You’ve credited the inspiration for your first novel to an old Russian folk/fairy tale, but specifically to a short story by Arthur Ransome ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’? How did you stumble across that?
It began with a children’s picture book called The Snow Child, illustrated by the Alaskan artist Barbara Lavallee. It is a simple retelling of the Russian fairy tale ‘Snegurochka’, with just a few sentences on each page. In the story, an old man and woman build a little girl out of snow and she comes to life. Before I came across this children’s book, I had never heard of the fairy tale. But as I began to learn more about it, I realized that over the centuries it has been told many times in many forms – opera, ballet, lacquer paintings. One of the most striking and influential versions for me was ‘The Little Daughter of the Snow’ by Arthur Ransome, which I found online in my research. It was in Mr Ransome’s story that I discovered the fox and learned more about the little girl made of snow. It provided some very important elements to my own story.
We love the delicacy and mythological fairy spirit of the Snow Child. You make Alaska sound beautiful and of course, you live there. How has its landscape inspired you?
Alaska is where I begin as a writer. I grew up here and continue to live here with my husband and two daughters. Much of our time is spent in the wilderness, hunting, fishing, skiing and hiking. It is a beautiful place, but also frightening and overwhelming. It can be dark and cold and oppressive and dangerous, yet at the same time also almost epic in its sweeping, grand splendor. I think writers often have puzzles they keep returning to, contradictions they are striving to understand. For me, it is Alaska. I don’t start with a plot and then go searching for a setting. Instead I am looking for stories that will allow me to explore this place. In The Snow Child, I was able to view it through very different eyes: Jack and Mabel, newcomers who haven’t yet decided if they can make a home here or not; the Bensons, who are Alaskan to the bone. Then there is Faina, who is an embodiment of the wilderness itself – fierce and fragile, violent and beautiful, and in many ways unknowable.
Faina, your snow child, is very mysterious. Right up to the end we are not 100% certain if she is human or fairy. Why did you leave us wondering?
That was one of my goals throughout the story – to maintain both possibilities, even in the end. Readers often ask me to answer the questions that are left unanswered. Was she human or was she made of snow? What happened to her in the end? But for me, the mystery is the answer. I like stories that keep some doors open, that leave something for the imagination. And I find that life is full of many questions, about reality, about our origins and our ultimate fate, and I wanted to reflect that in my story.
We love the character of Mabel, the tragically childless woman who retreats to Alaska when her baby is stillborn. Did sophisticated people like her from the east coast of America really re-locate to Alaska in the 1920s to find solitude and a new meaning to life?
Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed her. She represents an aspect of Alaska that I have always admired. You never know who you will meet here. There are adventurers and daredevils, those who seek solitude and peace, artists, independent thinkers, rough-and-tumble fighters . . . all kinds. Some of Alaska’s greatest artists have moved here from the East Coast to live in remote cabins and divide their time between their interior, creative lives and the physically grueling demands of the landscape. I think of poets like John Haines and painters like Sydney Laurence. And it has been that way for generations. Women ventured here alone at the beginning of the 1900s to teach in remote villages, women were mountain climbers and big game hunters in Alaska before our country had given them the right to vote. Judges, professors, farmers, doctors, and gold miners – people of all walks of life have come to Alaska and helped to shape its history.