Threading the Stories

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Carrie Snyder

Q: With YOSS getting a successful sequel in 2012, why not keep feeding the short-fiction frenzy with your column, Nathaniel?

A: Okay, sure. Enter the intercontinental coming-of-age novel, told in stories that breathe life into the family saga genre. This book offers smooth prose, cultural and political reflection, emotional highs and lows, heaps of intrigue and a scintillating storyteller. Enter The Juliet Stories....

And then there's the work that follows, which is more technical and even tedious — shaping and filling in holes and polishing and fitting the material into its larger framework. At this stage, much changes. Chapters might be broken apart into smaller sections. Endings might be scrapped. New chapters written. Old material Incorporated into new. Nothing is finished until at last it is. — Carrie Snyder on editing

Carrie Snyder's new book, The Juliet Stories (Anansi), not only rejects at the usual structure of the novel, it boasts an intercontinental span for its coming-of-age trajectory. So how does one pull all this off from Waterloo, Ontario, a mild-mannered university town with a large Mennonite population?.

Caveat for readers: My own desires to comprehend structure as an artist made me do it. Made me ask this question and come up with this discussion in this exact way. I'm tired of books where families simply show up and eat food and then go to bed. I'm tired of those types of stories that begin and end and don’t achieving the desired effect of a short story, which I believe is to restore a personal history through creative narrative and other bookspeak terminology. There must be some codified or artful purpose in placing characters in a space, regardless of the fact they are bound by blood and lumber. Space just isn't the place, you see. Its not in the questions that I find what I'm looking for, nor in the answers. It’s in the giant, sprawling static that encompasses both poles that consumes and satiates my obsessed nature. No one wants to know about why an author chose the title of their book War, What Is It Good For? over War and Peace, for example. We already know the answer.

Carrie's book starts off in Nicaragua in 1984 during the post-revolutionary war when Juliet Friesen is ten years old. The family eventually moves to Ontario; the texture and grit of a battle clings to each family member throughout the inter-connected stories.

Early on in the book, we find the family adapting to its upheaval: "Juliet and Keith have interrupted Renate's nap, and with fallen palm leaves and sticks and industry, they are destroying her backyard. Renate's face appears bisected, glaring through the black bars over her bedroom window as she opens the slats of glass she'd carefully closed up to keep out the heat and the dust."

There is an undercurrent of familial turbulence throughout the book. Carrie uses terms like "battle" and "explosive" when discussing the intimate rehashing of family anxiety. The themes of family and war seem polar opposites, but in Carrie’s book, they play off each other and compliment, even enhance the emotional melees.

When asked about the metaphor, Carrie said,

I think it would be fair to apply the metaphor of war to the family in this book. Families are microcosms of human interaction, for good and for bad. Estrangement, retribution, the inability to understand and communicate, jealousy, battling over scarce resources, tribal bonds, calculating leaders, manipulation of facts, power struggles -— all could apply equally to large-scale conflicts like wars or to interpersonal conflicts that happen in families all the time. In families it's rarely deadly, thankfully. But the same emotions can underpin conflicts in both.

Arming both sides against each other is a destructive option, whether we're talking about the breakdown of a marriage or about land disputes between neighbouring territories. But a peaceful solution is never easy or swift. It's painful, it's long-term, and compromises must be made on both sides. I don't think human beings have figured this one out. Yet? Will we ever?

I asked a rapid-fire set of questions for Carrie in order to appease my own curiosity. Did cultural writing from similar time periods influence her work in any way? What was her upbringing like? Did it affect her writing process years later when she hit the page? From Carrie's answers, I got a sense of purpose and duty in what she was recreating, to a degree, in terms of how the early ‘80s were being presented in the book. “I was 'deprived' of television as a child and missed out on a good decade of cultural touchstones," Carrie explains. “My own memories of the 1980s anchor how I described that era. As part of my research I read both American and Canadian newspapers from 1984-1985 to get a more accurate sense of what news was being talked about and shared; but that was the kind of research I did — using mainly primary sources." Sources, Carrie claims, included CIA communiques and a memoir by a journalist "who essentially embedded with the contra during the time that my family was in Nicaragua."

I wanted to get a sense of Carrie’s opinions on the transitional moments in the book; those spaces in which the time code is tampered with, tweaked as the reader moves into another "story" instead of a seamless film swipe into the next chapter. I was curious, I guess, about the manner in which the artist approached scope, segmentation and beyond. Carrie said, "My end goal is make sure everything fits together comfortably and that it makes sense.... Transitions are the trickiest and most technically challenging part of any storytelling. It's a good question — how do I know when a story is over?"

Carrie impressed me with her answers, under the swinging light bulb of my inquisition.

Carrie said that when writing, both nothing and a lot can go down during the early developments of structure. I got the sense from speaking with her that there was a chaotic variable at play when she began her journey writing The Juliet Stories. “When shaping a story, I frequently work from a central image or idea, and place that image or idea at both the beginning and the end in ways that hopefully bring the reader a sense of discovery and satisfaction. As far as moving from one chapter to the next, that tends to get fleshed out more fully as the manuscript progresses."

Carrie confesses she did not write the book in a structural sense from page 1 to 324. Sections were written then tucked away, holes were filled, more research and there were other asides that you'd assume goes on in the development of a large body of fiction.

"It's really a double process, though. There's the discovery, which is exciting and exhilarating and can also be puzzling and angst-ridden — huge bursts of energy and inspiration that are fraught with wondering where the heck am I going with this?"

Young Juliet:

As protection, Juliet thinks: It is happening far away from here, it is happening to people who don’t look like me. The real Nicaraguan children at school seem impervious to its happening, may not even know that it is - like the foot of a body that does not know its hand has been cut wide open.

Older Juliet:

She has chosen shoes that she will never wear again, vicious spikes that dig holes in the beach, straps that threaten to cripple her, pressure that makes her head ache. Worst of all — and she thinks she knew this would be the case — the shoes are utterly out of place. The restaurant is naturally casual and of the beach, and many guests following the example of the bridal pair, have removed their footwear. On principle Juliet refuses, though she cannot actually locate a defensible principle.

I get the sense that perhaps down to its core, a part of The Juliet Stories is about the innocent observing change — for better or worse — and the documentation of this emotional reaction. Carrie doesn't dismiss my theory, but comments there was no mandate in mind when she began the book. "I write from a more instinctive impulse. The character of Juliet really drives the narrative, though it's told in the third person. I was quite careful to keep the point of view controlled and deliberate, though it shifts somewhat between the older Juliet and the young Juliet."

Carrie believes age plays a key role in Juliet's comprehension of her surroundings, and to me that makes perfect sense. As the book progresses. Carrie changes the perspective into a more universal, grounded one as Juliet herself ages, grows and gains insight. "As an adult, she tries to figure out how to express her emotions without being at their mercy. It's a frightening thing to work out, isn't it? Expressing emotions make us vulnerable; but feeling something is better than feeling nothing."


Nathaniel G. Moore has just completed a biographical novel/memoir called Savage 1986-2011. This summer he will be working on the uprising of his new imprint at Tightrope Books (The Highwire) and helping the press in the department of book promo. Follow him on Twitter @NathanielGMoore