come across before—Chateureynaud's dark, odd, witty A Life on Paper, for instance—and Nick Antosca's Midnight Picnic and Victor Lavalle's Big Machine have won in the past, so as a reader the Shirley Jackson awards are right up my street.
NH: Moving on to Mr Fox, you mentioned earlier that Golden Age Hollywood was one of the starting points—can you talk a bit more about why you were drawn to that era, and perhaps how you wanted to address 'gender war' tropes more generally?
HO: I love the complex heroines of Golden Age Hollywood, the way they kept their leading men on their toes, behaving in unexpected ways because their motivations are layered: scheming, self-sacrificing, head-in-the-clouds, etc. So it's mainly the approach to characterisation. But I also love the wise-cracking dialogue and the clothes.
I started with George Cukor's The Women and never looked back. In film noir men and women double cross each other; often with fatal results, and in the screwball comedy and domestic drama effect is derived from misunderstandings and withheld information, and all of this resonates with the underpinnings of the Bluebeard tale, which I read in part as a story about how scary a lifelong commitment is, how impossible it is to know the entirety of what one has committed to until it's too late. Committing to art is no less risky than committing to another person, and that doubles Mr Fox's fidelity problem beyond the basic matter of 'handling' both his muse and his wife.
But there are also attitudes towards violence against women that it's necessary to destabilise; there's a role that literary, cinematic and televisual culture play in normalising the violent death and abuse of women. so the game between Mr Fox and Mary Foxe is both frivolous and serious, and so far it's the book I've been happiest whilst writing; I got to throw voices and observe transformations, and I was reminded of why I read and write fiction.
NH: Bearing in mind what you (rightly) say about the way our culture normalises violence against women, did you worry that the period setting could historicise the problem, make it seem like a problem of the past? Is that why many of the individual stories range quite widely in time and space?
HO: No, I don't think the time in which a story is set (or written) has much of a relationship to the relevancy of any point a story is making. The variety of the stories are part of the terms of the game between Mary and Mr Fox—she asks him what would happen between them in various situations and the situations emerge in order to test both their perspectives.
NH: St John Fox is not a very likeable figure, yet I felt the book was actually ambivalent about him at times—perhaps admiring his commitment to art, perhaps also seeing him as a product of society. I was also intrigued that the dedication is to "my Mr Fox"—and not, say, "my Mary Foxe". Do the two voices ever compete in your writing?
HO: What I like about voices is that as a writer you can have as many as you do influences—and influences tend not to compete, but to contribute to a nuanced whole. Maybe that's a fancy way of saying that I don't feel that ideological conflict between characters means that the purpose of the writing is conflicted. Mr Fox got points with me because he was willing to play the game on Mary's terms and yet retains sufficient autonomy to make mischief for her.
NH: Would it be fair to say that your characters' identities tend to arise from their own multiplicity of voices and influences? It seems to me that characters with a clear definite sense of self, like Mary, are in a relative minority in your work.
HO: But Mary's lack of a definite sense of self is one of her main grievances against Mr Fox. I'd say that the mental and emotional states of the people I write tend towards the fluid and contingent but their fundamental characters usually involve some form of recalcitrance, the kind needed to sidestep roles they are expected to play.
NH: Some of the most interesting scenes in the book come when Fox's wife, Daphne, talks to Mary. Did you know from the start that they'd establish a direct relationship in that way? (Were you ever tempted to have them run off together at the end of the book?)
HO: I suspected that Mary and Daphne would take to each other! And one of the things I especially liked about writing Mary Foxe is a characteristic that reminds me of the Mary Foxes that are already in my life—that sense that if she's going to do any running off, she's going on her own.
NH: Do you think you'll write more short stories (or novels-in-stories)? Are there other forms you haven't yet written in that you want to try?
HO: I am writing more short stories, and I'll stray into other forms later, I hope.
NH: I for one look forward to those. In the meantime we have an extract from Boy, Snow, Bird printed in Granta which I thought was (as you'd hope an extract would be) intriguing. You're writing about America again, but a few decades on from Mr Fox; and given that the narrator is a young woman named Boy, you seem to be setting up some fun with reader expectations again. What else can you tell me about the novel?
HO: Boy, Snow, Bird is a wicked stepmother story … and I'm very glad to hear you find it intriguing!
NH: I should also say a proper congratulations for the Granta list! It was an exciting list to see, because this time it feels like it reflects the generation of writers I've been reading. What's it like from inside the bubble? Have you noticed any differences in how people read your work now?
HO: It's most agreeable being on the Granta list; all the more so for knowing I don't belong on it. There's true glee in that. And most of the writers live so far apart and produce such different work that it doesn't feel like a bubble at all—I really like that in a list. Another thing: Granta sped up the process of my becoming a Jenni Fagan fan. The Panopticon jumped to the top of my to-read list and I'm so glad it did. As for differences in how people read my work—maybe that'll happen in the future? Maybe …
NH: And while (of course) there are no actual genre-published writers included, it's cheering for someone from my reading background to see so many writers who've played around with the fantastic. Why do you think it's in the literary air at the moment?
HO: I think a good modern writer has range—stylistic, thematic, but also in their borrowings from elements of genre—I think (hope) it's part of a growing appreciation for the various ways in which a story can be told.
NH: I think that makes a good optimistic note to end on—thanks very much for your time.
HO: Thank you!
This interview has been published as part of our 2013 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here. Help us get to $10,000 to access our last piece of bonus content: part 2 of Nisi Shawl's Red Matty, with podcast reading by Anaea Lay.