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An Interview with Laurel Snyder

Poet & Children's Author on Writing for Kids

by Meg White

laurel snyder
Laurel Snyder's new book is Any Which Wall. (photo by Sonya Nauman)

Now based in Atlanta, Laurel Snyder is the stay-at-home mother of two young boys, Mose and Lewis Poma. She’s married to Chris Poma, a Coralville native she met while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  Snyder is the author of two novels for kids (Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, Any Which Wall) and two picture books, (Inside the Slidy Diner, Baxter the Kosher Pig) as well as two collections of poetry (Daphne & Jim, The Myth of the Simple Machines). She also edited a collection of essays (Half/Life: Jewish tales from Interfaith Homes) and she is a regular commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. She has been the recipient of a Michener/Engle Fellowship and was a Capote Scholar while a student at the University of Iowa. When she is not chasing toddlers and writing books, she likes to collapse.  You can find her online at http://laurel snyder.com.

Meg White: Laurel, you first came to Iowa City to study poetry at the Writers’ Workshop and you’ve said you have plans to move back. Iowa is often mentioned in your work and is the stomping ground of your newest book, Any Which Wall. Can you tell us about your time here and the creation of this love affair you have with our state?

Laurel Snyder: It’s funny, because my love of Iowa sort of grew from an imperfect grad school experience. I think that often, when people move to college towns, they experience only the surface of the place, because they’re so entrenched in their department and the social sphere immediately around it. But I had a hard time transitioning into the Workshop, and so I looked around Iowa City for other social worlds, other groups of friends that were more like my community in Chattanooga (where I’d moved from). 

I started working at the Hamburg and hanging out with local musicians and some really smart undergrads. I started dating someone from Iowa City, and that opened up another world. I dug in, and stayed seven years before I left. And when I look back and remember grad school, it’s those people I associate with Iowa; the people who took me dancing in Swisher, home to meet their families in West Branch or Mason City, who explained the state while out driving in the country. I really would like to move back. It’s just hard for my husband to find a good job near Iowa City.

After publishing two books of poetry, you have just published your third book of children’s literature. Why the change in genre? Or, more specifically, what was it that compelled you to start writing for kids?

People always assume that I started writing these books because I had kids. But that’s not true. I’ve always loved children’s books. I’ve always read and reread them, studied them. I think there’s a lot of freedom in writing for kids. Kids are far more open, as readers, to invention. To language play and silliness. I think children’s literature is actually a really natural fit for a poet. There’s such a focus on the image, the line, and the sound of the language. There’s also a real economy to the writing. I sometimes get worried I won’t be taken seriously as a poet, now that I’m writing for kids. But that’s something I need to get over. I think children are the most important readers. Good books can have a huge impact on a child.

Do you find there are similarities between the two? Is your writing process significantly different?

The process is very different. Poetry for me is about defining the world, figuring something out, getting to the lowest common denominator of some aspect of human experience. I like spare poems, tiny poems, so my poetry writing has a really tight revision process. I’ll sit with a line for weeks. I’ll cut all but a single word and start over. It’s like winding something very tightly, if that makes sense. And while writing picture books feels a little like that, though more playful, writing these children’s novels is the opposite. I’ve had to learn to let go, to let the words just flow and be messy. Then later, I’ll go back and hack it all apart, rearrange. I’ll cut 100 pages sometimes, or redo the end of a book. But I can’t do that work as I go. It makes the prose too controlled.

Let’s talk about your new book, Any Which Wall. It’s a story about simple, everyday magic and how four children (Henry, his younger sister Emma, Henry’s best friend Roy, and his older sister, Susan) come to understand it, use it and shape it with their own wills. What was it that originally drew you to the theme of magic? And how did you decide to turn it over to the children and a series of walls to flesh it all out?

Oh, who doesn’t like magic? As a kid, I certainly thought a ton about what I’d do if I found magic in the world. As an adult, I still play out those impulses. I’m superstitious, and have all sorts of odd little rituals. I think that getting to write out my magical fantasies was a fulfillment of all the make-believe games I played as a kid.

The structure of the book is stolen, ripped off from a mid-century author named Edward Eager . . . and I placed the book in Iowa because in Iowa, more than elsewhere, kids are still kids. They ride bikes and run free a bit more than they do in urban settings. And that was key to me since I wanted to update the Eager format, but have the book be contemporary, too.  Setting the book in Iowa meant the kids could be real kids today, with cell phones and all that, but still be kids the way I remember childhood.

Your book is illustrated with a series of lovely drawings by Leuyen Pham. How did you two hook up and what was the process of collaboration like?

That process is usually pretty controlled by the editors and designers at a publishing house. I’m lucky to have a wonderful editor who consults with me and listens to my thoughts, but selecting art is really how an editor shapes a book visually, and how they put their thumbprint on it. I’m sure the marketing folks get involved too, but I know less about that end of things.

In this case, I was asked to select some scenes that I thought should be drawn, and then the artist read the book and did what she wanted to do. And then I went back and made some small corrections later. Like, I had to tell her to take out a camera in one picture, because I’d written the camera out of a later draft. But isn’t the art wonderful? I love Pham’s work and was thrilled when she agreed to work on the project.

You’ve said this book is an homage to children’s literature author Edgar Eager. Would you tell us a bit about him and the extent to which he has influenced you and your writing?

Well, he’s one of my favorites. There are a few others in that club. But basically, Eager wrote books about regular kids who have magical adventures that connect to their actual lives. As opposed to what I’ll call “big magic.” I like big magic, too, but Eager’s flavor always appealed to me more than sword-wielding kids and crazy mythical creatures and faraway fantastical worlds. I think there’s a kind of humor you get when magic bumps into, say, your parents, or your math teacher. A kid having a pet unicorn is neat, but a kid having a pet unicorn in their bedroom in Chicago is neat and funny. You know?

Okay, I can’t let you go without asking about the possibility of a sequel? Can we hope to meet up with Susan, Emma, Roy, and Henry any time soon?

In theory, there will be a sequel called Anywhere Green. It’s a little bit about the environment, and a little bit about what happens when a kid from Iowa moves to a big dirty city. But I haven’t written it yet, so one never knows. . . .

Visit the Index for more book reviews and articles about Iowa authors.

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