I know I say this almost every week, but one of the greatest joys of this blog is that I get to share interviews with amazing writers. This week is no exception. Seriously, a woman who puts Marilynne Robinson’s work at the top of her favorite book list – you know I love her. Please get to know Rebecca Snow and pick up Glassmusic.
My debut novel, Glassmusic, was released from Conundrum Press in November 2014. I started it back in 1992 for my master’s thesis, put it aside for over 15 years, and finally returned to it at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. It is a literary, coming-of-age novel set in Norway in the early twentieth century, from a village girl’s point of view. My great-grandfather, Matias Orheim, first inspired the story. He was a blind musician and received a medal of merit in gold from the King of Norway in 1953 for his life’s work as a composer, writer, and minister. His hymns are still sung in Norwegian churches, and there is a small museum at his home farm in Stårheim, a village in Nordfjord.
While workshopping early drafts at Lighthouse, I realized the story was more about Ingrid, a character loosely based on Orheim’s youngest daughter, my grandmother. So I switched the narrative to her point of view, and the novel is very much fictionalized. I changed the character names, except for a couple of first names like Ingrid, and the village is now called Fårheim.
In the novel, Ingrid’s earliest years move away from the idyllic. With her gift of perfect pitch, she tunes Papa’s glassmusic and travels with him and her sister Alvdis to help with his ministry. At the age of seven, Ingrid witnesses a traumatic assault on her eldest sister Kari and must navigate a culture of silence. She struggles to become her own person against her religious pastoral life, family dynamics, and the burden of secrets.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
My dad taught me to read when I was five, and I’ve loved it ever since. He read the Chronicles of Narnia to me when I was seven, and I can credit C.S. Lewis for first sparking my fondness for a well-told story and how it lives in the imagination.
I started writing silly poems that rhymed in the 5th grade when I was bored in class. They were all about nature, animals, and God. In the 6th grade, I won first place for a short story in a Young Writers contest, and when my 9th grade English teacher got excited about a poem I wrote and asked me to read it in front of the class, I think the notion of myself as a writer stuck. My mom marked my essays up in red, and I think that taught me to be particular about grammar and style.
I am the oldest of five kids, and my dad took us camping every summer. While my brothers and sisters played in the river, I sat on a log, reading. When my section in orchestra was supposed to be playing the violin, I often got in trouble with the teacher for being lost in a book.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I am not a disciplined writer, unless I am working on a project. I can go months without writing, usually because I get overwhelmed with life— including my mostly-recovered but still-lingering health issues from a car accident in 1997, where I sustained a mild TBI (traumatic brain injury)—and trying to make a living as a single mom. As much as I love teaching, I am working on finally leaving it behind. After ten years, I can no longer tolerate the demoralizing, low-income world of being an adjunct instructor at a community college. I am seeking full-time work as a technical writer or editor.
When I’m able to focus on a project, like my novel, I can work every night for hours on end. I’m a night owl and prefer to work into the wee hours, when stimulation from the world is quiet. I also still enjoy writing poems, but only when I am struck with an image and a concrete idea (or when I’m able to work on revising older poems).
4. Who are you reading now?
I am reading Robert McBrearty’s collection of short stories, A Night at the Y. (Full disclosure: this edition was published by my same publisher (Conundrum Press).) Robert was kind enough to give me his book at one of his readings I attended, and the stories really are fantastic—Hemingway-ish but funnier and, I think, more human.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I’ve read it at least five times. The language is stunning, poetic, and I love how she makes transients and outcasts so imaginative and brilliant. I just finished her latest novel, Lila, and I think it is the best of her last three novels, all set in the small town of Gilead. It is also about a transient, a “natural theologian,” Robinson has called her, who marries an elderly minister after a life of homelessness. Lila is very much like Sylvie and Ruth in Housekeeping, and while the language of the narrative is simpler, it is in the believable voice (a very close third person) of a woman with a rough but sacred background. To Robinson, every character, every human, no matter what kind of life they live, is miraculous.
I love all sorts of books, from Rilke’s Duino Elegies to Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire, but Robinson takes the top three for me. I think her second novel, Gilead (which won the Pulitzer Prize), and her third novel, Home, tie for third place after Housekeeping and Lila. Each novel gives a beautiful, tragic, and endearing portrayal of character and place. Robinson gives a sacredness to imagery I have never seen done so well in contemporary literature.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
Well, because of life events, I am working on my platform mostly after-the-fact (my novel released last November), and with job-hunting, I am currently not writing, except for a very angry but funny poem about poor living conditions as an adjunct instructor. Glassmusic is Conundrum Press’s first novel. Before that they had published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. My book received no advance reviews, and marketing my writing is not familiar or easy for me, though answering interview questions is at least a form of writing 🙂
Small presses (and even the larger publishers) are unable to contribute as much to marketing as is desired, and I do wish I had more time and energy for it. I did enjoy finally creating my own website on WordPress, so that’s something. Right now, my platform is small but slowly growing, and I am looking forward to returning to my writing projects. It’s a challenge for anyone to balance both at once, and I am having to figure out income for this summer.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
I stay up late, grading and preparing for teaching, reading, job-hunting, and marketing my novel. I take a break sometimes and watch a video or browse the internet. Sleep is vital for me, so I tend to sleep in. I take the bus to teach in the afternoon, and on my days off, I ride my bike when the weather is good. I no longer have a car and don’t much enjoy the bus. My son and I sit in the living room in the evening for at least a half-hour and read (“off-the-computer-time”), and we enjoy watching videos together. I miss driving to the mountains with him and his friends and going for hikes.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
Somewhere like Norway but warmer—the ocean in front of me, mountains behind. A small cottage, farms, cows, horses, a few very nice people not too far away. No loud neighbors, traffic noise, drug smoke, bed bugs, and no failing sewer lines.
We had to get rid of most of our things last summer (putting certain items like photos in storage) due to an infestation the landlord wouldn’t solve, and after staying with my sister in Seattle for a month, I returned to Denver, where my son lives with his dad half-time, and rented a tiny one-bedroom apartment. Friends and students donated furniture. It’s working for now.
My son has the bedroom, and my bed is a pull-out couch with screens around it in the living room. As I am sitting here typing at our kitchen table, I really miss a comfortable desk chair, my sturdy PC, and my books! After our experience last summer, I’m reluctant to buy used furniture from someone I don’t know, in case it is infested. This little Surface laptop is sitting on a pile of borrowed books, to help with the ergonomics.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
I was a new MFA student at the University of Montana, and a visiting professor said (very gruffly) my story had no character development. I left the class in tears. Since then, I’ve developed a much stronger ability to take criticism, and in fact I’ve really appreciated feedback from instructors at Lighthouse and other fellow writers.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Keep yourself open to feedback, but don’t live by it. Write what you love, and more importantly, read great literature. I think reading good writing is more important than a class with the best writing teacher. It’s the only way to develop an ear for good vs. bad or mediocre writing.
Also, you’ve heard this before, but remember to care less about what people think than about being who you are and doing what you love. We can read and write our way to freedom from whatever types of bondage people (like our families) may have imposed on us, but once we are free, writing becomes more of an internal path that leads somewhere, and it becomes more of a joy.
Rebecca Snow’s debut novel, Glassmusic, was released from Conundrum Press in November 2014. Her poetry has been published in Blue Moon, Pooled Ink, and was added to the Denver Poetry Map. She won first place for narrative nonfiction in the 2007 Writers Studio Contest. Her piece was featured in Progenitor. Snow received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana and teaches English at the Community College of Aurora. Originally from Seattle, she lives in Denver, Colorado with her son and enjoys hiking the great Rocky Mountains. Visit her website at rebeccasnow.co.