AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
I'm Audie Cornish. In the opening pages of author Helen Oyeyemi's book, "Mr. Fox," we're introduced to St. John Fox, a writer visited by his muse. She may be real or she may be imagined. Either way, she's upset. St. John Fox has been killing off his heroines in story after story. Mary Fox, his muse, has had enough. She challenges him to create and live within stories that don't end in death. Helen Oyeyemi's novel is loosely based on the French folktale "Bluebeard," about an aristocrat who seduces, marries and kills his wives. We spoke with Helen Oyeyemi from the BBC studios in London. She told us what drew her to the gruesome tale.
HELEN OYEYEMI: I've always been really into fairy tales and always really loved them. But "Bluebeard" is a fairy tale that never particularly interested me because it seemed so moralistic and it seems to be sort of advice against curiosity and women. That was how I read it.
CORNISH: Because in that story, Bluebeard, he tells his wives not to go into a certain room.
OYEYEMI: Yes, and he'll give them the key and say I'm going away for a while but don't go into that room. And then, of course, the wife looks inside the room and she sees, she sees...
CORNISH: Right. It's the typical curiosity kills the woman story. I hear there's a whole genre of that.
OYEYEMI: Yes. And I just felt really bored by that and that was all that I could see of the story until I read "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier, which actually draws out other aspects of the story. So, it talks about this sort of strange attractive repulsion felt for the wife killer. And it's about fidelity and it's about committing to somebody and how that can be a horror story in and of itself as sort of lifelong bond. And so then I was like, oh, "Bluebeard" is a completely different story. And so from there I started reading other "Bluebeard" stories and I came across the English variant of "Bluebeard," which is called "Mr. Fox." And the main characters in that story are Mr. Fox and an English heroine called Lady Mary. And it's ends differently from the traditional Bluebeard story because Lady Mary basically confronts Mr. Fox and they have this sort of battle of words. And he completely denies being a killer but she confronts him with it and sort of strips him of his power in that way, using words. So, it's kind of a battle of words and that's how I came about this idea essentially.
CORNISH: You know, I'm almost scared to call it a love story, because I think people will be dismissive of it. But it essentially is a kind of love triangle between Mr. Fox, his wife Daphne and his muse. And the muse is coming to life, you know, and the wife is jealous.
OYEYEMI: I definitely think of it as a love story. I mean, it's not just about Mr. Fox and Mary. It's also about Mary and Daphne and them both coming to terms with a man they both love. It's just that one of them happens to be imaginary and the other happens to be real.
CORNISH: Essentially, the book is a lot of little stories in one. Because the main character and his muse, they take turns dreaming up new stories or new, I guess, incarnations of each other.
CORNISH: Did these start as stand-alone stories for you?
OYEYEMI: It came together in a sort of broken way but also completely organic. And I wrote lots of different stories during that time period but only a few of them are Mr. Fox stories. And so when I was writing some of them, I would be, OK, this is a Mr. Fox, and others were just short stories.
CORNISH: You wrote your first book, "The Icarus Girl," when you were 19. But when did you really start writing and what kind of stories did you start writing in your teens?
OYEYEMI: It started almost as soon as I really engaged with books. One of the first books that really just took the top of my head off was "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott. And I remember that I used to get lots of books from the library and "Little Women" was one of them. And I used to just cross out the parts of it that really upset me because it's such a sad book in so many ways. I'd cross out the parts that upset me and I would rewrite new endings. So, when Beth died, I just couldn't take it. It was just so horrible. And so I'd just write, no, she's survived. And I thought Joe and Laurie should get married so I had them get married. So, there's a completely different version of "Little Women" out there that exists only for me.
CORNISH: Which is interesting 'cause you're writing also, I mean, there's a blurring of the real and the imaginary and this floating between fantasy and reality. I mean, how did you go from "Little Women" to that?
OYEYEMI: I think it's just partly just having grown up in a culture of storytelling. In my family, telling stories is just a way of life.
CORNISH: And your background, your family's from Nigeria.
OYEYEMI: Yeah. My parents are Yoruba. So - and, you know, the Yoruba are very great storytellers. And there's always an awareness of the world being greater than just humans and there's a huge understory in that.
CORNISH: You mentioned your background. And in the novel, "Mr. Fox," there actually comes a point in one of the stories where a young woman who has Yoruba ancestors, those ancestors, in one way or another, come to her and demand stories. What was it like writing that passage?
OYEYEMI: It was a surprise, because I didn't know that it was coming. A lot about "Mr. Fox" is a surprise and a lot of times I found myself coming really close to the truth of my life in a way that it felt quite uncomfortable. But it was probably also good for me in some ways. So, I was kind of - I didn't expect the story to be about that essentially.
CORNISH: It was very familiar to me. I mean, I come from a family of immigrants and it was interesting to see someone articulate that kind of pressure maybe of you're operating in a creative and Western world but also you have a, like, a kind of responsibility.
OYEYEMI: Yeah, there is. And I feel very conscious of that, and more and more, especially as I branch away from writing stories. I think I started writing about identity and I used to believe that identity is the story. But now I'm not so much subscribed to that. I mean, with Mr. Fox, it has a feminist agenda as well. And so as I sort of been away from writing about identity, I still feel that kind of tug of roots and, you know, cultural background.
CORNISH: In this book and in previous novels, you also intend on straddling the spiritual world and the tangible one. And why do you think that's a theme that you keep coming back to?
OYEYEMI: I still have no idea.
CORNISH: 'Cause this is like a little bit of a horror story and a little bit of a love story. There's a lot of decapitations, a lot of ghosts.
OYEYEMI: Yeah. I think - in the case of "Mr. Fox" anyway - I think it's just that my humor tends to be quite dark and, like I've said, elements is real and element the best way to do that is to throw in a beheading, obviously.
CORNISH: Well, Helen Oyeyemi, I can't wait to see what brave new world you're going to take us to next. I really enjoyed the book.
OYEYEMI: Thank you so much.
CORNISH: Helen Oyeyemi. Her new book is called "Mr. Fox." She spoke to us from the BBC studios in London. Thank you.
OYEYEMI: Thank you.