Australian novelist Karen Foxlee won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Queensland Author in 2006 for the manuscript of The Anatomy of Wings, enabling her to make a major career shift after returning to school for her creative writing degree. In the U.S., Knopf published Wings in 2010, followed by 2013’s The Midnight Dress. Her new quasi-fairy tale, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, follows a girl who embarks on a quest within the confines of a uniquely fantastical and dangerous museum. Foxlee spoke with PW by phone from her home in Gympie (some 100 miles north of Brisbane) about haunted museums, navigating the landscape of grief, and an upcoming book about magic and puddles.
In Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, a museum plays an essential role as a set piece, complete with exhibits one might find at an ordinary museum as well as ghosts and hidden rooms. Did you base it on any particular museum?
It’s based on so many different museums. I had visited the Hermitage in Russia, and it gave me many ideas – especially because it’s a bit dilapidated, falling apart, with windows open and paintings exposed to the elements, even rain. It gives the impression of being very high up, away in the north of the world. The guards are old women, sitting in the corners and knitting – and very suspicious of me, by the way – and I had to put them in the book. I think I enjoyed writing about the museum the most.
Your previous books are set in Australia, but Ophelia takes place in an unnamed, chilly northern city. Did your setting inspire the story’s Snow Queen motif, or were you inspired from the beginning by Hans Christian Andersen’s story?
I began with the Boy. I kept getting glimpses of him imprisoned in the museum, and the story blossomed from there. I wondered why he was there, what his mission must be, how he was chosen. Then I needed Ophelia to find him, Ophelia “who didn’t consider herself brave but she was very curious.” Her curiosity is her strength. As for the Snow Queen, she swept into the story, rather unexpectedly, coming from the North to destroy the world.
In Ophelia and in The Midnight Dress, your main character’s mother has died; in The Anatomy of Wings, it's her sister. Why does loss weave itself into your work?
Loss classically makes for a good story, a good jumping-off point. I lost my dad five years before The Anatomy of Wings was published, and I was drawn to the idea of writing about navigating through the landscape of sorrow, of grief, and of being changed by the journey. Grief is devastating, but it can also give you the chance to change your destiny.
You also employ multiple timelines, and stories-within-stories – something writers are often warned against, although it seems to work very well for you. What’s the attraction of the multiple, non-linear viewpoint?
It’s just the way I structure a book, and it’s a structure I enjoy reading myself. I’ve never been told, by an agent or editor or anyone else, not to do it. I love unraveling the puzzle of a novel, both reading and writing it. Working with multiple plot lines and time lines often feels very difficult until everything falls into place, and I often wonder why I make things so difficult for myself! But it’s worth it all when all the pieces fit together neatly. I just love that process really, story-puzzle solving.
I’m not a perfectionist; if I was I could never finish anything. I always feel the work is rougher than I’d like, but I accept that it can’t be perfect. So I work at it until I’m sick of it, and then I hand it over. I love the process of working with editors, sounding ideas. Up until then I do everything by myself; I’m so relieved to be talking to someone about my story by then.
What did winning the Queensland Premier's Literary Award in 2006 mean to you in terms of your career, and your personal life?
It was enormous. I had returned to University in my early 30s to get my B.A. in creative writing, in part because the death of my dad made me think about what would make me happy. I wanted to get some feedback on my work, and advice, which is not something I’d had before, since I never showed my work to anyone. I was able to get some short stories on the page, and was encouraged to send in the manuscript for The Anatomy of Wings, which started my writing career with University of Queensland Press.
You were a nurse before going back to school for creative writing. Did you always want to write?
I always did. When I was six I told people I wanted to be a writer; I still remember writing my first story and I never stopped. I’m able to live off my writing income part of the time and when I can’t, I am able to work as a casual nurse.
You have a six-year-old daughter, Alice. What impact has she had on your writing schedule?
I got in the habit of getting up very early in the morning – about 4 or 5 – in order to write. My daughter is very good, though. She knows that’s the time I write and she’ll often get up and lie on the sofa with me and go to sleep. She’s starting first grade now, and my mother lives close by and helps out as well. I’m very lucky that way.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a middle-grade book set in Victorian London. It’s a fantasy – again – about a girl who sees the future in rain puddles. She has to live with her aunt, as her mother is dead – there’s that loss again. It overlaps with Ophelia, not in that it’s a sequel but in that there is a quest involved. I don’t intentionally write to middle-grade and young adult readers; I write for myself, and think about what will make it good rather than tailoring it to a specific age group. I still remember being that age, and what magic felt like then. I usually just have the seed for the idea of story that I can’t let go and that I love. With Ophelia it was all about trying to work out what would make that story work, how to make it the most beautiful, exciting, lovely, sad, funny, scary adventure fantasy I could.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, illus. by Yoko Tanaka. Knopf, $16.99 (Jan.) ISBN 978-0-385-75354-8