If the world of traditional publishing was looking for a poster girl, they might consider the American author Eowyn Ivey.
A former journalist – she worked for her home town newspaper for nine years reporting everything from local crime to the school board minutes – Eowyn (yes, her mum really did name her after a character from Lord of The Rings) now works part time in the fiercely independent and local Fireside Books shop, in between caring for her young children... and writing novels.
Did I mention she’s Alaskan? And yet this unconnected, non-celebrity, shop worker with no connections whatsoever to any literary dynasty or media outlet has, with her debut The Snow Child, has hit the kind of commercial and critical home run most writers just get to dream about. This year she has seen her debut in the top twenty hardbacks on both sides of the Atlantic, and selling briskly round the world too.
I met her a few months ago when she breezed through Glasgow on a book tour.
“I know, everything that has happened has been completely contrary to how I understood publishing to be,” she says, blushing slightly. “It is amazing to me.”
She first came across the original Russian folk tale her novel is based on while stacking books at work. It gave her a “tingly sensation” as she realised that this was exactly the kind of story she’d been looking to adapt.
“I had been working on a completely different novel for about five years and I abandoned it,” she says.
“Later I discovered the Arthur Ransome version, Little Daughter of the Snow, and learned that there were ballets and operas based on the story. It has a rich history, and it was like an opening up into this world I didn’t know about.”
Ivey was three quarters of the way through her manuscript – replanting the yarn to her own native Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s – when she and her mother went to a writing conference in state capital Anchorage. (“We’re really lucky where we live, because we’re on the road system,” Ivey assures me. “It means we can get into Anchorage without needing a plane or a boat.”)
Once there she pitched her concept to a New York agent, who immediately demanded to read the first hundred pages. “I didn’t even have it with me,” she shrugs. “I had to get my husband Sam to fax it.”
With the agent’s guidance Ivey finished the novel – which took another year of writing in the evening while her husband bathed the kids.
But then, in an unexpected plot twist, Mr New York told her to sit on it. “Publishing in the US was so topsy-turvy,” she explains. “It was the recession and there was all this talk about e-books. He decided it was best to wait a year. But that was really difficult.”
She has no regrets about the strategy now. The book was scooped up by Little, Brown in America, Headline Review in the UK, and by a raft of other publishers worldwide. It has hit the best seller charts, been featured on reading lists compiled by Oprah and Waterstones, and next week graces Radio 4. Self publish on Kindle, you say, why bother?
It’s easy to see the broad appeal. The Snow Child is a highly evocative read and Ivey writes beautifully, sculpting her characters with economy while summoning up the extremes of the Alaskan landscape, exploiting her own lifelong experience. That’s the other thing about Eowyn she really couldn’t be any more authentic, short of turning up at our interview with a set of antlers.
She and her husband Sam (they met at High School) had a first date shooting moose (the only meat they eat is what they kill themselves) and live in a cabin too remote to be connected to the mains water supply. “Every book is a small donation to our new well,” Eowyn laughs. I think that well should be pretty well dug, by now.
The Snow Child is out now (Headline Review, £14.99).