Carrie Snyder sets herself a new challenge with each book.
“I’m most naturally a literary writer,” she told me by phone from her home in Guelph. “I like to write beautiful, lyrical, poetical sentences. And that’s a good skill to have. But for this book, I wanted to try to write a plot-based page turner where every word was in service to the plot.”
Published by Anansi, 2014, 376 pages. Shortlisted for the 2014 Writers’ Trust fiction award.
When the voice of old Aggie Smart came to her, she told me, “I didn’t feel I had to develop a voice for her. I just heard her.” She started to write about Aggie, and kept writing with relative ease, then thought, “this is too easy.” In record time, Carrie Snyder found herself with 30,000 words of a novel but it wasn’t quite coming together. Something was missing. She left it for six months and in a flash of insight she figured out the identities of two strangers who became key to the plot of Girl Runner. Five months later she sent the finished draft to her agent. This fall it was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Award for fiction.
Whether you are a new or experienced writer, you know that good writing rarely comes this easily. When it does, you do what you are told and you write like a maniac, worried that the ideas will dry up, the characters stop talking to you and your capacity to prevent comma splices is snuffed out.
For Carrie Snyder, writing a plot-driven novel “really forced me to be clear. I just knew exactly where I was going… I knew the scenes I needed to write. I was in a kind of frantic state, a desperate feeling that I had to clear things out of my head. I was holding too much for one brain!” It wasn’t as though she was a magical conduit for her characters, taking dictation from their parallel universe: “It was more a process of discovery. I’d plot out a scene but then realize that a certain character couldn’t or wouldn’t do X. It’s in that sense that they tell me who they are.” None of the characters in Girl Runner is based on people that Carrie Snyder knows, “but they seemed very real to me. I knew how Glad moved, for example.”
The missing piece for Girl Runner turned out to be the real-life story of Canadian women athletes. In 1928, Canada sent its first women’s team to the Olympics and the women on the track and field team at these Amsterdam games did so well they were dubbed “the matchless six.” Aganetha Smart, the protagonist of Girl Runner, is loosely based on this story. Aganetha, or Aggie, discovers early, on her rural Ontario homestead, that her passion for running supercedes everything else. She runs barefooted around the family property, sees things she shouldn’t and runs away. Eventually, she makes it to the Olympics.
Carrie Snyder was careful to purposely limit the amount of research she conducted for Girl Runner: “I looked at microfilm newspapers from the time, studied the photographs of Toronto and rural Ontario from the early twentieth century, and even ads and other news stories in order to tap into the culture of the time, but I wanted to be careful not to do too much research. I was writing a novel, a fictionalized version of a time and historical events.”
Carrie recalled Carol Shields’ story about the time a reader wrote to correct Carol on the description of a particular Winnipeg street (whether it was a one or two-way). Carol Shields (whose Pulitzer/Governor General’s award-winning The Stone Diaries is another Canadian story about an old woman reflecting back on a century of life), responded to the criticism of her urban inaccuracy with the observation that she was writing about her own version of a fictionalized Winnipeg. Carrie Snyder is quick to point out that she herself has written a fictionalized version of a Canadian Olympian.
“I run strong. I run fine. I can feel my sadness running out behind me, like it’s being spilled on the ground, and I figure that will be that… I have a sense of impermeability, of elasticity, of bouncing off of something hard, and believing in the first instant that I’d been hurt, then understanding the pain is superficial. It is already gone. This is called recovery.” ~Aggie
There are some scenes that I saw cinematographically (mark my words, this book is headed for the screen although I have no doubt it was not written with that intent; it reads like a book, not a book wanting to be a movie). In particular, there’s the scene where the young Aggie dances on the family’s barn roof, defying gravity, mortality and her pleading mother below.
“The appearance of perfection does not interest me. It is the illumination of near-disaster beside which we all teeter, at all times, that interests me. It is laughing in the face of what might have been, and what is not.” ~Aggie
But the scene that has stuck with me most is rather small and insignificant. I won’t even bother to look it up now because I can describe it from the image in my memory: Aggie, in her late 80s or 90s, is by the front door of the family house she now shares with her sister Cora. I think Aggie is wearing a velour track suit, but I might have added that part. She is bent down and tying up the laces on a pair of plain, worn sneakers because she is going out for a run. She doesn’t run like she used to, she tells us in the reflection of this scene, but she still has the desire, the passion. The will. Of all the gender politics that affected women athletes in the early part of the twentieth century evident in Girl Runner (for example, women were forbidden to run in certain Olympic events when some watchers claimed they saw the women swoon with exhaustion at the finish lines, and there was concern about the jostling of their baby-making organs), it is this scene of an almost-century-old woman bending down to lace up her runners to head out for a run that stuck with me most. There are politics and there are law makers. But there are always people who persist, within or without a spotlight; people who bend down, lace up and get on with it.
“I never ran because I was strong… It wasn’t strength that made me a runner, it was the desire to be strong. I ran for courage.” ~Aggie
This is a book about many things, as good books are, and one of them is the bond between women: mothers and daughters, sisters, and close friends. Aggie’s close-knit family is held together by a mother who is the local midwife but also provides a necessary, if secret, service, for young women. Her relationship with her daughters is tender and wise. Aggie’s closeness with her older sister Fannie leads to the heartbreak of her life, and her relationship with her cantankerous sister Cora punctuates the near-end of her life with a tragedy whose guilt she cannot outrun.
Whether or not you are a runner (I’m not; not even when my bus is early), the relationship between Aggie and her best friend Glad, a runner with whom Aggie trains and competes, is compelling. Their life together in downtown urban Toronto is rather bohemian, particularly about men and sex. There’s definitely something more than friendly competition going on between the two women, at least from Aggie’s perspective.
But there’s nothing other than rigorous training going on between Aggie and her coach:
“I almost hate him. How can I hate someone I’ve only just met? I haven’t learned to recognize the subtleties of his trade, the way a good coach directs onto himself his athlete’s frustration with her own limitations, distracts her from doubt, and gives her that extra flare of necessary rage, that compulsion to continue.” ~Aggie
I should say that at the heart of the book is also the relationship between Aggie and her brother, George. Despite his drinking and gambling, and the squalid circumstances of his secret home life, he does what he can to support his sister’s Olympic dreams but in the end, she misses her opportunity to repay him and … well, just keep the Kleenex nearby for that part.
Visit Carrie Snyder’s Obscure CanLit Mama blog and learn when in life she herself became a runner. Also, you’ll see some lovely pictures of her four kids (yeah redheads!). Follow her on Twitter @carrieasnyder.
I can hardly summarize or explain such an intricately plot-driven story, with more twists and turns than an Olympic bobsled course (does that make sense? I don’t bobsled either; not even when my bus is late). It covers the span of two world wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish ‘flu and, near the end, a rather modern kidnapping. So how did Carrie Snyder manage to keep track of it all and finish it in record time? “I highly recommend Scrivener,” she told me, referring to the software. “Not as something that will make you a better writer, but as a tool to help you organize and keep track of things. I used to use a word doc and several excel spreadsheets but Scrivener is a much more efficient organizational device.”
Carrie Snyder teaches a third-year Creative Writing course in the University of Waterloo’s English Department so I asked her what other advice she might have for our writer readers. She said that she tells her students to “turn off the judging part of your brain and follow what’s interesting to you.” She told me she writes this way, unselfconsciously, passionately: “When I’m choosing the subject for a major project, like a book, I want to write about something that matters to me deeply, something that I want to spend a lot of time thinking about. I think it has to be a kind of personal obsession, something that’s morally or ethically important to you.” I’m guessing that when she gets going on a new writing project, Carrie Snyder, like Aggie Smart, prides herself “on being impossible to cajole.”
For readers of this blog post, Girl Runner publisher Anansi will give you an additional 15% off the book’s already discounted-for-Christmas price. Go to the Anansi website and type in the secret passcode (“Descant” … shhh!) on the third and final checkout screen. This offer is good until Wednesday, December 10, 2014 (and thanks, Anansi!).
Carrie Snyder’s first short fiction collection, Hair Hat, was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Award and her second, The Juliet Stories was a 2012 GG finalist.
I’m giving Girl Runner to a runner friend for Christmas, but not because she’s a runner. I’m giving it to her for a particular scene in the book that I know will blow her expensive sneakers off and leave her gasping for breath.