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Rachel Louise Snyder sets debut novel in Oak Park

Rachel Louise Snyder book signings for “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing”

7 p.m. January 28

North Central College, Madden Theater, 171 E. Chicago, Naperville

(630) 963-2665;

7 p.m. January 29

Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake, Oak Park

(708) 383-8200;

7 p.m. January 31

Read Between the Lynes, 129 Van Buren, Woodstock

As a successful journalist who has reported from around the world, narrative non-fiction has always been Rachel Louise Snyder’s calling card. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn she has an MFA in fiction from Emerson College where high caliber writers Tim O’Brien and Andre Dubus III mentored her.

“Yes, I had no journalism training,” Snyder admits, with a laugh. “But I think fiction and journalism can tell the same story in different ways. Fiction opens up moral conversations that are uncomfortable in real life and journalism has the power to get at the bigger story.”

Snyder, the author of “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade,” recently stepped to the other side of the tracks with the debut of her first novel “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” which chronicles the 24-hours following a mass burglary in a group of homes on a quiet street in Oak Park, Ill. Class prejudice and racism blossom and painful divisions develop between neighbors as accounts and observations of what happened emerge.

It was hearing about a mass robbery in Atlanta that sparked the novel’s main premise; Snyder relocated the story to the western suburb that abuts Chicago: “The idea became much more interesting when I moved it there. It opened up the potential for interesting background conversations.”

For years, Snyder had wanted to write about the Diversity Assurance Program in Oak Park, which was created in 1984 to help deter segregation and maintain integration throughout the village. “But I kept thinking non-fiction,” she said. “It percolated for years.”

Snyder, who grew up in Naperville and attended North Central College, worked for Diversity Assurance as a resident manager in the mid-‘90s. Snyder’s apartment building was just off Austin Blvd., the street that divides Chicago’s troubled West Side neighborhoods from Oak Park (the street and homes depicted in the novel are near Austin). She cleaned and showed apartments but says the job was really about “creating community among renters.”

“I learned all kinds of things about race and class, about integration and discrimination, about economic opportunity and privilege,” Snyder, 45, says. “What Oak Park was doing stayed with me. Here was a community trying to make a difference.”

Snyder, who now lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, also has quite a story to tell about her turmoil-filled teenage years. She dropped out of high school, was kicked out of her home and worked odd jobs until, after a few years and headed nowhere, she approached North Central’s dean of admissions Rick Spencer who turned her life around by agreeing to accept her as a student. Snyder, who had kept journals since she was a child, is currently working on a memoir about that time.

“I don’t look back on what I went through personally but I look back on the second chances that people gave me,” Snyder says. “That to me seems more remarkable, to find that there are people out there in the world who will take a risk on you. In some ways, I’m grateful for all the turmoil as I learned very early on that you have to be an active participant in your own life.”

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