Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Michael Snyder: His Writing and His Return Policy

  • Annabelle Robertson Contributing Writer
  • 2009 30 Jul
Michael Snyder:  His Writing and His <i>Return Policy</i>

Southern women have been known to say, “Pretty is as pretty does.” 

When it comes to Southerner Michael Snyder, however, this would probably be better paraphrased as “Funny is as funny does.”  The Tennessee-based novelist and father of four, who was once a professional musician, understands the art of subtle comedy which has everything to do with good characters.

In Snyder’s debut novel, My Name Is Russell Fink, he introduced us to hypochondriac Russell Fink, who believes his dog is clairvoyant—but only when drunk.  So Russell, who has become rather desperate in his search for direction, pumps the canine with liquor whenever possible.  In Snyder’s recently-released second book, Return Policy, he serves up three new characters— equally distinct and comical, though more heart-wrenching. 

Willy Feneran’s career as a novelist is long dead.  But a far bigger problem for Willy is that he can’t get rid of his blasted espresso maker.  Ozena Webb is a customer service rep—a very good one—who spends all of her spare time with her mentally handicapped son.  And then there’s Shaq, the homeless guy who can’t remember who he is, much less why he is.

As the stories of these three down-and-outers intersect, we’re given a glimpse into what despair can be like.  Then we’re offered a vision of audacious hope, sprung to life, when least expected.  The book bears the same “lad lit” style of My Name Is Russell Fink, with equally quirky characters and the classic postmodern disconnect that characterizes Generation X.  But here, Snyder goes for a little more depth.  And, in the process, he connects with his readers in a very real way.

Not surprisingly, Snyder is a bit of a quirky guy himself. 

“We’re just not very good grown-ups” he said, when asked why he and his wife chose to adopt their fourth son, an African-American.  “We were sitting in church and they said that there were 18 boys who needed to be adopted. If they’re male and dark-skinned, apparently, there’s almost a zero percent chance they’ll get adopted.  It touched us.”

It’s the tragic-comedy of true life that characterizes Snyder’s writing, and makes it so compelling.  He recently spoke with about what it all means, how it all began, and what he hopes to accomplish with his books. ...

This isn’t your average, everyday “Christian” novel. But neither was Russell Fink, your first book.
I tried to write a Christian novel at one time, but it was awful. I hope no one ever sees it.  It had the obligatory conversation and it was very standard CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), but I wasn’t enjoying it. … My editor, Andy Meisenheimer, is incredibly cool. When I sent him my second novel, I had the phrase, “Darn well” in there.  He said, “If you said “darn” and you meant “damn,” we have a problem.  He would rather not have any conversion scenes in the book.  He’s about art and good literature. 

I love your characters. Do you just naturally write good characters, or do you go and hunt for them, because you understand, as all good writers do, that they’re the foundation of good writing?
I call what I write “neurotica.”  My characters usually deal with some sort of quirk or problem.  There are a lot of writing rules that I either don’t know or ignore.  I gave them all neuroses, some more than others.  I can’t start writing these stories until I figure out who they are.

How do you do that?
I just play with it.  In Return Policy, there’s a short story that turned into a novel.  I knew I had a guy who wanted to destroy an espresso maker, but I didn’t know why.  Who would do that?  What’s eating at him so badly that he wants to kill an espresso maker.  I’m almost always going to write humor, but I like to write pathos.  I really need to empathize with the characters.

Do you have a lot of experience with pathos?
Well, inside my head I’m probably as neurotic as the next guy.

You mean you didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional family?  With characters like these?
Oh, I did.  I grew up in a sitcom.  We didn’t know it at the time, but I think everyone did—except my wife’s family.  When you peel back the layers, every family is odd.  When I was a kid, I would often fantasize about being in someone else’s family, and that leads to other people’s stories.

So what made you want to write?
I never thought about writing until 2001 or 2002.  I was married, and we had a couple of kids.  We had both majored in music, so there was always something creative swimming around in there.  One day, we were driving down the road in the van and I said, “I think I’d like to try writing a book.”  All the creative planets lined up.  All of the other endeavors were filling up that writing cup.  And, all the frustrations with not being as good of a musician as I wanted to be just fit there.

Tell me about the journey to publication.
With music, I always knew the rules.  I knew what it took to make it.  But with literature, I didn’t know any better.  I started reading books about writing.  I think I read 32 of them.  I’m not good at memorizing things, though.  If I read a rule, I can’t wait to break it—or I forget it.  But I just started writing and submitting.  I found likeminded people online and started going to writer’s conferences.  So I blindly and ignorantly jumped in with both feet.

What kind of writer’s conferences did you go to?
Christian writers’ conferences.  The first one was in Florida, and I went during a weeklong vacation.  I got just enough encouragement there to send me home to keep writing.  I was always the outcast, though. 

Outcast?  Why is that?
Well, I got along with people.  I had a great time.  But I was walking around peddling Russell Fink, and that’s a bit like women’s fiction.  It’s like Lifetime Television for women.  The men at these conferences were all writing mystery or crime.  My great plan was to go and hang out with the people that I had met at other conferences, because I knew no one was going to publish Russell Fink.  I mean, there was an alcoholic dog in that book!  But, I decided to take advantage of the fact that there were a lot of industry people there.  I get a little nervous at these conferences, but I had read the bio for this editor, so I decided to write one about him.  I customized a really god-awful synopsis about my novel using things from his bio.  I just shoehorned it in there.  When I got in there, I just handed it to him and waited.  He was quiet.  I started to get really nervous.  He didn’t say a word.  I figured I had made a huge mistake.  Then suddenly, he started howling with laughter and pounding the table.  He asked me for a copy of the whole book.  I got a call not long after from my agent who said we had a deal.  That clairvoyant dog worked.
So that’s when fame and fortune happened?
Exactly.  I’m the most famous guy in this shirt.  No, we’re still waiting on that part.  I was nominated by Christianity Today for book of the year, though.  I lost out to Marilyn Robinson.  It’s kinda cool to be in that company, though.

That fame and fortune is one of the biggest myths out there about authors.  What people don’t realize is that we all have day jobs.  What’s yours?
I’m a manufacturer’s rep for commercial food-service equipment.  It’s a good job.  It pays the bills and it gives me a lot of freedom.  I try not to mix the two.  In sales, you see a lot of customers, and whenever anything goes wrong, I don’t want them thinking, ‘Oh, he’s probably writing about this.’ 

All those kids, a fulltime job … .when do you find the time to write?
I write every night from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.  I’m a napper, and I’m very fortunate because my wife lets me nap.  I take a nap in the evening and then I’m good to go.  I also nap on weekends.  And occasionally I just conk out and go to bed early. 

How much writing do you get done?
It depends.  My current book is really hard, because I started with the story and not the characters. So my new goal is to write 714 words a day, seven days a week.  Or 830 words for six days a week.

Did you ever think about writing non-fiction?
I do write some.  I write for a site called Masters Artist.  One of my favorite recent posts is called, “My Lawnmower Hates Me.”  It’s a bit like a column, and the site is for loosely-defined Christian artists, and a mixed bag of people.

What’s your next book?
It’s called A Stand-Up Guy and it’s about a stand-up comedian who vowed to tell the truth, no matter who got hurt.  Everything becomes fair game when he realizes it works, until everyone becomes fodder for his comedy act.

What’s your favorite thing about Return Policy?
I just love the characters.  And I love that people are saying that they actually think about the characters all day long, and that when they finish, it’s like saying goodbye to a friend.  I really had to get to know these people.

Why did you make the shift from one to three points of view this time around?
That’s what the story needed.  It was originally supposed to be about a guy named Willy and a guy who ran a homeless shelter called Father Joe.  But the more I wrote, the more Ozena kept stepping forward and waving her arms.  The Shaq character just made all sorts of sense for him to come about.  Then I realized he was nuts and was co-opting other people’s memories and stories, and it became fun.  The challenge was to keep the two male voices distinct.  The crazy guy was a little tougher. You never know if it’s going to work, especially for people who have worked in homeless shelters.

Well, I’ve worked in a homeless shelter, and I think it’s very on-target.
Thanks.  That’s always good to hear.  Several other people have told me that, too.  You just never know.

What drives you to write?  And where does your faith intersect with that drive?
I’ve always believed that we were created in God’s image.  I don’t think everyone is called to create literature or music, but creating is part of what gives us our vitality.  It’s not grand, but when I am not writing I am creating something.  Writing is a really nice outlet.  It’s a good match.

What do you hope that people take away from your writing?
I don’t think this is totally original, but I think writers write so that people will know that they are not alone.  I like to ask a lot of questions and not answer them all—because I don’t have all the answers.  I hope people will connect with the characters, and give voice to the thoughts that people have.  I think that was the success of Seinfeld.  It was always self-deprecating, and they were always punished for their actions.  They were giving voice to the things that most people don’t say.

For more information about Return Policy, visit Snyder’s Web site