By Naomi Huffman
Last winter, I interviewed Christine Sneed about her then just-released “Little Known Facts,” a novel about an aging Hollywood heartthrob named Renn Ivins, and the effects of his celebrity on his relationships with his children, ex-wife and his much younger girlfriend. It was one of my favorite books of the year, and other critics seem to agree: Booklist named it among the Top Ten First Novels of 2013, and in addition to profiling the novel, Kirkus Reviews included it on their Book Gift Ideas for Avid Readers list.
In October, Sneed, who teaches creative writing at Northwestern and co-hosts the Sunday Salon reading series, was awarded Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award. We caught up around Thanksgiving in her workspace in her Evanston condo to talk about her writing process, journaling, and her forthcoming novel, “Paris Gare St. Lazare.”
This is where you work?
It is. And, actually, I just got this desk in July. It’s one of those desks…[she presses something beneath the desk and it begins to raise]
A standing desk!
When I write, I actually sit. But if I’m just answering email, or putting notes on electronic papers, I’ll stand. Recently, there’s been so much discussion in the media about people with sedentary jobs having a greater incidence of heart attacks, so I thought I might as well give it a shot to see if I like it, and I do.
I also like to have plants. I like green. There’s also a lot of light on this side of the condo with the eastern exposure. Now that we have these very short days, we get most of the daylight over here. It gets gloomy on the other side, so I prefer to work here.
What about the arrangement of your desk?
I didn’t want to be facing the window, and I didn’t want to block the window with the desk. I think I like to have a sense that there’s no distractions, except for the few things that I’ve hung on the wall here. I tend to focus very intently on the screen or page of my notebook.
What do you have there, hung above your desk?
These are from a Zen calendar from my father. They’re sayings that I really like. And this is actually an epigraph that I’m putting at the beginning of my novel. This is actually a postcard from Jonathan Franzen. We’ve exchanged a couple of letters here and there, or at least I write a regular letter and he’ll send a postcard. He must get so much mail, but I’m sure he answers most of it, too. And that’s a postcard from New York. And that’s actually a photo I took in Strasbourg, when I was there a few years ago. It was Mother’s Day that weekend. I [took it] right outside a florist’s, and you can’t really see it very well, but I think it captures the hopefulness I felt as a student there.
And you have two computers?
Yes. I’m finishing a novel on this one, and this one I bought not too long ago. So I’m in this transition period where I’m writing new stuff on here. I feel sort of attached [to my old computer]. It’s hard to get rid of it. I wrote “Little Known Facts” on here, and some other stories that I’ve published, so I feel attached to it. I might have it hidden in the closet for a couple years!
I like to journal that way, sometimes leaving them partially blank because I’ve assigned them to a specific time in my life, or a specific project.
I tend to journal consecutively. I used to write a lot more in my journal than I do now. I used to fill one every few months, but now it’s like, one a year. On top of my personal journal, I keep a book and movie journal to keep notes. Recently, I saw “The Butler,” and “Twelve Years a Slave.” When I take notes on this stuff, it takes time away from writing in my other journal. But it’s nice because I’ve been doing this for ten years now.
I’m sure that informs your work in some way.
I think it does. I think I’m more comfortable writing critical work because of this journal. And actually, I have three journals. This [she picks up a journal] is what I use to write down story ideas and titles.
How long have you kept a journal?
Since 1991. I was doing it when I was a kid, too. But since 1991 I’ve kept a journal continuously. That was the year I studied in France, when I was a junior in college. I decided that was a pretty unique experience, so aside from just photographs, I’d better write some of the experiences down. I have looked back at some of the earlier journals, but not very often. I hope to, at some point. I might be embarrassed by all the petty BS that I kept track of!
I also hand-write letters… I used to save bags of letters that I’d exchanged. I used to write a lot and get a lot in return. But now, not so much. But it’s okay, because I wouldn’t know where to put them, and I feel bad about throwing them away.
You studied at Indiana University in Bloomington. How did living there influence your work?
I didn’t know Indiana at all as a state. I’d spent no time there, aside from maybe driving through it a few times in high school and college. Bloomington is really very pretty. I remember being impressed when I went to look at an apartment there in 1995 before I moved there. The campus is really pretty.
Chicago does appear in my work, but not in the same way as [it does for] someone like Stu Dybek. Chicago really inhabits his work. It’s really atmospheric. I think, for me, I do care about setting a lot. My [forthcoming] novel is set in Paris. So in that case, the city and the setting is really important, and it has a more prominent role in the book. It’s sort of like an object of fetish, because there’s such a glamorous aura. But in a lot of my short fiction, it’s not as important. I’m just finishing a short story that is very much set in Chicago. I mention a lot of Chicago neighborhoods, but I don’t spend a lot of time describing the light or the lake. I’m not that interested in that. Place isn’t usually the first thing I think about in a story.
What is the first thing?
It’s usually character. I’m usually thinking about some complicated factor and have two characters in mind. The tension is usually pretty clear in the first couple of pages. For the short story in particular, you have to get to the point pretty fast.
How does teaching affect your process?
It’s actually been a really important part of me improving as a writer. I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s not working in my students’ work. I try to think, what would I do if I were writing this story? How would I make it better? A lot of my commentary is about that, without actually trying to rewrite it, to keep it in the vein of the student’s tone and voice. It’s been helpful because it makes me think about why I make the choices I do, why I think some styles or affectations are worse or better than others. You really have to think, why do I write in the close, limited third person so much, rather than first person or second person or third person omniscient? It’s a good way to keep your mental faculties in shape, your critical eye.
It can also guard against complacency. I’m reminded all the time why it’s so hard to be a writer. For me, it’s not easy, but it’s easier than it was. I’ve done a lot of writing, and a lot of it I haven’t published. Thank god that’s the case. A lot of my students are very good, but they still have a lot to learn before they’re ready to publish their work. You have to be humble if you have to set yourself to being a writer who’s read by people, and with any luck, respected. I think it’s a very good thing, to teach and write.
What did you read when you were growing up?
We would go to the library a lot, my mom and I, and my dad, too. I read a lot of E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” And Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” I started reading Trixie Belden mysteries, and Judy Blume, of course. And then I started reading books that were too old for me. I loved Joyce Carol Oates when I was in high school.
Both my parents were avid readers. My father was a writer, not by profession. He had a journalism degree from U of I, but I don’t think he could handle the constant submission and rejection. You have to be very stubborn and thick-skinned. If you could make money another way, why wouldn’t you? It’s punishing, at times. But I love it. [When I was younger], I was also convinced that, if I keep doing this, I’ll get better, and I’ll publish more work. And I did. I think a lot of people give up prematurely. They’re probably very talented, but they’re just tired of the uncertainty and the self-doubt, and being at the mercy of editors they will never meet. There’s a lot of root determination, but there’s some luck.
And that determination is what keeps you going?
It is. I’m just really stubborn. But I also… I love it. I love the idea of creating a story out of nothing other than an idea. An electrical impulse in the brain. It’s sometimes painful to think about—this is never-ending. I’m always going to have to sit down and write. Unless, like Harper Lee, you write a book that still makes millions. But you can’t bank on that. You have to love it.
What are you reading now?
I just started “Lunar Park” by Bret Easton Ellis. I’ve been asked to blurb a lot of books lately, so I’m reading books that aren’t published yet. One is by Peggy Shinner, she’s a Chicago writer publishing her first book at sixty-two. It’s coming out from University of Chicago Press, and it’s called “You Feel So Mortal.” It’s a collection of essays, and it’s just excellent. It’s a great book. She’s a wonderful writer.
I’m also reading a book by Paulette Livers. She’s got a novel coming out called “Cementville” from Counterpoint Press. That’s great, too.
And there’s another book I just read for fun by a friend I went to grad school with. Her name is Angela Pneuman. It’s called “Lay it On My Heart.” It’s a hilarious and moving book about this girl who is thirteen or fourteen, and her dad’s kind of gone off the deep end. He’s a fundamentalist, it takes place in Kentucky, and it’s just so funny and sad. It’s just a good novel. I hope it does well.
Is there a book that really inspired your forthcoming novel?
The title of my novel is “Paris Gare St. Lazare,” after one of the train stations, in the northwest-central part of the city. And I read a number of books while writing it. One is a collection of essays called “Paris Was Ours” [by Penelope Rowlands], and another collection called “Paris, Paris,” by David Downie. And then I watched “Before Sunset,” again, the second one of those three films with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. I was also reading Adam Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon.”
I sort of read them for the atmosphere. I lived in Strasbourg for a year, and I’ve gone back four or five times. I went back just this past September to verify where I’d placed things in the novel. Having written about it in “Little Known Facts,” I realized—I love this city! I should be writing a book set there. Why just one chapter?