I’m always interested in what sparks a particular book. What was it for you for this one? Did anything surprise you in the writing?
Many years ago, a friend of mined told me about a neighborhood outside of Atlanta where a number of the homes on one particular street were burgled. Within a couple of years, all those families had left. It just seemed like a great impetus for a novel. What happens when you’re thrust together into a sort of collective event like this? What do people do? What do they say to one another? Are they afraid? Angry? Then I realized it was a perfect event to set in Oak Park, which is the first suburb west of Chicago and is known for its integration efforts over the past four or five decades; Chicago, of course, was one of the country’s worst cities for redlining and other discriminatory housing practices.
Everything surprised me in the writing! I’d never written an ensemble piece of work —some folks have likened my book to the movie “Crash”—and so coming up with very different voices and points of view was a real challenge. But with each character, it seemed like some small part of their creation turned out to hold great metaphoric value. Arthur Gardenia, for example, is partially blind, yet turns out to be the person who keeps the main family from falling apart; it’s as if he’s the only one who can truly “see”them all. I had this moment, too, toward the end when I had to write a final scene that contains, essentially, almost every character in the book. There are something like thirteen characters in this one scene. I put off writing it for weeks. I had no idea how to write a scene with so many people. The trick of such a scene is to maintain the sort of chaotic moment and not lose your reader. I was deeply insecure about writing it, and then finally I just forged ahead and it’s maybe my favorite scene in the book now. I’m proud of it in a craft sense, but I also think it successfully carries the emotional weight of a half dozen different characters. It surprised me that I could pull off such a thing!
This is your debut, and it’s such a gorgeous one. You did a lot of research and you became a resident manager of a housing center yourself. Can you talk about how the real life material became incorporated into the fictional world?
Thank you! I did some research, though not a ton…I did research on hemeralopia —I was actually mock-blinded by a professor who works in this area —and I researched french food, and bridges. But I lived in Cambodia for six years, and so didn’t need to do much research there, and I also lived in Oak Park and worked as a resident manager in the village’s diversity assurance program for five or six years back in the mid-90s. It was such an amazing program, and I always wanted to write about it. I was friends with Ira Glass at the time and I used to say to him, “You have to let me do a story on diversity assurance.”And he’d say, “But what’s the story?”I never had a story; I had a setting and an issue, but no narrative. So it was an idea that germinated for years, until finally it occurred to me that Oak Park would be the perfect setting for the novel. There are issues of race and integration and historical justice, but it’s not polemic. The characters and the story always come first, I hope. But I learned so much in that job, about race and economics and fairness and opportunity. I’d never thought of myself as having been given any kind of advantage simply by the color of my skin. I think that job taught me empathy and tolerance more than anything else in my life. It taught me that everyone has a story.
I happen to love any novel that delves into the myths about suburbia--that it’s safe, that all the people are community, that it’s the American Dream in a lot of ways. Can you talk about this, please?
Me, too. Definitely. Oak Park is a very urban suburb. It’s not entirely unlike Brooklyn —more of an extension of the city. So it’s not the kind of place John Cheever would write about; it has a liberal sensibility, with a very educated, middle or middle-upper class populace, but every place holds its own blind spots. When I was researching the novel, a police chief in Oak Park spent the better part of a day with me driving me around the village, looking at the kinds of signs you might look for as an officer investigating house break-ins. So he’d say things like: “You see all those ADT signs? Those are like invitations for thieves. You see those fences around the yards? People think they’re invisible with their fences, but in fact they often just hide thieves.”And then he said something really interesting, which was that after 9/11, he began to hear the kind of racial prejudice that you NEVER hear in Oak Park emerge, this fear that was taking root in the community. Several high profile crimes had people really questioning the continued funding of the integration programs, and he got so frustrated, because crime was really low —lower than it had been in two decades! So he wrote a series of op-eds in the local paper trying to tell people that the statistics didn’t back their fear. This is why the book is set when it’s set —just a few years after 9/11. It offers an allegorical parallel.
Let’s talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out, follow your muse (if so, can you send him or her to me?) or do a little of both? Do you have rituals you need to follow? What’s your writing day like?
I had rituals before I became a mom! I used to spend like an hour or two “prepping.”Listening to music, dancing around my apartment in Chicago, drinking an entire carafe of coffee. I had the luxury of time. Now, I am manic. I get into my office and just fucking write like a mad woman. And I write by hand. Everything, by hand, in a different color pen every day. I use these beautiful German pens in a set of 25 colors by Staedtler. I discovered them when I lived in Cambodia, and now I use them all the time. When I’m writing journalism, I can compose on a computer, but with more creative stuff —like fiction, or like what I’m working on now, which is a memoir —I hand write still. It slows my brain down, forces me to concentrate. And some days I can really get a lot of writing down in just 45 minutes or an hour. I don’t believe in inspiration, or muses or any of that kind of stuff. I believe in hard work. Yoga and writing. Those are my pillars.
And in fiction I haven’t mapped anything out…I get one really crappy draft down that has a kind of wobbly arc, and then I go and tweak and rewrite and reorder. I’m a structure queen; my graduate students will tell you that about me. I talk about it more than anything in writing. How is the story unfolding? What are the beats? Some writers need each sentence to be perfect before they’ll move on. That’s not me. I need each sentence to be in place, and then later I rip the shit out of them. This book, for example, had at least two other major characters who ended up on the cutting room floor. I’d say two areas have really enhanced my writing generally: the first is John McPhee. If I could build him a shrine without it being creepy or alarming my husband, I would. The second is radio scripting (I’ve done a lot of work for public radio). You have to be exact when you’re filling, say, three seconds of time. So with McPhee I get the structure, the big picture stuff, and with radio scripting I get the exactitude, the one perfect word, and it all informs my writing — fiction, journalism, everything.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m working on my memoir now —I’m about halfway through —so that’ll likely be my next book. But I also have another nonfiction book that I’m mulling…I did a piece for the New Yorker on domestic violence homicide recently, and I have SO MUCH more research than what went into the article, so I think about turning that into a book as well at some point. I’m also writing a piece for the New York Times magazine that I can’t really talk about, but it’s really dark in terms of subject matter. The kind of dark that is actually terrifying to think about too deeply, and I don’t know why I’m attracted to this kind of darkness, except to say that these kinds of topics aren’t unrelated to what many fiction writers also ponder: why people do the things they do? How they survive the things they survive?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I can’t think of anything, but I will give you a little secret into the book’s structure. Every eight or so chapters, there are what I’m calling “interstitials” (a term I borrowed from public radio). These are things like blogs, list serves, newspaper articles, etc. and they’re meant to act like a kind of Greek chorus, like how the Gods in the Iliad are always commenting on the fate of the humans below them. It’s maddening because it’s like, “Come on, Gods! Can’t you save Hector? I mean, you’re Gods, after all!” But they can’t save Hector. All they can do is know that Achilles is fated to kill Hector, and so in some sense, these interstitials are comments on the characters in the book, or on the burglaries, or on the integration programs’ efficacy. The street name in the novel — Ilios — is actually another word for Troy. Thought you’d find it interesting.
Rachel Louise Snyder