Everything is complicated. Especially for the homeowners who are forced to finally acknowledge each other because of a block-wide burglary spree on a fictional cul-de-sac called Ilios Lane in Rachel Louise Snyder’s first novel What We’ve Lost Is Nothing.
“All the characters are flawed,” said Snyder, now a former Oak Parker, over the phone. Her voice youthful sounding, down-to-earth, laughing lightly occasionally after a response.
Even the most likeable of the bunch, Arthur—an elderly man who suffers from partial blindness (ironically, he can only make out blurry shapes and silhouettes in near darkness) –has his fair share of flaws.
One of the lead characters Susan McPherson, a diligent escort at the Oak Park Housing Center – yes, the novel is set in Oak Park — is “a prototype of a certain kind of activist you’d find in Oak Park,” Snyder said.
One of those activists is Ann Maxwell, once a resident manager in a building Snyder lived in on Austin Boulevard her first year out of college. That was more than 20 years ago.
“I think there are elements of Ann in Susan. The best parts of her; in a psychological way.”
After graduating from North Central College in Naperville in 1992 Snyder went in search of an apartment that was close to the city. She found her way to an apartment on the border of Oak Park and Chicago with the help of a Housing Center escort named Jean Carberry.
The title escort is one with which the fictional Mrs. McPherson expresses some grievances. The job of the escort is to facilitate diversity and integration by showing apartments in East Oak Park to white singles, couples, and young families. People of color are urged west and north in Oak Park.
Snyder and Maxwell became friends. “Soul sisters” in fact. They would later travel together—to Central America, Vietnam and Cambodia—looking into humanitarian stories.
Snyder lived on the border of Oak Park and Austin for one year before going to graduate school at Emerson in Boston. She returned in 1995 after receiving a master’s degree. She soon took a position as a resident manager of an apartment building and became responsible for fostering a sense of community among the building’s tenants.
She was a resident manager for six years. An activist in her own right for diversity, inclusion and equality, she even wrote a column for a brief period for Wednesday Journal about apartment life. The comment section on the Journal’s OakPark.com website makes an appearance in her novel where fictional characters discuss racial issues and the burglaries on Ilios Lane.
“I wouldn’t say I was attuned [to social issues] as an undergrad,” Snyder said. “I was, however, attuned that one could be redeemed. I was aware of that through my own story. My survivor story.”
Snyder moved from Pittsburgh to Illinois at 11-years-old with her Dad. Her mother had died before then and her father had remarried. She lived in a few towns in the western suburbs—Downers Grove, Woodridge and Lisle—before moving to Naperville where she attended Naperville North High School.
Her stay at Naperville North lasted only a short while before she dropped out. She would later have a desire to go to college.
“I knew I would have to explain the squalor of my life,” Snyder said. North Central College was the only school that would accept her as a student without a high school diploma.
“An admissions counselor there saved my life.”
One summer during college Snyder travelled out of the country for the first time. A Semester at Sea the school called it. Those times spent seeing the world outside of her own became the chapters in her life leading to now, a discovery of the world-at-large.
All the characters in What We Have Lost Is Nothing in one way or another possess a piece of Snyder or, “particles that come from me,” as she put it.
None of the characters are wholly based on any one person.
“I don’t want to be at a party and have people think I’m taking notes on everything they say or do,” Snyder said.
But just how there is a bit of Ann Maxwell in Susan, Snyder said the naiveté of Mary Elizabeth McPherson, teenage daughter to Susan and Michael McPherson and the character through which questions of life and reality are most often expressed, is based on her.
“I knew nothing about the world-at-large.”
That’s another complexity addressed within Snyder’s novel. The truth you know and the truth you create.
“A police chief took me around in 2006. We basically went casing places. He pointed out fences and alarm signs and said, ‘the safest thing you can do is put children’s [toys] in front,” Snyder said. “Crime then was lower than it had been in 20 years, but he was frustrated by people’s post 9/11 xenophobia and fear.”
Originally the setting of the novel was in a fictional place, but Snyder said it dawned on her at some point that Oak Park was the perfect place; a place that was always discussing race and diversity; a place where one could address the question of what happens when people are thrust together because of tragedy.
While Snyder happened upon a location for her tale, the time period in which the story is told, 2005, was an intentional choice. A time after 9/11.
Snyder returned to the United States about five years ago after living in Cambodia for six years investigating war crime tribunals and writing her first book, “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Parts in the Borderless World of Global Trade.”
She is now a creative writing professor at American University in Washington, D.C. in the Master of Fine Arts program, as well as a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered, The New Yorker, the New Republic and The New York Times Magazine.
Snyder along with Rob Breymaier, of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, will be at the Oak Park Public Library on Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. to discuss What We’ve Lost Is Nothing and conduct a Q & A session. The release date for the novel is Jan. 21, 2014.