Cameron Thomas Snyder
Interviewed by Angela Bell
You’re so successful at making “Houses of the Holy” feel rooted in place and time. What’s your real-life relationship to the setting? Did you grow up in Kansas?
I sort of grew up all over the place. I was born in San Antonio, moved around Texas, and then moved to Loveland, CO, where my father and mother eventually divorced when I was seven or eight. My mother then married our neighbor who drove a big rig for Walmart, and the job took him, took us, to a little town in Kansas called Eudora. From there, we moved two more times—first to the house along the highway, then off to Ottawa, KS, where I lived for six years. No matter where we lived, my older brother and I invariably visited our grandparents in Corpus Christi, TX, during the summer months. We never really fit the mold of “country kids,” and so Corpus was our refuge, a city where we felt comfortable in our own skin, where our grandparents would hand us thick wads of cash and drop us off at the mall. I think this is the life we thought we deserved. Therefore whenever I was back in Kansas I had this standoffish, almost pretentious air about me. Most of the kids I went to school with were into ranching and hunting and stock shows, none of which interested me in even the remotest of ways, and so I wrote them off as hicks or hillbillies or whatever and I became an outsider dressed in FUBU pants.
By the time high school rolled around, I’d maintained the outsider status and picked up Christianity somewhere along the way, meaning I didn’t drink or go to parties. For fun, I’d go out with my few devout skateboarder friends and we’d break into abandoned quarries and old ice cream factories, essentially making a lifestyle out of trespassing. I explored that town inside and out, always searching for new activities to distract myself from the very fact that I hated where I lived and that I’d become poor. In this way I got to know the setting very intimately.
“Prefabricated housing” carries such a weight of stigma, and it’s so easy to just let the reader bring their own associations to the page when you set a story in a trailer park. Early on, you devote a lot of time to the semantic particularities that distinguish different kinds of prefabricated housing, and you treat the details with such attention and care. Why was it important to you to get these subtleties right?
I think part of the problem was that we didn’t live in a trailer park. Had we ended up living in a community like that, I might have had an easier time accepting my living conditions since everyone around would have had a similar house. Maybe I would have even felt some solidarity. But we took our modular home to a residential street and attempted to integrate with those who lived in more or less traditional housing. This made me terribly self-conscious, like we’d only punctuated the fact that we lived in a modular home. From the street, everyone could plainly see that we were different, and I wanted nothing more than to melt away into anonymity as just another new kid on the block. Probably it’s from all the time I spent in Corpus that I developed the self-image issue, unwilling to admit that my now-single mother could no longer afford the bare necessities without governmental aid. I was a real prick about the whole thing, and that’s when I decided to deny my living situation via semantics. I knew that our house was not technically a “trailer,” it was a “modular home,” so, technically, I could not be “trailer trash.” When it came to writing the essay, it was important for me to tap into that semantic, analytical mindset in hopes of conveying the measures to which a kid will go as a means of convincing himself of his own superficial self-importance.
It seems like you (as the narrator) begin the essay with an initial belief in the power of these semantic distinctions to sway perception, particularly by reinforcing or disengaging stereotypes. They really occupy the story, not just in terms of his house, but in other ways too—news reports about Kyle Flack, job assignments at Dairy Queen. As the essay moves, this power becomes less and less certain. Can you talk a little bit about how you view these kind of semantic choices as working in your world today? When do you think they’re worthwhile?
When I first lived in the modular home, I wanted others to know that I didn’t live in a trailer and that I wasn’t poor, despite the obvious. But later, when I discovered that this air of poverty could be used as a tool to wrench out sympathy from others, from girls, the stereotypes seemed to work more in my favor than semantics. Terms like “modular home” and “lower class” are almost too specific to elicit any sort of pity, whereas “trailer” and “dirt fucking poor” are likely to trigger more of an emotional response. Sometimes it’s just more convenient to settle down in the nice, warm bed of a stereotype.
I think people cling to semantics when they feel desperate or fearful, like I did back in Ottawa. “We’re not divorced, we’re separated.” “My story didn’t get rejected, it got turned down.” “I didn’t get fired, I got laid off.” Like with anything else, we bend and skew words to better form to the contours of our own ideals and delusions. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. A psychiatrist may think differently.
One of the things I most admire about “Houses of the Holy” is its success in conveying my favorite emotional genre, which is funny-sad. How do you find the right balance of humor and weight in conveying painful material? What advice do you have for those of us who know how to be funny or sad in our writing but not both?
That is an incredibly difficult question to answer because I’m still learning how to find the balance between funny and sad myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out the formula, and I’m certainly no authority on the matter, but I can tell you about my approach.
Humor has always been my way of coping with pain, pretty much to a fault. Funny is easier for me to digest. I have a bad habit of laughing off the serious stuff. But it’s not so easy to get away with that in writing. People will call you out for being too self-flagellating, too bitter, too flippant. So for me, the key to funny-sad is the versatility of tone. By that I mean how important it is to locate a tone of voice that can navigate the rockiest, gloomiest back roads as well as the happy, hilarious valleys, something like all-terrain tone, as it were. If I’m too jocular about something serious, I sound like a sadist. If I’m too serious about something funny, I sound like a vapid cyborg devoid of self-awareness. For instance, the section about Kyle Flack—who murdered four people, including a baby he stuffed into a suitcase and then tossed into a creek—was extremely difficult to fit into a funny-sad essay. It’s kind of like the fragile knickknack of the essay, demanding to be held and treated with the utmost care. That story has haunted me for years and I wanted to write about it without seeming exploitative or heartless. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I finally realized that it’s okay to be serious about the delicate topics, which I’d always struggled with, scared to death of sentimentality. I’m learning that when the serious stuff is surrounded by funnier, more light-hearted sections, a unique juxtaposition is created, something like dark humor, maybe, which doesn’t make fun of the pain, but puts it in a different context, and suddenly we don’t feel sociopathic for laughing at someone else’s trauma. We’re laughing at what it is to be human ourselves.
My advice is to read, study, and even type out stories by the modern masters of the form—George Saunders, Miranda July, Sam Lipsyte. They have the formula for the funny-sad. Steal it from them.
What made you want to tell this story? What draws you to tell a particular narrative?
My girlfriend and I recently moved to rural New Mexico, about twenty-five miles north of Las Vegas, NM, where a solid seventy-five percent of the residential housing is prefabricated. When her family flew out for Christmas last year I drove them around Vegas in a big passenger van, giving them the grand tour. There’s a lot to see in that town, it has some serious grit. Her aunt, from Sacramento, kept pointing and saying, Wow, look at all those trailers. She was just being observant, but I felt the dormant, defensive juvenile beast stir inside of me. I wanted to say, Look, not all of those homes are trailers; some are modular, some are mobile. There’s a difference, okay? That’s when I realized I didn’t even really know the difference, not anymore. When they left, I did some research and got to writing. I wanted to explore the stigma from an insider’s perspective.
I’m more so drawn to particular ideas than I am to particular narratives. I never know where the narrative is going until I start writing. I think it was Scott Russell Sanders who said, and I’m paraphrasing here, an essay is like a river—the surface glimmers and reflects and dazzles, but beneath that, there is always a current, a direction. More often than not, my first few drafts are like sewage ponds under a night sky filled with Fourth of July fireworks—showy and stagnant. As I trudge through the muck of revision, I can typically find a direction, which leads to a particular narrative, but I never know what that will be when I start.
And, most importantly: tell me more about the pugs in your life.
Pugs were a problem. My first one, Pugsly, had some serious issues. I had a stupidly jealous golden retriever who bit him on the head when he was still a pup, and this enormous tumor-looking mass grew out the side of his head. I thought the bite to the head might have played a part in what seemed to be a learning disability, one that led him to run under my ex-stepfather’s moving truck for no apparent reason, a suicide mission. But when I received a second pug, Midget, who, having suffered no apparent head trauma, ended up performing a similar stunt on a passing Jeep, I realized it probably wasn’t only my two pugs who had issues, but pugs as a breed. I won’t get into my current stance on the continuous reproduction of dogs who clearly suffer from mental/physical defects, but let’s just say I will not be buying another pug, despite how badly I want to nuzzle one right now.