Carrie Snyder is a fiction writer, mother of four children, teacher, and athlete. Her most recent novel, Girl Runner, was published to international acclaim and is the story of Aganetha Smart, a pioneering athlete who captured world attention during the 1928 Olympics. The story unfolds when Aganetha is 104 and living in a nursing home. Quill and Quire said of the novel: "Ultimately, Girl Runner is a beautiful, thoughtful homage to those forgotten women who stepped outside the boundaries of what was allotted to them, and a testament to the struggles and sacrifices that paved the way for the female athletes who followed."
Each of her books, as well as several of her short stories, has won or been nominated for awards, including the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Waterloo Region Arts Award for Literature, and the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. Her blog, Obscure CanLit Mama, won a Canadian Weblog Award in 2014.
Marianne Lonsdale talked with Snyder about her childhood writing ambitions, her adult successes, and how she manages to be so productive while raising four children.
Marianne Lonsdale: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Carrie Snyder: It's hard for me to remember a time that I did not see myself as a writer. I was an early reader, starting at age four, and even then I imagined myself as a writer. When I was seven, I read in the Guinness Book of World Records that the youngest published author was age four. I was furious that I'd already been beat. Of course, as a child, I wanted other careers also—I wanted to be a doctor, and I wanted to raise horses, but writer is what stuck.
ML: Was your family supportive of your writing interests and ambitions?
CS: My parents were supportive in several different ways. They never pushed any of their five children towards traditional careers, instead encouraging us to explore and develop our creative interests and abilities. They modeled values based on beliefs and ideals rather than social or economic status, and I think that freed us to pursue careers in the arts. Most parents are afraid of their kids choosing an artistic career—it's unstable, it's risky. My parents recognized a different kind of reward. They provided me with experiences that I'm still drawing on in my writing.
ML: You write poetry, short stories, and novels. Which of these did you begin with?
CS: I started journaling in the eighth grade. I destroyed some of those journals in my early 20s because I thought the subject matter was shallow. I wish I'd hung onto them.
Poetry came next, as well as some attempts at short stories. I had wonderful teachers in high school who mentored me. When I was 17, one teacher put my poems in front of an editor for a literary magazine, and she accepted several of them. They weren't published until I was 19, which gave me a taste of how long the publishing process can take.
By my last year of high school, I realized I needed more than desire and ambition. I started writing to established writers asking for advice on how to make a living. Some actually wrote back. I also applied to colleges and went on to study English literature at the University of Waterloo.
ML: How did your university experiences influence your writing?
CS: I enjoyed my undergraduate years, although I did not study creative writing. As an English literature major, I was exposed to great writing and learned from the analysis of literature. Most of my creative writing was happening outside of the classroom, in my off hours.
By my second year at university, I began sending poems to literary magazines. Most were rejected, but rejection didn't faze me. I always seemed to understand that rejection is part of the process, and I took encouragement from helpful advice that came with some rejections. I was not going to give up, and I wrote every day. Most nights, before I went to bed, I wrote poetry. This was a wonderful practice, a way of gathering images that influenced my future writing. That practice influenced what I do today, what I call daily meditations.
I received a scholarship to work on my master’s at the University of Toronto and moved there, thinking I'd probably go on to complete a doctorate degree. But I pretty quickly decided I didn't want to be in school anymore. I really just wanted to write the books I wanted to write.
ML: I'm always interested in writing practices and finding new ways to explore my creativity. Can you describe these daily meditations you mentioned?
CS: I'm in my third year of daily meditations. I create a file for the year in Scrivener, within which I open a new folder each month. I title the file with a word on which I wish to focus for the year (this year's word is "peace"). To be clear, I don't write in this file every single day—it's probably closer to every other day. Some meditations are more like journal entries, pouring out personal problems or making practical plans; other meditations delve more deeply into an idea or thought, and others are closer to fiction. It's a space for creating new writing, just for the joy of it. The space has become very important to me as I've become a more public writer. How to tap into the desire to create without expectation? How to stay playful, curious, and adventurous as a writer when one's livelihood is tied to writing?
ML: Did your writing practice change when you became a mother?
CS: Oh, yes. I'd finished the first draft of my first novel right before I had my first child. I sent my book to a number of agents, one of whom signed me as a client. She shopped the book to publishers, all of whom rejected the manuscript, although several saw potential in my writing and wanted to see more work.
I continued writing, working on a short story collection, writing when my son napped and also when my mother would come to babysit. I sold that collection, Hair Hat, to Penguin Canada when I was 27 and pregnant with my second child. The book was not published until I was 29. I went on a book tour with my husband and our two young children. I had no idea it would be eight years before I published another book.
ML: That next book, The Juliet Stories, is told by a ten-year-old girl whose peace activist parents have moved the family from Canada to Nicaragua in the 1980s. Have you returned to Nicaragua since living there as a child?
CS: In addition to my family moving to Nicaragua for 18 months when I was 9, I also studied there for a school term while in college. I was fortunate to land a grant to research the book and so was able to return while I was writing it. My husband, our three kids (this was before we had our fourth child), my mom, and one of my brothers traveled to Nicaragua; we had a wonderful trip.
The Juliet Stories took six years to write. I wrote three drafts using different approaches before settling on the final structure. Early drafts were written from the mother character's point of view, and then I tried writing from the perspective of the child, and that tactic worked better. I learned a lot about what doesn't work while writing the book. Sometimes I need to let go of what I've written and not cling to my early drafts. I have volumes of writing that I've done and never published because the story just wasn't going anywhere.
ML: Where did the idea for Girl Runner come from?
CS: I was sleep-deprived, raising four kids, finding very little writing time, and I needed, somehow, to remember who I was, who I'd been, and who I wanted to become. I started running and decided to train for a triathlon. I hadn't run since I was a kid, and in order to race the triathlon, I also needed to learn to swim and ride a road bike. Training and completing that triathlon was a very powerful experience of imagining a goal, committing to it, and accomplishing it. I believed in myself again.
I started feeling a pull to writing about a competitive runner. I started writing about a contemporary woman, but the story wasn't working. Also, an image of an older woman telling her story kept coming up in my mind. I started researching the history of women runners in Canada and found fascinating information. The 1928 Olympics were the first that women were allowed to compete in track and field events. Using newspaper archives and other sources, I read up on the lives of the women who ran in the 1928 Olympics. And from there, I created the story of Aggie.
CS: Writing for children is much harder than it looks. I'd made several attempts over the years. My eldest daughter invented the character of the Juicy Jelly Worm, and we worked together to create a coherent story line. After it was picked up for publication, the editor and I worked to polish the draft even further. You have about 800 words to tell an interesting and complete story. The publisher picks the illustrator. It's fun to work on something so different from serious adult literature.
ML: How do you structure your time?
CS: All four kids are in school now, so life is easier. Most days I can write from nine o'clock to three o'clock, although when I'm teaching, I have less time to write. I need to get deeply immersed in my writing projects, and I use whatever time I can grab. I take advantage of time spent on the sidelines: I've written during gymnastics classes, at swim meets, beside soccer fields. I bring my laptop and work in the car, or, if I'm in outdoor stands, I put earplugs in, which signals to the other parents that I'm busy. Typically, I'm doing more editing than exploratory writing during these times.
ML: Your website is fun as well as informative and has won awards. Where did the name Obscure CanLit Mama come from?
CS: I started with a blog in 2008 when my four children ranged in age from four months to seven years. I was going crazy because I could not find any chunks of writing time. My husband stayed home one morning a week, and that allowed me three hours one day a week to write. My desk was tucked in a corner of the children's playroom.
I was working toward being a professional writer and didn't want to write for free. Blogging felt like a step down. But the blog ended up feeling kind of magical—to just write something, hit publish, and see who would read. And gradually people found me, and I began meeting more women writers who were home with their kids, in the same situation as me. Oh, but the name—honestly, it just popped into my mind. I'd only published one book at the time my website went live, and I felt presumptuous even calling myself a writer.
ML: What can we look forward to from you in the future?
CS: I wish I knew! Actually, I'm working on a project but cagey about discussing the topic because I'm so early into the story. And I've got a second children's book forthcoming with the same publisher as The Candy Conspiracy.