The difficulty with interviewing writer and teacher-of-writing Samuel Snoek-Brown is that his web site is so comprehensive that there is little left to ask. I’m reduced to quizzing him about the names of his cats. Sam is prolific, a non-stop writer, a daily blogger, a man of high, caffeine-driven energy. Amongst other things, aside from his writing, teaching, and speaking commitments, he is Production Editor of the amazing Jersey Devil Press, a small publishing outfit in the USA.
I caught up with Sam, by email, in between cups of coffee, and this is the result…
I guess you would say ‘Yes’ to this question without hesitation, but is it really possible to ‘teach writing’? Can you really take someone with – let’s be kind – no more than a modest talent, and, by instruction, make a successful writer out of them or at least someone who feels fulfilled in writing?
To the first part, yes, absolutely. But to the second part? That’s harder. I don’t think I can ‘make’ a successful writer out of anyone any more than I could ‘make’ any student successful in any field. I don’t view my role as teacher as a “maker” of students. I’m an usher; I collaborate in a student’s learning. There was a terrific article in Poets & Writers a couple of issues ago, in which Gregory Spatz tries not just to answer this question but to reframe it: he argues that the answer to the question is an obvious yes, and what we really ought to be asking is what happens when we do teach it. It’s a great article – people should track it down and read it.
But then there’s the last line of your question: can I help a student become ‘someone who feels fulfilled in writing?’ And yes, that I think I can do. And it’s not just about coddling or gladhanding writers. It’s about recognizing what they do well even if they don’t see it themselves, and then showing how to replicate that. That’s not easy to do – you have to make yourself into their sort of writer in order to know how to guide them in their writing – but I know it’s doable. When I was teaching in Wisconsin, I had a student who was an agriculture major in the most hard-core sense: the guy wore a uniform of heavy work boots and Carhartt jacket and John Deere cap; he proudly declared that his only reason for being in college in the first place was to learn how to take over his family farm from his father. He had no use for writing other than the credit it fulfilled in his degree. When I assigned the class to write about communities, he wrote about the farm, basic but beautifully pastoral essays about shovelling shit and harvesting beans. His essays weren’t perfect, but he worked hard and earned a solid B. And then he moved on, getting into the more important courses on agribusiness. But two years after he took my class, he surprised me in the hall outside my office. I smiled and shook his hand, thinking it was a passing hello, but he stopped me: he’d been looking for me. “I just wanted to tell you how much your class meant to me,” he said. “I ain’t gonna be a writer, but I never thought I could write. I’ve got some papers now in my other classes, and you gave me the confidence to write them. I’m doing okay – I even like my writing – and I wanted to thank you for that.”
In your opinion, what is the purpose of literature? How would you define ‘literature’ to start with? Does it have any obvious limits?
I used to be pretty snobby about the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ fiction. In some respects, I still am: I just cannot give the same artistic weight to, say, Stephenie Meyer as I would to, say, Bram Stoker. But I’ve come to recognize ‘literary’ is just a genre tag, and that all fiction is literature.
So what is the purpose of any literature? I think it’s to entertain and to provoke – thought, emotion, or, ideally, both – to varying degrees. Some literature – what I like to call ‘airplane fiction’ – is almost purely entertaining and is designed to provoke the least possible amount of critical thought. Other literature is so intellectually demanding that it becomes exhausting and has almost no entertainment value at all. Both serve a purpose, but I think the ideal is a nice balance of the two.
Two of my favourite novels ever, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, are richly complex works of literary fiction, full of demanding prose and opportunities for complicated critical investigation. Yet both are also essentially machoistic action novels full of sex and violence. And, for my money, that makes them two of the best novels ever written.
When you read, whether it is prose or poetry, what are you looking for? What qualities in others’ writings make you say, ‘Ah, yes!’?
I’m a big language guy. I love a good story or a clever conceit, but the work that makes me want to hug a book (and I literally do that – I press books right up against my heart) are the ones that use language beautifully. The cadences, the syntax, the images, the words…. The sentences of Cormac McCarthy or Barry Hannah or Alice Munro or Jac Jemc. The lines and images in Beth Ann Fennelly or Mark Doty or Czezlaw Milosz. The words. The words.
Beyond that, I want honesty. By which I mean beautiful ugliness, horrible love, brutal awe. I’m the kind of guy who thinks McCarthy’s The Road – in which the main character declares that “there is no God and we are his prophets” – is actually an uplifting novel. I’m the kind of guy who think Beth Ann Fennelly’s most beautiful poem is the one in which she describes breach-birthing her first child without drugs, how every capillary in her neck burst and her “asshole turned inside out like a rosebud.” One of my favourite love stories is Sarah Rose Etter’s Husband Feeding in which the wife lets herself be eaten alive by her spouse because it’s the only way to show how much she loves him.
What was your first published work? How did that first success feel?
I published a few things in my middle school magazine, the ink still purple from the mimeograph machine, the cardstock covers stapled on in the library. I fully expected classmates to throng me in the hallways and beg for my autograph, offer to buy my copies even though they were free to everyone. I was going to be the next Stephen King.
None of that happened, of course.
My first published story outside of school lit mags was ‘Coffee, Black,’ in Amarillo Bay. I knew and respected the editors, and I was over the damned moon. I shared that story everywhere. But by then, I knew enough not to expect fame a fortune. So it slightly less soul-crushing when fame and fortune kept ignoring me.
Recently you mentioned, amongst other anecdotes from your youth, a time when you were working as an office cleaner. By accident you came across a compartment in a wall, which contained some papers, money, and a lock-box for a hand-gun. You didn’t mention this to anyone – until recently of course – but did it occur to you to use this as the starting place for a piece of fiction? Has any other incident in your life been such a starting place?
At that point in my life, I was reading a lot of my dad’s old action novels, the Mac Bolan series, the Phoenix Force series, really campy ‘guy novels’ with lots of firearms and fists. This sort of thing – the panel in the wall, the cash and the handgun, the tiger head mounted on the wall – was straight out of one of those books, so if I had used it in a story, that’s what I would have done with it. But despite what I was reading, I was more interested in writing horror when I was a teenager, and I didn’t know what to do with that kind of incident.
But I’ve used a lot of incidents from my life in stories. Some of the events (I won’t say which) in my restaurant story ‘No Milk Would Come’ are based on my time cooking for a living. Some of the events in ‘A Few May Remember’ come from two different jobs I had working with senior citizens. The youth camp events in ‘Summerplace’ are practically autobiographical. The ending of ‘It Was the Only Way’ actually happened to me in Mexico.
I might have asked the above question also about coffee, but as it happens you have published ‘Coffee, Black’ back in 2001. How did your addiction start, and does it fuel your writing in any other way?
I grew up with coffee. My parents got addicted in college, and as soon as I was old reach the pot on the kitchen counter, I was making them coffee in the morning. But I didn’t take up coffee myself until I was in college. I was working at the restaurant, actually, exhausted from a full day of college classes and writing for the school newspaper and the long commute to the restaurant. I’d started popping caffeine pills, but one day I ran out, and the only caffeine we had at the restaurant was espresso. I brewed a double shot, slammed it back, and BAM – I was hooked. Fortunately, I had two English professors, one who hosted a monthly coffeehouse series where I read at the open mic and the other who was my mentor and a connoisseur of coffee, who helped nurture my addiction. (Thanks, Kathleen Hudson and David Breeden!)
Coffee absolutely fuels my writing. Some of it is pavlovian: I’ve just gotten so used to drinking coffee while writing that the flavor, even the aroma is enough to get the juices flowing. But a lot of it is scientific: caffeine stimulates creative centers in the brain. There’s a reason why artists and writers and musicians and philosophers all hung out together in the coffeehouses of Ottoman Istanbul and Enlightenment-era Europe. And still do, today.
I see that one of your principles is ‘Listen to comments on your writing. Do not react to negative criticism with anger or resentment.’ I have to ask – even when they’re plain, damn wrong?
Yes, absolutely. I believe in listening, and I believe and letting go of anger and resentment. But listening to comments doesn’t mean you have to obey or even accept the bad comments. And striving to avoid reacting with anger and resentment doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel anger and resentment – just that you should strive not to spread that anger or cling to resentment. Those are stifling emotions. If you hang onto those emotions – or, worse, if you get caught up in reacting from a position of those emotions – you’re only preventing yourself from getting back to work.
What drew you to an interest in religious motifs in literature?
I got turned on by religion in college. I went to a church-affiliated college where I had the good fortune to study with a few really excellent professors in philosophy, religion, and mythology, and I was very interested very early in putting those fields together. When two of my professors – the campus minister and my myth-obsessed English professor – team-taught a course in religious motifs in literature, I leapt at the class. It remains one of the coolest classes I ever took.
My continued interest in the field of study stems from how I relate to religion and literature: I don’t really see the two as mutually exclusive. In fact, I think some of the best religious experiences necessarily come through the form of narrative or poetry, and some of the best written art is at least quasi-religious in tone. The earliest religious scripture was poetry and song, and then people began stringing those poems and songs together into narrative theater. The ancient stories we today call myths were narratives of religious experiences or stories we needed to understand our world. The Judaic-Christian-Islamic account of how God created the earth is given us in story, complete with dialogue (God speaks; Adam names things). And when I look at a story like, say, The Road or Beloved or Frankenstein, I see the echoes of religious narrative or images imprinted on those stories. That’s not the only thing I see – religious is just one tint of lenses through which I look at a text – but I can’t ignore it, either.
Do you think there will ever come a time when you will retire from writing?
God, I hope not. Sometimes I play those games with people – what superpower would you have? What would you do with three wishes? – and someone will ask which of my five senses I would least want to lose. And I don’t know, really, but somewhere in the discussion I try to imagine my life without touch or sight, and I immediately start making a list of people I could ask to write for me while I dictate, like Milton to his daughters. That’s how essential writing feels to my sense of self. I take breaks from writing all the time, but I don’t think I could ever quit for good. I wouldn’t know how.
As well as being an active writer, you are an avid reader. I have marooned you on a desert island with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare; you have room for one other book, what would it be?
Shantideva’s The Bodhisattva Way of Life. Either that or Padmasambhava’s Enlightenment on Hearing in the Intermediate State. But if I could replace the Bible with one or both of those religious texts, and you required me to choose a work of fiction or poetry? I might say Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Not because it’s my favorite book or the best book ever printed, but because it’s the one I already reread once a year, every year.
I’m now going to ask you for a list of whos and whys. Who were the most fascinating literary and non-literary persons you have ever met, and what did you get from these encounters? Whom would you like the opportunity to meet, and why? Whom do you wish you could have met from the past, and why?
I worked with a guy in the restaurant, a waiter named Sean Hutchinson. That dude was amazing. He once gave me a gift of a bird feather, a stone, and a Hopi sun drawing, just because. He left tiny gold buddhas as tips in diners. He dyed his hair a different color every month just so he wouldn’t get used to looking a certain way. He collected medieval tapestries. He worked at the restaurant only until he had enough money to move to Colorado, and then he worked at a ski lodge for a while, until he’d made enough money to move on to the next place, and the next. He was utterly unpredictable. I loved that about him.
I once met Frank McCourt. It was the year before his death. We were at a conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where McCourt and poet laureate Billy Collins had given back-to-back speeches. Afterward, they sat down at the same table to sign copies of their books. Everyone wanted autographs from both writers, but the conference organizers insisted on separate lines to keep things organized, and the lines were absurdly long, so people in one line weren’t going to have time to return to the end of the other line. After about thirty minutes, McCourt left the table and started walking back through the lines, shaking hands and signing books as he went, just so he could work his way up his own line and start coming back down the Billy Collins line. He had a smile for everyone, he listened to everyone, he told a different personal story to everyone. He personalized every autograph. I had him sign a copy of Teacher Man for my mother, who is a retired elementary school teacher. He told me to thank her for being a teacher – to thank her from him. He was an awesome human being, and I cried the day he died.
I would love some day to meet His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Or the 15th Dalai Lama, if the 14th dies before I get a chance to meet him. In the past, I would love to have met Abraham Lincoln. I would love to have met the Prophet Mohammed, or to have been in the crowd while Jesus walked by, or to have attended even one teaching from Shakyamuni Buddha, or to have heard Socrates.
Is blogging really worth the trouble?
Sometimes, no. It took me a long while to realize that and let it go when I get too busy to keep up with it. I love blogging, for what are probably pretty narcissistic reasons – I have something to say and everyone needs to read it! – but I’ve figured out that life is more important, and I’m not a slave to the blog the way I used to be. Still, one of the reasons I write is to participate in the larger discussion of the world, and I’ve come to see blogging as worthy part of that conversation, however little value my tiny voice might actually have.
What is on your ‘bucket list’? Not just as regards writing and reading, but other aspects of life.
I don’t know that I have a bucket list. Not in the literal sense that I have a list of stuff I want to do before I die. I could finish my list next week and then live to be 100. What would I do with the rest of that time? Or I could die in the next hour. If I haven’t done everything on my list, is that just an invitation to linger after death, wallowing in regrets and missed opportunities? This is just me being a Buddhist, but I think my time would be better served paying attention to this moment, not what I should be doing or haven’t done yet. Not that I actually do that – I’m constantly obsessing over things I haven’t done yet – but at least it’s stuff I didn’t do this week, or this year, and not this lifetime.
That said, I do have a list of places I’d love to visit, which is as close to a “bucket” list as I might get. Egypt, Japan, and India are on my personal short-list, but we’ve already decided our next overseas trip will be either to Germany or to England. I’d also love to take my wife to Turkey, and she’s long wanted to take me to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. And we’d both love to return to Scotland, to Prince Edward Island in Canada, and to Thailand, three of our favorite places to visit. I guess you could say my whole ‘bucket list’, if I had one, is all travel.
Do you have any regrets about anything?
A friend of mine recently wrote a long blog post about how the whole ‘no regrets’ attitude is a lie. Of course we feel regrets. And then she launched into a litany of things she wishes hadn’t happened or that she’d done differently.
I don’t know that I buy that. There are plenty of things I wish I’d done differently or that had or hadn’t happened to me, but only in the most casual of ways. I’m a Buddhist, and I take the concept of karma pretty seriously, so I understand that whatever has happened to me, for better or worse, is mostly just karma arising. It’s stuff I’m burning through because of things set in motion in previous lives or in the lives of others. I constantly struggle to make better decisions in my life and to be more aware of how my life intersects with the lives of others, but what has already happened has happened, and I wouldn’t be at this point in my life otherwise. That’s not just Buddhism, that’s quantum science (though, more and more, it’s getting hard to tell the difference).
So do I have regrets in the sense that I actively wish things were different and that, given the magical opportunity, I’d change things in my past? Not really. I feel like I’d be pretty foolish to do so.
What the heck possessed you to call your cats ‘Ibsen’ and ‘Brontë’?
Actually, it was the other way around: they’re our cats because they already were Ibsen and Brontë. We adopted them from our local humane society when we lived in Texas, and we were first drawn to them because, of the cats listed on the society’s webpage, they were the only two with literary names. When we went to the shelter to fill out the adoption paperwork, we discovered they were siblings, and we knew we’d made the right decision, so we left their names as they are.
I like the literary name idea, so I keep threatening my wife that the next cat we adopt will be either Cormac, for a boy, or Austen, for a girl. So far she’s vetoed my choices, but we’re a two-cat family for now anyway, so it’s a moot issue. Our Ibsen and Brontë are plenty!