A conversation with Sharelle Byars Moranville
The Snows brings together four generations of one family. Talk a little about your inspiration for telling a generational story. Are you writing from personal experience?
The original idea for The Snows stems from a story in my husband’s family. In 1931, when the Depression was just beginning, a man sold his barbershop and home in Jefferson, Iowa, and set off for Colorado with the vague plan of opening a grocery store. He took with him his pregnant wife and three teenage children. During the long drive West, his sixteen-year-old son slipped off by himself and began to walk back home to Iowa -- a resolve which eventually turned the whole family homeward.
This story has always stirred my imagination. It started me thinking about the sixteen year old boy, what his life would have been like, what would have compelled him to start walking across Colorado. As I imagined this boy who would become Jim in Book 1, I gave him a girlfriend, Julia, and a little sister, Cathy. The Snow saga grew from these three young people.
I know from personal experience that bad things happen in life -- we make poor decisions; we have bad luck; things veer out of our control. We think happiness is gone forever, that nothing can ever be right again. But the leaves come back on the trees in the springtime. And that’s what The Snows is about.
A very specific personal experience is in Book 3, Jill’s story. I was a student at Kent State in 1970 when four students were shot dead by National Guard troops during a Vietnam war protest. I wasn’t on campus at the time of the shootings, but we lived on Main Street and watched rioting, demonstrations and protests from our apartment windows. The Saturday prior to the shootings on Monday, the National Guard formed ranks in front of our apartment. For days after the shootings, under martial law, we were awakened at night by helicopter search lights falling across our bed.
Discuss the structure of the novel and any challenges you faced in keeping the voices and sections distinct.
Structurally, The Snows is divided into four books: Jim’s story, 1931; Cathy’s story, 1942; Jill’s story, 1969; and Mona’s story, 2006. Each of the books is a complete in itself with a beginning, middle and end. However, as a gathering of four stories, the novel climaxes with Cathy’s decision at the end of book 2.
Jim’s voice was easy to make distinct from the three girls, of course. With Cathy I focused on a certain innocence and immaturity that seemed the logical result of her lonely childhood except for the attention of her big brother, Jim. Jill’s voice was the easiest because of the times. In 1969, sixteen year olds took pride in speaking a language radically different from their elders -- a language meant to shock and alienate, to reflect the changes wrenching America. And Mona comes almost forty years after Jill, so again, the voice of a teenager was far different from that of her teenage counterculture mother.
Is there one character that you feel particularly connected to in the story? Who would that be and why?
Mary Suzanne most closely matches my personal witnessing of any of the events in the book because she’s an assistant profession at Kent State at the same time I was a doctoral student. But Jim is really the thread on which the whole Snow saga is strung, and he’s the person I feel most personally connected to. He’s modeled closely on my husband who I imagine being much like Jim at sixteen and much like Jim at ninety.
In many ways, this novel is about family, and the ties that bring us together and also push us apart. It’s also about connections and home. Do you agree? If so, why?
Family causes every conflict in the novel, and family resolves every conflict in the novel. In Book 1, Jim is forced by his family to make a journey west; in Book 2, Cathy is forced by her family to make a journey to Chicago; in Book 3, Jill is banished to Ohio; and in Book 4, Mona is forced by her mother to return to the family’s home in Jefferson, Iowa. The journeys out and the journeys home show the push and pull of family that’s part of growing up.
The novel is set in four different decades, ranging from 1931, to 1942, to 1969 and 2006. Are you especially drawn to or intrigued by one of these time periods?
Of the four periods, 1969 intrigues me most. By the end of the decade, I could scarcely believe the way things had been ten years before. During the 60s, I witnessed the free speech movement in Berkeley, Vietnam war protests, civil rights demonstrations and feminism. In 1969 alone, Charles Manson inspired murders in California, people walked on the moon, and I got married -- debating in a way I would have found unthinkable ten years earlier, whether or not to take my husband’s name.
Each section is narrated by a character who is sixteen years old. Can you talk about the significance of this age and how it connects the characters beyond their familial roots?
Sixteen is like springtime: full of promise and pain. Jim, Cathy, Jill, and Mona all deal with the same issues: loving their families, separating from their families, testing their powers in the bigger world outside the family.