canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Carrie Snyder

Carrie Snyder was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up in Ohio, Nicaragua, and Ayr, Ontario. Her first book, Hair Hat, is published by Penguin Canada. She now lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband and two children and is working on a novel.

A book of poems titled Looking Back, I Want It All will be published in 2004 by the independent Kitchener-based press, Widows and Orphans.  More details about this project will forthcoming on Snyder's website.

Michael Bryson interviewed Snyder by email in May 2004.

The biography of you in your book says you grew up in Ohio, Nicaragua and Ontario. Did that seem like a lot of moving around? Have you always thought of yourself as a writer (or wanted to be a writer)? Give us some basic facts on who you are.

We did move a lot. But for a child, whatever is happening seems normal, and I remember the moves as being adventures. I was 9 when we moved from Ohio to Nicaragua (my parents worked for an organization called Witness for Peace), and we were sent first to the American school, where the wealthy Nicaraguan and the foreign bureaucrats sent their children and the classes were in English, and then to the Colegio Bauptista which was not quite a public school, although it wouldn't fit our Canadian idea of a private school.

I was put into a grade four class with close to eighty students in one room. There were no schoolbooks. The teacher wrote the lessons on the chalkboard and we copied them into notebooks. Everything was in Spanish and I was quite lost and lonely, though my Spanish improved as time went by. At school, in my notebook, I wrote a lot of stories when I was supposed to be copying something else. Some of them were epic, most were about horses. I remember sending a letter, while in Nicaragua, to the author of the Encyclopedia Brown series, asking how I could become a writer. The publisher kindly sent me a large package of brand-new books. No advice, however.

We moved to Canada when I was 10, to Waterloo. We also spent several years renting a farmhouse on a working farm. I studied English at the University of Waterloo, and then at the University of Toronto where I earned an MA in English Literature. I always hoped to become a writer. I wrote for the pleasure of it, just like I read for the pleasure of it.

TDR published one of your poems in our inaugural edition (Sept. 1999). You've just published a short story collection and you're working on getting a novel published. Are you equally comfortable in all genres? Can you express different parts of yourself in different genres? Any thoughts about dis/connections between the different types of writing you do?

Each genre requires something different from me. I like the individual challenges. In my teens and early twenties, I wrote poems almost every night before bed, almost like writing in a journal. It was my way of finishing the day. I would close my eyes and just type. Poems, for me, are intimate and personal and hardest to share. Stories are satisfying because they can be completed in a relatively short period of time, and the characters can be drawn in glances so you don't have to like them quite so much. Novels require long-term commitment, but there's much more room to play. There is so much that is written and then discarded in a novel, because as you write, you discover what you're really writing about, and most likely it's not about what you thought it was. Stumbling onto that solid path through the novel is a deeply rewarding moment.

If I'm in a poetry mood, like I was all last fall, there is no point in trying to write something else. All fall I craved the intimacy, I craved the sealed little jars of thought that poems are. Right now I'm in the mood for a novel, a big juicy exploratory adventure. Stories hit me at odd hours. I often write down ideas for stories which I'll turn to later, when I'm neither in a poetry mood or a novel mood. I always want to be writing something.

Okay. HAIR HAT. This is a collection of stories linked by a character common to all of them. The character has hair shaped like a hat. What's the deal with that?

I saw a man wearing a large, flamboyant hat, which may or may not have been made out of hair. I didn't get a second glance. But the picture of him stuck in my imagination. In the first hair hat story I ever wrote, he appeared completely out of the blue. That was for a creative writing class and I never finished it. More than two years later, I came across the story again. Mostly I wondered who this man was. I wrote another hair hat story. I remember reading it to my husband and saying, What is going on with this hair hat man? Is it just too peculiar? I didn't really care. I was too curious. I learned about him as I continued to write more stories. I feel like I didn't invent him, but that he was given to me, he appeared, he arrived.

He walks a fine line between being a figure of fun, a visual joke, and being almost tragic. I think to those characters who really see him, he is dignified despite the hair, they accept him, they recognize him. He is himself.

To tell you the truth, I love the hair hat man. There are some days I wish he would appear to me and lift me up by the elbow, offer some small magical gift.

The Globe and Mail reviewer of your book seemed to think that the hair hat trope was almost irrelevant. I don't want to give too much away to any potential readers, but I think it's fair to say that the stories in HAIR HAT are linked in a subtle, almost tenuous way. Perhaps too tenuous for the Globe's reviewers. However, the sensibility of your book reminded me of the light touch Sophia Coppola demonstrated in LOST IN TRANSLATION. I wonder if you could say something about the tension between linking the stories and what seems to be your preference for the subtleties of narrative.

I saw "Lost in Translation" in the theatre last fall and loved it. I'm glad Hair Hat reminded you of that movie, which was structured as a series of vignettes, taking the viewer through many small (but not small) emotional revelations, all the while building toward something. Hair Hat works in a similar way, I think.

The links between the Hair Hat stories are often subtle, glancing. When I arranged them into the final order, I had two things in mind: one was that I was revealing through these stories the larger story of the hair hat man, and there was a kind of teleological sense to them, working towards an end; but I also thought about interior links between the stories, and how each story's particular flavour of sadness, discovery, joy, fear, desire to know, desire not to know, fit with the flavour of the stories before and after it. I hope those links resonate.

The Globe and Mail reviewer did wonder whether the hair hat became irrelevant in the end - I actually found that perspective quite interesting. It wasn't what I was thinking about when shaping the stories, but I did intend for the reader to become familiar with the hair hat, and perhaps familiarity makes the hair hat seem less peculiar, so that in the end the man wearing the hat becomes a person too, he steps outside of the hat's boundaries. That's how I read the reviewer's comment.

The same reviewer also suggested that there would be a variety of individual responses to the stories. That's what I hope for. I hope that Hair Hat will involve readers in a very personal way. I hope that the book is ultimately larger than the sum of its parts, that the subtlety leaves room for layers of experience and meaning.

I'm going to use LOST IN TRANSLATION in this question, too. Someone said to me that she liked LOST IN TRANSLATION because it depicted well that lost, searching feeling many women have when they're in their twenties. HAIR HAT is a book about growing up, in many ways as well. While many of the stories are snapshots in time, and thus don't really "go anywhere," there is a forward narrative through the collection about a teenaged girl who disappeared. This disappearance is never fully resolved, and it left me with a haunted feeling at the end of the book. Similarly, the story in LOST IN TRANSLATION is never fully resolved. As are many relationships in life. Maybe this is just another way of asking the previous question. Thoughts?

Your previous question got me thinking about what I thought I was attempting to do when writing the stories. My original intention was simple, almost basic: to tell the hair hat man's story through the eyes of people meeting him at random. This was the only way I seemed able to meet him and that had become very important to me.

But somehow in the writing of the stories, there seemed to be a certain kind of character who would be likely to see a hair hat man (not everyone in the book does see him, after all), and ultimately it is those characters - and the hair hat man himself - who give the book its haunting flavour. There is such a divide between what the characters mean to say and what they actually say, what they mean to do and what they actually do. That's my experience in life, too. But the hair hat man stands in opposition to that, I think. He is what he is, he does what he does.

Maybe what's haunting about human relationships in general is that they are governed by forces within us and without us, and we think we should have control over them, but we rarely do. Or maybe we're not brave enough. Maybe we don't want to risk standing out like the hair hat man does. But there is beauty and hope to be found in our relationships, no matter how fractured. Actually, those fractures are what is beautiful, to me. That haunting feeling is linked, too, to hope.

Also, I do think the stories go somewhere - there is a sense of searching for and discovering in each, a moment of change. Like most change, it's fleeting, almost ungraspable, almost indefinable, but sweet with potential. But it doesn't matter to me whether that potential is ever realized and maybe that's why the stories seem like snapshots. And like snapshots, the stories can be returned to - I hope readers want to return to them - like moments in our own lives that we want to look at again and again, wondering about, wondering what we did wrong or right, maybe wishing we could enter that moment and experience it again.

Without meaning to, without setting out to, I think in Hair Hat I created another world, sadder, braver, better, than my regular one. That's why I return, even now, to these stories and these characters.

Usually we end with a question: What are you working on now? But I also wanted to ask you about work/life balance. You and your husband have two children. How do you find time to write?

Short answer: I have help. Frankly, if I were alone full-time with a three-year-old and an 18-month-old, I would be writing poetic grocery lists and little else. We moved back to Waterloo last summer to be nearer to my parents. My mother has become a major part of my writing life. She babysits two hours a day, every weekday. And I put that time to good use.

If I'm working intensely on a project, like I was recently, my husband spends as much time as possible getting the kids out of the house (evenings, weekends) while I write like I'm possessed.

I just completed a solid draft of a new novel, so I'm re-entering normal life again. It's almost impossible to concentrate on anything else when I get to a certain stage in the novel. It's like I'm living in another world and everything else - ie. real life! - is an irritation. Which is completely unfair to everyone around me - and they deserve so much better! In that final push, I feel extremely conflicted and guilt-ridden and wonder whether I'm out of my mind to be sacrificing my children's babyhood to these characters who don't actually exist.

Thankfully, it's a brief phase. And I think without that other world to escape to, I might go a little bit crazy. Everyone needs a break from full-time parenting. Writing is mine.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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