An Interview with Rachel Louise Snyder
Veteran journalist Rachel Louise Snyder's debut novel, What We've Lost Is Nothing, tells the story of a group of neighbors who live on the same street in the Oak Park suburb just west of Chicago. One April afternoon in 2004 a series of burglaries occurs on their fictional street, Ilios Lane. What We've Lost is Nothing focuses on the forty-eight hour aftermath of this event -- how the neighbors come together, change as individuals, and are -- in some instances -- yanked apart by prejudice. Snyder's character development is astounding, as are the complexities of her writing. She manages to tackle some big issues including racism, city vs. suburb, violence, and the enigma of the human psyche -- all while telling a spectacular story.
Snyder's writing has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, Salon, and The Washington Post, among others.
As a long time journalist, what made you decide to write a novel?
Actually, people are surprised by this, but my only formal training as a writer has been in fiction. I got my MFA in fiction from Emerson College, and I had the good fortune to study under writers like Andre Dubus III, Tim O'Brien, Joe Hurka, and Jessica Treadway, among others. I fell into nonfiction because I published an essay in Mademoiselle magazine that I'd written in a random creative nonfiction class I took with the writer John Skoyles. I've actually written two and a half other novels that (thankfully!) did not get published. After grad school I began to write more and more nonfiction because you can make actual real dollars (not many, but a few) with nonfiction. I'd always traveled around the world, and I began to pitch stories to places like the Chicago Tribune, and Jane magazine, and Glamour, and so whatever journalism I learned was on the job. But I knew someday I'd return to fiction. I actually feel so blessed to be able to operate in both these forms, because I love them equally. And I think they're of equal value in our culture today.
How long did you work on What We've Lost Is Nothing?
I started What We've Lost is Nothing right after I published my first book, Fugitive Denim. I was living in Cambodia -- where I lived for six years -- and I was pregnant and so couldn't travel much or do the kind of journalism I'd been doing. So I started writing the book one weekend while I was on the south coast, at this amazing place called Knai Bang Chatt (I also got married on an elephant there in 2007) and the characters and premise came together almost immediately. The omniscient voice, the ensemble of characters -- these elements were there from the start. I worked on it for a few months, and then put it away because I gave birth to my daughter in Bangkok, and then we moved house, and I was sort of enjoying early motherhood, and didn't pick up the novel again until we moved from Phnom Penh to DC in the summer of 2009. After that, I worked on it pretty solidly for another two and a half years or so.
This novel takes place in Oak Park, Illinois. It looks like, based on the press release I have, that you lived there from 1995-2001, yet you now live in Washington, D.C. After all of these years, what made you decide to set your first novel back in Oak Park?
I actually lived in Oak Park twice... once after college in 1992, and then I went away to grad school in Boston. After I finished my degree, I moved back to Oak Park. I've lived all over the place, but Chicago is really my home, in that it takes up the most space in me -- in my heart and mind. I'd worked for six years in Oak Park's diversity assurance program as the manager of a residential building. Oak Park is known for Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright, but it has also long been studied by demographers around the world for its integration programs and its attempts to right some of the wrongs of discriminatory housing practices in the early part of the twentieth century. I learned so much in that job... about privilege, about possibility, about how the world sometimes works when you're one color versus another color.
After I began my novel, it took maybe a year before I realized that Oak Park offered a fruitful setting in terms of a charged, tension-fueled backdrop for the narrative of the book. The diversity programs gave something for the characters to mull and to argue about. A point of continued tension. The characters and their particular plights are, of course, far more important than this backdrop, but it provided a rich opportunity nevertheless. Sometimes novels can offer a deeper moral discussion about such things than a piece of nonfiction.
You say that it took maybe a year before you settled on Oak Park as the setting for What We've Lost Is Nothing. This book is very complex in that there is this charged, tension-fueled backdrop, but there is also the story of the neighbors brought together (and torn apart) by a massive burglary that took place on their street. These characters all have tales of their own, all surrounding Mary Elizabeth's coming of age, which is a story in and of itself. With so many complexities, how did this novel take shape for you? In the acknowledgements, you thank an acquaintance for telling you about a large-scale burglary in Georgia that occurred in the 1980s. Did you immediately know that would become a story, did it start from there?
Yes, my friend Caroline Alexander, who is one of the most beautiful and profound writers I know, told me about someone she'd known who'd been a victim of this mass burglary in the '80s outside of Atlanta, and how eventually all the neighbors were just too freaked out to stay. I immediately thought it was a brilliant premise. I asked her if she'd mind my using it in fiction -- she only writes nonfiction (for National Geographic and The New Yorker) -- and so the premise knocked around in my head for a while. At the same time, I was living outside of the U.S. and traveling nonstop; I worked in Niger, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Azerbaijan -- all in, like, an eighteen month time period, and I found myself having to constantly answer questions about the Bush Administration, about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It wasn't that long after 9/11 and yet from country to country I found the same attitude: "Why was the United States doing what it was doing?" And I realized that whatever "capital" we as a country had garnered in the absolute tragedy of 9/11 had been frittered away very quickly by our government.
In an allegorical sense, this is what happens to the neighbors in my book, largely because of one man -- Michael McPherson. He's definitely the antagonist in the book, but I wanted him to be sympathetic, too. He's in a tough spot. Parents really don't have control of their kids, and the world is a giant, scary place. He's doing the best he can, but he doesn't have the emotional tools to really address his daughter or his wife, and he doesn't see how his own actions and reactions contribute to the problem. So in the beginning, when I started writing the book, all these forces were at play... the bigger political picture, and the smaller, more individual sense of tragedy and loss.
Also, you write from the viewpoints of different characters, and you also include different formats in telling the story (narrative, listserv posts, a newspaper article, blog posts) -- these techniques are invaluable to the strength of this novel, but the task of pulling all of this together seems astounding. Was this difficult for you?
My friend Andre Dubus III is sort of famous for disliking postmodern stuff, and he told me I was "flirting" with it in this book (my response was to joke that he was being a literary curmudgeon -- though for the record, he must have thought it worked well enough because he gave me a wonderful and gracious blurb). But you're right that there's a lot going on in the book. People think it's a quick read, and it is, but it has very complicated structural underpinnings. It's told from multiple points of view, and there are scenes in which many characters are all involved in the action. That last scene of the book has something like thirteen characters in it, all talking and yelling and scrambling, and I put off writing it for weeks. It was so complicated, but it's the kind of thing that only writers tend to notice. Most readers probably have no idea how hard it is to write a scene with over a dozen characters.
At the same time, I didn't want any of the characters to be preachy, even Susan, who carries a lot of the political and emotional weight of the book. So I'll tell you the origins of the structure, the format as you call it. Years ago, I read the Iliad while I was on the beach in Thailand for a week. At the same time, I listened to a series of twenty-four lectures on the Iliad so I'd have a deeper engagement with it -- it's not an easy text to get through, right? And I was obsessed with it. I mean, the gods are always commenting on the crazy stuff going on in the human world, and yet they're powerless to do anything against the fate of those humans. We know Hector's fated to die at Achilles' hand, and Hector's a pretty decent guy. Why? Why can't the gods intervene and save him? But they don't. They can't. This is how fate works.
So all those blogs and listservs and articles are like a Greek chorus, commenting on what the people are doing. This is the place I can get preachy, because, well, show me a neighborhood listserv where people aren't freaking preachy, right? My neighborhood listserv is amazing; people are just total assholes, sure that their way is the only way. And so I started to read all these blogs and listservs from Oak Park -- and people are just as preachy. Behind the "wall" of one's computer, one can stand on a pretty high horse. So those "interstitials" as I call them in the book (a term I borrowed from public radio) were a way for me to get a range of viewpoints and attitudes in there, without bogging down the characters in any kind of political hoopla, which just drains tension from a narrative. There are hints of the Iliad peppered throughout the book, too. Ilios Lane itself is a nod to Homer; Ilios is another word for Troy.
I want to talk a little bit about the bad, or the "crazy stuff" in this novel (without getting into spoiler specifics), because there is quite a bit of it including the burglaries, the racism, the violence, and the accident. The question "What was the worst thing that ever happened to you?" comes up repeatedly in your book -- many of the characters, in a brief time span, suffer from their own "worst things." Was it difficult for you to get into that victim mode that often as you were writing? Even if your own "worst thing" doesn't include what your characters suffered through, I would think that you'd have to get your mind into that dark place in order to convey the terror and the emotions as well as you have done.
Ah, this is that moment where you tap into the writer's psyche and find all the skeletons in her closet. Well, first of all, Arthur's question about the worst thing that ever happened to you is entirely my own theory. Arthur's pretty much stolen it from me (I just went all meta there, I know...). I've long held that theory. I remember asking my husband years ago what the worst thing was that'd ever happened to him, and he mulled it and went back and forth and kind of decided that he didn't really have one thing. But I do. My mother died when I was eight years old, and I watched it from a crack in her bedroom door. She'd had cancer for five years, and she was thirty-five when she died. It was an instant life changer. And you go on, of course, and live your life, but still I've always felt that dark cloud lurking just over my shoulder.
It's part of why I've covered the kinds of journalism stories I've covered: natural disasters and war and genocide and all sorts of very grim topics. I'm doing a piece for The New York Times Magazine right now that is undeniably the darkest story I've ever reported -- so dark, in fact, that I feel superstitious about even having the research in my home. And for some reason that I'm sure has to do with the death of my mother, these are the kinds of stories I'm attracted to as a writer. Don't get me wrong; I can write humor, too. And people who know me think I'm pretty funny, but in my writing I just live in this bleak world where grave tragedies happen, but then unbelievable stories of survival and endurance bubble up and just blow a hole right through your heart.
Even in the novel, yes, you have some terrible things that happen after the burglaries, as a result of the burglaries, but I really also think it's a story about survival; about how we can stand on top of the mountain and scream, "Bring it on world!" And so many people -- so many -- will just fucking persevere! This hasn't been talked about much in interviews, but look at the Cambodians in the novel; they survived a genocide for crying out loud, and they're still full of love and hope and beauty.
You brought up Michael McPherson a couple of questions ago, and I have him listed in my notes as being "so messed up." But, I think saying that "he's in a tough spot" is a much better and more compassionate way to state it. He really doesn't seem to excel in any aspect of his life -- family or professional. He sees the aftermath of the burglary as an opportunity to heroically separate himself from everyone else, and ends up making everything so much worse, as you touched upon earlier. The title, What We've Lost Is Nothing, is something that Michael himself said during one of the neighborhood meetings, it was sort of a futile attempt to rally everyone together. Can you talk a little bit about this title, the quote, and what this Oak Park neighborhood really lost?
It's easy to hate Michael; he's truly a blowhard. He's the total dork parent who thinks he "gets" his kid, but just does not understand one iota of what she's up against. But he loves her, and this is his saving grace. He wants to keep her safe, and he proves at the end of the book in the worst way possible that he'll do whatever it takes to protect her. I think a lot of people get into the rut Michael is in; people who had such grand visions when they were young, and suddenly they're in their forties or fifties or sixties and life is the same day after day and at some point they have this reckoning where they realize what they're doing is going to be what they're doing until they can't do it any longer. What a terrific horror, right? I mean, it's one of the biggest things I fear in my own life! So Michael thinks the burglaries will provide him this chance to prove what he once had, except what they end up doing is exposing the fault lines in his career and his marriage and his closest relationships. So when he says, "What we've lost is nothing," he's not yet understanding all that he's truly lost -- or all that he's about to lose. He's too focused on himself to notice anyone around him, really. It's easier for him to find fault with everyone else, because then he never has to look inward.
Ultimately, I think many of the neighbors gain as much as they've lost... the Kowalskis suddenly discover one another. Arthur finds a family. Mary finds her way back to her mother and vice-versa. Even Étienne finds himself again. But they've also lost this veneer, this sheen of living in what they'd believed was a kind of contemporary, urban utopia. They have to ask themselves if they are, in fact, the people they thought they were; if the place they live is all they'd believed of it. Maybe it's much less extraordinary. I think they'll see that the world is more complicated and people are more complicated, and in the end we really do need each other. It's both heartening and depressing that we're all we've got.
I think it's interesting that you live in a bleak world while you write, it must serve as a huge emotional outlet, so that you can be upbeat the rest of the time. It's often said that writers NEED to write, for you this is obviously the case. How young were you when you started to write? You mention being superstitious about keeping materials for your current piece in your home because it is so dark. Are you superstitious by nature? Do you have any other writing quirks?
I always hate that imperative of "I write because I can't not write." It feels so melodramatic to me. But it's also true. On days I can't write, I'm extremely grumpy. I think it actually has the same effect as going to gym does on my neurology. In any case, I wanted to be a writer my whole life. I have little books I wrote when I was seven and eight years old. My grandfather was a poet and a journalist and his twin brother -- my great uncle -- created the Addams Family and also wrote science fiction novels. My cousin in Los Angeles is an amazing poet named Lance Lee. So writing is a family business of sorts and before she died my mother used to make me keep a journal of important events in my life. I have a hilarious journal from my first trip to New York City when I was eight (we drank a lot of "coketails" and climbed the "statchue of Liberty!"). It was the great gift she gave me -- a place to "go" to make sense of life.
I do have a few writing quirks, starting with the fact that I hand-write everything. I can't compose creative work on a computer. And -- because I am six years old at heart -- I actually write in a different color every day. Pink, purple, turquoise... I'd use glitter if I could. It's terribly embarrassing. But I use Staedtler pens, these beautiful German felt-tip pens that came in a case. I remember when I covered the tsunami in Asia and I was standing between, like, the Washington Post guy and the New York Times guy and they both had their journalist notebooks and ballpoint pens, and I pull out a Hello Kitty notebook with a pink pen. I could practically feel them rolling their eyes.