Suzi Feay’s interview with Helen Oyeyemi at the Southbank Centre last night provided a good example of how hearing an author speak about her work can cast new light on a book. After an opening section in which Oyeyemi discussed her love of fairytales as a child, and how she first began writing (crossing out the parts of Little Women that she didn’t like, and writing in her own version—and in a library copy), she read the tale of ‘Mr Fox’ (the English version of Bluebeard), as collected by Joseph Jacobs in the 19th century; followed by the opening pages of her novel Mr Fox, which draws on different versions of the Bluebeard story. Even though I’d already read that book, hearing the author reading aloud from it was almost like encountering it for the first time again.
At the time of my original reading, I was struck by the sheer range of Mr Fox; but that was brought home to me again here when Oyeyemi talked about the many influences that went into the novel. It wasn’t just the many different versions of Bluebeard, or all the writers whose work had an impact (I’m reminded once again that I really should read Angela Carter); It was also that there were ideas in Mr Fox on which I hadn’t picked up—for example, Oyeyemi employed the 1930s New York setting partly from a love of noir, and partly to explore conceptions of masculinity that emerged from the First World War. The discussion made me want to go back to Mr Fox to see what else I could find in it.
Feay also asked Oyeyemi about her creative process, but I gained the distinct impression that even the author herself found it rather mysterious; Oyeyemi talked about her characters’ often doing surprising things, and how she attempted to study for an MFA, but found it too restrictive. When writing Mr Fox, she wasn’t even sure who would want to read that kind of book. I’m pleased that there are people who do, because I am coming to think that Oyeyemi’s is one of the most singular imaginations at work today; and this interview and reading only cemented that view.