Friday, March 2, 2012

Interview: Carrie Snyder

Carrie Snyder's blog

Can you please name a short story collection (or a singular short story) that brings back fond memories for you (and why)? Something that maybe you return to as a model for your work, or something that you particularly admire or put you in a place of awe. You can name more than one, of course. (This is my greedy question to grow my reading list.)

I'm glad you said I could name more than just one. I love the short story form.

Collections that I consider formative to my own writing include anything by Mavis Gallant, though particularly her semi-autobiographical Linnet Muir stories. If you're looking for just one collection, The Moslem Wife, stories curated and introduced by Mordecai Richler would be a good starting place.

I admire Gallant for her precision, extreme particularity of place, and ability to be coolly heart-rending. And for her gaps. I like a good interior mystery within a story.

Another writer formative to my own direction is Alice Munro. Even at the level of sentence structure her writing is dynamic, loaded with unexpected turns. Her material is often dark, her characters next thing to amoral, yet somehow it is all so relatable, so human.

Who Do You Think You Are?
Lives of Girls and Women. Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You. The View From Castle Rock. I could go on.

A more recent collection that was pitch-perfect storytelling (linked stories, too): Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It won the Pulitzer Prize and might have made the linked story concept more accessible to readers. Here's hoping.

What is it about the short story form that attracts you? I'm not looking for a theoretical answer, but you've written two books of short stories that some might argue are actually novels because the stories are thematically or narratively linked. Do you think of each story as an individual entity? Or are you thinking about the composition of an imaginative universe?

I suppose really it's both: I did write each story to stand as an individual story, but the stories all belong to the same imaginative world; plus they're arranged chronologically, like chapters.

If a reader feels either of my books are novels, I am happy for that. I am equally happy to call them collections of stories. I've ceased worrying about falling into a specific genre. I'm aiming for strong writing, and well-paced story-telling.

That said, yes, the "chapters" in The Juliet Stories are each structured with an internal connective image or theme, and a nose-to-tail return from beginning to end. That's how I see a story operating at it's strongest -- that it returns the reader to a familiar starting place in a new way.

At the same time, both books tell an over-arching story, meant to pull the reader through from beginning to end. I think Juliet particularly can be read all in one gulp, like a novel.

My hope is that the reader feels compelled by the writing -- onward! more! -- whether they are identifying it as a series of linked stories or chapters that blend together.

The Juliet Stories. The book has a before- and after-Nicaragua structure. She was 10 years old in Nicaragua, and that age is a kind of pivot in the narrative. She keeps returning to Nicaragua, and the final story in the book is a kind of coda to her Nicaraguan experience. One on the linking themes (there are many) is the responsibility we each have for all others. Witnessing for peace is her parents' motivation for taking their children into a war zone. Later, Juliet intervenes, in a way, on behalf of single, poor women being evicted from rooming houses. Also, the book depicts multiple generations of women. They love each other, but they don't connect with each other well often. What I'm trying to say is, the central conflict in the book seems to be the self/other dynamic. Juliet is placed in catastrophic circumstances beyond her control at an early age. The catastrophes continue, some inflicted from without, some from within. Juliet moves towards resolutions of these conflicts, but many of them she just needs to leave behind so she can be her own person. Whew! What's the question? Not sure. What do you think of that reading of your book?

Every reader is going to find his or her unique connections to the story being told.

My sense is that you're attuned to the tragic randomness of Life. But I'll tell you honestly that I never saw Juliet as a survivor of catastrophe.

That isn't how I view her experience in Nicaragua -- which I hope comes across as not just steeped in potential danger, but also full of wild freedom and sensory delight. And it isn't how I view Juliet's life afterward either.

The stories in the second half mark occasions. That's what you're picking up on. I didn't tell the in-between boring bits of Juliet's life, I chose to leap from stepping stone to stepping stone. The big life events.

Many (most?) big life events occur despite us. Often these things arrive out of the blue. People we love get sick. Relationships fail. People we love get hurt. We hurt people we love. We don't automatically know how to help. Perhaps most critically, we don't know how we'll be changed by these major life events. We just don't know.

That is the greatest mystery of all, and probably what I personally find most compelling about exploring transitions of significance.

So that is the story of the second half of the book. I think of the first half as Juliet's own touchstone, the piece of her life she keeps in her pocket for when she needs comfort or explanation or return. That is the experience that keeps her whole, even when she feels lost. There is some magic in it that can never be taken away.

Don't we all have something like that?

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