An e-mail interview with Eileen Kernaghan

by Vancouver writer Casey Wolf.

cw: Eileen, could you give a sketch of the intent behind The Snow Queen? Who do you hope to reach, and what would you like them to get from the novel?

ek: Well, naturally one intent is entertainment--I'd like to think I've written a page-turner. But as well, I wanted to celebrate a classic of fantasy literature with uniquely independent female characters. In this post-feminist age we still need adventure stories for girls. The Victorian period, remarkably enough, was the heyday of the woman traveller -- all those intrepid ladies with the courage and stamina -- and the financial means -- to set off on journeys of exploration to the most dangerous corners of the world. It's fun to speculate on what might happen to the characters after a story ends -- and I decided that what the future should hold for Gerda was not marriage to Kai, but a life of travel and adventure. So I made some changes to Andersen's conventional mid- Victorian ending. Reworking the story also gave me the chance to expand the role of the Little Robber Maiden, who has always been my favourite fairy tale character. As to who I hope to reach, the answer is readers of all ages. The book is being marketed to the 12 to 16 age group, but I think it could be enjoyed by younger children, if they are good readers, and certainly I hope can be enjoyed by adults.

cw: What was the genesis of this tale--both in history and in your own treatment of it?

ek: Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Snow Queen: in Seven Stories in 1845. Its setting moves from a Danish village to the northern forests, Lapland and "the terrible cold Finmark," to the arctic ice. A friend who teaches literature commented to me that in The Snow Queen, "Andersen finally came to terms with the idea of the north." In any case, it's a unique--and fascinating--work of the imagination, with vividly described settings, realistic dialogue, well-developed characters and complex layers of symbolism and metaphor. In fact, it's really more a novelette than a fairy tale. Like a lot of Victorian writing, the conventional morality of the plot is underlaid with sexual tension (the robber-maiden's relationship with Gerda; the Snow Queen's relationship with Kai). Because I was writing for young adults, I didn't specifically pursue that aspect, but I think the tension is still there, in my version. It's also interesting that Andersen subverts the traditional fairy tale plot by having the heroine set off on an epic quest to rescue the boy. The mid-nineteenth century was a turning point in western culture, when traditional religious belief ran headlong into modern science; and this is the central theme of Andersen's story. Gerda represents simple, unquestioning faith. Kai (and the Snow Queen's ice-puzzle) represents the new spirit of scientific inquiry which threatens that faith. I arrived at my own version of The Snow Queen by a circuitous route. The research I did on Tibetan shamanism for my first YA novel, Dance of the Snow Dragon, and a spin-off novelette, "Dragon-Rain", led me to books on Finnish and Saami shamanism--and then to the Finnish myth cycle, the Kalevala. I began to hear echoes, in Andersen's Christian fantasy, of the older, darker mythology of the Kalevala. The Snow Queen became identified in my mind with the Dark Enchantress, the Woman of Pohjola. I wanted to explore that connection further. (In my version of the story, Ritva, and also the Saami wise women, refer to the Snow Queen as the Dark Enchantress, the drowner of heroes and destroyer of souls.) Years earlier, I had written a poem called "The Robber Maiden's Story"; later I expanded the poem into an adult short story, focussing on the relationship between Gerda and the robber-chieftain's daughter. Finally, using the Andersen story as a framework, I started work on a young adult novel.

cw: What sources did you draw from in conceiving of this version of the tale?

ek: I drew from a lot of different sources, beyond the original Andersen text. I plunged headlong into the Kalevala -- both in print and in the marathon Finnish film version; I read books on arctic exploration from the 16th century on; travel books -- modern trekkers through Saamiland, Kate Marsden's epic 19th century journey across Siberia; books on Saami culture and history ( in particular The Lapps by Roberto Bosi, in the Ancient People and Places series, and People of Eight Seasons by Manker and Tryckare); Joseph Campbell's Way of the Animal Powers; Mircea Eliade's Shamanism. Not to mention books of Victorian costume and 19th century Scandinavian furnishings. And I read Isak Dinesen's tales for a sense of the Victorian Danish ambience.

cw: What attracts you to Gerda and the robber maiden's stories?

ek: The wonderful contrast between the two young women -- in background, education, religion, culture, world-view, and above all personality. Gerda, the Victorian maiden -- prim, innocent, romantic (and utterly naive) -- and the fiercely independent, wilful, unpredictable, uncivilized Ritva. And yet in the face of adversity they become friends. Even in Andersen's original, the robber-maiden is finally won over by Gerda's determination to rescue Kai. I wanted to play with the idea -- explicit in the fairy tale -- that Gerda's tenacity, her stubborn refusal to swerve from her purpose, in many ways makes her the stronger of the two.

cw: What bits of the work are you most pleased with?

ek: I think the merging of the Kalevala myths with the Andersen story, in the latter part of the book -- that was the trickiest bit, because it was a radical departure from Andersen's plot. The idea that the Snow Queen's palace lies beyond the cave of the north wind, where earth and day end, comes from the Kalevala. The Snow Queen's challenges to Ritva and Gerda are not in the Andersen story -- they are also drawn from Finnish mythology. Ritva comes to identify with the hero Vaino, seeing herself as the inheritor of his powers, and using those powers to fulfill the Snow Queen's challenges and eventually to escape from her palace. Other bits I like are the description of the Snow Queen's palace; Ritva's shamanist initiation (and her visionary journey to the Snow Queen's palace); and Gerda's encounter with Ingeborg Eriksson, the Victorian lady traveller.

cw: You've worked with this story before in other forms--do you think you are really done with it, or can you see going back to some portion of it or some related work again another day?

ek: I'm curious about what new adventures Ritva and Gerda may have--individually, and as a team. Clearly, their story isn't finished, and perhaps I'll write some more of it, it one day.

cw: Can you tell us about the step by step process you use in conceiving of, researching, and writing your books? Not a formula that others can follow, but a bird on the shoulder of Eileen Kernaghan....

ek: The first step, always, is to decide on a setting, and a time period -- bronze age England, 18th century Bhutan, Victorian Scandinavia.... Then comes the protagonist. The plot, for me, evolves out of the interaction between the characters and their landscape and environment. (Unless I'm building part of the novel on the framework of an existing story -- Sangay's journey to Shambhala, the Snow Queen fairy tale, one section of Songs from the Drowned Lands). I do a good deal of research before I begin writing, to get an overview of the historical period, the landscape, culture, etc.; but much of my research is done as I go along, on a need-to-know basis. I plot, usually, one chapter or one section at a time. I rarely know exactly how the book is going to end. And the research often leads me into unexpected twistings and turnings.

cw: You've written fiction for both juvenile and adult audiences. Do you find you are more comfortable in one form or the other?

ek: Except that the adult novels are longer, and their protagonists are slightly older (with, consequently, somewhat different challenges to be faced) the writing process is the same. All my books seem to centre upon quests, or journeys, and all of them, in one way or another, are "coming of age" novels. When I was writing adult novels, I did a great many school readings, to audiences as young as ten or eleven; and now I find that adults are reading my juvenile books. In fantasy, there really isn't any clear distinction beween adult and young adult, except as a marketing label.

cw: What can we expect in the next few years, do you think?

ek: I've started another young adult novel, this time based on Elizabethan alchemy -- I seem to be working my way through a variety of belief systems -- Tibetan Buddhism, northern shamanism, and now western Renaissance magic -- all of whch I find fascinating. After that, who knows?