Novel gets some of its magic from folktale

ajohnson@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2011 

Author Helen Oyeyemi likes magic and myth and things fantastical. You can see it in her books - "The Icarus Girl," "The Opposite House," "White is for Witching." All have her style of magical realism, her sense of African mythmaking (she's a native Nigerian, raised in London), her subversive humor, and a poise and control of language that seems beyond her 27 years.

In the recently released "Mr. Fox" (Riverhead Books), she takes on the Bluebeard folktale, transforming it into a story that examines gender stereotypes, misogyny, imagination, love and relationships. American writer St. John Fox is visited by his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe who doesn't like his tendency to visit violence upon his female characters. Mr. Fox is dismissive, so she suggests a game, inviting him to join her in writing stories they each create. Soon, Fox's wife Daphne begins to believe her husband is having an affair; she joins the game. The triangle launches a book full of stories and storytelling that celebrate the power of language even as they illustrate that power.

Oyeyemi, who moves a lot ("I'm looking for a city to belong to. I don't know what sort of city it could possibly be, but if it exists, I'm determined to find it."), answered questions from her latest home in Berlin via email:

Q: "Mr. Fox" was inspired by "Bluebeard." What about that story sparked your imagination?

It was reading Du Maurier's "Rebecca" that got me excited about Bluebeard. The heroine discovers that her husband has murdered his first wife, and she doesn't deny her knowledge, she faces it unflinchingly - a radical departure from the classic path the Bluebeard story takes, with the wife desperately scrubbing at the key she's dropped in the blood of Bluebeard's former wives, trying to hide the evidence that she's seen the bodies. After reading "Rebecca," I wanted to write my own Bluebeard story, and I started reading variants and came across the English version of Bluebeard, collected by John Joseph Jacobs in 1892. It's called "Mr Fox," and the heroine, a plucky Englishwoman called Lady Mary, hides in Mr. Fox's house, witnesses a murder he commits, then publicly confronts him. He denies everything, but she wins their battle of words. By the time I'd finished reading I knew my own riff on Bluebeard was going to be a game, but quite a serious game, and that two of the players would be Mary and Mr. Fox.

Q: In "Bluebeard," women seem to be punished for their curiosity. Is that something you wanted to explore in "Mr. Fox"?

The punishing women for their curiosity aspect of Perrault's Bluebeard is exactly what made it one of my least favourite fairy tales. As readers/listeners we never learn why Bluebeard killed his first wife, and all the subsequent wives are subsequently killed for looking upon the corpses of previous wives. I can actually take or leave conventional rationality in storytelling; I've never needed Bluebeard to sit down and bare his heart, but I did need just a hint of a beginning of a guess ... It was puzzling to me that the story emphasizes that women shouldn't nose about in their husbands affairs over the fact that men shouldn't kill their wives. Now I can understand that the bloody chamber could be read as symbolic of the personal autonomy that people need to maintain even after they've accepted the bond of marriage. But on the other hand, what? Very difficult for me to read a female corpse as symbolic of anything. If we lived in a society where women weren't being abducted and raped and murdered in real life, maybe I could indulge in that luxury, but as it is, I can't be so abstract. And there I go sounding like one of my own characters.

Q: I read that you noticed the male-on-female violence in the news and it became part of your thinking as your wrote "Mr. Fox." What are your thoughts on the reporting of these news stories on cable channels? Do you think they become narratives or near fairy tales?

To some extent. I think they add to a narrative of inevitability - 'because I am a maiden death pursues me.' It's so sad and so awful for it to be necessary for women to fear men they love - that's what violence against women teaches us to do.

Q: You've said that fairy tales are where you go for the structures and psychology of 'real' life. Why?

Because everything we fear as an individual within society is in fairy tales - abandonment by parents, friends and lovers, injustice, oppression, years and years of solitary suffering, falling prey to deception, all bad things. But also everything we need to overcome the fears - resilience, strong friends, clear sight, the courage to rebel or the patience to let things come right in time - they're all in there too.

Q: The structure of "Mr. Fox" suggests your love of stories and your faith in the power of storytelling. Did the structure develop organically or did something inspire you to take that approach?

It developed organically. Mary Foxe set the challenge in the first few pages, and it felt clear to me that the nature of her challenge was episodic - they'd be different people, in different countries, sometimes outside of ordinary time ... I got giddy writing this book. Very pleasantly giddy. I've been wishing I was still on the roundabout.

Q: There seems a sinister element throughout the book - St. John's relationship with Daphne, the deaths in the stories. The use of fox, which evokes a sense of deceit and attractiveness. And yet, it's a love story. And your dedication is to your own potential Mr. Fox. Can you talk about your view of love and relationships in the context of this book?

For me, a serious courtship is simultaneously perilous and silly - it's necessary for the lovers to strive to find each other. Then even once they've found each other, there are tests that have to be passed before they reach each other's hearts. So yes, there can be tricks and keeping a formal distance and the constant threat of pain, and - in some ways Mr. Fox is a book-long dare to whoever reads the book and feels capable.

Johnson: 829-4751,

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