Eowyn Ivey follows up The Snow Child, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, with the excellent To the Bright Edge of the World. The novel centers on an 1885 wilderness expedition in which Colonel Allen Forrester is tasked with mapping Alaska’s northern interior, leaving his pregnant wife, Sophie, on her own at Fort Vancouver. Ivey talks about her editing process with her two editors: Reagan Arthur, publisher at Little, Brown, and Mary-Anne Harrington, publisher at Tinder Press in the U.K.
Arthur: As a wise woman once (or twice) said, it takes a village. With Eowyn Ivey, while I can think of few people more purely capable of doing just about anything, that’s been the case, and happily so. We had so much fun and success with her first novel, The Snow Child, which Andrea Walker acquired and edited, and which Mary-Anne Harrington also published in the U.K., lending an editorial assist. Eowyn’s agent, Jeff Kleinman, was always a valuable voice along the way. When it came time to talk about Eowyn’s second novel – often a daunting prospect for authors and publishers alike, especially when the first has gone so well – she came to us with an idea that was very different from The Snow Child. It was a more epic story, with more historical and geographical detail, and more complicated – but with some of the same hallmarks that made her first novel so indelible: the Alaskan wilderness, the complications of married love, and a slightly mystical element rooted in the landscape and its people. Of course it was easy for Mary-Anne and me to know we wanted to publish this novel – now it was up to Eowyn to keep writing it beyond the early pages she showed us at the outset.
Ivey: Yes, it was such a different process for the two books. The Snow Child came to you both as a complete manuscript, and as I recall the edits were extremely important but relatively painless. With To the Bright Edge of the World, our editorial conversation started when all I had was a skeleton outline and I think, like, 50 pages. I then spent the next two years not only writing, but also doing a tremendous amount of research, including floating the Copper River and visiting Fort Vancouver in Washington. Considering all that, it seems remarkable to me how much the story stayed true to my original vision. What is it like for you as editors to work with an author from so early on? Was the final story much like how you imagined based on that initial conversation?
Harrington: Although it's the most enormous privilege to be involved in shaping an author's work at a very early stage, this can be nerve-wracking, too. I've learned that a very light hand is needed: no matter how engaged you are with a book as an editor you're not living and breathing it in the same way the author is, so your job is really to head off any obvious difficulties while keeping the author's fire and enthusiasm alive. I don't think either Reagan or I had any big concerns about those early pages – we knew Eowyn was embarking upon a bit of an adventure but it was obvious she knew her characters intimately, and she had the unique tone of each strand of the narrative absolutely nailed.
What surprised and delighted me when I read the first full draft was the scope of the narrative, which had opened out beyond the story of a marriage and the journey of discovery promised in the initial pages. The magical elements that had been just a glimmer at the outset had come powerfully into their own, and the account of the First Nation inhabitants of the Wolverine's banks was more resonant than I'd anticipated – as a British reader this felt very fresh to me. It was a book that not only fulfilled its initial promise, it ended up delivering significantly more.
Ivey: I’m relieved and surprised to hear you say that, Mary-Anne, about the task being somewhat nerve-wracking. I secretly wondered if only authors felt that way. While all the components were there from early on for Bright Edge, you probably remember that both of you asked me to make what I felt like was a fairly significant plot change and approach for one of the main characters. I tried very hard not to freak out or complain at the time, but in truth it meant I had to excise 30,000 words and in some ways start from scratch for that particular aspect of the story. When you both proposed this idea, to be honest I wasn’t sure I agreed. But I did what every good author does – I called my mom. And she had the best advice. She said I would always have the original manuscript, and I should try to do what you all asked. If in the end I felt my original was better, then I could make my case, but perhaps the revision would make it a better book. All I was risking was a lot of hard work, she pointed out. So I did just that, and spent several months doing that revision, and in the end I am very happy to report that you both were right – the change made the story much stronger.
Harrington: One thing that didn’t really change was the story within a story device, and the use of artifacts and pictures. All of these were there at the start.
Ivey: From the very beginning I imagined telling the story through diaries, documents, and images, because that was how the story was unfolding for me as I did the research and I hoped to recreate a sense of discovery and surprise for readers. But in truth, that was the aspect I most expected to have to change. I didn't have a lot of confidence in the beginning that I could make it work, and I remember telling Reagan during our very first conversation that if necessary I would rely on a more straightforward narrative style as I did in The Snow Child. Weaving these different voices and time spans, being bound to first-person accounts – I almost chickened out several times. But I stuck with it and was so thrilled that in the end it felt like it worked.
Arthur: Mary-Anne’s comments also remind me that the title was initially Shadows on the Wolverine. Titles can be so tricky and we all spend a lot of time discussing them; in this case there was concern that the Wolverine River was not familiar to enough readers to be meaningful or to convey that this was a story set in the Alaskan wilderness. But I confess that I’ve forgotten who came up with what now feels to me like the absolute perfect title (it definitely wasn’t me) – Eowyn, was that your bright (get it?) idea?
Harrington: I have to say that when Eowyn came up with that title my team here at Tinder Press pretty much applauded. Shadows on the Wolverine felt like one of those titles that might feel resonant if you'd read the actual book but we didn't feel it staked out a big enough claim for this ambitious novel. I could absolutely understand how Eowyn had arrived at it, but I wasn't confident it would play that well internationally. To the Bright Edge of the World immediately had so much power and poignancy, it's so clearly a story of endeavor, and perhaps too of its cost. In short, we knew straight away that it was perfect, it felt like the final piece of the puzzle falling into place. That said, I'm not sure I know exactly where it came from, so I'd love Eowyn to tell all!
Ivey: It’s so funny because with The Snow Child, I was prepared to have to change the title and I had a list of a half-dozen possibilities, but there never seemed to be any question about changing it. With the new book, I was completely unprepared – I thought we had our title – and when you both asked for something different, I was stumped. I spent weeks arranging and rearranging several words that I hoped would capture something of both Allen’s and Sophie’s stories. Titles are so hard! In the end, I think I sent you four or five suggestions, really not knowing which one you would like. But To the Bright Edge of the World was my favorite, and I was so happy when you both agreed.
Arthur: As for how the editing unfolded, we did have a number of round-robin emails among the four of us after Eowyn sent us her first draft, and then two very productive conference calls along the way. I think we all wanted to be sure that Sophie’s role was as interesting and active as it could be, in contrast to Allen’s great adventures in the wild, and there was a fair amount of discussion about her back story and how to integrate that into the ongoing narrative. We also worked on the various voices and personalities among the men in Allen’s party, making sure those were distinct and recognizable. I agree with Mary-Anne, that the draft delivered even more than I could have hoped for in terms of story and detail and drama – it really didn’t require much from us in the way of heavy lifting, only a series of small questions and suggestions from across the continent and across the Atlantic, until we could all hash it out over the phone together. If Eowyn was ever overwhelmed by the various editorial input and accents, she certainly never let on, and delivered a novel that hit every note, and then some.
Harrington: And as for those conference calls – I loved them so much. When I first began working with Eowyn I doubted we'd ever manage to speak, given the time differences, and yet we were able to settle quite subtle questions of emphasis in terms of Sophie's character and backstory relatively easily over the phone, with Eowyn at home in Alaska, Reagan in New York, Jeff, I think, in Virginia (am I making that up?) and me in London. The delightful thing was that despite the distances involved we were all sufficiently on the same page to get pretty well everything settled quickly. It was a powerful reminder that there's no clearer and more helpful way to edit than to pick up the phone, and to remember to listen.
Ivey: The calls were instrumental because it gave us a chance to talk through some of the ideas and suggestions for changes. It’s incredible to think that we were able to collaborate on a novel that way, each of us on far-flung sides of the planet. Between the calls and email, we were able to work as a team. After all the research I did for the book, I can’t help but to wonder how we could have gotten it done in the 19th century, limited to snail mail and slow ships. It would have taken years! Instead, we were able to edit and communicate instantly, and work together to get Bright Edge out into the world.