On “Where There Is Ruin”: An Interview with Samuel Snoek-Brown

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In one of the five stories in Samuel Snoek-Brown‘s Where There Is Ruin (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016), a character trapped in the World Trade Center experiences a strange, sudden relief when a coworker manages to break open a window: “that rush of cold morning air pushed her hair away from her face and the sky was so clean, so blue, and her lungs felt cold and she had this moment of clarity … she’d seen the sunrise, she’d felt the wind under her arms, she felt so free, she felt so alive.”

So often is great writing praised for its gallows humor, its ability to parse the comical from pathos. “Eventually something you love is going to be taken away. And then you will fall to the floor crying,” wrote Richard Siken, “… and, even worse, while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well.” Where There is RuinIt is the means of coping we are perhaps most accustomed to — or at least seem to revere the most — the sort that touches upon the ridiculousness hidden in devastation. While it is more often than not an indicator of intelligence or wit, it is (at least in this writer’s case) also an effective way of avoiding dipping into being overly sentimental or melodramatic.

Where There Is Ruin employs a strategy that seems more like a kind of gallows optimism. The collection — which draws its title from the quote by Rumi, “where there is ruin, there is hope of treasure” — manages to mostly evade the saccharine to relish in these odd pockets of relief amidst its bleakness. This is not to say that these stories sugarcoat; Snoek-Brown spares no detail, for example, of a decaying body found in the woods in “Please Know Our Loving Thoughts Embrace You.” There is, after all, no gallows optimism without the gallows themselves.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Samuel Snoek-Brown about Where There Is Ruin, drawing stories from other art forms, and the limitations of empathy.

Your collection is rather aptly titled Where There Is Ruin, and the stories contained therein reflect on various manifestations of destruction, death, and decay. Did you set out to write about these themes initially or was this thread something you discovered later in the project?

I’ve always been interested in death and destruction — call it an early diet of horror fiction. But over the years I’ve become more aware of decay, the slow and steady side of impermanence. Decay doesn’t make for flashy conflict, but in some ways it’s more interesting. So I tend to write about all those themes in general — it’s pretty rare when I don’t.  That realization is what lead me to the Mevlana (otherwise known as Rumi) quote the title comes from: “Where there is ruin, there is hope of treasure.”

A fair amount of the protagonists or subjects in these stories remain unnamed: the mother in “Lightning My Pilot,” the jumper in “The Edge of Seventeen,” the performer in “The Fallen Trees,” the man who discovers the body — and the body itself — in “Please Know Our Loving Thoughts Embrace You.” The effect, at least for this reader, was an interesting sort of distance, a kind of intimate estrangement from these characters. Can you speak to this choice?

You know, I hadn’t thought of that before now! I did the same thing with the main characters of my novel, Hagridden, which is a hard thing to do in a longer work, but there I had a specific reason for it. In the shorter work, it’s unconsciously done. I think it’s mostly down to how I draft brief pieces, thinking more in scenes than in backstory. But now you’ve pointed out the distance, I’m wondering if this is related to my habit of thinking like the observer in these stories. I’m that guy who will sit quietly in the coffeehouse and eavesdrop on the interview happening at the next table, or the guy who sits in the park watching families picnic, or the guy who gets stuck in traffic and wonders what sorts of jobs everyone else is late for. Like a lot of writers, I steal my stories from the lives around me, but I’m always outside those stories, observing and taking notes, and maybe that’s where that narrative distance comes from. I try to write my way into these lives. I can never fully inhabit them, can never fully know these people even when they’re characters I made up, but I try to get as close as I can, to understand them from the outside. It’s about the search for empathy but also about the limitations of empathy.

There is one story where the namelessness is intentional: in “The Edge of Seventeen,” no one who witnesses the suicide claims to know the jumper. He’s just some kid. For most of the observers, he’s even an inconvenience — they don’t want to think about him or know his name. And that, for me, was always the point with that story — it began with the limitations of their empathy, but I hope it moves toward a closer understanding.

I’m glad you brought up this idea of the limitations of empathy, which felt like a rather prevalent theme in this work, particularly, as you said, in “The Edge of Seventeen.” Recently, a lot of the dialogue around the act of reading and writing has been in reference to the ways it contributes to our ability to empathize. Do you strive to make your characters particularly empathetic or un-empathetic?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in general as well as in my writing. I published a story several years ago about a guy who cannot feel anything, physically or emotionally, and that character’s response was to pursue hatred and bigotry in his life because he figured those were easier to cultivate — would be easier to feel — than compassion. My original ending had him committing a horrifying act and, in the midst of it, discovering love, but everyone I showed it to wanted his emotional breakthrough to be toward hatred, which is how it ends now. Maybe we just don’t trust empathy. But it’s something I think a lot of people still yearn to feel, however often we fail, and so my characters yearn — and fail — as well.

That’s incredible. How long does it usually take you to write a story?

It varies. The fastest story I ever wrote was actually in this collection: “Lightning My Pilot.” I got the idea while nursing a headache and soaking in the bathtub; by the time I got out of the tub, I’d written the whole thing in my head, and I drafted it that night, rewrote it in the morning, and sent it straight out. It’s kind of a miracle, that story — I’ve certainly never done anything like that since!

The longest time I spent on a short story is probably the one I drafted my freshman year of undergrad; it started out as a lit class exercise in imitating Ovid’s eroticism (I wrote about a one-night stand) but it evolved over the years until it became “The Penitent Go to Texas.” It’s about a guy who gets involved with a deeply religious woman who may or may not have kept an angel chained up in the shed behind her trailer. That was published in Eunoia Review last summer, so it took me a little more than twenty years to figure it out.

Twenty years! At what phase do you start showing work to other people?

I’m pretty terrible about showing people rough work, actually. I tend to work alone on a piece until I don’t know what else to do with it, and then I’ll reach out for advice, but most of the time, no one else knows what to do with it either. I’ve gotten better about that, and I’ve also gotten good at finding those rare friends who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty killing my darlings for me, but I still mostly work on a piece alone until I get stuck. And there’s no telling at what point that might happen. Sometimes it’s so late in the game that all I need is a good title; once, it was so early that I couldn’t even get past the premise until I kicked it around with my wife and she gave me the idea that started the story. (That was “The Voice You Throw, the Blow You Catch,” which I was writing in response to Slobberbone’s song “Little Drunk Fists” — my wife came up with the idea that the little fists belonged to a ventriloquist’s dummy, and the rest of the story unfolded from there.)

It feels important to mention here that “The Voice You Throw, The Blow You Catch” is about a woman who is romantically involved with a ventriloquist’s dummy and uses the dummy to drive off other men’s advances at the local dive bar. I didn’t realize it was based off of a song. Between that, “The Penitent Go To Texas” being based on Ovid, it seems a lot of your work is ekphrastic in one way or another. Besides the Mevlana quote that informed the title, were there any works — books, songs, visual art — that informed the creation of this collection?

I do tend to write in response to other art forms — paintings, photos, films. I write from music more than anything else, though. I do it so often that for a while I was swapping songs-as-prompts with a group of friends. One of my good writing friends, Ryan Werner, played along with that and later expanded the idea into his blog project Our Band Could Be Your Lit, and when Ryan had to step aside to focus on publishing his first collection, Shake Away These Constant Days, I “sat in” as his guest writer. “The Voice You Blow . . .” was one of those stories, as was one of the stories in Where There Is Ruin: “The Falling Trees,” written from Laibach’s cover of “Get Back.”

“Lightning My Pilot” began as a game I used to play on my long commutes, watching the cloud formations out my windshield and making up stories about them as I drove. But in trying to figure out how to translate those silly cloud stories into short fiction, I was heavily influenced by Chris Terrio’s early short film, Book of Kings. It’s a stunning film about a mother and son and their unusual approach to grief — I’ve watched it several dozen times over the years. I think “Lightning My Pilot” was my attempt to craft a similar relationship on the page.

You have a social media campaign related to the collection called “Here Is My Ruin / Here Is My Treasure.” The premise of which is that people post, as you put it, “something that is generally considered broken, ruined, lost, or grieved but that you have found comfort and pleasure in.” What is your vision for this project?

Where There Is Ruin is a limited run of hand-bound chapbooks, and the press, Red Bird Chapbooks, is more interested in little works of art more than grand commercial engines. So while I do hope people will see the posts and buy the book, what I really want is for people to look for the light in the world, to consider the ruins in our lives and find the treasures that will help us through. That was my hope when I first had the idea months ago. In the last few weeks, treasure-seeking and hope have become even more important, so that’s my sincerest vision. I hope we all keep looking for the treasure in our ruins long after my book has sold out.

Have any of the responses surprised you?

Responses are only just beginning to show up on social media, mostly from friends and colleagues I’ve asked to get the ball rolling. My wife did a photo of the winter camelias in our backyard; a friend wrote a piece about her childhood; Scottish author Marie Marshall posted a lovely poem on her blog. I’ve loved them all, but the most recent one I’ve seen knocked the wind out of me. Ellen Urbani, author of Landfall and When I Was Elena, wrote a kind of essay about the birth of her daughter on her public Facebook. It’s a harrowing read, full of blood and terror during a complicated delivery, but then there is that miraculous ending and so much love.

Speaking of social media: on your blog, you are rather transparent about your experiences as a teacher. How does teaching inform your writing?

Writers know how much we rely on sharing with and learning from other writers. And I view my teaching as a part of that conversation. Granted, most of my students are beginning writers, but that’s why I value them so much: they keep me attentive to fundamentals, they give me permission to return to basics. Several years ago I took some time away from the classroom to focus on my novel, Hagridden, and for an extended project like that, I needed the time to focus, to sustain my attention on just that one project. But when I finished that book and shifted my attention to new projects, I spent a lot of time in old textbooks, revisiting old lessons I’d learned when I was a student myself. To begin something new, I had to return to what Natalie Goldberg calls the “beginner’s mind.” Being in the classroom, working with students, continually renews each day my familiarity with my own beginner’s mind. Teaching keeps me fresh, and my students invigorate my writing. And honestly, seeing the work of writing through their beginning eyes, I wind up learning things from my students. It’s a symbiosis, my relationship with students. They learn from my experience, and I learn from their freshness.

You’re a bit notorious for having a few projects going at once, but what are you working on now?

I’m notorious? That’s exciting! I do have a backlog of ideas, actually, and when my wife got a new job in Tacoma this summer, I took the opportunity again to step back from the classroom for a little while and focus on some of the longer ones. Right now I’m trying to finish a novel set in Texas, from the Reconstruction to the turn of the century. It’s a book I’ve reworked several times over the past few years, but this sustained focus right now has given me the space to see it in its entirety, and I’m making good progress on it. I also have a novella set in the Texas Hill Country in the late 90s that’s been accepted for standalone publication at a small press, and I need to finish the revisions on that before I get back into the classroom. And there’s always the short fiction — I have dozens of stories in various stages of completion that I like to revisit and polish whenever I need a break from the novels, and I’m shopping around a book-length story cycle at the moment, too. That one’s set in Texas, too, actually — maybe this is my time to get the Texas stories out of my system! But yeah, I always have something to work on next.

Where There Is Ruin is out this month from Red Bird Chapbooks. Find out more about Snoek-Brown’s work at snoekbrown.com, or follow him on Twitter @SnoekBrown.

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