Fuelled by her passion for running, Carrie Snyder uncovers a history of forgotten women athletes in her debut novel
When Carrie Snyder was writing her second short-fiction collection, The Juliet Stories, she began asking herself the common question: “What am I going to do next?” She knew the answer had to be compelling enough to stick with for the long haul, and began thinking about becoming a competitive athlete.
Snyder was already into yoga, and, from there, decided she wanted to compete in a triathlon. Speaking about one of her first hot yoga classes, she says, laughing, “My initial thought was, ‘I want to be an Olympic triathlete.’ I mean, that’s the kind of high you’re on.”
Snyder learned how to swim in preparation for the triathlon (which she completed nine months later), but it was the running she really took to. As a teenager, she ran track and cross-country at her small Mennonite high school in Kitchener, Ontario, but had no concept of how to actually prepare for a race. By November 2011, The Juliet Stories was finished and so was Snyder’s first marathon. She had fallen completely in love with the sport and found inspiration for her next project.
“I really wanted to write about running, and how awesome it is,” says Snyder. “I started to look into the history of women in running, and realized it’s really recent. Running was not something that was commonly done.”
Speaking from her cozy home office in Waterloo, Ontario, Snyder enthusiastically details stories of women’s participation in the sport. Up until the late 1960s, female runners discouraged from marathoning for their “safety” concealed their gender by entering races using only their initials. Upon realizing the deception, organizers tried to pull the female runners out and not let them cross the finish line. These stories compelled Snyder to look even deeper into the history.
She pulled old copies of the Toronto Daily Star from her local public library, where she discovered the inspiring writing of trailblazer Alexandrine Gibb, whom Snyder refers to as “a driving force for Canadian women in sport.” A former athlete and journalist, Gibb wrote a daily column titled “No Man’s Land of Sport,” and served as team manager for the 1928 Canadian women’s Olympic track team, the first games in which female runners were eligible to compete. Gibb eventually became a character in Snyder’s debut novel, Girl Runner, out in September with House of Anansi Press.
There were a number of false starts writing the book. Snyder abandoned her first idea about a housewife runner. It wasn’t until she came across the story of the Canadian women’s track team – dubbed the “Matchless Six” for their strong performances during qualifying heats – that the narrative really started to unfold.
“It just takes one little seed of an idea. And there are all these little seeds along the way,” Snyder says. “But you have to be patient and waiting, and then burn through it when you get the ideas going.”
Snyder was fascinated by the rare boon in women’s sport that the 1920s offered: women working at factories would play on company-sponsored teams (softball and hockey, for example), and people would come to watch. Snyder used these historical anecdotes to shape the world of Girl Runner, and as she became more invested in her own running, her passion fed the writing.
“I would think I know a little bit about women’s history. I’m definitely a feminist, and I took some women’s history in university, but I’d literally never heard of these women. They are totally forgotten,” she says.
Girl Runner is a plot-driven narrative of one of those forgotten women, fictional 104-year-old Aganetha “Aggie” Smart. Now wheelchair-bound, alone and abandoned in a nursing home, Aggie asks, “Who will write my obituary?” now that everyone who knew her is gone. The ambitious and uncompromising Aggie reflects on her rich and storied life: her childhood in rural Ontario, her work at the Rosebud Confectionary factory, the friendships she forged, her brief fame as a 1920s Olympic track star and Canadian darling, and her failures and triumphs along the way.
It is a feminist book, yet written in an accessible way for those who may not reflect on the complex issues facing women in sport. The novel also touches on a variety of subjects beyond athletics, including abortion and employment equality, and features the kind of positive female relationships rarely seen in mainstream literature.
“I had some goals, and one of them was to write an entertaining book,” says Snyder. “I know I tend to skew more literary, so I wanted to challenge myself to do something a little bit different.… A page-turner is definitely what I was going for.”
Snyder is known primarily for her short stories, with two celebrated collections under her belt. The Juliet Stories, shortlisted for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award, was billed as a “novel in short stories,” so making the progression to Girl Runner was a natural step. It wasn’t Snyder’s first attempt at a novel, but it was the first time she felt confident she could do it justice.
“In part I was drawn to short stories … because my time was really short that I could spend working,” she says. “A novel is a frightening thing to write.”
Snyder is candid about the difficulty of balancing her writing life with the day-to-day realities of being a mother, confessing she doesn’t think she could have written Girl Runner if her four kids weren’t all in school. Even then, she views the intensity of writing a novel-length work as being in conflict with family life.
“When I’m really working on a project, you can’t get me out of my office. I mean, it’s problematic. I just vanish, and I’m useless, and I’m grumpy,” she says. “I’m no good to anybody except the book. It makes it hard for me to get into something, because I know the sacrifice it’s going to be to everybody else.”
When the Girl Runner manuscript landed on the desk of Anansi senior editor Janice Zawerbny (who had only recently made the jump from Thomas Allen Publishers), she was immediately hooked.
“I started reading it in my office and didn’t stop until I was done. It was one of those fantastic moments you have as a reader when you feel that compulsive need to just keep reading right until the very end,” she says. “It was such a beautiful story. I thought Carrie’s writing was exquisite. Coupled with her skilful storytelling, it was one of the fastest and easiest acquisition decisions I’ve ever made.”
When she picked up world rights (excluding the U.S.), Girl Runner became Zawerbny’s first acquisition with Anansi. The book was a hit at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, with deals to Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and soon after to Italy, Spain, and Sweden. To date, the novel has sold to publishers in nine territories, including Harper-Collins in the U.S. and Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K.
Snyder has yet to undertake a new project, but she has a clear understanding of the themes she likes to focus on in everything she writes. “I always seem to feature somebody who is kind of an outsider, who doesn’t really fit in, and how they’re trying to fit in, or how they’re not fitting in and don’t care,” she says. “I think that will ultimately be every character I explore: someone outside the boundaries of whatever that norm is.”
Ultimately, Girl Runner is a beautiful, thoughtful homage to those forgotten women who stepped outside the boundaries of what was allotted to them, and a testament to the struggles and sacrifices that paved the way for the female athletes who followed.
“I feel like it’s important to tell these kinds of stories because we have such short memories,” Snyder says. “We take so much for granted.” For those of us who care about the culture of women in sport, we are grateful to Snyder for the reminder.