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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]

Interview: Emily Snyder

[Emily Snyder with her sister] Emily Snyder (shown here on the left with her sister on the right) is the author of Niamh and the Hermit, published by ARX Publishing. She holds a B.A. in English from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and teaches Religion, Drama and Music at Hudson Catholic High School. Emily lives with her family in Marlborough, Massachusetts, where she attends St. Mary's Catholic Church. She took part in the list in October, 2003. Diane Joy Baker and Greg Slade asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. Emily also maintains The Christian Guide to Fantasy.

GS: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Amherst, MA, but I travelled around a bit growing up. My toddlerhood to kindergartendom were spent in Worcester, MA, where I spent entire days playing "Peter Pan." Elementary school was in beautiful Portsmouth, NH, just a mile from the rocky shore. Middle (parochial) and high (public) school were in Pompton Lakes, NJ – tough, trying years but ultimately good. (Whose middle and high school years are easy, though?) Half-way through college (Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH), my family moved back up to Marlborough, MA and we have been here since.

GS: Where did you go to school, and what did you take?

I earned my BA in English: Literature and Drama from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Originally, I had been a triple concentration: Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, but ironically I decided to drop the latter in favor of a semester abroad in Austria and its environs. Also, the drama program at FUS is so amazing and intense that I feel I learned more about the elements of what make up a good story by being part of the story, or directing it, than I had been learning in a round-table creative writing course. I'm not denigrating the Creative Writing program at all – merely stating that personally, as a kinetic learner, I found doing to be more helpful for me. (That and I was writing constantly anyway, so, there was no fear of losing momentum.)

GS: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids?)

Currently, I am a single woman who is on-again-off-again discerning God's plan for my life. In my day-time life, I teach teenagers students Religion, Drama and Music for Hudson Catholic High School. Consequently, they frequently ask me if I'm going to become a nun – perhaps not realizing that we're all called to holiness! Whatever vocation God calls me to – currently the single life – I will try to live out in a manner worthy of Christ.

As for children? Well, a few weeks ago at a friend's wedding, I was complaining to God that here I was, "ever so much more than twenty" and single. What was He thinking? I would never have children, and this and that and the other thing... you know. Anyway, He just looked at me and said, "Emily, you always wanted ten children, right?" "Riiiight," I said. To which He replied, with a twinkle in His eyes, "I've given you over five hundred... isn't that enough?" So, no more complaining for me! (At least, with that tactic! ;)

At the moment, living on a Catholic School teacher's income, I still live with my family. It's been a huge blessing, though. My sister is my best friend and support (indeed, for those who've read the book, you can thank my sister for knocking me about the head when I was contemplating for just a second making the book hugely tragic.) If ever I move, I'll have to still remain within driving distance of her. My father and mother also help me support my "bad habits" of writing and directing (frequently agreeing to act as house manager, pinch-hitting actor, videographer, and in the case of end of Chapter Eight of Niamh, writer's block typist.) And my two brothers keep me from becoming too serious. My three occupations: teacher, writer and director, can be so often lonely ones. I'm grateful that God has given me this "curse" of impecuniosity so that I might grow closer to my family.

GS: What do you do to put bread on the table when you're not writing books?

See above! Teachers of the world untie... um... Seriously, though, if you want a challenge, try teaching high schoolers religion. It's wonderful, but it's also something along the lines of walking next to Christ, carrying His cross.

GS: What church do you attend, and why?

I am a Roman Catholic, and have been so since before I was born. Hence, since I was a "cradle Catholic," I didn't know much about the whys of my faith until my collegiate years, when I went to Steubenville and breathed theology. (The place is so suffused with grace and learning, even a drama major can't escape spiritual formation – thank God!)

Please don't misunderstand me: as a child and then as a teen, I wasn't wholly ignorant of what I believed. Merely, I didn't understand the depth and richness and the "why" of what I believed. God has always been very good to me. I'm rather like the son who stayed home in the story of the Prodigal Son – through no grace of my own, but through God's favor!

So, why? First, because of the faith my parents passed to me, both in word and in deed. Second, because of the spiritual sustaining graces granted me by God. Third (chronologically, although first theologically), because through my study of the Bible, of the Early Church Fathers, and of other theological works up to the present day, as well as reading a massive amount (for a drama major anyway!) of historical source material, I am convinced that Jesus Christ founded a Church upon the earth, which He safeguards (Matt. 16:17-19) and to whom He entrusted the entirety of Himself – spiritually and physically.

This leads into...

GS: How did you become a Christian?

As Barbara Nicolosi, the head of ActOne: Writing for Hollywood put it, "How did I first meet my mother?"

As I said, I've always been a Catholic and a believer. I can point to moments when God certainly spurred me on to greater devotion to Him. In first grade, at a ecumenical VBS held at the local Baptist church, the pastor invited anyone who so desired to ask Jesus into his heart. Since I believed in Jesus, and since it made sense to me that He was a gentleman and wouldn't force His way in to my life, I stayed after with three other fourth grade girls and prayed to Jesus to stay with me. In fourth grade I was part of a Catholic Charismatic prayer group, which also prayed over me for the gift of the Holy Spirit – and boy does God deliver! In high school, Christ invited me to grow as an adult in Him – which I agreed to, although He showed me that it would mean persecution. In college, I learned to love the mass with all my heart, particularly the Eucharist. I came to have a new love for the sacraments which I had received while growing up, especially the graces and forgiveness of confession. I joined a covenanted household, dedicated to discovering our roles of leadership under the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Out of college, I was lovingly challenged by my dear Protestant friends, "Where is that in the Bible?" and – never one to resist a challenge! – I resumed my theological studies with a vigor. Now, teaching the faith to teenagers I am required to not only know my faith, but to love it, to "preach always and sometimes use words," to love each student into the Heart of Christ.

I become so sad when I see Catholics who don't know their faith, who have no idea what the Trinity is, or much more than a vague idea of a "squishy Jesus." Those who have taught "squishy Jesus" theology have done my generation a great disservice. They preach warm fuzzies, but miss the cross of Christ; they try to please everyone, and downplay the resurrection. Even more sad to me are those Catholics who aren't in love with their faith. I recently attended ReaderCon in Burlington, MA, and listened to the Catholicism & SF/F panel. Three were older gentlemen who knew their faith but were afraid to show enthusiasm. Two were fallen-away Catholics, now an atheist and a wiccan. It took all I had not to jump up on the stand and gleefully cry, "I love being Catholic! I love it! I love it! I love Christ! How can we sit here gloomily on Sunday? We should be praising God to the rafters! Know your faith, friends! Our God is a God of mirth!"

GS: Sorry, I didn't express myself clearly enough. I didn't just mean which denomination (although thank you for sharing your testimony there), I meant which local church (parish?)

Oops! St. Mary's in Marlborough, MA because Father Larry is an awesome man of God.

GS: Did literature ("Christian" or not) have any part in bringing you to Christ?

Certainly it deepened my understanding and love of God. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo explained to me the nature of justice and mercy, and the beauty of sacrificial love. (I'm going to weep just thinking of the book!) Crime and Punishment taught me about intellectual pride, and The Divine Comedy is still the best meditation on Last Things I've ever found (with Tolkien's "Leaf By Niggle" running a very close second.) A Little Princess and Peter Pan also influenced me greatly: I aspired to be as good and noble as the heroes in those books.

In non-fiction, I kiss the feet of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas More, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Ignatius, Scott Hahn, James Akin, Mark Shea, Pope John Paul II, Aristotle and Socrates, among others.

GS: What authors (Christian or not) influence your thinking and your work?

Victor Hugo for his scope, passion, romance and sheer beauty. Dostoyevsky for his unflinching look at evil in the world, and Christ's greater graces. Illusion by Paula Volsky for proving that Hugo can work in a fantasy world, and for writing what is, for my money, the best Political Fantasy written thus far. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson (with thanks to Perrault and other collectors of fairy tales) for being my first tutors in the world beyond. Margaret Hamilton for making mythology accessible to me. Dr. Russell (a poet, scholar and genius) instructed me in the wonders of Dante, whose Divine Comedy has managed to sneak into almost every essay I've written since. Dr. Russell also instructed me in modern British literature for which I am eternally grateful – he made me see that even James Joyce (shudder) has a place in understanding the world, even if the world we understand is fallen. Aristotle has my devotion: the man's understanding of life, the universe, and everything still boggles the brain. Shakespeare, of course, spins poetry and intrigue into one. To play even one of his lesser roles, to delve into a single soliloquy is bliss.

GS: Sorry, I didn't quite follow you, here. Are you saying that Volsky writes in Hugo's style, except in a fantasy setting, or that Hugo is a character in her work, or that she deals with similar themes, or?

She writes in something approximating Hugo's style a la Les Miserables (approaching, but not wholly embracing the spiritual depth.) "Illusion" is the story of a revolution in a Franco-Russian type world, complete with the terror, etc. So in that sense, she plays with putting the second half of Les Miserables into a fantasy world. Thematically, while she doesn't delve into Christian richness, there are still great themes of sacrificial love, true power, seeing the person not the class, chaste love, and perserverence in the face of hardship. She is fairly even-handed when it comes to looking at the members of the oligarchy and the serfs, showing both saints and sinners in either camp, by denouncing (or exalting) action rather than being. Also, just as Hugo paints a huge world within his novel, so Volsky translates that narrative ability into fantasy worldbuilding.

GS: What prompted you to write this book?

A poem that wouldn't work. I gave up on the poem and started writing Niamh. The poem still remains unfinished.

Niamh is set in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, a place I made up for my little brother, Peter. A few years before, I had jotted down the idea, "What would King Gavron and Queen Rhianna's (a former Fairy) child be like? She must be infinitely beautiful. Hmmm, she's probably so beautiful she'd manage to stun her suitors. This could be a problem."

Compounded with this basic plot premise were Dr. Russell's words as he talked about Dante's "Paradisio." Basically, he questioned, "How much beauty can man stand?" When a man visits a museum, he can only tolerate so much time in the presence of amassed beauty before he grows restless. Clearly, this is because of man's fallen state. In Heaven, which is pure beauty, we shall stand before God Himself for eternity, with no tiring whatsoever.

Since my preferred medium is fantasy, this philosophical/theological question became a plot, and the plot a book, and the book Niamh.

GS: What made you decide on the publisher?

I had had dealings with ArxPub before writing Niamh. They had sent me two of their titles for review on The Christian Guide to Fantasy. When they contacted me about their book The Mask of Ollock, I was about fifty pages into writing Niamh. With many gulps, I queried them, asking if they would like to bolster their "female market" (although I hope the book appeals to both genders! :) Subsequently, I send them the sample pages, they liked it, offered me a contract, and I was obliged to finish the book. God is good. He knows I need deadlines.

Working with Arx has been fabulous. Their artistic vision is greater than my own. Indeed, they were the ones who encouraged me to provide illustrations, appendices, and even sheet music for the book! Had I gone with a larger publishing house, none of these things would have been possible. Also, they desire quality writing, not just quantity – as we see with the current trend towards "fat fiction." They are devoted Catholic Christians, and did not object in the least to my worldbuilding, therefore (a pseudo-Christendom). I cannot have asked for better publishers.

GS: Do you have another book in the works?

I'm working on a prequel to Niamh about her grandfather, King Aiden. The project is currently untitled.

GS: When I went to Amazon.com to build a link to your book so that people could order it, I searched on Niamh, since that seemed like a fairly unique name, but I got multiple hits besides your book. Is your story based upon some already existing legend or fairy tale?

"Niamh" is a Gaelic name, pronounced roughly Nee-EHV, which according to behindthename.com means "bright." I had not known her mythology when I began writing the book. Rather, I had stumbled across the name in another work, thought it sufficiently interesting that it stuck in my brain, so that when I began writing the name represented itself and seemed to "fit." (In typical God-incidence, it wasn't until a few days after naming Niamh that I looked up the meaning of her name!)

My book, Niamh and the Hermit, is a new fairy tale. In recent years, we've come to believe that the formation of new fairy tales is impossible. We can retell old tales, we can "Shrek-ify" known tales, but somehow the weaving of a completely new fairy tale is verboten. Niamh and the Hermit sets out to counter that belief. If one looks at the "old" fairy tales – and looks at enough of them (just sit down with the complete Grimms, all one thousand or so), it becomes apparent that fairy tales are a unique form of literature inasmuch as there is no fear among the tellers of "borrowing" pieces of this or that tale to fit a new one. I like to compare it to quilting. Every quilt is unique because the pattern is different, but if one looks closely at quilts made in the same household, one begins to recognize that this triangle over here is made of the same material of that triangle over there. The joy of fairy tales is consciously rearranging the scraps of material in new patterns to make new stories that nevertheless are still the one True Story – that of Christ.

So in Niamh, I wasn't overly concerned if I mentioned that a Firebird existed, or golden sheep, or a sentient sun and moon and stars, or twelve Fairies, or any of the other trappings of fairy tales. To have shunned these bright colored fragments would have been to make the telling of my fairy tale impossible. But rather I used these pieces in a unique pattern, made this piece more prominent, wove that piece with a bit of Dostoyevsky's look at the twisted soul, put that piece as part of the history of the world, and so on. The result, I hope, is a modern fairy tale with an source older than time.

GS: What is your writing strategy? Are you one of those who go through multiple drafts, each increasingly filled-in, from plot outline to completed story, or one of those who just let the story unfold as it will, never knowing the ending until you actually write it? Do you "hear" the story, or "see" it, or work it out yourself?

It depends on the story. However, if I'm to answer based on my completed novels, I suppose that I tend to begin the story and then follow it – rather like transcribing a movie in my mind. When I'm stuck for a plot point I'll journal about it, or ask "Well, what is so-and-so doing now?" Or "How does what A just did affect B? What does B do then?" (Since I prefer omniscient narrative, this is possible.)

Of course, this method has its good side and its downside. On the good end of things I get excited as I discover what happens next. Generally, I'll begin the story with some idea of how it's going to go – rather like defining point A and point Z and maybe Q somewhere inbetween – but the getting to point Z depends largely upon who the characters end up being. The character of Padriac in Niamh completely took me by surprise. He didn't alter my ending goal, but he sure didn't behave as I originally suspected he would! The downside, of course, is that it's necessary once a completed draft is done to go back and to fill in those scenes that need to include a bit more foreshadowing here, more explanation there, etc.

GS: What is your writing method? Do you lock yourself away from distractions, or scribble on napkins whenever inspiration strikes? Do you surround yourself with things to put you in the right frame of mind to be in your fantasy world, or is it all in your head?

All of the above! When I'm first starting a novel, I've been writing fifty pages or so of it by hand, doodling pictures in the margins when I'm stuck for a word or a turn of plot. Then I type it – revising grammar as I go – and submit what I have to my beta readers (aka my kindly friends from the Symposium.) They comment, and I continue either by hand for a bit or more likely in Word. My preference is to switch over at this time from scribbling during my free periods from teaching and rather lock myself in my room for hours on end, occasionally emerging for food and water, or for the purpose of walking around bleary-eyed.

I inspire myself primarily through music. I constantly have music playing – something to put me in the right world – while writing. During Niamh I had Gaelic Storm, Cherish the Ladies, The Chieftans, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings on near-constant rotation. When I wrote the final chapter however, I put the song, "The Land of Might-Have-Been" by Ivor Novello as sung by Jeremy Northram off of the Gosford Park CD on repeat. I also draw a lot of pictures, and I'll make these pictures my screensaver so even when I walk away for a bit and come back I'm put right back into the world.

DJB: What's Symposium and how do you get there?

The Symposium's my web discussion board. The link is: http://pub16.ezboard.com/bthesymposium

GS: I've had one author tell me that, after going through multiple "proofreading" edits of her books during the publishing process (at the level of distinguishing between hyphens and dashes), she gets downright sick of the book by the time it finally hits the bookshelves. How was the proofreading/editing process in your experience?

Considering that I was trying to do my major revision during school time, it was pretty grueling, and I didn't get it back to my publishers in the timely fashion I had hoped. (Mea culpe!) I dreaded facing the monster that first time – the revision seemed so enormous (when overshadowed by getting through all my school work.) But once I got back into the swing of Niamh it went very smoothly. The second proof, the one with all the nitpicky stuff was much easier because it didn't entail a complete overhaul (to my eyes, anyway!), and because it was in galley form, so I was able to see the placement of the pictures, the neat heraldic uncials that my publishers made up, etc. I kept showing off the galley itself to people! Unfortunately, I made some mistakes myself in that galley – but as Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her introduction to one of her own novels: "The typos that were in the first edition have been corrected. And I have made new typos for this second edition!" I bear full responsiblity and claim befuddlement by directing Brigadoon at the same time as proofing. (Right....)

GS: Have you based any of your characters on people you know? If so, are those people aware of that? If so, how did they react to the characterisation?

No, none of the characters are based on anyone I know. There are certainly aspects of this or that person in this or that character, but in general my characters tend to be their own person.

GS: What did you learn from writing this book, and how are you doing the next book differently (if you are)?

That, contrary to the research I did, not all third-person personals require an -eth! I learnt that no matter what you think your word count is going to be, it will be more than the proposed by the time it's done and that working while writing's a killer. The next book is more or less in the same vein as Niamh at least in style and context, so I hope, if anything, to deepen the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, and to poke about its corners more.

GS: Do you have any appearances, book signings, etc. scheduled in the next while?

I'm looking to be intereviewed again by Teresa Tomeo on Ave Maria Radio, and I'm bugging my sluggish library to set up a talk and book signing. Unfortunately, though, I've found that a lot of the "big chain stores" are rather resistant to small press authors. grrrr

GS: What resources (web sites, mailing lists, etc.) are there (put up by you, ARX, or fans) related to Niamh?

Arx's site: www.arxpub.com/literary/Niamh.html
The Twelve Kingdoms: www.christianfantasy.net/twelvekingdoms/
The White Hind (Discussion Board): pub16.ezboard.com/fthesymposiumfrm8

GS: Do your students know about your book? If so, what reactions have you received?

They do know and are excited about the idea that their teacher has written a book that's like LOTR. One of my students has read it, as well as one of my actors and both were enthusiastic! phew Mostly, though, they tend to ask, "How's it selling? How's it going? You should tell the English teachers we should read it for summer reading [meaning they don't want to read Tale of Two Cities – silly students!]. What is it about again... oh, that's right, you did tell us." (The last is when they're trying to avoid taking notes. ;)

GS: I've always considered being compared to the work which single-handedly made fantasy respectable for grown-ups to read again as "the kiss of death" for a work, because nobody can measure up to Tolkien's world-building. Do you find Tolkien (or Lewis) comparisons to be a problem, or do you welcome them, or what?

To be honest, I'd be thrilled if I could just put out the book without any comparison to Rowling or Tolkien or Lewis or any of the "big names" now. (Nth Degree – thanks Tony! :) – just compared me to the Brothers Grimm. That seems to be fair. But elsewise?)

However, the simple fact is that readers want a "tag line:" a single statement that sums up the genre and the subgenre (Fantasy: High Fantasy). For many people, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (and maybe Narnia) are the only Fantasies they know. For the slightly more discerning, their prospective subgenres (Alternate Reality, High Fantasy, Supernatural High Fantasy) are known. So from a marketing standpoint, there isn't much alternative but to "comparison sell."

However, from an artistic viewpoint, although of course it's always flattering to be compared with Tolkien, as you said, it's not particularly fair. There has built up this mythos around Tolkien that somehow he has full claim to – for example – Fairy Tales. So, when we overlap in our source material, folk tend to point to that and say, "A-ha! She's copying Tolkien!" when in fact I was drawing from Hamilton, or Grimms, or Anderson and their source material.

Perhaps it would be more fair to say that I wish the reading populace would widen their own circles of literature to look back at source material themselves. It in no way lessens the greatness of, say, Tolkien's work, but deepens understanding of what he has created. But in the same light, such a broadening of one's reading list also has the added benefit of encouraging others to also try their hand at "news" by delving into "olds."

DJB: How do you develop your characters? Do you find that on occasion some character steps in almost "full blown" or do you mostly have to "build" your characters?

Both. My major actors tend to require development, which makes sense since they're revealed to us in greater depth, with more facets, and at a slower rate than a secondary character. That being so, their "voice" does tend to make itself known to me sooner than the depths of their soul. I tend to build them by taking Aristotle's advice: "Judge them by their actions" – basically, let them do what they do, or in the case of novels, say what they say. Through their actions and their words, their character is revealed.

My secondary characters, though, tend to step in fully developed in my mind: the crew at Brenna Housewife's, Ogrin, Liam, Pwll, etc. I generally know when a character is "working" when they start doing things I didn't intend for them to do. The best example in Niamh is the character of Padriac.

GS: Did Padriac "highjack" your plotline, or was it more a matter of differences in the details (however interesting in and of themselves) without changing anything crucial? (In other words, how different a book is Niamh than it would have been without Padriac, or with a Padriac who "did what he was told"?)

Um, tough one. He certainly highjacked the plotline i.e., by inserting himself into it, but he didn't change the plotline as such. (Or at least the major plot points.)

Perhaps it would be better to explain it in terms of real life. God has an ultimate plan for our lives. And then others come in, or you yourself muck about with that plan. But if you stay truthful to God, the plan ends up being the same as He desired, but richer. That's rather how Padriac worked for me.

When he first appeared, I presumed that he was just an extra with lines: a nice diversion from the rather nasty stuff that Niamh was going through. So it surprised me to no end when, at the end of his initial section, he made it quite clear to me that he hadn't finished with me (or Niamh) yet. By this, he ended up driving the final plot point that I had envisioned further, upping the ante, and providing the means to get to the climax and resolution. If anything, I felt incredibly sad as each choice he made moved him farther and farther away from the plot line I'd envisioned for him when first he appeared. He deepened my original concept, but contravened his own.

I don't know that that makes any sense at all... Was it Chesterton who said there's a reason why society has never entirely trusted artists?!

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[David R. Beaucage][Kathy Tyers][James BeauSeigneur][Jefferson Scott][Walker Chandler][Alton Gansky][Ray Hansen]

[Emily Snyder][Randall Ingermanson][Theodore Beale][Steve Laube][Laura Lond][Frank Wu][Donita K. Paul][Brenda W. Clough][Bryan Davis][John Granger]

[Karen Hancock][Miles Owens][Robert Liparulo][Bryan Davis, part 2][Chris Walley][Kathryn Mackel][Gene Wolfe][Sharon Hinck][Wayne Thomas Batson][Lars Walker][Christopher Hopper][Jeffrey Overstreet]

Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]

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[David R. Beaucage] [Kathy Tyers] [James BeauSeigneur] [Jefferson Scott] [Walker Chandler] [Alton Gansky] [Ray Hansen] [Emily Snyder] [Randall Ingermanson] [Theodore Beale] [Steve Laube] [Laura Lond] [Frank Wu] [Donita K. Paul] [Brenda W. Clough] [Bryan Davis] [John Granger] [Karen Hancock] [Miles Owens] [Robert Liparulo] [Bryan Davis, part 2] [Chris Walley] [Kathryn Mackel] [Gene Wolfe] [Sharon Hinck] [Wayne Thomas Batson] [Lars Walker] [Christopher Hopper] [Jeffrey Overstreet][Rich Christiano][Jeff Gerke]