Eowyn Ivey sets her debut novel in 1920s Alaska, where readers are first introduced to its wilderness by an aging couple struggling to survive in this unrelenting, isolated place.

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Verging on desperation, winter’s first snow ignites their hope again—and a flighty, wild little girl appears to them out of nowhere.  Only Jack and Mabel believe she is real, and sometimes even they question whether Faina, who thrives in the deep cold and seems capable of conjuring snowstorms, could possibly be a normal child.  

Here, Ivey talks about her connection to Alaska, the inspiration she found in a Russian fairy tale, and how Faina represents all that is terrifying and beautiful in the sublime setting of The Snow Child.

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You’ve lived in Alaska your entire life. Was it important for you to set your novel there?

Some writers begin with a story in mind and then look for a setting, but for me it’s the other way around. Alaska is a given for me as a writer. I really can’t imagine writing about anywhere else. And so it’s more like I’m looking for the right story to set in my home state.

I work at a bookstore, and I was shelving books when I came across this little children’s paperback that was Snegurochka (“The Snow Maiden”), the Russian fairy tale. I knew it was my story immediately because it was one that I could set in Alaska.

Does the book incorporate your experiences of Alaska?

A lot of moments come directly from my own life. We hunt most every year, so the scene where Jack is butchering a moose, I’ve done that. People ask me how much research I had to do, and really there was very little research in terms of plucking chickens and hunting and fishing. All of that is very much informed by my lifestyle up here.

How did the element of magical realism help you to mold your setting and story?

Growing up I read a lot of fantasy. I liked it, but I was disappointed that the magic was always happening in some other world. And so I was always looking to bring magic into my stories in a more realistic way.

I think that’s what was so exciting about finding Snegurochka because it was my path, the way that I could get there. But I wanted to walk this really fine line of incorporating magical realism but also be believable for those who maybe don’t believe in magic. It was a fun challenge.

The book is full of contrasts—real v. unreal, hope v. fear, beauty v. harshness—and Faina embodies all of them. What does Faina represent for you?

For me she is a bit of an embodiment of Alaska. I find it to be a place that has all of these contrasts. On one hand it’s really beautiful, and on the other it can be a really scary place. What I wanted Faina to have is some of that raw beauty and a little bit of fierceness—the characteristics of Alaska that I admire so much.

What influenced you in creating such a peculiar and extraordinary character like Faina?

The fairy tale for me became sort of an exploration in trying to figure out how a snow child could exist and what would she be like. I started with that basic inspiration, and I ventured out. I was also inspired by the art that I came across. There were a lot of lacquer and oil paintings done in Russia over the centuries of Snegurochka. I loved to look at those and decide if my snow child would be like any of them.

The book expresses both the difficulties and rewards of living in an isolated, wild environment. What is one thing you hope readers understand about Alaska after reading it?

One thing I would love for people to take away from The Snow Child is that part of what makes Alaska so unique is its harshness. Things can become idealized in ways that make them not as real and that’s a danger for Alaska.

People find Alaska to be fascinating. But I want people who haven’t visited to have a fuller sense of what it’s like. I think that’s how you really come to love a place, or a person, when you know all of its different facets and yet still admire it.

Any plans for a second novel in a similar setting?

I do. I received a grant last summer to spend a week floating on a raft with my husband through a remote, rugged portion of the Copper River in Alaska. We had glaciers caverning around us, seals swimming up to the raft and grizzly bears watching us from the shore.

It was really inspiring, and I’m excited to continue working on the new novel. It has similarities to The Snow Child. It’s set in historic Alaska and has fantastical elements, but I’m hoping it turns into a more epic, adventurous type of book.

Chelsea Langford is the editorial coordinator at Kirkus.