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What motivates author Helen Oyeyemi: ‘Perversity … keeps me writing’

Author Helen Oyeyemi

Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail

British novelist Helen Oyeyemi is barely 30 and ridiculously accomplished – author of The Opposite House, Mr. Fox and, most recently, Boy, Snow, Bird, a retelling of Snow White that illuminates race relations in mid-century America.

Why did you write your new book?

A few reasons, but mainly to see if I could … at this point, it's perversity that keeps me writing.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Virginia Woolf's got that way of pouring out sentences like long, cool cocktails – here's one I noted during my last reread of Mrs Dalloway: "He thought her beautiful, believed her impeccably wise; dreamed of her, wrote poems to her, which, ignoring the subject, she corrected in red ink…"

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Years ago a friend and fellow writer, Nick Antosca, once made a remark about it being best not to threaten, but to simply act. An effective way of going about things, I think.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

I'll stick with the current era. I've got my doo-wop and my books from preceding eras and that seems like enough…

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

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Oh, but let me fully deal with the disappointment of not having it in me to be a poet or composer of symphonies before I even begin to think of such things.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I don't despise Don Quixote, but it is a book I don't … get. I'll have to come back it. Maybe there'll be a gateway story that opens it up for me; that happened for me with Paradise Lost and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Anais Hendricks from Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon, wearer of pillbox hats and cat-eye sunglasses, dealer of the swiftest retribution to bullies in all their guises – what a girl!

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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Dana Scully … no, Fox Mulder. No, actually, final answer: Dana Scully.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

I can't think of anything, which means I must feel adequately questioned. Thank you!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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