Cheryl Snell is the author of ten books of fiction and poetry, and has published over four hundred poems, stories, and book reviews online and in print. A multiple Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee, Snell’s work was selected by Dorianne Laux for a recent Sundress Best of the Net Anthology, and along with her sister, she won the Lopside Press competition for Prisoner’s Dilemma, poetry and art inspired by game theory. Together, they own the micro press Scattered Light, and keep a blog of the same name.
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When Alice marries Ramesh, she is plunged into a battle of wills with her mother-in-law. Namesake of a god, Amma reigns over Alice’s household until a family secret is revealed that costs the old woman everything. Now it is up to Alice to heal the rift, as Shiva’s Arms evolves into an exploration on cultural identity, the power of reconciliation, and the meaning of home.
When did you know you wanted to write?
I grew up in a household where we wrote birthday poems and stories to amuse one another. There was music, there was painting. Our father read aloud to us. Setting down words just to see them play was a natural outcropping of the general household exuberance. I was equally attracted to music, however, and eventually entered a conservatory to become a classical pianist. The urge to write in a more disciplined way overtook me when I married my Indian husband, who presented me with a new culture to parse. Writing was an effective means to do that.
What is it about writing that calls you back to the page or screen to tell stories?
It’s one way to explore whatever’s happening in my life, to find out what I really think about something. Sometimes I write to give my own experience a different ending. The reconciliation of Alice and her Indian mother-in-law in my novel Shiva’s Arms embodies that kind of wishful thinking. Other times, I simply can’t let a character go. I need to put her in a new situation to become more fully herself, as I did with Nela from Shiva’s Arms, who came into her own in my second novel Rescuing Ranu.
In most writer’s journey, there comes the time to submit work, face rejection, revel in acceptance. What has your journey been like thus far? Talk to us about that.
Although I had been writing for a long time, I came to publishing late, after a long recovery from brain surgery. Poetry had become my personal rehab, helped me re-learn how to choose the right word in the right context. Online workshops were my classroom and community, and the writers there encouraged me to start submitting to the small magazines. I did, juggling poetry with fiction, and by my mid-fifties I had six books, all published by traditional small presses. I began to want to experience publishing from the other side as well, so I brought out a few of my sister’s and my art and writing collaborations under our own imprint, Scattered Light. There are pros and cons for both the traditional and indie modes of publishing, but the point is to keep moving, putting work out there.
What writers have inspired you, and why?
Alice Munro for her wisdom, Tolstoy for how he weaves the social fabric of a time and place into personal drama. The poets Levertov, Merwin, Rich, Emily Dickinson, and Tomaz Salamun. Novelists Kundera, Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, Italo Calvino, Arundhati Roy. I respond to anything that ignites the imagination with respect to ideas.
What three books have been the most beneficial to you as a writer, and why?
Even after all this time, I keep coming back to the exercises in Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. I like Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life for its kill-your-darlings toughness on revision, and John Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction for its scope. Its kinship with Tolstoy is a bonus.
If there were one author you could sit down and spend an hour with talking about writing, who would it be…and why?
Flannery O’Connor. I admire her contradictions, the way she flirted with disgust in her grotesques, her fanciful love of peacocks — and I’d really like to know how she managed to write so steadily with Damocle’s sword over her head. Lupus is such a vicious condition.
Your artistic talents do not stop at novel writing. You are an accomplished poet who tackles topics most poets do not, such as scientific theory in your work MULTIVERSE, and, according to your blog, you play “a mean classical piano.” Where do you think this artistic streak in you comes from, and what other artistic talents dwell within you?
I imagine that artistic streak was inherited. Mother painted, and Dad was both literary and musical. He was a pathologist, and I got my taste for science from him. That was reinforced by my husband, who is a mathematical engineer. Nature and Nurture – together they rock.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your works deal with self-exploration, cultural identity, and connections with others that often activate, move, change the first two. What is it about these topics that keep you finding new ways to develop them in your works?
One critic said that my true subject is the conflation of the mortal and immortal, and I suppose the exploration of Hindu beliefs in my novels reinforces that – the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Perhaps my impulse toward connection in my fiction is a primal wish to stave off death. You can’t get much more universal than that, and what’s universal is inexhaustible in a core subject. Look at what Faulkner did with race, for example.
How are you using social media to promote yourself and your writing?
Facebook seems to be the most efficient means of promotion right now. I have an author page, a page for each of my novels, and a page for our Scattered Light library. I also have a blog for my novel Shiva’s Arms with sub-pages for my other books, and keep a blog I share with my sister (also called Scattered Light). Posts are fed into the Networked Blogs on Facebook, as well as Good Reads, She Writes, Linkedin and a few Ning sites. I keep up with Red Room and Scribd. I give my poems another whirl by setting them to my sister’s art or other images in my YouTube channel. I have podcasts at Podomatic and free downloads of some of my books at Issuu. I tweet my author blog posts, and even have a separate Twitter account for one of my characters, Amma from Shiva’s Arms, who obligingly tweeted the novel’s chapter content in Indian proverbs.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m just finishing a collection of poems narrating my sister’s new Fusion Series, drawings that merge abstract and figurative elements in a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Language adds another layer, and since I kept close to her graphic meanings, the effect is quite nuanced. If I do say so myself.