Bryan Snyder '95 Goes "Off The Map"
The former Haverford English major talks to Cat Lazaroff '89 about combining his passions for writing and outdoor adventures in a book series.
It was during a junior year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, that Bryan Snyder '95 caught the wilderness bug. After months of exploring the Highlands, visiting ancient ruins, and climbing mountains, Snyder returned to Haverford to cram in as many ecology classes as possible while still completing his English major. Since graduating, Snyder has combined his passions for writing and outdoor adventures through the three-book Off The Map series, culminating in this summer’s Falling Off The Map. Cat Lazaroff '89 caught up with Snyder as he braved the wilds of a Vermont craft fair.
Cat Lazaroff: I loved getting lost in the backcountry with you in Falling Off the Map! How did you get started writing outdoor adventure essays?
Bryan Snyder: Ever since I left Haverford, I’ve been working at outdoor science schools, teaching geology, astronomy, biology, and ecology to students outside of the classroom, so it’s pretty easy to bounce around. I’ve worked all over the country that way. And working during the school year gives me the summers to travel and have adventures. I was finally able to combine that passion with my English degree and start writing outdoor articles for Chenango County, New York’s Evening Sun newspaper. When the high school sports season ended, my articles took up the slack in the sports section.
CL: What’s more fun, the adventures, or writing about them afterward?
BS: Writing about the adventures afterward is definitely more difficult. You have to conjure words to describe the surreal and sublime, and the alchemy of combining syllables and arranging beats to create the right sensations in the reader’s minds… that can be quite a trick. The direct challenges of heat, cold, thorns, and muscle exhaustion are usually much less intimidating in comparison. Cliffs are the most treacherous things I face, so I’ve had to become good at landing of my feet. Through experience, and lucky, I’ve managed to survive the hazards of the wild and write about these things.
CL: You refer to mountains in this book variously as “mafia thugs,” “evil looking,” and “ghouls.” Do you have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the places where you trek?
BS: It’s mostly a love relationship. I hit the mountains to see the majestic views, but some mountains seem like characters, and they don’t always feel friendly. Some feel hostile to your presence, like you’re trespassing on sacred ground. It has to do with the twisting of the strata, the colors and shapes, I think.
CL: Did you always want to be a writer?
BS: I did, yes. I didn’t know what it was going to be for–I speculated it would be fantasy fiction. But it’s only after writing about the outdoors for so many years that I feel like I can get back to the fantasy fiction I was trying to do in high school. Now I have a lot of practice being descriptive and evocative in my writing, and I think that will be a huge help with the new series I’m planning. I love YA because you have a lot of freedom to pick at the moral dilemmas we face in our modern day. Hopefully it’s a way to have a real impact on the calibration of people’s moral compasses.
CL: Are you at all worries about making the transition from nonfiction to fiction writing?
BS: I’ve recently been writing short plays for a group called Fishbon in Santa Barbara, near where I live in the Santa Ynez Valley, and that’s been a path back into fiction writing. Fiction writing felt pretty excruciating back in high school, but I’ve found I can write these plays in a single night. The dialogue, cues, and story structure seem to come much more easily. I’m toying with the idea of writing my YA novels first as screenplays, almost like an action movie, then going back and converting the screenplay into prose form. That should hopefully trick my mind into overcoming the roadblocks I faced in writing fiction in the past.
CL: What will this change mean for your outdoor adventures?
BS: I definitely won’t stop going out into these landscapes–that’s almost unthinkable. Being in natural landscapes helps me feel more alive and connected to every other living thing on the planet. It reminds me of what it means to be human, of our role as a species, and how our actions have profound impacts on the world. I feel fortunate that I have a flexible career, and will still take parts of the summer off to go exploring. As long as there are mountains and people like me who are willing to do stupid things to get to the top of them, I’ll be out there. Travel writing gives you a push to get out to lesser-known areas, so you can be there to see a bear cub climbing a tree, or watch the sunset while you’re hanging from the side of a mountain. I wouldn’t be who I am today without having those experiences. Writing every week was a good habit to develop. I had to find a hike or a big adventure every week ,and write it up on deadline. That discipline will be really helpful as I switch to write fantasy fiction, but I’ll never really stop outdoor writing.
CL: So what’s your next adventure?
BS: At the end of September, I’m accompanying my girlfriend to a horse endurance race in the Bryce Canyon area of Utah. She’s a rider, but will spend much of her time massaging riders and horses while I explore the red rock sandstone regions around us. A great spot for inspiration if you’re writing about faerie cultures! After that, I’m really looking forward to exploring the worlds I have yet to put to paper.
Learn more about Snyder's books at offthemapbooks.com.
Cat Lazaroff is managing program director for Resource Media, a nonprofit communications group that helps foundations and other partners advance public health, conversation, and social justice issues She interviewed Dave Levitan ‘03 about his book Not a Scientist for the spring/summer 2017 issue of the magazine.