“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Laurel Snyder earned her master of fine arts in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2000. She is the author of two recently released children’s books—Inside the Slidy Diner, a picture book loosely based on the Hamburg Inn, and her debut novel Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains. Here, she shares her thoughts on writing, greasy spoons, and why Iowa City is magically delicious.
Little Village: Let’s start with Slidy Diner. It’s not your average picture book. Tell us about it.
Laurel Snyder: Slidy Diner is one of those books that may seem creepy to an adult, but it’s not to children. A little girl named Edie takes a friend on a tour of this eerie hole in the wall, where the floors slant and tables tilt and sticky buns roll onto the floor—only to be swept up by proprietress Ethelmae, who smells like rotten grill grease, and served again to customers. But it’s also a place of dark blue secrets, silver whispers and magic trapdoors. You wonder: are these things real or are they figments of Edie’s imagination? The counter, the vibe, the crunchiness—I pictured the Hamburg when I wrote it. I worked at the Hamburg during my time at the Workshop, and, frankly, that place kept me sane. I think the macabre nature of Slidy Diner represents my emotional state at the time. I was lost and trying to figure things out. Slidy Diner actually started out as a prose poem, but morphed into a picture book. I thought about how children inhabit different corners—they hide under tables and in closets and adults don’t often go down there and see what that world looks like. I always wanted to be one of those kids like Meg Panther (Hamburg owner Dave Panther’s daughter) who grew up behind the counter. I think some adults may be puzzled by the darkness of the book, but things that scare us don’t often scare children and that’s the beauty of children. I couldn’t have asked for a better illustrator. Jaime Zollars really brings this book to life, just as I imagined it.
LV: And your novel?
LS: This is a story about two friends, Wynston and Lucy, on an adventure. They live in the Bewilderness and they are best friends. Wynston is a prince and Lucy is a milkmaid. Wynston’s father doesn’t think Lucy will make a suitable wife for his son, so he orders Wynston to spend less time with Lucy and more time finding a “real” princess. Lucy is hurt and seeks comfort in learning the truth about her long-lost mother. Her quest leads her and her friends to the Mountains, where she encounters quirky happenings. Overall, without giving too much away about the story, I think there are a couple lessons to take away from this book. One, it’s not a good idea to keep secrets because the emotional weight of that can cause problems. Also, there are rules in life and you have to find a way to live within those rules. However, there’s often wiggle room. In other words, rules are not made to be broken. But they can sometimes be bent.
LV:When did you first decide to become a writer?
LS: In elementary school, my best friend Susan and I hatched a spectacular plan. We did all sorts of things together and one of the very best things was playing make-believe. Sometimes, we would jot down our poems and stories—stories about fairies and unicorns—then we’d bind them together like books. We decided we should sell these books and make loads of money. We would be rich and famous and buy a big mansion in Baltimore (where I grew up) and adopt all the orphans and stray cats and dogs in the entire city. So, that’s where it all started for me. I started writing poetry more seriously in high school and eventually found my way to the Workshop. Susan’s a doctor now. Neither one of us owns a mansion, but we both feel very lucky.
LV:What is it about the Hamburg that speaks to you?
LS: When I was a student here, the Hamburg functioned as a family for me. Back then, we were a diverse family of misfits: the writers, the musicians, artists on the fringes. Older, younger, in school and out, we all had the Hamburg in common. We worked together, we partied together. We hung at the Mill, the Sanctuary, and Gabe’s. I also spent a lot of time in the children’s section of the library. I gained ambition and skill from the Workshop; at the Hamburg, I received comfort. It was a safe place to go where I found acceptance in being the slacker-girl who wanted to sit around, pretend to know more than she really did, read poetry, drink whiskey, and talk to smart people. I got exactly what I needed from both sides. It’s funny, people everywhere know about the Hamburg. I’ve even spotted someone wearing one of those funky T-shirts in Italy. If my husband and I ever move back to Iowa City, which I’d love to do, it would be wonderful to take a morning shift and keep a foot in that world.
LV: What do you love about Iowa City?
LS: It’s such a special oasis with its own little Galapagos habitat. It’s a college town in the middle of a cornfield, several hours from the nearest city, yet brimming with culture. When I think about Iowa City, my heart feels full. I think about Dave Moore, the Foxhead, George’s, Sandy Dyas, Pieta Brown. I think about UAY and all the good work going on there. All these facets come together to function in ways that make Iowa City a community that feeds the soul. It truly is one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
LV:What are you working on now?
LS: I’m writing a book set in Iowa City called Any Which Wall. The fictional name of the town is Quiet Falls, where four children ride their bicycles out to Hickory Heights Park on the edge of town. They don’t have a babysitter and pretty much go where they want and do what they want. These kids are “unplugged,” they don’t have cell phones or Google. They represent a time when parents let their children roam free. They find a wall in the middle of a cornfield and this wall can become any wall in the world, if they wish. Through this wall, they can visit pirates, Camelot, Coney Island. I also have another book in the works, Penny Dreadful, a little girl from a big city who ends up in a small town full of very strange characters. I love stories that take place in settings not quite like ours.
LV: What else should we know about you?
LS: Well, above all else, I’m a mother. I have two boys, Mose and Lewis. I feel lucky to work from home and write in my pajamas. The best thing I try to do for my children is teach them not to live a life that is motivated by fear. I love black licorice.
You can read more about Laurel Snyder and her work at www.laurelsnyder.com