Books·How I Wrote It

Carrie Snyder: How I wrote Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder tells CBC Books about the serendipitous elements that led to Girl Runner.
Carrie Snyder is the author of Girl Runner (Nancy Forde, House of Anansi Press)

For Carrie Snyder, running is a way of life — one that inevitably spilled into her other way of life, writing. In her novel Girl Runner, a finalist for the 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, she tells the tale of Aganetha Smart, a  famed long-distance runner from the 1920s who is now a 104-year-old nursing home resident with a rich hidden story. 

In her own words, Snyder describes the serendipitous elements (and hard graft) that crystallized into the novel — from the rescue dogs with great hearing to the black-and-white photograph that literally hit home.

On the run

"When I became a runner, I really became a runner. I realized that I liked running long distances, and started competing: first in longer races, then a half marathon and then a marathon. And I started to think I would like to write a book about an endurance runner. 

"Running has certainly helped build my confidence as a writer. It's not artificial at all to set yourself a goal like finishing a race that you think you maybe can't complete, and then training and actually seeing your hard work pay off. There's something very, very rewarding in that experience.

"But I also found that running had become, for me, kind of a meditation. It helps me formulate ideas but in a strange way, I would say. I don't go out and start thinking about plot or character. Or I may go out thinking that I will think about it, and then discover that my mind completely empties out, which is kind of a meditative quality. My mind goes still, and then when I'm finished my run I'll have an amazing idea."

False start, fruitful start

"I wrote 30,000 words (about 100 pages) that became nothing. They were sadly the first draft of Girl Runner, I guess. I'd gone off in a direction that just wasn't going to become a book. And this happens when you're writing — you don't actually know that what you're doing is going to turn out to be the final product, but you have to write with a lot of hope and faith and excitement. Anyway, I'd written 30,000 words in the spring of 2012 and then just stalled. Because I have four kids and lots of other things going on in my life, my husband and I had carved out a whole week where I could just work on this project. I had thought that was the problem — I'm not getting any further because I need the time. But it didn't actually turn out to be about the time at all, and I remember that week just slowly becoming more frustrating as I realized, shoot, it's that I'm at the end of this idea and I don't know what to do next. 

"In the fall of 2012, after an inspiring talk from my publisher, Sarah MacLachlan at House of Anansi, I returned to that failed 30,000-word manuscript and I realized that there was something very powerful there. I had to scrap basically everything I had written and start from scratch, but I could see the pieces somehow. Somehow those five months away from it had allowed all the little disconnected parts to sort of fall into place quietly in my subconscious or my unconscious. And at that point, I just started writing — for real, this time." 

A writer's best friends

"Somebody asked me if I read my work aloud while I'm writing it, to hear the rhythm of the sentences, and at first I thought, no, I don't do that. Then I actually discovered that yes, I do that. And the reason I found that out is that we got dogs two years ago. I didn't really want to get dogs but the kids really, really wanted to get dogs. I know people don't generally get 'dogs,' plural, when their children want pets, but we have four kids, so we went all the way. They're little rescue dogs and we don't know that much about them, but they basically adopted my office as their own and seem to think that it is their office, so I have companionship all day long. Companionship that I didn't actually want, but it's kind of nice. So they're sleeping at my feet, and I noticed one day that they were hopping up and running around. And I was like, 'What is wrong with these dogs? Settle down!' And then I realized, oh — they're responding to me! I was reading my work out loud, I was reading out loud what I had just written to hear it, and I hadn't even been consciously aware that I had been doing it. I didn't even know that until the dogs came into my life."

Photographic evidence

"Girl Runner's main character, Aganetha Smart, was a (fictional) celebrated distance runner in the 1920s. When I was researching the novel, I was curious to know details like footwear, what were their clothes like, what was their hair like? Very basic physical details that can actually be kind of hard to find in history books. So I went to the library and, in the children's section, I found a book of mainly photographs of Canada in the 1920s. I brought it home so I could scrutinize the photographs and look for clues.

"I was just sitting in my office and I turned the page and there was a house that I recognized — that I didn't only recognize, it was a house that I had lived in! When I was 12, our family moved to a house in the country. A farmer was renting it out. He had bought the land mainly in order to farm, but there's a beautiful stone house on the property, built in 1874. And our family lived there for about five years, and we didn't really know very much about the family who had lived there before us, other than it had belonged to only one family. That house really became part of Girl Runner. It was like this connection that was made, a very personal connection obviously, but I realized that the house was going to be part of the story too. And I don't know that that connection would have been made if I hadn't opened up this random little book and seen a photograph of the house." 

Carrie Snyder's comments have been edited and condensed.