Writer has been writing for more than three decades Richard Snodgrass has fleshed out the world of his fictional town of Furnass, Pennsylvania. Over the course of eight Furnass books, Snodgrass has used the setting to explore topics such as the Vietnam War, 20th-century urban decay and development, and the regional history of Western Pennsylvania, where he grew up and currently lives. His latest release, A book of daystakes readers back to the French and Indian wars, creates an origin story for its invented community, and explores how stories and perspectives change over generations.
“One thing to be aware of if you live in the Pittsburgh area is the history of the place,” Snodgrass says. As a child, he was drawn to Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763 and several other clashes between British troops and Native American tribes of the time. Snodgrass especially liked stories about the Black Watch, a wild and ferocious Scottish regiment that was brought to Pennsylvania to quell the threats from the natives.
When talking about the Black Watch, Snodgrass has plenty of rich anecdotes at his fingertips, such as the image of Natives stunned by the sad, strange sounds of a bagpipe. (They decided the Black Watch had to be creatures from another planet!” Snodgrass says.) So it was only natural for him that his fictional city was founded as an outpost for these fascinating, kilt-wearing warriors. He had already started to refer to that idea in his collection of short stories To holdbut with A book of daysSnodgrass plunges readers straight into the perspective of Black Watch soldier Thomas Keating, who builds the novel around Keating’s diary.
Kirkus Reviews calling A book of days “an enchanting soldier’s tale, grippingly dramatic” due to its compelling first person story. Writing in the voice of an 18th-century Scotsman, Snodgrass explains how Keating comes to America and finds Elizabeth Cawley, a seductive but volatile character who has been taken in by the natives and learned their ways, leaving her lost between the worlds of the tribes and the settlers. Keating falls in love with Cawley as the two follow a treacherous path upstream, the portrait for which Snodgrass drew inspiration from Joseph Conrads Heart of darknessand especially Francis Ford Coppola’s modern film adaptation, Apocalypse Now†
Snodgrass says that writing to dawn was a truly magical experience, as Cawley’s shocking actions and choices began to surprise both his fictional narrator and himself. “I rushed to start writing every day to find out what she was going to do next,” Snodgrass says. “You know you’re up to something when your characters stand up and say, ‘No, I’m not doing that. I’m doing this.’ †
In addition to modern influences, Snodgrass Keating’s journal also infused the ideas of Scottish philosopher David Hume, who wondered how people could know something about reality outside of themselves and their own experiences. Keating refers directly to Hume in the novel, and Snodgrass used his analysis to build Keating’s inner dialogue as he considers the small part of the vast and dangerous New World he has come to:
I’m standing at a musket gate again. Look out for my rectangle on the world. My rectangle by the world. Hume says all we can know about the world is our impressions of it… And yet the problem… What exists outside the five walls of this log house? What’s out there? Who? I cannot know beyond this rectangle imposed on the world.
“How do we know the world is real? I was fascinated that, way back in Hume’s time, he was interested in dealing with… how we perceive the world,” Snodgrass says. To him, the 18th-century philosopher’s writings still feel relevant and modern, reminding Snodgrass of questions from more recent and psychedelic writers such as Carlos Castaneda (just one of the authors Snodgrass was fond of during his “hippie days” during his study at Berkeley and living in San Francisco).
Those more distant ideas also play a role in A book of days‘ intriguing, Russian doll-like structure. At the heart of it is Keating’s diary, which is then framed nearly 20 years later by a story in which a mysterious figure reads the diary to Cawley’s daughter, which is in turn framed by the story of two children in the early 1800s for whom the journal becomes the key to their first confusing experiences with sex and love.
Snodgrass says he has always been interested in counterpoint and fugue, and found them exciting story structures. So he loved weaving the different voices in and out for to dawn† “This is my best book as a work of art… It has so many gory layers!” says Snodgras. †[The characters] carry with them all their history and the history that has come before them. And it creates realities on top of realities on top of realities.”
Even a look at Snodgrass’s website shows his obvious commitment to making the reality of Furnass, Pennsylvania, feel whole: Using maps, articles, and historical references, Snodgrass has built a fictional town in which readers can get lost. the local scenery also speaks to his other talent as a skilled photographer with an eye for setting scenes and helping readers visualize Furnass even through the ages.
Apart from philosophical structures and detailed backgrounds, A book of days still delivers exciting fights, twists and suspense. Whether shooting photos, researching history, or contemplating the nature of reality, Snodgrass is always focused on delivering a great story. “I’ve realized in my old age that I’m primarily a storyteller,” Snodgrass says. “Story is just everything to me.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.