Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi explores the reality of fairy tales with her book "Boy, Snow, Bird." (Piotr Cieplak/Penguin Group Photo)

In the novels of the young British writer Helen Oyeyemi, the gap between the fantasy world of fairy tales and "the real world" — whatever that is — all but collapses. "Mr. Fox" (2011), for example, is a fable about a writer and his dying father, while "White Is for Witching" (2009) is a neo-Gothic tale in the tradition of Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery"), about a haunted bed-and-breakfast.


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Oyeyemi's new novel, "Boy, Snow, Bird," is a retelling of the Snow White story with eerie, still-relevant racial themes. Its heroine, Boy Novak, leaves New York in 1953 for a new life in the village of Flax Hill, Mass. There she marries a widower, Arturo, and becomes stepmother to his daughter, Snow. But when Boy and Arturo have a son, named Bird, his dark skin reveals their secret: that they are light-skinned African-Americans passing as white.

Printers Row Journal caught up with Oyeyemi, 29, for a phone interview from her new home in Prague in the Czech Republic. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.

Q: You were born in Nigeria and grew up in London, so what was it like to write an American story in an American voice?

A: Slipping into an American voice was easy, because I'm a big fan of golden-age Hollywood and film noir, which was a big source of a lot of the dialogue. I also grew up reading Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson. The book is set in Massachusetts, so I felt comfortable in a sort of imaginary New England that I'd imbibed already.

Q: Did you find yourself having to weed out British phrasing and spellings?

A: Yeah, I especially had to check the spellings. But that gave me a sense of breaking rules, which was slightly exhilarating. But I was also worried about overwriting the voice, making it sound too American, if you know what I mean. There was a need to make it sound natural.

Q: It would be hard to sound too American, I would think.

A: Really? It could get pantomimey, I think. I had to beware of that. I watched this Czech film — a Czech Western, if you can believe it — called "Lemonade Joe." It's from the '60s, and they just ham up every Americanism you can think of. If you saw it, you'd know how it's possible to go too far with that.

Q: The other cultural translation you had to make in "Boy, Snow, Bird" was the racial aspect of the story. It's different, I imagine, for people of African descent living in Europe, as opposed to the African-American experience, which has the legacy of slavery behind it. Being black, and certainly passing for white, means a completely different thing in the United States than it does in Europe or elsewhere, I'm guessing.

A: Passing is definitely an American phenomenon. I first encountered it in Nella Larsen's "Passing," which is splendid. I was really taken aback, in part because it is, as you say, oceans away from the black European experience. England does have its race issues — my novel "White Is for Witching" is about a racist bed and breakfast — but it's a lot more subterranean in a lot of ways. But growing up in London, I was lucky in that I went to school with people with skin colors of every shade you can think of. It was not a big deal. So it was interesting and kind of shocking to read something like "Passing," and to think about what would drive somebody that far underground.

Q: Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" also deals with the phenomenon of passing. That story probably could never happen in Europe.

A: Yes. So if I wanted to retell "Snow White," as I did, with an emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of race, then it had to be an American story.

Q: Fairy tales seem to be important to you, maybe because they provide a certain distance from "the real world." Did you read fairy tales a lot as a child?

A: No, actually, fairy tales are a very adult thing to me. Their structural simplicity makes them easy to dismiss when you're a kid, and also you're given the very cleaned-up version of fairy tales when you're young. So in my late teens and early 20s, I read the original Grimm stories, in which, for example, Cinderella's stepsisters hack off their toes to fit into the slipper — that's not something that's usually told to children. So the darker underside of fairy tales makes them realer, in a way. And anyway, I don't feel there's a difference between the real world and the fairy-tale world. They contain psychological truths and, I guess, projections of what the culture that tells them thinks about various things: men, women, aging, dying — the most basic aspects of being human.

Q: You also have an interest in horror stories, haunted houses and so on. People have spoken of you in relation to Shirley Jackson, who wrote "The Lottery" and other stories.

A: I do love Shirley Jackson, but I don't deserve to be named in connection with her. I remember reading "The Haunting of Hill House" and having goosebumps for hours. The way she builds narrative pressure in that book is just amazing. I think you could reread it a few times and actually go out of your mind. But maybe for me it's just that horror is an opportunity to, not experiment, but to look at the technology of how a story works, and to see what you can do to increase the reader's sense of dread.

Q: I learned recently that when "The Lottery" came out in 1948, several people wrote to her asking if they could come and see it take place, as if it were a real event. So she's making such a horrible thing seem plausible, bridging the gap between horror and reality, in a chilling way. And maybe you do something like that in "Boy, Snow, Bird," bridging the space between fairy tales and reality.

A: I don't think there's anything to bridge, actually. How many worlds do you want to have? I don't mean that in an interrogative way; I just mean that it's all one thing.

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.

"Boy, Snow, Bird"

By Helen Oyeyemi, Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $27.95