13 April 2012
In Conversation with Carrie Snyder
For the past few weeks, I've been having an email conversation with Carrie Snyder, author of The Juliet Stories. Carrie Snyder was born in Hamilton and grew up in Ohio, Nicaragua, and Ayr, Ontario. Her first book, Hair Hat, was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction. She lives in Waterloo with her husband and four children.
If you haven't read The Juliet Stories yet, please search it out. I loved this book and I think you will, too. Now, grab yourself a hot tea and perhaps a little snack.
Marita: Thanks for agreeing to chat with me about The Juliet Stories. I really enjoyed the book and I want to talk about it without giving too much away as it goes some interesting and unexpected places. In your acknowledgements, you wrote that you went to Nicaragua to research a different book, but came away with a vision for this one. Can you talk about how that trip and where you were in your writing life at that time?
Carrie: Before we took that research trip, I was unprepared and unwilling to consider writing about material that had an obvious autobiographical connection -- and yet it was an obvious autobiographical connection that had me interested in the country in the first place. But it wasn't until we were in Nicaragua again, and until I had a long conversation with a woman who had worked with my parents back in the 1980s, and had stayed and made Nicaragua her home, that I realized the story I wanted to tell was much closer to my own. The idea came to me on the flight home, and I turned to my husband and said, I think I have to write a completely different book. I needed permission, I think. I needed someone to remind me that our family had taken part in that moment in time, that we were a piece of another country's history. Just a fragment, just a thread, but yes. We were there. It was okay to want to go back and tell that story. It wasn't disrespectful to the people of Nicaragua. I wasn't stealing someone else's story. I think I had/have a horror of colonizing someone else's story.
In my writing life at that time, I was weary. I'd published Hair Hat, I'd given birth to my third child, I was attempting a volume of poetry, and I'd abandoned a long and rewritten-many-times-over black romantic comedy. The Nicaragua book was pitched as a Heart of Darkness-type journey into the jungle, and it earned a Canada Council grant, and so we got to travel to Nicaragua. And thank God. Because along came Juliet (eventually...even after the aha moment it was slow going).
Marita: Oh, I know slow going! Having a brood of my own now, I am amazed that you have been able to write fiction with young ones, slow going or not. I just can't get in the right head space to work on the novel I've been trying to work on for the last five years. Poetry I can fit into the small clips of time I get. How were you able to maintain the head space needed to write fiction while in the baby trenches? And I'm curious about the choice of the structure of a 'novel-in-stories' and when that came up during the creative process.
Carrie: What a question. I want the answer myself, right now, as I feel so distracted by the publicity demands in the immediate aftermath of releasing the book. But I did have a few strategies that worked. Time is the obvious obstacle when you're home with young children. But you don't just need time to physically sit at a desk and work, you need mental time to work out ideas too. And when you're getting just a few hours a day, or a few hours a week, you're trying to cram that mental time in with the physical time, and it can feel just ... overwhelming. The task is so enormous. Writing a book requires keeping all these balls in the air, the overarching machinery, the individual storylines and relationships. And you've two hours to hack out a scene that works. It takes the first hour to get up to speed, to go over the work done the previous time, especially when there are long breaks in between writing time; and then you're rolling; and then time's up again. The frustration of this cycle is almost unbearable.
So I realized I needed writing weeks. (In fact, I need to schedule a few for this year, come to think of it.) With a full week (and I like to include the weekends on either end, if possible), there is time to do the thinking and the writing, to take those reflective pauses without panicking. All the consecutive hours build on each other. It's also a really fabulous way to flirt with insanity. The first writing span we tried, we managed two weeks. I almost lost my mind. But I got a full MS out of the exercise. Unfortunately, it was the black romantic comedy that never got off the ground. Still, I'd discovered how to get the work done.
In practical terms, my husband takes over the meal planning and organizing, the to-and-froing, we hire extra babysitting, friends pick up a lot of the slack, and that's how a writing week works. It's a lot of pressure, but the pressure doesn't seem to bother me. It's motivating.
That said, I do think the novel-in-stories form made the book more manageable to write. I did write the material as a novel in its earliest drafts. Basically all of that material was ultimately scrapped, very little remains. I remember when I finally wrote a story rather than a chapter -- and it was from Juliet's perspective. Actually, it was "Rat," the first story in the book. I really resisted doing it. I didn't want to write a second book of linked stories. What if this is where I get stuck? But when I let myself do it, it just made sense. I didn't write the stories chronologically, not at all. I filled in gaps and made discoveries as I went. Characters shifted, and then I would go back and alter earlier stories in order for everything to make sense. I wonder whether the same strategy could work for novel-writing. Hm. You've got me thinking, Marita. It definitely made the prospect of creating a whole book feel less overwhelming, writing it almost on an as-needed basis.
Marita: Hang on, you got a whole manuscript out of two weeks of writing?! That's amazing. Do you think you'll go back to the black romantic comedy, or is that one shelved indefinitely?
Carrie: Yes, I got a whole manuscript out of two weeks of intensive non-stop writing -- but the ms was already half-written before I began, and I had the storyline largely plotted out. And it was a very rough draft indeed. It's shelved forever. It's of its time, and it's already out of date, and best left behind. I kept a copy, of course. And I've read it since, and found it entertaining, if slight; not to mention it's got problematic plot issues that wouldn't be easy to resolve; and so, goodbye little book. I've had to say goodbye to several over the years. Not everything works out.
Marita: I have to admit that for the first half of the book, I didn't get the novel-in-stories label. I thought it was simply a novel, but then I started the second half and it was clear.
Carrie: I'm starting to wonder whether we should have labelled the book anything at all. (Though I suppose that's required, isn't it!) Readers have been telling me that it reads like a novel. I did write each chapter as an individual story, and I think that architecture shows itself more clearly in the second half, but perhaps by then readers are deeply into the book and have already accepted it as a novel. What is a novel anyway? A story that follows specific characters through a unifying plot? Juliet fits. And maybe it doesn't matter how the book was written, maybe it matters much more how it's read and received. If people prefer to read it as a novel, maybe we should change the label on the back of the book ...
Marita: Don't change the label! I think it fits. It doesn't have the same neat and tidy ending that many novels need and it's not a collection of stories. They are linked and novel-esque. I think it's apt.
It's interesting to know that 'Rat' was the first story you wrote for the book. I really loved that one, it was such a great introduction to the world and characters. One thing that struck me was your portrayal of Gloria. I don't know how to succinctly describe my initial reaction to her other than she seemed so real, such an accurate portrayal of a mother. Do I admit that I saw myself in her? I guess I just did. I don't see that enough in literature.
I'm sure many readers will assume that much of you is in Juliet which I am sure is the case, but I'd love to hear about your relationship with Gloria. How she evolved as a character. Your feelings towards her. Her representation of the maternal in The Juliet Stories and what that might mean.
Carrie: Gloria may just be my favourite character in the book. She's complex, she changes, she's got depth and talent, and she's big -- a big difficult personality. I said in another interview that I wouldn't want Gloria to be my own mother. But that said, she's got a lot of me and my mothering in her. I find it interesting that you saw yourself in her too. In what ways particularly, could you tell me? Over the years that I was writing the book, Gloria, the mother-figure, changed more than any other character from my initial conception -- once I decided she would be a musician and performer, she moved into new territory, and frankly it was territory that struck close to home. The artist/mother. I wanted to treat her fairly and honestly, and I have sympathy for the difficulty of that balancing act. I sense a ruthlessness in myself sometimes that wouldn't be seen as motherly. My kids standing at my elbow begging for attention -- and what do I do? I tell them to go away. Is it cruel to send them away -- even knowing they're in the care of another? Will my children remember this about me, and suffer from it? I don't know. It troubles me sometimes, but then I could never have written this book without being that intensely focused -- to the exclusion of everything else, including my children. That's difficult to admit.
Marita: There is so much about Gloria that I can see in myself. We're both somewhat sloppy--ready to pull out the breast at any time which is as much for comforting ourselves as it is for the child; we're messy--we'd both rather be doing something much more interesting than housekeeping; we're quick to drop the role of mother when opportunity calls--there are a few scenes in which Gloria is at a party or with other adults and happily loses track of her children, assuming others will keep an eye on them, so she can soak up the adult attention she's been craving (this may be me projecting a little, but there you have it!). She also believes that she and her family are not as important to her husband as his job and I can recognize all the frustration in what carries. (I should stress here that I only feel that way at times, when I joke that I'm a theatre-widow. Short spurts for me versus a relative lifetime for Gloria.) I feel like she feels like she doesn't have enough control over her own life, and I can definitely relate to that. So yes, I understand Gloria.
I don't think it's cruel to send them away. I think it's important for children to know that parents have lives outside of them and for them to see parents at work. It will give them great perspective for when they are older.
Carrie: I love the connections you've made to Gloria, some of which I also can claim for myself. (And it's so true, isn't it--that sometimes breastfeeding is as comforting for the mother as for the baby; there can be a real give-and-take relationship between mother and baby, and it's not really talked about much at all. Breastfeeding tends to be presented as something the mother does for her baby, kind of sacrificial, rather than being a mutually beneficial act. Sigh. I miss breastfeeding. And now we've officially strayed into serious mommy territory ...)
You mentioned being a theatre-widow, and I think in my own marriage it's the opposite--my husband has to be a writing-widower from time to time. And that's a difficult thing to ask of someone else. Though I'm not sure Bram, in the book, has any real awareness that he's asking anything special of his wife and family. Which may also be of the era. I hope the times they are a changin'.
Marita: I wanted to ask you about the photo of Gloria that is mentioned in "Photograph Never Taken". Is there a specific photo you had in mind? Reading the description, I thought that I knew that photo, but then I thought, no, that photograph is a figment of your imagination and you just did a great job in describing it.
Carrie: Ah, the photograph. You are the second interviewer to ask that exact question, which makes me rather pleased, I must admit. Because it means the photograph must seem very real. No, it's not. It's the invention of my imagination. I had some difficulty finessing the description. I wanted it to be general enough that the reader could fill in the blanks, but specific enough to be highly evocative. I'm glad it worked. To talk a little further about the photograph, I wanted to comment on what it's like to be the subject of someone else's artistic expression, and how little the end result may relate to reality. Someone pointed out that there are a number of photographs in the book; that wasn't deliberate, but I love the medium, and I love what it can do. Its dual nature seems almost magical. Transformative. And yet capable of capturing a moment, pinning down time.
Marita: That's interesting that the photograph has come up before! Congratulations on conjuring an iconic photo through prose! I was Juliet's age in 1984, so I really wasn't sure. There are images I come across as an adult that are from my youth that I don't remember seeing for the first time, but know I must have at some point. Memory can be a funny thing.
Last year, you did the 365 project. Did that impact the writing of The Juliet Stories or did the interest in writing about photography inspire you to take on the project?
Carrie: The 365 project was undertaken largely on a whim -- a friend told me about it. (I should add that the project's aim was to take an original self-portrait for 365 consecutive days.) My husband had just given me a new camera with a beautiful lens for my birthday, and I was trying to learn how to use it on a purely technical level; but I also wanted to figure out how to construct better photographs. The 365 project was immensely helpful in both regards. If you compare the early photos to the later photos there is such a difference in quality -- and even in imaginative narrative (because, as I discovered to my great pleasure, photos tell stories too). I also learned how to be a subject. The project underscored my belief in daily discipline as an educational method (it's exactly how I learned to write). I began looking at photographs differently. It opened my eyes to the art form. And I stuck with it and took 365 photos. The appeal is simple: I have a visual mind with no physical talent for artistic expression. ie. I can't draw to save my life. So I've always had to filter these vivid visuals in my brain through words instead. But I love the immediacy of a picture. My camera has freed that part of my brain.
There were several specific photographs that underpinned the writing of the book (none of which are actually described in the book, come to think of it). One is of a young contra soldier. Another is an iconic photo of a young revolutionary soldier breastfeeding her baby with an AK-47 slung over her shoulder. And another is of a revolutionary leader celebrating after the fall of the dictatorship. All Nicaraguans. I kept these photos on my desk while I worked, and they pre-date the 365 project. But the scene where Gloria is photographed arrived during the 365. I have no doubt it was a result of the 365. Portraiture was on my mind.
Marita: I'm reading Hair Hat right now and like in The Juliet Stories, your portrayal of the parent/child relationship is incredibly accurate. I don't see this done well often enough. Am I reading the wrong books or do you agree? Which writers and books would you hold up as being great explorations of this relationship? I read the brilliant We Need to Talk About Kevin last year and it was so much about relationships between parents and children and between spouses, but I'm thinking of books that are less extreme.
Carrie: About parent/child relationships in books, I'm at a loss to think of examples of inspiring explorations of the relationship in literature. There must be, and maybe I'm just reading the wrong books too! I read We Need to Talk About Kevin a number of years ago, and it did feel like an accurate portrayal of maternal love, but you're right -- that's within an extreme context. King Lear just flashed into my mind. A lot of my favourite characters are orphans, or estranged from their parents. Alice Munro has some early stories about young motherhood with moments that struck home for me. But even in these, the children are at some distance, somehow, from the mother's story; or vice versa. Not that I mind. I'm just struggling to pull up an example.
I view the relationship like any other. There is drama in the give and take. There are opportunities for both mother and child to be loving or neglectful. I approach my characters with compassion and empathy; that's my method. I open myself to them and try to understand. People are complicated and messy and contradictory and there is always more sleeping under the surface than can be guessed. The intersection between characters is an opportunity to both bring more to the surface AND to bury more too; these revelations/suppressions can occur simultaneously. And the mother/child relationship is absolutely loaded with history. It's incredibly rich material to work with, and all the richer when both parties are given voice. I strongly disliked The Descendents (the movie) because it gave the mother no opportunity to define herself; and that's such a cliche in literature. The absent mother being examined and blamed; or unexamined and exalted. Mothers are much more interesting than that.
Marita: "The absent mother being examined and blamed; or unexamined and exalted. Mothers are much more interesting than that." YES! I agree, and not just because I'm a mother, I'd like to add, but because I have a mother and the older I get, the more I realize how complex she is. Which I feel like is a stupid thing to say, of course my mother is complex--all people are complex, but I think it's just a continuation of the separation of baby and mother. How at first babies don't know that their mother is not actually part of them and I guess we spend years and years pushing away (oh, my heart broke a little writing that!) until we're fully our own person out in the world.
I disagree that the parent/child relationship is like any other. I feel like it is deeper and much more complex. There's the saying, "of course your mother knows how to push your buttons, she installed them!" It's a tricky relationship to write about because of all that history. Perhaps that's why there are so many orphans in literature.
Carrie: First I have to get into the idea of whether the parent/child relationship is like any other -- I have to because I'm finding myself very resistant to what you're saying. And usually if something bothers me, or I have a particularly visceral reaction against it, it's a clue that I need to explore further. It means I'm closing my mind to something important, something I'd rather not face -- usually. And I've thought about this overnight and my conclusion is that I dearly wish the parent/child relationship were like any other because I can't bear the thought of being that important to my children. Do you know what I mean? I think there's more, too. I've observed parent/child relationships of fairly extreme dysfunction, and I want for both the child and the parent to be able to live free from that burden, that sense of failure if their primary formative relationship is deeply estranged. Also, I do genuinely believe all relationships have the potential to be exquisitely complex; it's just that the parent/child relationship is cast that way from the very moment we're born, and there's no escaping its complexity and its history.
Marita: When The Juliet Stories ends, Juliet is a young mother herself. We only get a glimpse of her in this role. What kind of mother do you think she is? (I know this is speculative and a lot of people just rolled their eyes at me, but I can't help but feel like this is something you already know.) And why did you end at that point in her life?
Carrie: I think Juliet is an excellent mother in many ways, and a terrified mother in others. She's protective of her babies, but she's afraid to let them go, too. She cannot imagine living the life her own parents chose. And I think that grieves her; she admires their courage and regrets her own caution. She's been adrift and children have rooted her to something. I've actually refrained from imagining Juliet past this stage in her life. Her life could go so many different directions. Her children will grow, that's a given. How will she cope? Will she feel herself becoming unrooted, again, as they mature and push her away? Or will she walk across the street and open herself to the many lives and calls around her, as in the story Disruption?
My own children are now 10, 9, 6, and 4, and I've seen my mothering friends, those who are a few steps ahead of me, pass through this time and come out the other side with amazing new conviction and determination. If I were imagining anything for Juliet, it would be that. My friends don't necessarily choose to continue with the careers they'd started before having children -- many have switched direction, even quite drastically. They've gone back to school, retrained, or simply re-imagined themselves. Having children has given me a sense of urgency, of time passing -- not in a bad way or a scary way, but in a seize-the-day way. Juliet's passion is waiting for her. I hope. I feel in the last story that she's stepping away from the things in her past that have been burdens, that she's seeing them for what they are -- the beautiful remains of her life. Hers.
For a long while the book ended on a different last line, one that came after the one that stands there now. It went like this: "Tell me, for I need to know, what remains?" And I think that question will propel Juliet forward rather than back. It's a question we're all asking. The first section of the newspaper that I turn to is the obituaries -- not necessarily the big reporter-written obits, but the small ones published by family members. If we could choose, what of our being do we want left behind? What memories? What remains?
Marita: Are you done with Juliet, or do you think we'll get stories of her middle aged and elderly in the future?
Carrie: I can't imagine writing more Juliet stories. I felt like the last story in the book was my goodbye to Juliet. What do you think? Do you imagine more Juliet? Do you wish she would return? Literary fiction doesn't tend toward sequels, but even so, the thought really never crossed my mind. That said, I would never say never.
Marita: I don't think I'd want a sequel, but when I finished The Juliet Stories, I was sad that I had to say good-bye. I'm that kind of reader, the type who will cry at the end of a book, not because it's sad, but because it is over and even if I reread the book, I won't have that same experience again.
I've been thinking about Juliet a lot since reading your book and I realized that she might be the only protagonist that I've read that is exactly my age (except for another character in Hat Hair). No wonder I'm so attached to her! Even if she had a very different childhood than mine, in some ways, she is me. I want to know how it all works out for her. What's she like when she's deep into middle age? Or has adult children herself? How she faces retirement? Being elderly? I don't necessarily want to read all those stories, but that won't stop me from imagining her getting older as I do.
All that said, I do hope that perhaps she'll show up as a secondary character somewhere later in your writing career, maybe in a book you write twenty years from now. Someone's mother-in-law, or a neighbour, or a patient in palliative care. A reward for the devoted reader.
I want to ask you probably at least a dozen more questions, but this feels like a good place to end. Before we wrap it up completely, can you talk about your next project and how that relates to The Juliet Stories?
Carrie: Ah, my next project. I've been so overwhelmed with launching Juliet that I'm just beginning to think in practical terms about the next project. In the interim, to tide myself over between blog posts and Juliet-related writing gigs, I've been working on a book for children, a silly fun-to-write bit of text. And I've been sketching new ideas, plots, characters, but none are fleshed out very thoroughly; that will take time. It's daunting to imagine committing to a new character and plot, and I don't mind confessing that.
When I think about my next book, I reflect on how it will build on my previous work. Will I be forever a writer of linked stories? That is not my current plan. What is a "Carrie Snyder" book? What overall mood do I wish to evoke? What kind of story do I want to tell? Right now, I'm thinking about Ann Patchett's work as I shape this next book out in my mind -- specifically the fluidity with which she compresses and stretches time in her telling. I'm also thinking about generosity and love and compassion. It sounds hokey, but I want to write books that make readers more open to the possibilities around them -- in their own lives, and in the lives of others.
I want what I write to bring some small good into the world. I want it to express a strong, loving, forgiving moral core.
I'm too superstitious to talk specifically about the character and plot I've chosen to focus on, but I will say that I'm starting with research because the book will be set in the past (before Juliet was born, so she can't make a cameo appearance this time, though I like the idea of her turning up again many years on). My husband and I have booked one writing week per month for the next three months, which will give me a chance to play more deeply with my ideas. I hope I'm brave enough, honestly. I know how much gets thrown out in the process of writing a book, and it can be tough to begin knowing that. I have to remind myself that no effort goes to waste, that it is all toward the larger cause, and that discovery happens because one is willing to explore. I'm inspired by stories of scientists and inventors who set off on utterly hopeless causes and whose work may have been for naught, or who failed to receive credit for their discoveries, but who persevered nevertheless. (Bill Bryson writes wonderfully on the subject, if you're interested: A Short History of Nearly Everything, and At Home.)
Here is the other thing I've been thinking about lately, as I approach the next project. I've been thinking about how so much of Juliet felt like a gift. When people say, "I don't know how you do it!" (meaning write and publish a book while mothering four children, etc., etc.) I've been thinking that the answer really is that the credit isn't mine -- I did none of it alone. (And I'm not just talking about the huge amount of practical help I received from friends and family and especially my husband; I'm talking about something more mysterious.) Writing The Juliet Stories was an act of faith. I opened myself up to the possibility of Juliet, and I was there to receive the words when they were given. Now I'm sounding beyond hokey. I'm not belittling my own effort and work, but I believe there is something other in the writing process. Something beyond me. Something I can't decide to grab. I have to recognize it when it comes, and accept it, and place it, and polish it, and cherish it. And give it away again.
So, how do I prepare myself for that level of effort and focus all over again? I'm wrestling with that. Is my spirit open enough right now? Can I approach the work with real hope and belief that something beautiful is waiting to be discovered -- and by me? Can I approach it with lightness too? This is what I hope, Marita.