Super excited to have a chance to chat with Jim Snowden about his debut release Dismantle the Sun. I couldn’t wait to ask him about his book.
WHY IS YOUR BOOK SO AWESOME? I think this might be the first literary fiction I loved. What drew you to write such a difficult—and probably somewhat controversial—idea?
What a nice way to open the conversation.
To answer your question about what drew me to the material: on the most prosaic level, it was that I was starting the MFA program at the University of Washington back in 2001, and I needed to find a creative thesis idea in the first quarter of the first year to have any hope of finishing a draft before I graduated.
Fortunately, I was in Charles Johnson’s seminar, and Charles demanded we write 10 outlines of stories or novels–one for each week of the term. Five of them could be anything we wanted. Five had to respond to John Gardner’s writing prompts. Dismantle started life as one of those outlines–based on Gardner’s Aristotelian reversal prompt–and I came up with the story of a man who cheats on his dying wife only to discover later that the wife is going to live. I made him a teacher because that added an extra layer of taboo, and also because Mary K. Letourneau was all over the local TV news and the papers at the time.
Anyway, Charles commented that he loved the outline. I needed another story to complete my assignments for the term, so I wrote the first chapter. It had loads of first draft problems, and my classmates were assiduous in dissecting them. It was a tough sit for me, actually. When they were done, Charles asked me to read the outline for the work, and when I got to the part about the wife not dying, an “OOOOH” erupted from the room.
That’s when I told myself that if I kept writing and didn’t blow it, I’d have something special. A writer would be foolish to pass on any story whose mere outline causes readers to go “OOOOH.”
I enjoyed the multiple pop culture references scattered throughout the novel, but you kept coming back to Inherit the Wind, and for good reason. Was this a connection you’d intended to make, or did you realize as you were writing that Hal and Ruth’s relationship sort of mirrored it?
Well, there certainly are parallels–a skeptic in love with the daughter of a fire and brimstone preacher. I included it because it certainly would have been a part of Hal’s lexicon, especially because he and Jodie are big movie fans.
I have to confess though that I don’t know when I became conscious of the connection between Dismantle the Sun and Inherit the Wind. Much of that work was done a decade ago, and I don’t recall exactly when I decided to put in certain elements. It was probably something present in the first draft that I decided to expand on later because there was a chance for greater resonance. That’s usually the way it goes.
Speaking of Ruth, I found her to be one of the most interesting characters. She’s certainly mature for her age, but there are moments that belie the immaturity of a teenager. How did you strike that kind of balance with her character?
Ruth had to be many things in the novel. She had to be a convincingly impulsive teenager. She had to be convincing as the survivor of a horrific childhood trauma. And she had to be the sort of person likely to attract Hal’s interest, which meant she had to echo some of Jodie’s qualities–chiefly her self possession and intelligence.
I decided, after a revision that required cutting half the book, to foreground those qualities that made Ruth similar to Jodie to bait the hook for Hal, while I kept her drive to take risks with herself offstage for most of the novel’s first half. I also decided to leave it ambiguous why Ruth was engaging in risky behavior. Does she feel able to follow her impulses because she doesn’t know what the consequences could mean, or because she knows whatever consequences she faces can’t be worse than what she’s already endured? I found it exciting to play with that aspect of Ruth’s character.
There’s a line in the movie Damage that inspired a lot of Ruth’s development: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.”
How do you envision Hal and Jodie’s future?
My friend Larry asked me that question a couple of weeks ago, and I stammered a bit before I realized that I don’t know the answer. I never wrote it, and I feel no particular impulse to do so. (After all, if I thought it crucial to the work, I’d have not only written it, but also rewritten it a few dozen times.)
I will tell you that in the first draft of the novel, Hal was to kill himself. I abandoned that midway through the book because I could tell that the character didn’t have a suicide in him. (Besides, at the time, most of my characters came to grave ends, and I thought it was becoming a bit predictable.)
I don’t see Hal and Jodie coming to a good end. Jodie’s unlikely to live healthily or long, and Hal’s career is ruined. A likely end would find Hal a widower, stocking shelves at a Walmart somewhere, gaining weight, drinking heavily, and haunted by the past.
Still, right now they have each other, for whatever it’s worth and for however long it lasts. The same can be said for a lot of us.
So what do you think happens afterwards?
Nothing good… I’m not sure Hal & Jodie can really survive this.
What other projects do you have in the works?
My next novel, Summer of Long Knives, will be out in the fall. It’s a thriller about a police detective who has to catch a serial killer before he and his wife will be allowed to emigrate from Nazi Germany.
I’ve started outlining another novel, which will explore the lives to two nearly identical men navigating a single day in Richmond, VA. This should keep me occupied for a few years.
Thanks again for joining us, Jim. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work!
Dismantle the Sun is available at: