So today’s the kick off to the blog tour for Samuel Snoek-Brown’s debut novel, Hagridden and guess who gets to start it?
Sam and I met via Jersey Devil Press – a great magazine that I am proud to be a part of. I’m a big fan of his writing so when Columbus Press contacted me to help out with the tour for Sam’s book I jumped at the chance.
For those of you unfamiliar here’s some information:
As the Civil War winds violently down, fears of the South’s uncertain future fuse with its unraveling traditions. Against the backdrop of this post-apocalyptic landscape, so littered with corpses and mythology and desperation, two women, stranded and alone in the Louisiana bayou, fight to survive.
Described as both a historical and contemporary piece of literary fiction, Hagridden, is a hunting drama that unflinchingly approaches race, culture, apathy and humanity.
I got my hands on an ARC and this book is the real deal. Sam is also going on an in-person book tour down in Texas so if you’re in the area – be sure to check him out. Dates and times are available on his website here.
It is clear from just the first opening pages of Hagridden, this book must have took an incredible amount of research. Can you talk a little bit about how you went about that research and why, as a Portlandian (well, technically Ex-Texan Portlandian) you chose to set your book in the bayou?
I did grow up in Texas, but I have a lot of family from Louisiana. My mother was born in Deridder; her parents are buried in Rosepine. My aunt and uncle and cousin lived out near Johnson Bayou and Cameron, in exactly the region where Hagridden is set, and that’s why I set it there — when I decided to write a Civil War novel that set aside the battlefields and the national-scale politics so I could focus on the intimate, the personal, the struggle for individual survival, those saltmarshes of southwest Louisiana made perfect sense as a setting.
It’s funny that you bring up the difference between my own place in writing the novel and the setting of the book itself. I hadn’t really thought of that before , but I did write this book all over: in Texas, in the United Arab Emirates, in Louisiana, and of course here in Oregon. (And my publisher is in Ohio! That’s a wide-ranging story!)
That distance did impact the research. When I was drafting it overseas, I didn’t have access to any print materials about the Civil War, let alone the minutia of Acadian homebuilding, 19th-century American clothing, books on bayou flora and fauna, Cajun folklore, etc. So I did most of my initial research online, and only really got to the book sources when we moved to Portland. But even then, our interest in and perspectives on the Civil War in the Pacific Northwest is different than it is in the South, and that’s reflected in our libraries’ print collections, which is why I finally took a research trip to Cameron Parish in Louisiana to hit their local collections, talk to the people, walk the land, visit the cemeteries, dodge the gators . . . .
Where did the story at the heart of Hagridden come from? I read in a previous interview that while working as an office cleaner you once found a compartment in a wall containing papers, money and lock-box for a handgun. That, to me, sounds like the beginning of a novel right there. Was Hagridden a similar experience?
Oh yeah! That old story! I was a maid, actually — or, I worked for a maid service — and the hidden compartment was in some guy’s home office, which made it even creepier. Later, I babysat for a home hairdresser whose client claimed to be a mercenary and once showed her his secret gunroom. Yeah, I should definitely write that book!
The kernel of the novel came when I was in grad school in Texas. I’d been tapped to introduce Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux when he visited our campus, and the morning I was writing my speech, I was watching old samurai movies on tv, and in my mind, the civil wars of medieval Japan came together in my mind with our own Civil War and with the Southern fiction themes of cultural isolation and survival amid change. Once I saw that, the book felt necessary — I really wanted to read that novel! So (eventually) I wrote it.
You were the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship. Can you tell us a little bit about the award and what it meant for your ability to write your novel?
The Fellowships are organized by Literary Arts, Oregon’s literary nonprofit that also hosts the Portland Arts & Lectures visiting writers series and the Oregon Book Awards. With the fellowships, the idea is to provide support for writers and publishers to develop or complete their artistic projects, but they go beyond just the finances: the year I received a fellowship, I also got season tickets to the Arts & Lectures series (I got to meet Salman Rushdie and Chris Ware!) and a week-long retreat at a writer’s cabin. It’s a big deal because a lot of the writers and publishers the fellowships have supported have gone on to become major names in Oregon and national literature. Stevan Allred, Kerry Cohen, and Cheryl Strayed are all former fellowship recipients, and the fellowships have helped develop important indie presses like Chiasmus, Forest Avenue Press, Future Tense Books, and Hawthorne Books.
With Hagridden, the core of the book was basically done when I submitted it to Literary Arts. It needed a lot of work, sure, but roughly speaking, the story was there. I just needed to revise it, and to revise it, I needed to be able to see the book as a finished whole. But at the time, I was still more focused on the words that made up the book, the trees but not the forest. My wife recognized this and encouraged me to apply for the fellowship, and even just the application process helped me see Hagridden as a complete book, ready for polish, which I spent the rest of that summer working on. Receiving the fellowship gave me both the drive and the confidence to actually start thinking about publication. And, of course, it also funded the research trip that helped me develop those important character details and get a stronger feel for the geography and the history of the region — the book wouldn’t have come out as rich as it did, and might not have caught the attention of my publisher, without that trip.
You don’t use dialogue tags. What’s that about? Is it a direct influence of Cormac McCarthy? How do you think it changes the storytelling?
That initially came about as an accident of the drafting process. I wrote the first draft of the novel for NaNoWriMo in 2009, but that year my wife and I were planning a trip to Vienna for Thanksgiving, which meant instead of the usual 30 days to knock out the rough draft, I only had two weeks. So at first, I was just skipping the quotation marks and even some of the speaker tags because they slowed me down. Anything to keep the writing going.
But as I got further into the draft, I realized I liked what it was doing to the narrative, and when I got into revision and tried adding the quotation marks into the dialogue, I felt like that punctuation was setting the dialogue apart, separating it from the story. Without the quotation marks, every sentence on the page is part of the story — it’s all narrative, even when people are speaking. That’s what I wanted for this story; it made it feel larger somehow. I don’t usually write dialogue this way, and I’m not planning to in my next novel, but here, it felt necessary.
And yeah, McCarthy is absolutely an influence on me. Him and Tom Franklin (who turned me on to McCarthy) — they weren’t the only voices I turned to while writing Hagridden, but they were the loudest voices in my head.
Your other book, Box Cutters is a collection of short stories. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about stories as if they were stepping stones to writing a novel. Did you feel this way? Was Hagridden your first attempt at a novel?
I think from a craft perspective, when writers are first starting out, it’s useful to think about it in this way. I like to point to Faulkner’s comment in a Q&A at the University of Oregon in 1962: when someone asked him about the difference between short stories and novels, he said, “All the trash must be eliminated in the short story, whereas one can get away with some of it in a novel.” I usually use that quote to complain about the sloppiness in some of Faulkner’s novels (I generally prefer his short fiction), but it is a good introduction to the idea that one should learn short stories before attempting a novel, because the short story teaches you compression and control. If a writer can learn that early, it will help her contain any narrative at any length.
But I don’t think any writer should treat stories as “stepping stones” to the novel, as though the novel is the ultimate form of fiction that we all should be striving toward. It’s true that novels sell better than novellas and stories and story collections, but that’s a problem for the marketers to figure out, and it certainly shouldn’t suggest that the novel is somehow the bigger, better version of the story. If anything, Faulkner was right in that the story is the better form for being so contained and precise.
So, frankly, I think once a writer has learned the craft of writing, her sense of story should be developed enough that length isn’t really an issue anymore. These days, I don’t often sit down and say, “I’m going to write flash fiction” or “I’m going to write a novella” or “I’m going to write a novel.” I did plenty of that early on, and if someone has solicited something from me and length is an issue, I can still do it, but mostly I just sit down at the desk and say, “What story do I want to tell?” And the story dictates the length.
And no, actually, Hagridden isn’t my first novel. I started a cheesy action novel when I was in seventh grade, though I never finished it. I wrote most of a bad Anne Rice-ish vampire novel in high school and college, but it, too, never really went anywhere. The first novel I finished was a comedy I wrote for my undergraduate thesis, and I wrote another novel as part of my doctoral dissertation. I still sometimes think of revisiting those, but really, they were mostly practice novels so I could figure out issues of time management and story structure. They were, to paraphrase Bill Cosby, the stories I had to tell so I could tell you this one.
What was it about teaching writing that interested you? What do you make of the adage that you can’t “teach” writing? Probably not much! What have your students taught you about your own writing?
I think that last part of that question wraps up everything else I have to say about the first two questions: I teach writing because my students become a writing community and they wind up teaching me as well. Mostly they do this by reminding me to keep returning to the beginner’s mind, as Natalie Goldberg says — they keep me fresh. One of the biggest complaints about writing workshops, especially at the graduate level, is that they can homogenize writing, and I think that’s a legitimate concern. It’s something to guard against. But when I teach writing, whether it’s upper level creative writing or introductory essay composition or summer workshops for teenaged writers, the students I get to work with haven’t gone through graduate workshops, they haven’t been trained to write in certain ways or according to certain traditions. That training is important, and I value the traditions I come out of as a writer, and I encounter a lot of student writing that would benefit from some of that training — but I also encounter total freedom, the utter absence of preconceptions. I sometimes read work from students that reminds me there are no rules except the rules that work, and they blow the cobwebs off all my old habits and wake up my own writing. That’s exhilarating, and it’s why I wanted to go into this field, as much to share what I’ve learned from great writing teachers as to learn what I never knew from great student writers.
Since you are a teacher and you teach writing, what is your view on work-shopping your own work? Do you have a writing group that you work with? If so, what was the biggest piece of advice they gave you when you were working on your novel? What piece of advice did you ignore?
I don’t actually have a formal workshop group in the way I did in college or in the way some of my writer friends do. Sometimes I think I’d like to have one — I have always benefited from it. But mostly, my experience in workshops taught me that in a din of disparate voices, I needed to find those few writers whose feedback I could trust to push me in the directions I needed to go, and then I had filter out the rest of the noise. In my writing life now, I feel like I have that in the few writer friends I work closely with. So when I send things out for feedback, it’s not in a formal, workshop-group sense, but one-on-one. I share things with some colleagues at the colleges where I work and from a handful of writer friends online.
These days, I’ve also learned how to read a rejection letter as feedback, and I sometimes get valuable advice out of that. When I received my Oregon Literary Fellowship, an agent in New York contacted me and asked to see the manuscript. She ultimately turned it down, but in doing so she gave me some valuable comments that helped me develop the characters quite a bit and refine the themes in the book.
I don’t think I really ignored any advice regarding Hagridden. When it got to my publisher, we discussed some questions about some of the vocabulary, and I was right about some of it but a lot of it I changed. Other than that, as far as I recall, no one ever really gave me feedback that challenged the nature or structure of the story, and the advice that required fairly substantive rewrites was all good advice and I took it. I feel fortunate to have gotten such good feedback on this novel!
I read in an interview that if you were marooned on a desert island the only piece of fiction you would have with you is Alan Moore’s The Watchman. Are you a big comic book fan? And if so, do you see links between the way mythology is used in comics vs literary fiction?
Ha! I’m sure that answer changes every time I see the question, but yeah, I definitely reread The Watchmen once a year. It’s practically a perfect book. And I am a comic book fan, absolutely. I’m not an ubergeek — I can’t compete with the real fans! — but I do have a pretty sizable collection of comic books and a growing bookcase of graphic novels. I’m fascinated by visual narrative, and I think the insights that comics authors bring to the narrative craft are profoundly useful even for us textual writers.
I don’t know exactly what the relationship here is — maybe it’s because our contemporary Western mythologies are best expressed in the form of superheroes, or maybe it’s because our very first religious/mythological texts took of the form of sequential visual narrative (comics!) on ancient scrolls and stone friezes — but I definitely think there’s a connection between mythology and comics, and I do think it’s often more effective (or at least more immediate) in comics than in literary fiction. When I wrote my dissertation novel, probably the strongest criticism I got about it was that the characters all felt a bit too large and the story a bit too outlandish, which of course was the point when I wrote it, but as I went back over the book after finishing my PhD, I realized it was such fair criticism that I couldn’t bring myself to leave that too-large outlandishness in the book. I would need to do a major rewrite, to effectively start again from scratch, which broke my heart because I loved the story so much. I wrestled with it for a long time and tried several versions of manuscript reboots, but it just wasn’t coming together. And then I realized it’s because the problem wasn’t in the story– it was the medium. If my novel could become a graphic novel, all that “outlandishness” would suddenly seem perfectly ordinary, and no one would question it. (That’s still something I’d like to work on, if I could find the right artist — or the right artist could find me — to collaborate on that afterlife novel!)
I think by treating the legend of the rougarou as a legend in Hagridden, and not as a literal thing, I’ve circumvented some of those problems and, I hope, made a new myth of the bayou. But it’s just grand enough, I think, that I do sometimes daydream of a graphic novel version of Hagridden. (Again, if the right artist came along, I’d love to see that happen!)
The publishing industry is a state of flux currently. Self-publishing or Indie publishing has become such a force that many of the big name presses are putting out digital only imprints. What is your opinion on this? Are they legitimizing good writers who need the support from a big name press or are they taking a bite out of the indie world on a venture that is low cost to them since it’s e-book publishing only? And what advice would you give to new writers trying to break into the publishing world?
I confess, I’m not involved enough in the industry as industry to speak with any authority on the issue of large corporate presses encroaching on the digital indie market. But advice to new writers? That I can tackle.
Here’s the most important thing I can say to writers trying to break into the market: Be patient, and keep working.
This is actually terrible advice, because the patience part is almost impossible to do. I know. I’m terribly impatient, especially about my writing.
But it’s important to keep in mind. When you send out a story and you have to sit around waiting, whether it’s the traditional months the lightning-fast digital hours — the wait can be excruciating. That’s why I always have several projects in various stages of work, so that when I send something out, I can focus on the next project and hope to forget about the current project floating around out there in the world. I don’t forget about it, of course, but in between all those mail checks and long sighs and stiff drinks, I have something else to work on. I’m writing, because that’s what we do: we write.
There’s this traditional path toward publication, this story we’ve all been told. I might be in the last generation for whom this would actually still apply, because this is a revolutionary time in literature and the traditional narrative is shifting, but the old story was this: You read a ton and went to readings and met other writers, and you wrote stories. And you sent those stories out, and you collected rejection slips until finally something took, and then little by little, you put together a list of publications. And you kept reading and studying and meeting people. Eventually you met the right people, or pulled together the right manuscript, and you put out a collection, maybe a chapbook. And that got your name out of the magazines and onto the bookshelves, and in the meantime you worked on a novel. Which is when you started all over — collecting rejections, putting together lists, honing your craft. Until finally you found the right person at the right time, and your first major book comes out, and suddenly you’re an author.
It’s an old-fashioned and heavily romanticized story, but it’s one I latched onto early on and, little by little, over years and years, I’ve actually managed to live that story. I’m tremendously fortunate, and that story involves so many generous people, and I feel so lucky. But to truth is, it wasn;t just about luck. It was about the work, and it took me YEARS. Like, decades.
These days the story is different, and with so many amazing small presses and the improvements in self-publishing, the path for some people (some people) is getting shorter. But for most of us, breaking into publishing takes an extraordinarily long time, and the only thing you can do to ensure that it might eventually happen is to keep working.
So my advice to new writers is to be patient, and in the meantime, keep writing, keep reading, keep putting in the time.
You’re just starting out your blog tour…what do you hope that readers will learn about Hagridden? What do you think we should know before we start your novel?
I suppose the one thing I keep hearing a lot are some preconceptions about the book. Some people hear that it’s historical fiction and they think it’s going to be a romance. Some people hear that it’s a Civil War novel and they think it’s going to be about battles and politics. Some people hear that it’s about an older woman and her daughter-in-law trying to make their way in the world, just the two of them, and they think it’s a heartwarming story that kids might like. Some people hear about the rougarou and think it’s going to be a horror novel.
There’s a love story in here. But there’s also some fairly graphic sex.
There are some soldiers fighting in here, but there aren’t large battles — most of the violence is brutal and intimate. And that brutal, intimate violence starts on page 3.
The woman and the girl do have a complicated but deeply devoted relationship — but they’re often ready to kill each other. Literally.
There’s at least one rougarou in this book, but it’s not supernatural — and it’s possibly more terrifying because of that.