More About the Author
From the time he was seventeen years old Snyder wanted to write important books and movies that would bring meaning-- DEEP MEANING-- into peoples' lives. To this end, from the time he was 21 until he turned 34 he locked himself in rooms and lived like a monk, reading the classics over and over while he tried to teach himself how to write luminous sentences that revealed the great truths about life and love and friendship. The stuff that is important in this world. He took what he has called his "vows of poverty" and gave twelve years of his life to this education without any guarantee that anything he ever wrote would be good or that he would ever see a sentence of his writing published.
In those days he was under the influence of a dream that his books would one day be published by the great illustrious publishing houses of New York City-- a million miles away. Random House. Little Brown. Doubleday. Simon & Schuster. And above all the others-- Alfred A. Knopf-- the most respected literary publisher in the world.
"I wanted this so badly that if someone had come along then and said, Okay, we'll make a bargain with you, Snyder. You cut off your right arm and we'll grant you your dream. I would have said, No, thanks. But you can cut off my left. And that is the truth. That is how badly I wanted this. I wanted beyond hope and dreaming to become a novelist."
He started writing feature stories for Maine newspapers. "I was awful until an editor told me that I was always standing in between the reader and the subject of my story and that I needed to move away so the reader could draw close to the story. I sold stories for the next three years while I worked as a carpenter like one of my grandfathers had."
In the winter of 1977 Snyder moved to a small tourist town up the coast of Maine. They had a weekly newspaper there and the owner was looking for a new editor. Snyder begged for the job and got it. He was sitting at the editor's desk his second day on the job. There was a blizzard tearing through the town. Every summer store was boarded up. The little light on his desk was the only light on in town. He looked up from the black Royal typewriter and there was a man walking through the storm, straight to his door.
"In that moment, I felt my life as a writer begin to turn. He was a big man, maybe six five, with wide shoulders. He kicked the snow off his boots and asked me if I was the new editor. I said I was. He said he had a story to tell me. He had just sat down when the telephone rang. Someone wanted me to hurry to the dock to take a photograph of the storm tide ripping a restaurant off the pier and carrying it out of the harbor. I asked the man if he could come back and see me the next day. He said he would."
The next morning on his way to see Snyder, he dropped dead of a heart attack. Just fell into the snow.
"I ended up writing his obituary that week instead of his story. But I soon met his widow and she told me he had been a young soldier in the army during the Korean War. They had just had their first baby when he left for the war. Six months after he got there he was captured by the Chinese army. He was a POW for three years, held in a cave for most of that time. He lost over a hundred pounds and was very sick. For a while the POWS were in the hands of a sadistic Chinese commander who would pick one American soldier each night to tie to a pole in the freezing cold. Then he would put a rat in a wooden bowl and strap the bowl to the man's stomach. All through the night the man would howl with pain while the rat ate its way through him. So this soldier cut a deal with the commander-- he said, 'If I get my men to sign germ warfare confessions will you stop this?' It worked and no other prisoners were executed.
"Three years later the soldier comes home to America and it's the McCarthy era. The United States army accused the soldier of being a traitor. They court-martialed him, and they used all the men he kept alive in the cave to testify against him. This was just a little man from Maine with no education. He loved the Army so much that he refused to hire a lawyer to protect him. He said, 'The Army will know that what I did over there in Korea, I did to keep my men alive.' Well, the Army sent him to prison on a life sentence.
"They held him for three years then released him. All his life he claimed he was innocent and his wife believed him. Now that he was dead she asked me if I could find the truth. "I need to know the truth," she said to me."
Snyder thought it might take me six months to find the truth for the soldier's widow. It ended up taking him six years. He wrote that as his first published book, A SOLDIER'S DISGRACE.
Before the book was published an excerpt appeared in Yankee Magazine, edited by Mel Allen. Soon after, the Washington Post's Sara Rimer wrote a story about Snyder and his journey that appeared on the front page of the newspaper. Then Snyder appeared on the Charles Kuralt sunday morning television show in New York. Soon Snyder was on his way to Hollywood.
"Land of dreams and dreamers. I had pursued the dream of bringing some peace to this soldier's widow. I had done the hard work. I had fought the FBI and the United States Army for six years who for years told me that the soldier's records had been destroyed in a fire before I found them. The price was high. I was deeply in debt for my efforts. But suddenly there was Paramount Pictures calling me in Maine and telling me that my story was going to be made into a movie. One morning I awoke to write my daily pages on the fourth floor of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Hollywood. Champaign in the fridge. Warren Beatty down the hallway. A red convertible for me to drive while I was in LA. The whole deal. Paramount hired the Australian writer, David Williamson to write the script. He had won an Academy Award by then for his script, " The Year Of Living Dangerously" and his script taught me the rudiments of screenwriting."
That first book and the opening chapters of a novel he was writing earned him passage into the Iowa Writers Workshop where every major writer in the last seventy-five years has either studied or taught. He was awarded their most prestigious fellowship there which gave him two solid years just to write.
"Iowa City was where Colleen and I first lived together after eloping in England in the winter of 1984. It was where our first baby was born. Erin Colleen. A blue eyed, black haired little Eskimo. It was the place where I stood on the front steps of the Iowa Memorial Union late one fine autumn afternoon toward dusk. The stars were up. I was there with Colin Harrison and Robert Girardi and we all took the pledge to spend our lives writing books that deprived the world of some of its loneliness and its indifference no matter what this might cost us."
Iowa led to two novels published in New York in the next two years, a James A. Michener fellowship, and a one year college teaching position at Colby College where Snyder had earn his undergraduate degree. Their second baby, a daughter named Nell, was born in Waterville, Maine the same winter that Snyder turned down a tenure track college teaching job at the University of Maine in Orono and moved his family to Ireland.
"Colleen's dream was to stay home with the kids while they were little, and my dream was to write, so we had to find a cheap place to live in the world on the advance I received from my publisher. Ireland at the time was in a deep recession. We went to the village of Rathdrum in County Wicklow. Our cottage in the country cost us $85 a month. I had to hitch hike five miles to do the laundry. We had nothing but each other. Which was all we needed. We lived on love and air in a country of heartbreaking beauty, among the most generous people who were all as poor as we were. A company of beggars is how I think of it now. And a writer is always a beggar: begging God or the stars to give him the story, then begging for the sentences to tell the story, then begging for the strength to write the story well enough, then begging for someone to publish the story with a certain measure of dignity and to get paid for it so you can support your family, then begging for people to read the story.
"After Ireland we went to a falling down house up the coast of Maine where I wrote my third novel. Soon we had four children all under the age of seven and during that time I began awaking at 4 am to write each day in bed beside Colleen and the babies, a habit I would continue for the rest of my writing life, long after these babies had grown up and left home.
"Writing from darkness into the light is how I've always thought of it. And during those first days and nights I discovered that I was living in the midst of a miracle really, for if you get to live in this world and have the privilege of little children wanting nothing more than to be close to you, you have no right to ever ask for anything more, ever again. Or, to put it a different way, if you have been loved by a girl who pours her desire upon you and then places one stunning baby after another in your arms, then you have shared the sacred time, and been granted immortality."
For the rest of his life, Snyder would use those years with babies as the inspiration for his work. "It was all so beautiful and even looking back across many years, those days have retained their fitness and importance in my memory. We were all so happy. We didn't even own a bed. Nothing we couldn't fit into our bomb station wagon with no seatbelts that worked. No health insurance. Hand me down clothes for the kids. But God, we were rich. And so close as a family. Here's something- my daughters were twelve, fourteen and sixteen when I finally bought them their first nice dresses. I had just learned that one of my screenplays was going to be made into a movie. So I took the girls to Hollywood and we celebrated. But I was 50 years old by then and had never been able to buy them nice dresses. I tell young writers that this might be the way it is for them as well. But the other side is that I had spent every day of my children's lives with them. At home with them. One summer I played 84 rounds of golf with my fourteen year old son, Jack. That's more than many sons and fathers play together in a lifetime. And as a poor writer I got to spend fourteen summers on the ocean in Maine with my children. Afternoons on the beach. Sailing a small boat every summer day. I believe that God watches out for writers who want their books to make the world better in some way and who never contribute to the violence and the ignorance of the culture. I believe this."
In 1988 Snyder was beginning a college teaching career at Colgate University when he was fired. "It was a wonderful job with wonderful students and I thought we would stay forever. No more worrying about money! But I got fired after a year (the politics at that school were brutal). Suddenly there we were with no money again. I couldn't buy the kids winter coats. I finally found a job working on a construction site on the ocean in Maine. I was forty-three by then. We built a mansion that winter. A 12,000 square foot house with ten bathrooms. Ten hour days working outside all winter. Some mornings it was 26 below zero when we started.
"Someone told me I should write about this. I didn't know why, but I did. It became a cover story for Harper's Magazine and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. And I got a book contract from Little Brown and wrote a book about that year. THE CLIFF WALK. Then Disney bought it for a movie. Disney and the best producer in Hollywood, Kathleen Kennedy who had done "Schindler's list." They signed Curtis Hansen to direct. He had just won his Academy Award for "LA Confidential."
This project enabled Snyder to take his family back to Ireland.
"There we were in Ireland again. ONy this time with four little children instead of two babies. I had the privilege of watching them walk with their mother through the little village outside Sligo where Colleen's grandmother had said goodbye to her parents the morning her journey to Elis Island began in 1919."
The Cliff Walk landed Snyder representation by the literary agent, Lynn Nesbit in New York, and by Brian Siberell at CAA in Los Angeles.
And soon to a remarkable discovery.
"My father and I had been estranged for many years. After watched me on Oprah's stage, he asked me to come see him in the small town in Pennsylvania where he was living. I drove down from Maine and during this visit he told me that the only mother I had ever known was step-mother and that my real mother had been married to him for just nine months in 1949 and had died just sixteen days after giving birth to me and my twin brother. She was nineteen years old.
"When I learned of this, my father was suffering from a brain tumor and his health was failing. I set out to research his love story with my mother so that I might give it back to him at the end of his time. I wrote a book about this called, OF TIME & MEMORY, that was published by Alfred A. Knopf. It was the first book Oprah chose to make into a book video.
"At the time I was researching the book I found my mother's physician. He was seventy-six years old but when I went to see him he refused to speak with me and he denied that my mother had ever been his patient.
"Three years after Of Time & Memory was published, he finally agreed to talk with me. He began by saying: "I read your book. You got it wrong."
"He had refused to speak with me because even after half a century, the circumstances surrounding my mother's death were still painful for him. In the fourth month of her pregnancy when he had determined that her baby was poisoning her kidneys he told her that he might have to take her baby's life in order to save her own. She left his office, telling him that she would never return. But by the sixth month she was very sick and she went back to let him save her life. His plan was to simply induce labor; the premature baby would not survive. But when he was examining her with his stethoscope before the procedure he heard two hearts beating inside her, not one. And when he told her, she would not go through with his plan. He could only send her home to carry her babies to full term, and wait to die.
"First she made him promise that he would never tell anyone that her twin babies had caused her death. She did not want my brother and me to go through our lives knowing we had ended her life. And she did not want her husband to know that she had chosen her unborn babies over him because she feared that if he knew this, he might not be able to be a good father to us.
"And so, I am a writer who had the chance to write the one story he was put on this earth to tell and I got it wrong."
In 2003 Snyder began working on a screenplay adaptation of his book that would tell the whole truth about his mother's love story with his father, and the secret she took to her grave.
In the summer of 2014 Snyder and his wife traveled to England where he met with Joely Richardson Redgrave, who, along with Gary Sinise, starred in his 2003 movie, "Fallen Angel."
"Joely agreed to play a leading role with her daughter, Daisy Bevan, who is just beginning her acting career and will play my young mother. This will be Daisy's first starring role, and the first movie she and her mother are in together. I believe we are going to make a movie that will change the world in a small way. The condition that killed my mother in the summer of 1950-- pre-eclampsia-- is still the leading cause of death among pregnant women and their babies worldwide. It is the last remaining mystery of childbirth."
In October of 2013 Snyder gave a talk at the University of Chicago's Lying In hospital where the world's leading research has been done these past fifty years by Dr. Marshall Lindheimer. Outside the hospital there is a blank plaque waiting to inscribe the name of whoever finally discovers the cause and cure for the condition.
"I have faith that my mother's movie which I am calling "THE WAY LOVE IS," will raise awareness of preeclampsia and lead to a cure.
"The last scene in my screenplay took place in September of 1950, in the month after my mother's death. My poor father was so deranged by the loss that he spent that autumn sleeping on her grave at the Lutheran Cemetery beneath his army blanket. Finally the pastor of his church persuaded him to take my brother and me to the Lutheran Orphanage. He drove us there, wrapped in blankets on the front seat of his 1949 Chevy, his honeymoon car. When he got out of the car in the orphanage courtyard, some children rushed towards him, hoping of course that he was here to adopt one of them. Then they saw the babies and they turned away. When my father saw this, he got back in the car and drove us home to begin his life with us as our father."
Not long after OF TIME & MEMORY was published by Knopf, Snyder was up early making his coffee before he began writing when he heard on the radio news of a bombing in Northern Ireland in the town of Omagh.
"Someone had chosen that day to set off the bomb in the center of the town because that was the particular morning when mothers took their children into town to buy their back to school uniform. Thirty-nine people slaughtered. Most of them mothers and children. Hundreds wounded. We never think about the wounded. There are now fifteen people in that town who had both feet blown off in the blast. And there are more than twenty people who were so horribly disfigured that they wear masks over their faces. If you were to go to Omagh tomorrow you would see the people in their wax masks.
"I heard that radio news and I knew that I had to go there right away. Because I wanted to bear witness to what had happened. Because I had been there with my own little children and we had been so happy.
Twenty hours later I was walking through the wreckage of the town. So much suffering. It was unreal. The children all wear little patches on the school blazers; these patches were scatter all over the streets like leaves.
I ended up attending thirteen funerals, walking in the long processions to the grave yards. Then I stayed in a hotel for a month and began writing a novel about it. NIGHT CROSSING. I fictionalized everything except the name of one woman who was killed in the bombing. She was holding the hand of her three year old daughter, and two weeks from delivering the twin girls in her belly. All of them were killed. I went to her funeral. They buried the four of them together. The only square grave I had ever seen. (Bono sings about this bombing in U-2 Slane Castle concert). Someday I am going to go back to find out how the husband ever survived such a loss. If he survived at all."
After that book, Snyder published three more novels. In an extensive interview about these novels he said: "None of these turned out to be as good as I had hoped when I began them. That's part of what makes writing so difficult and at times unbearable when you set out to write books that enlighten rather than entertain. But we can only do our best. And I have come to believe now that if we can say two or three things in a book or movie that matter to us as writers, and that bring meaning to people by reminding them of the things that are important in this life, then we haven't failed."
Snyder says that his greatest satisfaction as a writer has come from working with new, young writers. "I tell them that our job of course is to write books and stories and poems that go on to remind people that they aren't alone. I mean, years from now, many years, someone you never knew will read something you wrote and see that you felt the same way. The same loneliness. The same confusion. Your work has dignity because you struggled with the important feelings and questions."
In 2002 Snyder's novel, FALLEN ANGEL, was sold to Hallmark Hall of Fame, and he was hired to write the screenplay adaptation. The movie by the same title ran as the Hallmark Hall Of Fame Christmas movie in 2003 and again in 2004 and it airs each year on the Hallmark Channel.
In 2012 Snyder published his ninth book, a novel called THE WINTER TRAVELERS which is a contemporary version of the classic Frank Capra movie, "It's A Wonderful Life."
The novel's plot revolves around a love story between a fallen Wall Street prince and a young, beggar woman on the streets of Manhattan. Its point of origin is a small black and white photograph of his mother and father taken in 1949.
"I wanted to write about how we never really know the love story that carried us into this world. Those people in the old black and white photographs remain strangers to us all our lives. Which may be why we are often strangers to ourselves. You've seen the same photographs: The young husbands in their crew cuts. The wives in their lipstick and nylon stockings. Their arms around each other, and their eyes bright with passion as if they almost believed that they would go on forever that way, so that at the end of their lives they would not have to wish that they had loved each other better when they had the chance."
In the winter of 2008 Snyder left his home in Maine and went to St. Andrews, Scotland to work as a caddie at the Kingsbarns Golf Course, to prepare to meet a promise he had made to his son when the boy was five years old. "We had just begun hitting golf balls around a field and Jack was something of a natural though I was quite lousy. I told him that if he ever got good enough to play on a professional tour I would be his caddie. Really all I wanted was to walk beside him for as long as possible, wherever the game of golf might take us. And when he made the Division I golf team at The University of Toledo as a freshman, I headed to Scotland to work as a caddie and to learn all I could from the best caddies in the world. I spent one season at Kingsbarns and then another working for the Links Trust which gave me the chance to caddie at The Old Course. Then I caddied for my son on his first pro tour in Houston Texas, the Adams Tour, in 2012."
In 2013 Doubleday published his memoir about this journey in a book called, WALKING WITH JACK. His editor was Jason Kaufman. An excerpt from the book was published in the September 2013 issue of Golf Digest.
WALKING WITH JACK carries the following acknowledgement:
"In the curious geometry of life, it turns out that some of the best philosophers and psychologists in the world carry golf clubs for a living in Scotland. They are as tough and determined as sled dogs, and they are also generous teachers and spiritual advisors, raconteurs and even meteorologists when they are called to be." I thanked each of them by name and then ended with these words: "Of all the fine philosophers I worked with in Scotland, Stevie Morrow, who walked me through some early season jitters, delivered the best caddie line I ever heard. "Don," he said one sunlit morning as we made our way to the first tee of The Castle Course, "when I get stuck out there with a real wanker, I give him the bronze treatment instead of the gold, which means the same lousy reads but without the smile." I have a deal with Stevie. When I am old and facing the end, I am going to ask Colleen to take me back to St. Andrews for one last walk on The Old Course with some of the old caddies who were still young when I knew them. I will wear my black rain jacket with the Links Trust emblem over my heart and the word -- C A D D I E -- on my left sleeve. Stevie will help me out to the eleventh green, and then we'll turn and slowly make our way back toward the timeless embrace of the old grey town, and I will remember."
Snyder lives in Maine with Colleen where he is working to find the people who can make his mother's movie, "THE WAY LOVE IS." He is also at work on novel called, "THE TIN NOSE SHOP," which he believes will take him two years to complete. The novel opens with this prologue:
I am remembering a castle in the highlands of Scotland and one sun struck afternoon when I pushed a little girl on a homemade swing at the edge of a poppy field. She was three years old in the summer of 1969 when her mother brought her there from Australia to meet her father who was a soldier in the Vietnam War, conscripted in Sydney to serve with the 19th Prince Of Wales Light Horse Brigade. He was twenty-three years old. Since 1915 soldiers who had lost their faces in battle had made their way to the castle where Great Britain's most brilliant artists and sculptors were requisitioned to make masks for these men, matching the masks to photographs taken of them before they were disfigured, so that they might live on in the world with some measure of dignity. Across continents and centuries, from Flanders Fields and Normandy, Malaya, Egypt and Korea, and the bloody streets of Northern Ireland, these lost soldiers had come to the castle like silent mourners, hopeful that their repaired faces could give them back their lives that had been spared.
Like all the other disfigured soldiers, what the little girl's father dreaded most was returning home. We kept packing his suitcase and walking him through the hedge lined lanes to the train station, and then walking him back again and setting his things on his bedside table the way he liked them, until finally it was decided that his wife should be to summoned.
She arrived with the child by taxi one evening in the rain. Just hours before, the soldier had told me that he would see his wife, but he would not wear his mask. He insisted on that. I could only imagine the horror this would inflict on her. His face was completely gone. Just one hole for his reconstructed mouth, and two small holes fashioned for breathing where his nose had stood.
And he would not see his daughter. He was emphatic about this. He pleaded with me to stand in for him with the child, and so the next day I wore his mask and pretended to be him as I pushed the little girl on the swing. She kept kicking off her red puddle boots as she flew through the air, and laughing with delight when I chased after them. I looked up once and saw her father standing at a window watching us below the copper roofed. I was only nineteen years old, too young to know much of anything, but for the rest of my life I would remember seeing him there at the window each time I was reminded that our lives are defined by sorrow, and that all we ever really have in common are the ways we can be broken.
These soldiers who would not wear their masks almost never made it, and that evening, holding his wife to his chest, he shot her first and then himself beneath a blossoming cherry tree on a wooded hillside, in a suicide pact that left the child an orphan to be cared for by the benevolent staff of nurses and artists, and the larger than life overseer of the place, a Royal Air Force Major named Oliver Blackburn who called the castle, 'The Tin Nose Shop.'
Inside, on one of the pink granite walls in the great library with its curved book cases and its mahogany ladder that the little girl rode around the circumference of the room on bronze wheels like an amusement ride at a summer fair, were framed photographs of the soldiers who had come here, pictured in their masks. A gallery of ghosts, I suppose. Some of these soldiers from Vietnam and later from the Falklands war and then Bosnia, I came to know very well. There was the red haired son of a glove maker from London. The seventeen year old boy who arrived with a set of golf clubs. An infantry captain who had sung in the Queen's College Choir at Cambridge. I came of age among them, looking after the artists and staff, and doing carpentry and masonry work to keep the place up, and talking with the soldiers to try to draw them out of their secret terrors.
There was a girl there who I loved and who played the most crucial part in the restoration of these broken soldiers. Before each man made his way home he spent one night with her in her bed where she placed her touch upon him to try to prove to him that he was worthy of moving beautifully through the world again with a sweetheart or a wife, and that he had a right to be a husband and father and to prosper as we are all meant to. Really, she was only trying to persuade these young men that they still had value.
Her name was Elinor, and because this is her story as much as it is mine, I am writing it for her, and for you if you are in love or out of love or trying to stay in love with the person you have pledged yourself to, or if you have not yet discovered that the breathtaking nights of your love story are vanishing as you live them.
As I remember the time that is lost and gone now, and this girl who I loved and who never really belonged to me, I recall something she said to me about the past. I was washing her hair in a claw foot tub when she reached for my hand and said, "Oh, Sam, until we've had enough torn from our lives we don't really have a past."