Where new writing finds its voice

Daedalus Girl

Helen Lewis-Hasteley


Interview by Helen Lewis

The story of Helen Oyeyemi’s career sounds like every aspiring writer’s secret daydream. First, she wrote a novel, The Icarus Girl, in seven months while studying for her A levels. Then she sent the first twenty pages to literary agent Robin Wade to ask for his feedback. Then she was given a rumoured £400,000 two-book deal. From schoolgirl to literary star in three easy steps.

To the cynical, it seems almost too good to be true. But while the size of the deal has since been questioned (Oyeyemi herself says it’s an exaggeration), there’s no disputing that she’s a genuine talent rather than a PR confection. For a debut novel – let alone one written before the age of eighteen – The Icarus Girl is unusually assured, with a style that’s both lyrical and deceptively naive. Ali Smith in The Guardian praised its ‘off-the-cuff, innocent-seeming realism’ and this is key to the book’s charm: very odd events indeed are described in matter-of-fact language. This means we care about Jessamy Harrison, the precocious eight-year-old protagonist, and feel a compelling and deepening dread about her imaginary friend, TillyTilly.

Since her early success, Oyeyemi – who is still only twenty-five – has continued to develop as a writer. Her second book, The Opposite House, is about Maja, a Cuban singer in London whose pregnancy inspires her with feelings of dislocation from the home country she barely remembers. (Jessamy Harrison is also caught between two cultures – those of her English father and Nigerian mother – and it’s worth noting that Oyeyemi herself moved to London from Nigeria at the age of four.) But while some of the themes of The Icarus Girl are revisited, the prose has evolved – it’s both more sophisticated, and more playful. The novel starts in the home of a Yoruba goddess, described – in a term reminiscent of ee cummings – as the ‘somewherehouse’.

Last year Oyeyemi published her third book, White is for Witching, which again dwells on the gothic and supernatural – there’s a malevolent house, a character obsessed with eating chalk, and the spectre of inherited madness. This time the formal experimentation comes from the narrative structure, with Oyeyemi using a variety of different, often unreliable, viewpoints to explore the breakdown of Cambridge undergraduate Miranda Silver and the secrets of her mysterious family home in Dover.

There’s an intriguing kind of hysteria in all Oyeyemi’s novels – and a palpable sense of claustrophobia, of characters being trapped in an unstoppable and uncaring juggernaut of story. Near the end of White is For Witching, she writes of Miranda: ‘Please have her get out and run off the page altogether, to somewhere secret where words like happy and good will never find her.’

The three books share many other common themes – twins and other reflections of the self; fraught mother-daughter relationships; and particularly the sometimes shaky border between fantasy and reality. They’re all richly allusive too, drawing on everything from Nigerian myths to the poems of Emily Dickinson.

When Pen Pusher caught up with Oyeyemi, she was in the middle of writing a first draft of her fourth novel. Sadly, we can’t give you an exclusive scoop on its contents, as Oyeyemi says she can’t talk about it – ‘otherwise it will die!’


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Pen Pusher: What’s your writing routine? Do you have a special place to write?

Helen Oyeyemi: Not any more. It changes from book to book, but I wrote The Icarus Girl at home in my parents’ bedroom. Then I wrote The Opposite House at university, so I went to the library a lot because I just wanted to get out of my room. Now, I’m back in the library for my fourth book.


PP: Are you a meticulous planner, or do you just take off and see where the writing leads you?

HO: I do plan a lot. It’s a way of opening things up, of not having that blank page. I don’t follow the plan once I’ve started, of course, but it’s still worth planning because it gets you writing things down.


PP: How do you feel your writing has developed? I notice there are a lot more stylistic flourishes in The Opposite House.

HO: I think those were just for that book, because it was about things connecting unexpectedly, and masquerades, and different cultures coming into contact with each other – a kind of mess, really, and the language was affected by that. It’s really hard for me to see how my writing is changing, because I feel I’m almost too close to it. I know that something’s happening, but I’m not sure what I’m up to yet and I’m not sure how many books it’s going to take.


PP: How much of your writing is autobiographical?

HO: Again, it’s difficult to say. Generally, I go along day to day and don’t try to understand the things that I’m thinking. It’s definitely transformed biography, rather than autobiography though. Particularly with the first book, I was worried that I’d exposed more about myself than I wanted. And I was worried when my mother read White is for Witching, whether she’d ask me about lesbianism at university. But she didn’t say anything. 

In terms of general readers, I hope that they go with the story and I don’t expect them to make too many connections with me. I think it helps to distance yourself from your work a bit, so people don’t associate you with it too much. Anyway, I don’t enjoy the non-writing parts of an author’s life. Perhaps I’m just not very good at talking!


PP: When did you start writing?

HO: When I was a child. I used to write plays and I made friends act them out. I don’t think I’ll write any more plays though. I want to write novels and short stories.


PP: Do you know straight away if a particular idea is going to be a novel or a short story?

HO: I think so. With a novel, it’s about ideas – short stories usually come from just an image, which sort of expands and contracts, almost tidally. In a short story you have to use less and make it stand out more. You’re freer with a novel – you can make all these connections. You have to be more careful with a short story, treat it almost like an extended poem.


PP: And how do you choose between your ideas?

HO: I usually have a couple of ideas swimming around, but one always seems to come up stronger, and I settle for that one. 


PP: Where were you when you had the idea for The Icarus Girl?

HO: I must have been at school, I suppose. I had been writing short stories about TillyTilly for a while, and I was fascinated by the idea of having an imaginary friend who was malevolent.


PP: Did you have an imaginary friend?

HO: Yes, a boy called Chimi. He looked like me, but he was very good and I was very bad! He was always telling me to behave myself. I was quite a sad child…


PP: Can we talk about the themes critics associate with your work – particularly being caught between two cultures?

HO: I think that’s becoming less important in my work. I’m becoming more interested in stories for stories’ sake. 


PP: … and what about your Catholicism?

HO: Possibly that influences me in ways I don’t really know yet. I have been thinking about writers like Muriel Spark, who only started writing when she converted to Catholicism, and Graham Greene. I think there’s a definite Catholicism there, but you can’t quite put your finger on it – it’s about structure, and the way the world appears, and how there’s a strange, hidden world that appears in glimpses. There’s a fascination with mystery, with things that we don’t understand, but might be explained to us later. 


PP: Oh no! As a lapsed Catholic, I always feel like Catholicism ruined Graham Greene.

HO: Really? Oh my goodness – I love The End of the Affair


PP: Emily Dickinson provides your opening quotations, and even the title of The Opposite House. What do you like about her poems?

HO: [long pause]. Oh dear, Emily Dickinson is almost too important for me to talk about. 

It’s her ideas, and her witty, skilful handling of existential horror. I’m quite interested in the way she takes very large things and talks about them lightly, but in a way that means you can still see the shadows across the page. I think she’s a masterful writer and an expert at consciousness.


PP: One final thing puzzles me. You did social and political sciences at Cambridge. Why didn’t you do English? It seems the natural choice for a writer.

HO: I don’t know – I suppose my English A level was killing me! I didn’t enjoy it at all. We did Hamlet, and [Kate Chopin’s] The Awakening – they were good books but it took a lot away from them, having to study them the way we did. I think I like to have the mystery, to read the book and just be knocked back by it. 


PP: And do you have any tips for Pen Pusher readers fighting the blank page?

HO: You just have to be interested in the story and what happens next. Oh, and don’t be afraid to read while you’re writing – it will inform it. I used to be afraid to do that, but it makes your writing better, because you’ll react to it the next day and have more to play around with. Also, I turn off my inner critic when I’m writing it, then turn it back on afterwards.


The paperback of White is for Witching is out on April 22nd 2010, published by Picador