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Pickle Me This

March 5, 2012

Author Interviews@ Pickle Me This: Carrie Snyder

I read Carrie Snyder’s first book Hair Hat in 2010 when it was one of five books selected for Canada Reads Independently, and had started reading her blog Obscure CanLit Mama around the same time. In the two years since, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Carrie through her blog and following her Juliet stories on their path to becoming The Juliet Stories.

I read the book last week and I promise you, it’s one of the best Canadian books you’re going to read this year.

Carrie was generous enough to answer my questions about her book via email from her home in Waterloo. The Juliet Stories was published by House of Anansi Press and is in stores now.

I: Although The Juliet Stories is fiction, it has roots in your own biography. As a reader, I tend to engage very little with these connections because they tend to limit the text rather than broaden it, but I know that most audiences find them interesting. How do you feel about this? Are you comfortable with such an engagement? Do you think your book is richer for these connections to your own story?

CS: First, thank you for opening with the elephant-in-the-room question. Without a doubt, “Is this real?” or “Did this really happen?” are questions asked most often about The Juliet Stories. Complicating my answer is the fact that yes, standing behind the scenes is my own family’s story. I did live as a child in Nicaragua, while the contra war was underway, and my parents were peace activists; further, one of my brothers had cancer as a child.

As a reader, I completely understand the fascination and desire to link the writer’s story to the story the writer has written. I’m reading Mordecai Richler’s biography now, almost through it, and there have been plenty of aha! moments of recognition. Humans like piecing together puzzles — in this case, the puzzle of how a writer takes an image or a moment or a place and weaves it into a story.

And there are so many different ways that the real can be used in fiction. An incident that remains mysterious and will never be answered — that could make an excellent starting place for a story. Personally, I often use settings that are familiar and likely recognizable, mainly because I can’t seem to imagine space/place in the same way that I can imagine plot or character. So a reader who recognizes a place might be fooled into believing the story is real simply because the setting is real. In that case, making biographical connections between me and The Juliet Stories would be entirely unhelpful.

I could pick apart The Juliet Stories crumb by crumb, identifying where various fragments arrived from (and it would no doubt be surprising and probably disappointing and not at all what readers might expect), but the question is: would the exercise get us anywhere very interesting? For purely critical purposes, I doubt the links add depth. After all, the whole point of creating a story is to build a fictional world replete with its own codes and themes and particular beauty and logic. And none of that actually exists in my real life. Which is at the core of why I write (and read): in order to create symmetry and wholeness.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t dismiss biographical connections altogether. There must be some deeper psychological reason we, as readers, find these links compelling — that’s what interests me. Why do we want it to be real? Why do we want to know what experiences are sleeping under the surface?

I: I suspect readers’ interest is piqued by the rich texture of your narrative—even without the biographical elements, there is so much sleeping beneath the surface here. I’m halfway through the book now and sensing so many gaps—what Juliet doesn’t notice, wasn’t privy to notice or chooses not to notice from her childhood perspective, and also the circumstances of her life as an adult, from which this story is being told. How did you come to this particular point of view, a strange omniscience that straddles then and now? That point-of-view is so important in the spell your book casts for its reader, but I imagine it must have been difficult to navigate as a writer, to finally achieve that balance. Or did it come naturally as you were writing?

CS: The voice seems so natural to me now that I’m struggling to remember its creation. Once the voice arrived, it didn’t feel created, it felt found. That said, this was not a book that got written overnight, and in fact it began life as a novel from the perspective of the mother (whose name has always been Gloria), and then tried to be a memoir (a very short-lived attempt of no more than 10,000 words), and finally, at last, along came Juliet’s telling (her name was Mary in earlier manuscripts). But as soon as it became Juliet’s story, the voice came too. And once the voice came, the technically aspects of the story-telling style flowed naturally.

That said, there was a still a lot of finicky, tedious work to be done, finessing the voice. I completely trusted my editor’s wise and kind eye on the manuscript. I trusted her to tell me when the voice was too authorial. Too writerly. Too self-conscious. With her guidance, I removed many passages that I’d originally loved writing. But the secret to the voice and the point of view is that not much is needed in order for it to work. Those moments when we’re slipping forward in time, or we understand that there is an older Juliet looking over what is happening—those are like salt. Too much would spoil the meal; but just the right amount adds flavour.

As a reader and as a writer, I’m drawn toward the mysterious, toward those gaps you mention. So much of life is unknown to us, unregarded, or misunderstood, or lost in the moment. As you probably know from reading my first book, Hair Hat, I have an ongoing fascination with the individual’s interpretation of a shared experience. I think I’ll always be puzzling out the mystery of memory and perspective, exploring what’s missing, and leaving gaps for the reader to fill in. I don’t think the writer needs to tell the reader what to think. I think the writer needs to leave room for the reader to make her own connections. Here’s my writing philosophy: It changes the reading experience to be part of what’s happening.

I: Do you ever think about the kinds of readers who don’t like those gaps, don’t know what to do with that kind of responsibility? I’m thinking about a comment Lynn Coady made (which I’m paraphrasing because I think I only heard of it via a live-tweet from the Giller Prize gala) about it being the writer’s job to do the work of a book, not the reader’s. How do you respond to that?

CS: Hmmmmm. A long hmmmm. I guess I’ll respond by saying that it’s not my intention to make work for the reader, or to make the reader do the work. Rather, I’d say that I trust the reader. And I hope we’re going somewhere together, and I hope that it’s interesting to both of us. It’s not that I don’t think about that kind of reader, it’s just that I’m not that kind of writer. If I tried to connect all the dots I’d gum the whole thing up, it would look and sound artificial because that’s not my talent or my gift. In writing, as in life, I’ve had to accept what I’m good at, and what I’m not. It’s humbling, frankly. But also quite freeing.

I: There are points in the book where it seems so obvious that Gloria is the place from where these stories spring. It’s subtle, but there is a real attentiveness to Gloria’s point of view which shows us that Juliet has spent years putting herself in her mother’s shoes, imagining her mother’s experience. And I love these tracks in your writing, which have not quite been covered over in the finished book.

I’m curious about Juliet’s name, which was your “gift to her,” to paraphrase Oma Friesen in “Apartment Number Three”. Gloria says she didn’t name her daughter for Shakespeare’s Juliet, but it was just a pretty name. But of course, naming your literary character (or child, for that matter) Juliet comes with its own baggage. How do you feel about that? What is your own and your stories’ connection to the name? (And what of the book’s title, which has its own CanLit baggage in alluding to the informally named “Linnet Muir Stories” and also Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories?)

CS: Yes, I think I wrote “Grace” just for the chance to see Gloria one more time, and up close. I should add, however, that she’s a much-changed character from the original Gloria. She may just be my favourite character in the book, not because she’s someone I would want to meet and certainly not because I’d want her for a mother, quite the contrary; but because she seems such a layered and complicated person. I love her for her depth. And I also love her for her bravery.

To answer your question, I’m afraid that Gloria is speaking for me when she says Juliet is just a pretty name. I wish it were more complicated than that, and I know my character deserves a more complicated answer. The name arrived. That is all. And the same is true for the book’s title. Once it became Juliet’s story, I kept referring to what I was writing as “The Juliet Stories” until there was really no other title for the book. All others fell flat. Nothing seemed to capture the book’s essence so succinctly.

I could invent allusions now, after the fact, but I’d prefer to leave that for others to do. I’m sure lines could be drawn and connections made–the family drama of warring houses, for example, in Shakespeare’s R&J. But the truth of the matter is that both the name and the title just had to be. They just were and are. Pure and simple.

I: I finished reading The Juliet Stories this afternoon. That ending!!!—I’ve read it over and over. In fact, many of the stories in the second half absolutely had to be read more than once in order to be fully appreciated. There is a solidity to the childhood stories that makes them more immediately accessible than the stories that come later. Was it the setting, perhaps? Are you conscious of this distinction (which I don’t remember being present between your child/adult stories in Hair Hat)? Are there more ways than one in which this book is divided into two sections?

CS: The two halves of The Juliet Stories were written very differently. The first half was where the book began. It was the material that wouldn’t let me quit, even when I was searching (for several disheartening years) for the right structure and voice. The material never filled a book. That seemed to be a major obstacle. At last, I came to the realization that it was never going to fill a book. So I approached my agent with an idea. Could we package the Nicaragua stories with some other unpublished stories about unrelated characters, a book split in half, and a problematic sell, let’s face it. But she agreed, and we tried. We received responses immediately. An editor said she loved the first section and felt bereft when there was no more Juliet in the second. She wondered: were some of those stories in the second half actually Juliet stories?

This had never occurred to me. Ever. To go on telling Juliet’s story after Nicaragua? Oh my goodness, what a revelation. I was filled with inspiration and excitement. New Juliet stories started flying into my mind. It turned out that very few of the unpublished stories in the second half were Juliet stories (only one made the transfer), but the simple idea of going on and following Juliet and her family into their new life in Canada opened the floodgates. I knew these characters so well. To get to travel further with them–well, honestly, it felt like a gift, or a treat, like opening a surprise package. The pure delight of that.

The unfinished book received several offers, and I chose to go with the publisher who wanted the most changes. Because I wanted them too. I wanted to push as hard as I could to take the book somewhere completely different. This required intense rewriting of the first half, and creating the second half virtually from scratch. You are right that the two halves are different. My sense is that the explanation is quite straightforward: time is compressed in the first half, and takes great leaps forward in the second. I stuck with my plan to write each “chapter” as a whole story that could stand on its own. But the stories in the first half probably chime off of each other more tightly. There’s the quickness of time binding them together. The stories in the second half should resonate differently, I think. The first half is this compressed experience. It is what Juliet will be referring back to her entire life — and I hope that’s seen in the stories in the second half. That they too pull the reader back to what was. And what cannot be. Maybe it’s a way of expressing nostalgia, hopefully without being maudlin or sentimental.

The stories in the first half are all kind of about the same moment, the same experience, quick steps through the same field of grass. The stories in the second half are like stepping stones. She’s leaping onto these different pivotal life moments, and the reader gets to see where’s she’s leaping to next and next and next. That probably has the effect of making the second half more obviously show itself as being short stories rather than chapters. And oh my goodness, Kerry, but I hope it’s not the book’s fatal flaw. Though you know, I think all of my favourite books have some flaw that endears me all the more to them. There is something intractable about a book. There is only so much a writer can do.

I: For a thing to have a fatal flaw, doesn’t that mean it has to be dead? The Juliet Stories is so very much alive, even 23 hours after I finished reading it, I promise you. And I must say that I didn’t get a sense that the later stories disturbed the book’s structure as “a novel in stories”—they really did seem like chapters to me. I probably would have bought this book as a novel if the note on the back cover hadn’t told me otherwise, though I perhaps apply a more loose definition to “novel” than most readers, and also I really, really like stories.

I do suspect that “novel-in-stories” distinction is something applied by the marketing end of things, a way to make story collections more appealing to the average reader. I have a short-story-writing friend who’s made irate by the term, believing it implies than a short-story collection should somehow be more-than itself.

But at the same time there is certainly precedent for the form in Canadian Literature, in particular with the bildungsroman, as you have done. Of course, I’m thinking of Who Do You Think You Are? (which I love ever so much more than Lives of Girls and Women, and also The Juliet Stories is as good as both of these, in case nobody has told you yet. I would not raise such comparisons lightly).

What is your feeling about the novel-in-stories? Is there more to the form than merely being “the novel who wouldn’t be”?

CS: Yes, “fatal flaw” is way too dire. But if I phrase it differently I risk sounding arrogant and over-ambitious. I worry that what you identified in the second section may prevent the book from being everything I worked to make it–which is something that lasts. That stands up. And then you go and compare it to Alice Munro! Good grief! I’m ambitious, yet I also can’t quite take seriously the idea that my book could compare.

Here’s what I think about short stories versus novels versus novels-in-stories. The definition on the back of my book may be a marketing tactic, but it’s also accurate. I did structure each chapter as a story that could stand on its own. I did so very deliberately. I did it because I’m comfortable with the form. I did it because I like the gaps and leaps that stories permit. I like the cleanness of the form, the circularity, the interior singular coherence.

But just because each chapter works individually as a short story doesn’t alter the fact that the larger book is its own whole universe. It’s meant to be read from beginning to end, not piece by piece. It needs all of its parts to be complete. It unfolds chronologically. Its overarching plot-line tracks the development and changes of the same characters. It has themes that are woven throughout. It has peaks and valleys. Does all of this make it a novel? Probably. Sure. Why not?

I’m not one to get fussed about genre v genre. Any craft can be done well or poorly; it’s the writing that belongs on a pedestal not the genre. Plus, for better or for worse, my taste is democratic. Like Juliet, I’ll read just about anything. All I ask is that it’s crafted with skill and attention. And so I suppose I choose to write in the same way, with the same expectations placed on myself. Do I have something to say? Have I figured out how best to say it? Okay, then, go with that, and hang the definitions. Ultimately I can’t imagine that it matters. (Does it matter? Maybe I’m totally blind on the subject.) What matters to me is that it works. That’s all.

Does the reader feel something, maybe even deeply? Is the reader compelled to keep turning the pages? Does the writing take the reader somewhere? Does it feel like the real thing? Okay, then. It works.

I: So let’s talk about your reading. As a reader, what writers first inspired you? Is there a writer you keep coming back to? Have there been diversions in your path as a reader that have surprised you? And are the writers who inspire you to write and to read the very same?

CS: This is actually a tough question to answer. It’s tough because I feel like I keep listing the same writers all the time — and I do! Jane Austen, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Margarets Laurence and Atwood. All hugely formative. Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion was also a formative book, read early and often. Going back further, L.M. Montgomery, Cynthia Voigt, and other  writers for children.

But then, I also keep reading Agatha Christie — I’ve been reading her since I was a teen. Is she an inspiring writer? Not exactly. She’s a writer for my tired mind. So is Bill Bryson. I went through a Kate Atkinson phase. I could read anything by Miriam Toews, just eat it up.

I read a fair bit of poetry for my poetry book club (Billy Collins and Mary Oliver were recent favourites). I like biographies of other writers (Carol Shields’ bio of Jane Austen springs to mind; and any bio I’ve ever read of Virginia Woolf). On a daily basis, I read the newspaper, news magazines, and a bunch of blogs. I like recipe books too.

I’ve also re-read (out loud) a lot of classic children’s literature in the past decade, and really appreciate the clarity of voice, the straightforwardness of the telling. Laura Ingalls Wilder — absolute genius. E.B. White. A.A. Milne. C.S. Lewis.

Do I read to be inspired? Sometimes I re-read Mavis Gallant, just to remind myself how it’s done. I’ve done the same with Alice Munro, trying to understand her sentence structure. But mostly I read because I really really really love reading. I love where it takes me. I love settling in and going elsewhere. It’s such pleasure. It’s usually the end of the day when I get to sink into a book. It can be the most satisfying moment in my day, a moment I look forward to. I can feel myself relaxing just thinking about it.

I: How has blogging been useful to you, both as a writer and in general?

CS: My youngest was four months old when I registered a blog name and typed out my first entry and pushed “publish”. I was not, yet, an avid reader of blogs, but several friends who lived at a distance blogged regularly and I liked reading what they wrote as a way of keeping in touch. I was also the mother of four small children, and had approximately three hours a week (one morning) for writing time — my husband would stay home and I would lock myself in an upstairs bedroom, insert earplugs, and kind of go crazy because it wasn’t nearly enough time to get solid work done. On one of those frantic mornings, I started the blog. It was as whimsical and poorly planned as that.

The title: Obscure CanLit Mama. Where did it come from? I’m amazed now that I had the audacity to link myself to Canadian literature (though I had already published my first book), but I’m thankful that I did. I’ve made connections to other “obscure CanLit mamas” specifically because of that choice. And I do feel that the support and understanding of those fellow writing mothers has made a difference in my life. My own group of friends, many of whom are the parents of my children’s friends, is amazing and supportive and wonderful, but none of them are writers — they all do such practical and purposeful things with their lives, which I admire intensely (and probably envy somewhat too). I was quite isolated as a writer prior to starting the blog. Very much out of the scene. So far out of the scene, I couldn’t even see the scene.

So that is one gift the blog has given me — vital connections with other writers. I’m still not a workshopping writer. It’s not how I work — in fact, I’m excruciatingly private while working on new projects. But just knowing that others out there are experiencing similar struggles, and feeling the compassionate support in return, has been invaluable. And it was completely unforeseen. I didn’t know I was even lacking it or looking for it.

I think of the blog as tracking my quiet “coming out” as a writer. I’m not sure I could have written Juliet with the confidence that I ultimately found without first publicly expressing my anguish, my ups and downs. Before starting the blog, I kept my insecurities extremely close — my husband witnessed the roller-coaster of doubt, and a few very close friends stumbled into it if I were in a particularly bad moment — but I hated showing weakness. The blog taught me that weakness is permissible. Admitting doubt, sharing rejection, being open about the path I’m on solidified my desire to continue on this path, despite the potential for utter failure. I felt supported. I understood more fully that my friends cared and sympathized and believed in me, no matter what. Blogging showed me that others don’t need us to be perfect. Imperfection makes room for others to step in and help. And that’s what friends want — to help each other. Sometimes we get to help, but sometimes we’re the ones in need. (That’s my theory, and my approach to life.)

On a more technical note, blogging has given me a regular outlet for my writing practice. I love writing. There’s no way around it. It never bores me. I look at my blog as an almost-daily opportunity to tell a little story, or share a little thought, or play with a style; it’s not heavy writing, it’s light. As a plus, I’ve also become a better photographer by making use of the blog as a visual medium.

I: Do you think that writing about mothers and daughters, about motherhood in general, will continue to preoccupy you as a writer? And what other preoccupations are revealed by looking at both your books and the work you’ve published online?

CS: Yes, I think motherhood will remain a preoccupation. But I imagine that my perspective will continue to change as my children grow and we enter new stages and phases of life; I will find new angles and directions for approaching the subject. Relationships, from the superficial to the very deepest and most profound, are hugely interesting to me. Not just relationships with family, but friendships too.

I don’t think it’s turned up in my published writing yet, but I have an enormous appetite for off-beat success stories — not typical success stories, but the small triumphs of the every day. What pushes an ordinary person to do something seemingly extraordinary? What makes one person take a stand where others fall back and demure? Perhaps there’s a bit of that in Juliet, but I don’t think I dug very deep into the subject. I’d like to write about someone who switches careers drastically, mid-life; or about someone who focuses on one tiny area of knowledge obsessively and makes a fantastic discovery as a result (or possibly fails despite determined devotion; equally interesting, really). I’m drawn to the obsessiveness that underpins athletic accomplishment too, especially having taken up triathlons and running races myself in the past year.

Love. Devotion. Single-mindedness. Those are larger themes that spring to mind.

I’m interested in simple living, whatever that means. Environmental causes. Human rights. Peace and justice. But I don’t know how or whether I’d attempt to weave them directly into a story. I could see pursuing a non-fiction project focussed on a topic related to one of those issues, but only if something obvious presented itself. In my fiction, I steer deliberately clear of doctrine or rhetoric. I don’t think fiction is improved by taking on a cause. The kind of fiction I want to write should make the reader think, of course, but never tell the reader what to think. Fiction can broaden our moral cores — that’s all. The best fiction takes us out of ourselves and into the mind and soul of others, a leap which is at the root of empathy and compassion. Human kindness and generosity of spirit doesn’t have a soapbox and doesn’t discriminate politically. Anyone can have it; or not.

I: What are you reading right now?

CS: I am almost through Charles Foran’s Mordecai Richler biography. It’s fat and it’s taken me awhile, but I find myself mining it for clues — how to be a successful writer. And also reading with some envy. He had a wife who cooked gourmet meals, took the kids to the doctor, and looked after all household details. I have me to do those things (and the meals are not gourmet; though my husband does a lot of dishes, bless his heart). On the other hand, Mordecai Richler’s extreme work ethic is almost impossible to imagine matching. Wow, the man worked hard and he set the bar high. But that’s what he did. He didn’t get up early to train for triathlons and he wasn’t raising his kids as the primary caregiver; I wouldn’t give up those parts of my life, so it’s not fair to feel envious. He had a gift for friendship and connection, too. My final significant observation is that he had an enviable sense of self worth. He demanded to be paid well for his work — because he knew what it was worth, and he’d earned the right to be demanding. It makes me wonder whether I’m foolish to do so much work for free (and I’m not talking about the mothering or domestic work; I’m talking about the writing). Mordecai Richler supported his family in style, purely by his pen (or typewriter, more accurately). I can only dream of that — and dream of it I do.

I’m also reading Michael Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler, which my poetry book club will be discussing at the end of the month. Sensuous stuff. Should be a good discussion.

4 thoughts on “Author Interviews@ Pickle Me This: Carrie Snyder”

  1. Terrific interview. I am embarrassed to say I have never heard of this writer, but the interview has prompted me to buy the book. Thanks….for this, and also for having the courage in this day and age to post an in-depth interview.

  2. Mark says:

    Good interview, Kerry. I think the Lynn Coady quote you refer to might be “The reader doesn’t owe you anything,” a sentiment most writers can get behind, I think.

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Heidi says:

    Thanks both of you for such a rich, in-depth, thoughtful interview. This is the kind of literary conversation I eat up, and I was very happy to eavesdrop.

  4. Clare says:

    Fantastic, Kerry and Carrie! I loved the book,and I love these thoughtful questions and answers that can only enhance my appreciation of it. As I told Carrie before, the gaps are agonizing for me, but that doesn’t mean I think she should have written differently; far from it. Absolutely my favourite book so far this year.

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