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Author Interview: Samuel Snoek-Brown
If you’ve been wondered what was rolling around in author Samuel Snoek-Brown’s head as he wrote his new short story collection, There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, today’s the day to find out! We sat down with the Tacoma-based author to chat about how his new collection came to be, the narratives inside, and some of the secrets hidden within its stories. Enjoy!
Q: We heard through the grapevine you like to hide secrets or slip riddles into your stories … is that true?
A: I’m a big fan of literary puzzles and Easter eggs! So yeah, I hide all sorts of nerdy things in my stories. The main thing I hope every reader keeps an eye out for are the hidden connections between my stories, not just in this book but in all the stories I write. (Example: There’s a connection between the story “Jarabe” and my Civil War novel Hagridden, but I’ll let readers find it on their own.) But there are also other little games I play while I’m developing stories, and I don’t know if anyone else will spot them or if they’re just for me, but I like that they’re in there. A lot of my stories come from songs, for example, as did the title of this collection. But I won’t spoil the game of figuring out which songs. And those Easter eggs aren’t as important as the stories themselves, anyway.
Q: Many of the stories in the collection have Mexican or Mexican-American protagonists or are immigrants to the U.S. Why write from these perspectives?
A: I tend to write about the things I most want to know. I learn through stories, both the reading and the telling. Besides, I don’t think anyone can honestly write about Texas, or the parts of Texas I lived in, without writing about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. All the whitewashing of the “old West” and “cowboys” aside, the essential nature of Texas is its own mixed heritage, and over the years, as I wrote my stories about Texas, I realized that by writing only from my own limited perspective, I was only telling a small part of the truth that is Texas. I’m not a sociopath, but one of the characters is a sociopathic killer. I’m not a libertarian or a street preacher, but both those men inhabit my stories. I’m not a veteran of any war, but war veterans survive my stories. I write from other perspectives not just to round out the reality of my fiction and tell truer, more inclusive stories, but also to learn from other perspectives, to consider the world from more than I own point of view. Or, I try to, anyway.
Q: What would you say to those who feel you’re appropriating others’ experiences for the sake of fiction?
A: I’m really sensitive to this critique. It’s one I continue to think about—and it’s something I raise with my literature and creative writing students as well. Whose stories are we telling, and who has the right to tell them? There’s been a lot of attention the past few years to the science of empathy and how reading fiction about diverse characters and experiences helps us develop into more thoughtful, compassionate people. I think the same can be true of writing diverse characters with a range of experiences, but I also know that the line between respectful storytelling and thoughtless appropriation is thin and always in motion. And I don’t know that it’s my place to determine whether I’ve crossed that line. I hope that readers will have that conversation. My role as the writer is to write with as much respect and compassion as I can, and that was certainly my intention here. I spent a lot of time running these stories by a range of people who might feel represented in them, to make sure I was honoring the people I’m writing about. So far everyone has signed off on them, but I hope that’s not the end of the conversation—I hope that conversation carries on, about my fiction and everyone else’s.
Q: When you wrote these stories, did you have border issues like violence, immigration, or shifting identity in mind, or did those issues and themes arise organically?
A: At the time I was writing these stories, those issues weren’t always at the forefront of my thought process. But growing up with friends who routinely crossed a whole range of borders and boundaries—national, cultural, sexual, religious—and struggled with identity, I was always aware that’s what these stories, in general, are about. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by these things. I am a devout pacifist who’s as fascinated by violence as I am appalled by it. I am a white guy born in the States but I’m descended from immigrant relatives I knew in my lifetime. And I’ve lived overseas, so even though we tend to call white folks “expats” wherever we live, I knew in that country that I was an immigrant and a minority. In my own hometown—which really isn’t my hometown but it’s the town where I graduated high school so I claim it—there has always been debate about who’s a “local” and who’s just passing through. My parents have lived there the past 30 years and they’re still considered “newcomers” by some folks, even as the town has grown into a city and practically everyone is a newcomer and my “hometown” barely resembles the place I write about in my fiction anymore. What is “home” and when does it become a home? What is our identity, and who decides it? So in a way, these themes are always in the back of my mind.
Q: How long was this collection “in the making?”
A: Some of the stories took decades to sort out, and some of the stories only appeared in the past year or so. But the collection as a whole only revealed itself to me fairly recently. I’d been working with a few of the stories as a chapbook, but it never quite worked on its own. I finally realized that I need another story or two to tie the narratives together. But as I started pulling in more stories, I began to see how they overlapped with still more characters and events and themes, so I kept pulling in more stories, until I finally saw the wholeness of this collection. That process felt so organic that I can’t recall exactly how long that took. Sometimes it feels like it happened in the space of an evening; other times, I know it took me months to really wrap my head around it. Putting together this collection felt a bit like falling in love, I suppose. I could put a date on the moment it happened just for the sake of claiming an anniversary, but the actual process was a lengthy evolution, a slow dawn in the heart.
Q: Did you make any cuts from the collection and if so, why?
A: In Guadalupe’s story, “It Was the Only Way,” there’s a background character that we never quite meet, the boarding-house owner Consuela. Years before I wrote that story, I wrote a piece of flash fiction about Consuela, which is how she wound up in Guadalupe’s story—she was already there, waiting for me to bring her back into fiction. I thought about including her tiny story, “Consuela Throws Her TV Away,” but it always felt a bit out of place. So I didn’t so much cut it as I couldn’t work it in to begin with. It’s out there, though, in the online magazine Fiction Southeast, if anyone wants to find out more about Consuela.
Q: Which story in the collection was the hardest to write?
A: Every story is the hardest to write. It’s true what they say, that every time you sit down to write, you have to learn all over again. In many ways, I think the Miguel stories (including the one with his mother, Guadalupe) were the hardest, because I wanted to make sure I was getting the characters right, that I was honoring their experiences. I leaned heavily on some of my friends from high school and college for cultural and linguistic details there, and I hope I’ve done those characters justice.
The story that took the longest to write was “The Penitent Go to Texas.” The kernel of that story began as an assignment in undergrad, back in 1994, and while the basic narrative (a one-night stand) stayed the same, I was never happy with the characters or the ending, so I kept reworking it over and over, trying new people in each draft and seeing how they changed their story. A decade later, in grad school, I was studying medieval hagiographies and fell in love with the lives of the married saints, and once I started trying to imagine their stories in a contemporary setting, I realized what was missing from that old one-night stand story, so I put the two together. But it still took a few more years of revision to finally make that story work, so that one story took me more than 20 years to get right.
Q: Who are some of your biggest inspirations as an author?
A: My go-to answer is always, first and foremost, Tom Franklin, who has not only been an inspiration but also a mentor and a friend. I want to be him when I grow up. I’m also a huge fan of Dan Chaon, whose “frayed edges” in his fiction taught me a lot about how to not tie up a story, and of Debra Monroe, whose sense of place and inner conflict with home was an education in how I’ve always wanted to write about my own home. But I think the inspiration that might surprise folks is Jane Austen. My wife turned me onto Jane early in our relationship, and now I’m a lifelong member of JASNA. Few writers have ever done character or dialogue better than Jane, but also, her precision and insight when describing a culture, a society, relationships between human beings, is practically unparalleled in Western literature. Maybe Alice Munro approaches her, but not many others.
Q: Do you have any writing rituals?
A: I’m not a terribly disciplined writer. I work hard at my fiction, but I’ve never been one of those “write every day” types, let alone writing at the same time of day or in the same environment, etc. I’ve valued the consistency of that kind of habitual writing when I’ve had the luxury of doing it, but mostly, I’ve trained myself to write anywhere, in any circumstances, during any time I can set aside. But one thing I do as often as I can is write to music. Sometimes it’s just background mood-setting music, and sometimes it’s not even music—I have a couple of websites of atmospheric sound effects I sometimes listen to. But for larger projects like books, I often put together particular playlists—music from certain time periods, or songs with lyrics I reference, or music with the same energy I want in the fiction. I do write in silence sometimes, or in the din of public life, but when I can, I write to music.
Q: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
A: Waiting. I am terrifically impatient, and while the sexy part of writing is the writing—I even love revision, hard work though it is—but in the longer view of things, most of writing is about waiting. Ideas, submission responses, the publication process—these things happen at a pace I have little control over, and it drives me up the wall sometimes. It’s one reason I always have a handful of projects going at any one time, so I’ve always got some story or other to distract me from my own impatience.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this collection?
A: As a reader, I know that one of the most valuable parts of any reading experience is discovering the text, in revealing what you see in the text. And that’s mostly about the reader—who you are, what you bring the to page, what’s going on in your world when you take up a text. And I feel like talking about what I want readers to take away is a bit like spoiling that experience for the readers. It’s why I never write in books myself, never annotate or highlight on the pages of books—any book I read, I hope will outlast me, and if I mark up the text, I’m telling future readers how to read that text, and I would feel like I’d be robbing them of their own experience with the book. Which is my own hangup, and I don’t apply it universally—I love book reviews, for example, and what are reviews but explications of how one reader engaged with a text and how other readers might read it in the future? But I know from my teaching how often people want to talk about “what the author intended” as though it’s some sort of standard against which we should measure our own approaches to a story, and I don’t like being party to someone else’s “intentional fallacy.” Once these stories are out there, in your hands, in your mind, they become partly your stories, and I’m much more interested in finding out how other people receive them.
If all of that sounds like a cop-out, I’ll say this instead: I hope readers see the humanity in these characters, even the jerks. I hope readers can relate to these characters’ longings, their love and their anger, their pathetic failures and their heroic failures. I hope, after reading these stories, people might walk through their own neighborhoods or sit in their own coffee shops or attend their own churches, and they’ll see a stranger, some random person they don’t know and might never see again, and they’ll think, even from a distance, even for just a moment, “I wonder what that person’s story is.”