Rachel Louise Snyder writes about survival.
She's lived for years among genocide survivors in Cambodia and told their stories for global audiences.
She's survived a tough childhood and teenage drug abuse to become an international freelance writer and tenure-track professor published in The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Glamour and other well-known publications.
In the end, though, Snyder says she owes a great deal of her own survival to one man in Naperville who gave her a second chance 25 years ago.
And at the college where that man still works, Snyder will conduct one of the first readings from "What We've Lost is Nothing," her second book, but first novel, which deals with themes of fate and survival in an Oak Park neighborhood rattled by a string of burglaries.
She'll appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, at North Central College, where she credits Vice President of Institutional Advancement Rick Spencer with letting her into the school in 1988 despite only two years of high school education with a passing grade in only one half-credit class.
"The book is about everything else I write about: survival, the tenacity that we as humans share," said Snyder, 44. "Everything I write is about how we survive the (stuff) the world throws at us, and the fact that we do survive is the important take-away."
Snyder's childhood in the Pittsburgh suburb of Coraopolis threw her for a loop at least twice -- first when her mother died and then two years later, at 11, when she and her brother were suddenly moved to the Western suburbs of Chicago so her dad could marry a woman they barely knew. She found out about the marriage and the move by eavesdropping on her aunt's phone call and said she remembers running out of her aunt's home crying.
"I did talk to my father that night, but he seemed truly confused as to why I was upset," Snyder said.
It was August 1979, and within two weeks Snyder and her father and brother were living with the new woman and her two preteen children in Woodridge and then Lisle. With the abrupt move came changes in lifestyle as Snyder's father "went off the deep end" in his Christian beliefs and became a "rabid evangelical."
"In Illinois, suddenly we weren't allowed to listen to rock, watch TV," she said. "I rebelled in small ways. I was in fifth grade, and I started smoking cigarettes, got kicked off the pep squad."
While attending sixth through eighth grades at a small private Christian school run by her aunt and uncle in Downers Grove, Snyder befriended some troubled teens at an alternative school on the building's second floor.
"They introduced me to drugs and drinking and the world of heavy metal music," she said.
At 13 she tried cocaine and acid, even before making it inside Naperville North High School, where her interest in dance team was shut down by the level of competition at the large school.
She rebelled further and was expelled her sophomore year -- about the same time her stepmother lined up suitcases for her, her brother and her two stepsiblings and kicked them all out of the house, she said.
Seeking a chance
Too young to sign a lease, Snyder lived out of her car for about nine months. Some nights, her dad would rent her a cheap motel room on Ogden Avenue. Other times, she would sleep on couches of co-workers at Casa Lupita, a restaurant on Naper Boulevard where the Ginger & Garlic Restaurant now stands, she said.
Eventually she could sign for a studio apartment in Aurora, but she continued to work low-paying jobs. After three years, Snyder knew something had to give.
Her rebellion and disinterest in school weren't fueled by a lack of goals; from age 8 or 9 she always wanted to be a writer. But to write professionally, she would need more education than the half-credit typing course she had passed at Naperville North.
Friends and family members persuaded her to talk to someone at North Central College.
"It was small enough that maybe I could get someone there to listen to me," she said.
Rick Spencer listened.
He was director of admissions at the private college where he had been working for about five years. He had built enough credibility that college officials trusted his judgment when he admitted Snyder without a GED or even a high-school transcript.
What it came down to, he said, was he liked Snyder and her passion as she explained her "horrible high school record" and tough life.
"I could tell she was this bright bundle of energy and edginess," Spencer said. "I just thought she was somebody we should take a chance on."
Spencer was lenient in bending admission standards for Snyder but blunt in setting expectations.
She graduated four years later in 1992 with a degree in English and history and a minor in art, then got a master's in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston.
"You hope college has this kind of effect on a student who is in very difficult circumstances and whose life is improved in such a drastic way," said Judith Brodhead, associate professor of English and coordinator of cultural events at North Central. "She's such a success story."
Writing at last
Since her second chance and her North Central graduation, Snyder has profiled the Dalai Lama, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and "This American Life" host Ira Glass. She's told radio stories for "This American Life" and NPR's "All things Considered," and written nonfiction pieces during travels to places like Indonesia and Thailand, and an award-winning book on the international textile trade.
In between those travels, she worked for several years as an apartment manager in Oak Park, where she lived rent-free in exchange for building community in a program designed to increase diversity near Oak Park's border with the west side of Chicago.
That role inspired the novel that soon will bring Snyder to Naperville, "What We've Lost is Nothing." One character works in what Snyder refers to as the Diversity Assurance Program, which comes into question when burglars strike eight homes on a quiet street three blocks west of Chicago.
While characters' lives, families and even identities are shaken by the burglaries, commentary on the pros and cons of Diversity Assurance comes mostly in the form of blogs and listservs intended to function like a chorus in a Greek tragedy.
"You can't sacrifice story for the sake of personal politics, especially when it comes to issues of race and diversity," Snyder said. "For me, I think the diversity assurance programs are incredible. But they are controversial."
As places from Snyder's past, Naperville and Downers Grove make brief appearances in "What We've Lost is Nothing." Naperville first is mentioned as the place one character's dog is watched while the burglaries take place. Another character's sister lives in Downers Grove, and Snyder pokes fun at the town's downbeat name, wondering through her narrator why residents don't choose a more appealing moniker like "Uppers Grove" or "Marginally Happy Grove."
Reading from "What We've Lost is Nothing" at North Central in January should offer an opportunity to give thanks again to those who helped her not only survive, but succeed, said Snyder, now an assistant professor in the creative writing program at American University in Washington.
The visit also will allow Snyder to meet a student who received a scholarship at her request. When she spoke on campus in May, she asked her payment be given to a struggling student from a difficult family situation similar to the one she faced.
"It's very cool to see someone give back and that's what she's done," Spencer said. "She's a great example of someone who is passionate and wouldn't let somebody tell her no."