I first encountered Christine Sneed’s work in 2009, when I read her short story “Quality of Life,” about a twenty-something woman being coerced by her much older, wealthier lover to make choices she’s uncomfortable with, including moving across the country for a “better” job, in the “Best American Short Stories 2008.” The story was a part of Sneed’s collection, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” which won the AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. As a young twenty-something myself, I became enamored with “Quality of Life” and the rest of the collection, which showcases Sneed’s mastery of examining the sometimes conflicting facets of the human heart, and why we love who we love.
This month, Sneed, who teaches at DePaul University and Northwestern, is releasing her first novel, “Little Known Facts,” about an aging Hollywood heartthrob named Renn Ivins, whose fame is similar to that of—and in fact, he rubs fictional elbows with—Harrison Ford. The novel examines the effects of celebrity in Ivins’ relationships with his children, his ex-wives, current girlfriend and former employees. But the novel truly takes hold when the characters struggle to create and maintain relationships with other people, and learn to find themselves away from the shadow of another man’s power and fame.
The eleven chapters alternate between the perspectives of several characters. Sneed writes with authority and deftness from each, and isn’t afraid to play with form—the book includes a pretend interview between Ivins and a former employee, as well as the notes of his ex-wife Melinda’s tell-all memoir about their marriage. And though the chapters often feel distinctively segmented, they are connected by frequent and well-crafted collisions.
I recently had the privilege of discussing process, publishing and “writing what you know,” with Sneed via email.
Your first book “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry” is a collection of short stories that were published in various magazines and journals in a period of about a decade—a very traditional, although increasingly rare, way of publishing a book. Can you explain this period of your life?
The stories in “Portraits” were written over a period of about seven or eight years; I probably wrote eighty or more stories during this period. Ultimately, only seven of the ten were published in journals. I was very dogged about submitting though–as soon as a story would get a rejection, I sent it out somewhere else. Each story was usually at three or four different journals at a time. You have to be incredibly thick-skinned, pigheaded, convinced that what you’re doing matters. Before I moved on to teaching full-time, I would return home [from work] at night and sit down and write for a few hours three to five days a week. It helped that I didn’t have kids, don’t watch TV (though I do watch movies or go out to them fairly often), nor do I drink much, so a lot of things that end up sucking up time, I avoided. I was pretty maniacal—I still am. I want to write though; I really do. You have to want to do it, otherwise it’s much easier not to.
In your self-interview with “The Nervous Breakdown” in 2010, you claim that the stories you write aren’t based on you or people you know. Why, then, do you think so many of your characters are in relationships that span generation gaps?
“Portraits” is atypical, in some ways, of the short stories I often write—it’s only a small sample of my work, and I chose the stories in it because they’re thematically linked. I think, however, that many people, women particularly, are attracted to potential lovers older than they are, and I wanted to explore this–from both genders’ perspectives. Tangentially, I write about people I hope seem very real, but they aren’t based on anyone I know. I prefer to imagine what it would be like to be someone else, to experience things that I haven’t experienced, but that said, we all have the same set of emotions and this is what I focus on as I write. I want my characters’ motives, their actions and thoughts to come from a believable place, but what happens to them in my stories, this isn’t usually something that I’ve personally experienced. (There’s no sinister older man in my life who convinced/coerced me to move across the country to accept a job–thank God for that.)
I’ve read that you keep a journal?
I keep a journal because it helps me to better handle worries or hopes or occasions in my life that are sources of joy or frustration. I want to be able to remember them too, to understand what I’m preoccupied with by putting my circular thoughts on the page and looking them over like I might inspect a cut on my finger. As soon as I see the words, see what’s creating anxiety or suspense, it often becomes a little less affecting. It’s very inexpensive therapy, you could say. I also hope that this allows me to preserve some part of the heartbreaking ephemerality of life.
“LKF” started with me wondering what it would be like to be the adult son of a famous actor, one who was also famously handsome and smart. I was thinking of Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Harrison Ford. Will, the son of Renn Ivins, my novel’s famous man, was the first character I thought of. I wrote the first chapter more slowly than I usually write—in a couple of months, back in the fall of 2010, but the rest of the book was written from late March through July 2011. Writing a novel is much harder for me than writing a short story (I suppose that’s not surprising, considering how hard it is in general to write anything longer than a few paragraphs), though I’ve figured out that if I approach each chapter as I would a short story—one with its own more or less complete narrative arc—I enjoy novel-writing more and also feel more optimistic that maybe I’ve written something readable.
What advice do you give your students about being a writer?
You have to be able to accept the fact that it’s probably going to take you a while to write something others will be interested in reading too; it’s going to take even longer, in most cases, to publish your work with a reputable press. But if you love writing (and reading–that’s as important), you will stick with it–you will put yourself in a chair and write more days than not, even when others are trying to seduce you away from your desk. And they will. As one of my favorite people ever once said (my former teacher, the poet Roland Flint), “The work is all.” It truly is.
“Little Known Facts”
by Christine Sneed
Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $25
The book-release party for “Little Known Facts” will be held on Thursday, February 21, at 7:00pm at Women & Children First, 5233 North Clark.