The Opportunity to Understand What’s Different: Q&A with Christine Sneed

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Over the course of a relatively short but extremely productive literary career, Christine Sneed has already achieved a substantial, and enviable, body of work. Her first story collection, 2009’s Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, was awarded the AWP Grace Paley Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize.

Both for its attention to detail, and its close, caring, but unsentimental attention to the complicated lives of women (and men), Portraits is in Paley’s spirit at the same time as it honors the tradition of what O’Connor called “the lonely voice’’ that characterizes the under-respected story form.

Sneed, who is the faculty director of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing Program at Northwestern, followed that success with an ambitious novel in 2013, Little Known Facts, about the hidden costs, and familial complications, of Hollywood fame. In a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote, “Christine Sneed has written a novel just for us: Little Known Facts is just juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward.”

Nothing daunted, Sneed next spread her wings further with Paris, He Said, a novel about a struggling artist who moves to Europe at the urging of an older gallery owner who sets her up in his apartment. Robin Black’s notice for the Times said,With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when one’s deepest wishes come true.’’

In her newest book, the just-published The Virginity of Famous Men (320 pages; Bloomsbury), she returns to her favored form of the short story, with deepening psychological explorations and a commitment to sympathetic, knowing understanding of the spaces between us—how we punish each other, and often ourselves, because of these missed connections.

Sneed took time to talk with us via email about the new collection, and her career:

ZYZZYVA: In a sense, The Virginity of Famous Men seems like a coda to Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Apart from the fact that they both have great titles, what similarities—or differences—do you see in the two works?

Christine Sneed: I suppose most writers would have to say this, but I’m most interested in relationships—whether they’re between spouses, siblings, parents and children, friends. The tensions that arise in everyday life have always been a source of inspiration, and I suppose that even with the stories that are a little more out there (with on-the-verge characters who count a ghost as a close friend, or another who is applying for a job in a manner that probably won’t get her too many offers), I’m most interested in how people connect with each other, or else the opposite—how we alienate each other. That dominant theme is the same here as it was in Portraits.

Z: The new collection feels like a fuller exploration of the psyche, with perhaps a less direct connection to sexual themes than Portraits. Do you agree? How have you changed as a writer in the intervening years?

CS: I’d say that I’ve been looking outward more and more in recent years, and trying to understand my responses to some of the stories in the news, especially those related to violence toward women or the concept of females as some exotic other, along with the frequent portrayal of women as witless and hysterical. Old stereotypes die hard—it’s not as if men are open books or are more prone to behaving rationally than women are. In any case, I initially started writing in order to try to figure out my feelings about the world and its contradictions and about relationships, romantic ones in particular. I’m still trying to do that, but the backdrop to some of my newer stories is a little larger than in my earlier ones.

Fiction offers us readers and writers the opportunity to try to understand people who are different from us, and it’s easy to assume that when someone commits a crime or tells a lie that he or she is motivated by an objectionable impulse and that we wouldn’t behave the way this person did (or in some other similarly suspect way) if we were in his or her shoes. Judging is easy to do, and I look at my own tendency to judge and try to rein it in, as well as explore this impulse through fiction.

Z: Since Portraits, you’ve taken on two ambitious novels, Little Known Facts and Paris, He Said. Are there different muscles you use for long-form fiction? Do you “storyboard’’ your plots or go where the characters lead you?

CS: I don’t storyboard my plots, but I do jot down a few notes in a notebook as I progress through a novel draft. Generally, however, I try to trust where the characters will take me, as I do in short stories—it’s rare that I write down plot notes when working on a shorter piece.

The sheer act of endurance that a novel requires is much harder for me to maintain than it is for a short story, but I’m dogged and keep reminding myself that one sentence at a time—that’s how everything gets written, whether it’s 20 pages or 300.

Z: You’re based in the Midwest, outside Chicago, but have explored themes of film fame, particularly in Little Known Facts, but also in Portraits. What speaks to you about this subject? It feels like the Bitch Goddess of success is something you know how to ironize, but also sympathetically explore. It’s easy to make fun of celebrities, and celebrity culture—the default position of academia, and most “enlightened’’ cocktail party chatter. But it doesn’t feel like that’s what you’re up to. What makes you so empathetic with the challenges that confront people in such special positions?

VoFMCoverCS: I’ve long been interested in how fame, wealth, beauty, and the attention from others—sincere or sycophantic or calculated—that comes with these qualities affect character. If everyone around you, aside from a few intimates, is telling you how brilliant and gorgeous you are all the time, how can you fail to become self-absorbed, if not also utterly egomaniacal? But then when the famous do something personally or professionally disastrous, so many supposed fans, predictably, circle for the attack. I always wonder why this process keeps repeating itself. Don’t we know by now that our movie and rock stars and politicians are human and therefore also vulnerable (maybe more vulnerable than the non-famous) to their most self-destructive urges? This whole scenario denotes a deeply interesting duality: we’re enormously intrigued and infatuated with the famous, but conversely, it’s all but irresistible to start throwing stones without a thought when some kind of personal train wreck occurs—the DUI or drug arrest or adultery or consorting-with-a-transvestite-prostitute arrest. Why is everyone so surprised and outraged?

Most famous people did not begin life as the children of famous parents, so the fact that the same emotional and personal stories keep repeating themselves in the rarefied sphere of Hollywood (or in the highest echelons of political power, e.g. the Kennedys) is a compelling topic to me as a writer.

I know a few famous people, and they’d be willing to admit, perhaps, that they struggle with the chasm between who they truly are, and who, publicly, they’re expected to be. Beneath all the attempts to appease fans, to be beautiful and dazzling and at the top of your mythical game, I think there has to be a strong impulse to flee the footlights. The famous, on some level, must be very, very tired.

Z: You’ve said that the short story form is your favorite genre, despite the commercial challenges. In the new book, many of the pieces seem like photographs or black-and-white documentaries. I’m thinking of “Five Rooms,’’ “Older Sister” and maybe “Clear Conscience.’’ Is that how you see them? What is it about the form that you find formally and creatively freeing?

CS: I definitely see “Older Sister” as a black-and-white photograph or film. It’s a moody, dark story, and maybe my favorite in the collection. I wrote it several years ago, before acquaintance rape was discussed as openly as it has been recently. As a longtime college professor, I see my students coming into the classroom day after day, and some of them look as if they are changing, and not necessarily in ways they are happy about. The other stories in this collection I see more in color, though maybe not the one ghost story, “Roger Weber Would Like To Stay.”

And ironically, the fact that a short story needs to be short frees me to go off on narrative trajectories that I might not feel I could pull off in a novel, though both forms allow for happy discoveries and risks. I don’t get flop sweat as much while writing a short story as I do with a novel; i.e., worrying that I can’t pull it off, especially if a choice made early on in the manuscript turns out to be a blind alley; at that point of gloomy, please-don’t-let-this-be-happening discovery, you have to go back and rewrite a lot of pages. That’s the point where it might seem easiest to give up and start over with something new.

Z: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously (or infamously) said that the very rich are different from you and me. You write, in “The First Wife,’’ which deals with some of the same characters from Little Known Facts: “The famous do resemble the infamous, but they are not the same species, not quite. The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics—refinements or corporeal variations—that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.’’ What do you think is going on here? Is this some kind of Jungian archetype, the hero of a thousand names—but vaporous identity—who we are taking on because of our own untapped psychological needs?

CS: People have said that lacking a royal family in America, we’ve made celebrities into our royalty, and I think there’s probably some truth to this. They’re the people many of us project our desires onto, and I was thinking about this as I wrote those opening lines to “The First Wife.”

As I mentioned above, too, we often expect famous people’s actions to be beyond reproach but of course there are times when they’re decidedly not. It’s as if we believe these celebrities should be the embodiment of our best selves, but that’s of course impossible and also, hardly fair. That said, the rich and famous do have many privileges that the rest of the population do not, and so their abuse of these privileges should be examined, though not with the pettiness and meanness that it usually is. Again, that Biblical allusion—let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Z: “Five Rooms,’’ in particular, the piece about the blind man with the doomed love affair and the teenage girl who helps take care of him, has a Raymond Carver feel to me, maybe just because of his (very different) story “Cathedral.” Was he an influence at all? If not, who are the short story masters whom you admire, or seek to pattern yourself after?

CS: I’ve read some of Carver’s collections and love the story “Cathedral,” but he’s not a writer who readily comes to mind as one of my primary influences; the short story writers I keep returning to are William Trevor, Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Matthew Klam, Charles Baxter, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Mavis Gallant, Mary Gaitskill, and John Updike, too.

Z: “Words That Once Shocked Us’’ seems to show the tension, the difficulties of friendship and inevitable separation between the narrator and the woman she’s trying to prevent from having a possibly adulterous assignation. Again, it sounds a bit Carver-esque (though I know he may not be your preferred literary model), especially in the conclusion she draws after a difficult night with the woman and her husband:

 “Don’t take this the wrong way,’’ she says, “but you shouldn’t take your unhappiness out on other people. I know your husband cheated on you and he’s an asshole, but I’m not like him and Ben’s not like you.’

 I look at her and say nothing. Of course he’s not, I could say, but despite what you think, you are like my husband. He had excuses, too…There are always excuses. We will never suffer a shortage.’’

I’m hearing a bit of Fitzgerald here, too, the part of Nick Carraway that wants no part of the “moral holiday’’ embodied by Tom and Daisy. Is this part of what you’re saying here?

CS: Yes, it is. Most of us, myself included, find excuses for the things we do that we don’t want broadcasted to our friends and family. But here’s the flipside—who wants to hang around with someone who always behaves perfectly? I certainly don’t! And also, you have to have flawed characters in order to have a story.

Z: The portrait of Michael’s ex-wife and her bitter blog in “Clear Conscience’’ is hilarious, and timely: “Doesn’t she have other people to hate?’’ his friend Jon, who had been his best man, once asked. “What about Donald Trump? Or Pol Pot?’’ But apart from the errant texts, and deleted emails between Sasha and her brother-in-law, the abortive flirtation speaks to the omnipresent sexual tension of struggling marriages. It’s telling that Michael finally elects to not respond to her, instead posting a “comment’’ on his wife’s blog, trashing her and her vacuous new boyfriend.

How do you screen out the ever-impinging demands of social media—not to mention grading student’s work and the other obligations of keeping a literary career going—and find the time to write? Do you just unplug? Listen to music? What helps get you in the frame of mind to capture, and sustain, the creative moment?

 CS: It’s very unromantic, my process. I sit down at my desk just about every day and make myself write something close to a thousand words, occasionally more. I don’t listen to music anymore, though I used to. I stopped after reading an interview with another of my literary idols, Scott Spencer. In this interview, he said that he doesn’t listen to music, either; he finds it distracting to have the sounds of someone else’s genius in his head (a paraphrase, probably inexact). I also live in a raucous, noisy part of Evanston, very close to the northern border of Chicago. My partner Adam and I are across the street from both an emergency room and an elementary school (What was I thinking when I bought this place? Nothing intelligent, obviously…) Increasingly, I’ve found that I need relative quiet to put words down on the page.

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