Blueprint had the pleasure of sitting down with Waterloo-based author Carrie Snyder to discuss style through the eyes of a wordsmith.
BP: Since our theme is Style this month, I thought I would start by asking you what your immediate feelings towards it are, if any? What comes to mind right away?
CS: I think of myself as not having a strong sense of personal style. That said, when I look around my house and in the mirror, it’s clear that I do have a particular style, and that it skews toward simple, functional, and classic. My style does not rock the boat. I choose clothes that flatter without causing me great discomfort, and I keep only a few key pieces in my wardrobe at any given time. My favourite jewelry is a necklace made of three unpolished stones – literally gravel, elevated to decoration. With four children in the house, I generally choose function and efficiency over beauty. A clean surface is beautiful to me (and rare)!
BP: What does “style” mean to you in the world of all things written?
CS: Every writer has a voice. That voice may change over time, and some writers experiment with form and genre, but ultimately every memorable and lasting written work is grounded in its authenticity. That’s what style is, to my mind. It’s an expression of self that exists outside the self. There is something artificial about style, because it has to be made or invented, and yet when style comes from genuine creative impulse, it transcends its artificiality. I suppose that’s art.
BP: How would you define your personal style of writing? Does it change from project to project? Or is there something you never fail to bring with you to the page?
CS: I’ve definitely experimented with voice and style during my writing career. In my first book, Hair Hat, I deliberately stripped away as much metaphor and description as I could. I wanted the story to stand out, not my interpretation of what the story was supposed to mean. I wanted the reader to decide. In my second book, The Juliet Stories, which was published eight years after Hair Hat, my style had developed to embrace a richer descriptive palette, although again, I tried not to bias the reader with my own presumptions. My goal was to make every sentence in the book interesting, to give the reader something to unpack and enjoy, a series of small surprises or unexpected juxtapositions. I embraced the technical challenge of building and sustaining suspense. In my third book, which will be published next fall, I let the story take over, and trusted the voice that emerged. The writing felt free.
I’m unable to read my own work in a way that would allow me to recognize a distinctive voice throughout my projects, including my blog and non-fiction writing, but I suspect it’s there. I love my characters, flaws and all. I have great trust in the reader. I think that comes through.
BP: How did you develop this particular style, and in retrospect, is there anything you would change?
CS: I developed my voice by writing. It’s really as simple as that. I’ve written daily since I was a teenager. I’ve also written for a variety of purposes and I think that helps to develop both confidence and craft: academic writing, journaling, newspaper articles, book reviews, stories, poems, novels, essays, blogs. These all require different skills, and take practice, and all feed into the ability to craft and shape a story in a way that is both unique to one’s voice, while staying within the confines of the given structure.
I also read and continue to read all the time. I read anything and everything, but I do recommend reading what you want to write.
I can’t think of anything I would change in my own development, in all honesty. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the time to develop my voice over many years of practice. It takes a lot of work, that literal grind of sitting in front of computer screen and writing and revising, writing and revising, writing and revising.
One thing: I’m relieved that my first novel never got published, even though it was crushing at the time (I was 26). I think the right books have gotten published along the pathway of my career so far. I never took rejection as failure, but as a reason to continue improving and learning.
BP: Your academic background is in English Literature. Are you familiar with different types of writing styles?
CS: I read widely. I read contemporary literary fiction by men and by women, often CanLit. I belong to a poetry book club devoted to reading and discussing collections of poems. I read mysteries, memoirs, essay collections. I subscribe to Macleans, The Walrus, and The New Quarterly (a local literary magazine that I highly recommend), and The Globe and Mail. I read blogs. I read children’s literature, often aloud to my own children. I’m drawn, generally speaking, to writing that seeks to be clear, understated, and emotionally profound. I like learning new things. I appreciate the hard work behind clarity of expression.
BP: In what ways does your everyday life or experience contribute to your style?
CS: As I’m considering your questions, I’m beginning to recognize that my own style, from home to personal to writing voice, is really one and the same. I appreciate functional beauty. I appreciate the effort that goes into making something that looks effortless. I appreciate understatement. I like when the ordinary is elevated to art. I want to be moved. I want to be comforted. But I’m not afraid of disruption, either. The surfaces aren’t always clean around here. I don’t mind a bit of rawness to my style. I’m actually deeply moved by imperfection.
BP: You got the idea for your debut collection of stories, Hair Hat, from catching glimpse of a man through a steamy coffee shop window in dimly lit November. Unsure of what you had seen, it looked as though his hair might be shaped into a hat. How did the stories grow from such a seemingly incidental moment? Did style play a part in their development, their form?
CS: Hair Hat is quite a deliberately styled collection, much like the hairstyle adopted by the character who is known throughout the book as “the hair hat man.” As you say, he wears his hair styled into the shape of a hat, something which the other characters in the book remark on or notice or don’t notice, as the case may be. Each story is told through the eyes of a different character, and in each, the hair hat man makes an appearance. Depending on who is looking at him, he seems frightening, or laughable, or strange, and through their eyes, his story gets told as the book unfolds. The style was informed by the subject, and that’s been the case with all of my work — formal style matches subject. I couldn’t get at the hair hat man’s story directly, so I needed to tell it in a fragmented and almost accidental-seeming way, from a variety of perspectives.
BP: As a writer, is style something meant to be cultivated, inherited, or felt?
CS: Probably all of the above. There are no new stories to tell, but there are new ways to tell the fundamental stories that we all long to connect to. Reading widely, understanding the traditions we’re building on, learning the technical skills and practicing the craft, all brings us the confidence to experiment and develop our own unique voice, or style. I’m a bit older now, and I probably experiment less, and instead give a lot of thought to what I want to put into the world. What am I adding to the conversation? What am I offering? Is it what I want to be offering? I will drop projects or change direction drastically if I feel that it won’t ultimately share something that is worth giving.
BP: Are there any writers whose style you admire? If so, how come?
CS: Alice Munro. I’ve been a fan and a reader since I was 12 years old (and I wrote about her for the National Post last fall, if you’d like to look up that article). Mavis Gallant, another Canadian short story writer whose complex and understated style I’ve studied and admired since undergrad. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto has been a big influence on my writing: she writes literary fiction that is utterly compelling and does not ignore plot. I loved Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version for the same reason. Grace Paley, Eden Robinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aleksandar Hemon, Hilary Mantel, Colum McCann: all so different in their various styles and stories, yet all with the strength, confidence, intelligence, and emotional depth that I admire.
Carrie Snyder is the author of two collections of short fiction, including The Juliet Stories, which was a finalist for Canada’s 2012 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Her debut novel, Girl Runner, will be published in Canada by House of Anansi next fall, and in 2015 by HarperCollins in the US and Two Roads in the UK, as well as in translation in Germany, Italy, Holland, France, Spain, and Sweden. Carrie lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her family. She blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama.