Richard Snodgrass: Fusing Photography & Writing
I am happy to showcase insights from author and photographer Richard Snodgrass on my blog. Richard's memoir "Tunnels of Love," was recently featured in Pittsburgh Quarterly.
A resident of Pittsburgh, Richard’s first novel, THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE BACK YARD, was published by Viking Press. His short stories and essays have appeared in the New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, South Dakota Review, California Review, and elsewhere. His photographs are in private and museum collections across the country.
Regularly featured in TABLE Magazine for his series KITCHEN THINGS, Richard also published a book of photographs and prose on the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial, AN UNCOMMON FIELD. It is this combination of photography and writing that makes Richard's work uniquely appealing. Following are insights into Richard's current projects and the relationship between his written word and photographs. Enjoy!
What inspired you to write the memoir that appeared in Pittsburgh Quarterly – “Tunnels of Love”?
The story, “Tunnels of Love,” is part of book-length memoir of stories and photographs entitled The House with Round Windows. There’s also a companion volume, written later, entitled Brother Mine. Both manuscripts, as yet unpublished, have to do with my relationship to my older brother, the poet W. D. Snodgrass. My brother’s work had its foundations in a condemnation of his parents, for what he considered the mistakes they made in his upbringing. I bought into that condemnation for many years, until in the mid-1970s I went back to the family house to photograph it, and while doing so got to know and understand my parents’ side of things. My change of perspective caused an estrangement with my brother, and the two books trace that development: House, the discovery of another side to my brother’s aesthetics and philosophy; and Mine, coming to terms with my brother and my own way of life.
Do you always include your own photography in your stories?
No, it just sort of happens. My photography and my writing started out on parallel but separate courses; but in time, they’ve tended to merge because they both deal with the same thing: how people live. Lately, I’ve become increasingly interested in the relationship between written and visual imagery, and how the addition of images can work in counterpoint with a written narrative, both by illustration, and more importantly, as a source of metaphor to add depth or clues to additional meanings.
When did your interest in photography begin?
I was actually interested in photography first—when I was in high school, working in local commercial studios. I admit I started looking at the photography magazines of the day, US Camera, Popular Photography, primarily for the pictures of girls—this was the mid-1950s, remember, and I was a pimple-faced inquisitive teenage boy—but to my credit I eventually turned the page and discovered W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans. After high school I was going to study photography but at the last minute decided on a regular college education where I discovered James Joyce’s The Dubliners. I didn’t pick up a camera after that for over a decade.
What are your current projects?
I am currently putting the finishing touches to a project I started more than thirty-five years ago, a collection of interrelated novels and short stories about a fictitious Western Pennsylvania mill town called Furnass. (It’s pronounced Furnace: in 1803 or so the workman who was sent out to make a sign to direct drovers hauling iron ore and limestone to the local iron furnace couldn’t spell, and the misspelled name unfortunately stuck.) I’m also starting a follow-up to my book of photographs and text, Kitchen Things, this time about vintage toys.
Out of all of the stories you’ve written, which is your favorite?
My favorite story is probably from the series about Furnass, entitled “Anyway,” included in a collection of short stories entitled Holding On. In the story, we follow a guy as he gets ready to go to work at the mill, but it turns out he’s not going to work at all, he’s going to see a waitress he’s met at a local bar. His life is rather ordinary, there’s nothing wrong with his life or his marriage, in fact he and his wife have a good relationship, he even recognizes this as they’re having sex, “This is good. This is really good. This is as good as it gets.” And yet, despite all this, he’s going to go ahead and cheat with another woman—anyway. To me, it shows the quirks and fallibility of the human heart—Blaise Pascal’s observation, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Though I’d take it a little further: The heart has reasons of which the heart knows nothing.
Which of your characters do you relate to most?
All of them, I suppose, because they’re all parts of me, in the same way that all the characters of your dreams are parts of you in some guise or other. People who don’t know much about writing will tell you, “Write about what you know.” Well, you certainly don’t learn anything about yourself or the world that way. I think you should write about what you didn’t know you knew. It’s the discovery that makes for good writing, and good books. As Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
What authors have inspired you?
James Joyce, as I mentioned above; I sometimes think everything I’ve tried to do is to recreate Dubliners in my own situation and voice. Then there was Faulkner, Chekhov, Ken Kesey. For the past twenty years or so, most of my inspiration comes from British writers—Barry Unsworth, William Trevor, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan. Why, I don’t know, but my voice seems more like theirs, the way of constructing a novel and building character. An American editor told me once that I was most British writer writing in America today. It wasn’t necessarily a compliment—he said it in rejecting a manuscript. Sigh.
What is your favorite part of being a writer?
Many people want to be writers; very few want to write. That’s perfectly understandable, of course. Writing is impossibly solitary and difficult work, involving endless decisions; one has to derive some satisfaction—I won’t go so far as to say pleasure—in putting phrases together into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, pages into chapters, etc. I spend four to five hours a day listening to imaginary voices and conversations in my head; in another context, that would be a pretty good definition of some sort of mental illness. So there no favorite parts for me. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who claims that writing is fun or they enjoy it; from my own experience, and knowing a number of serious writers, writing involves, to paraphrase Hemingway, sitting down and opening a vein. To be a writer, or an artist of any sort, is a calling; a curse; a blessing; a vocation; a responsibility; a burden; a gift; a trial; a path; a joy. But it’s what I do; as my wife will tell you, when I’m not writing, I’m not me.
What marketing strategies do you find most helpful? Any resources you would recommend to other authors or aspiring authors?
I am the last person to ask about marketing strategies. I worked more than twenty years in public relations and marketing, and have rarely been able to apply any of my success in those fields to promoting my own work. My success through traditional publishing channels has been spotty at best—though I have mixed feelings about that because too often early publication would have prevented the discoveries I’ve made about the Furnass stories over the years. Now that the series is complete, I’m seriously considering self-publishing to have as much control as possible over the books and how they’re marketed.
To learn more about Richard Snodgrass, his writing and photography, please visit: