There are a handful of authors whose books I buy and devour the minute they come out, and high on this list is Christine Sneed, whose witty and wise first book, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” captured my attention about a decade ago. Since then, she’s published a second story collection and two novels, all of which display her remarkable ability to delve into the lives of her flawed characters—showing them at their best and their worst with equal pathos. Sneed’s books possess an easy elegance and a profound awareness of what it means to be human in the contemporary world.
It is this contemporary world—and more specifically, the world of corporate office culture—that has captured Sneed’s attention in her latest novel, “Please Be Advised,” out in October. The book narrates, via interoffice memos, a year in the life of Quest Industries, a mid-sized corporation based in Chicago, helmed by an egomaniac CEO and run by an ensemble cast of delightfully oddball employees.
“Please Be Advised” is an irreverent and hilarious parody of corporate America in the twenty-first century, arriving as many of us settle back into our cubicles and reacquaint ourselves with unclaimed tubs of hummus moldering in the breakroom refrigerator, endless piles of obsolete paperwork crowding the corners, and at least one office busybody desperate to drag his colleagues to happy hour. Sneed’s deft mix of cultural critique and formal inventiveness make “Please Be Advised” compulsively readable, comically absurd and yet—true to her previous books—deeply human.
Also out in October is “Love in the Time of Time’s Up,” an anthology of short stories edited by Sneed, which features sixteen female authors “addressing the subjects of Me Too and Time’s Up,” bringing the insight of fiction to bear on the profound culture shock that these movements facilitated. The anthology captures fear and heartbreak and complex power dynamics, without ever losing sight of hope and possibility.
One of the first things I noticed about “Please Be Advised” is that it’s a departure from your previous novels and story collections, which tend toward what I call “character-focused domestic realism.” Your stories are often subtly funny, but the new novel is a laugh-out-loud satire. What drew you to writing about the absurdities of the corporate world?
I was working on a different comedic novel before I started writing “Please Be Advised,” and when I finished the former after an intense period of daily writing, I realized I wanted to keep working in the comic mode. Tackling another chronologically straightforward fictional narrative in novel form seemed daunting, however, and so I started writing office memos, thinking they would be standalone shorts. I kept writing them and having a huge amount of fun, and after about a month, I thought, “Maybe these goofy memos could become a novel?”
Having worked in offices in the past—corporate, nonprofit and scholastic—the corporate office seemed to me the ideal environment for exploring the foibles of human character and the frustrations of being cooped up for eight or more hours a day, five days a week, in a place that disorientingly has become the economic (and sometimes social and personal) focus of your life—with or without you explicitly willing it to be so.
As it turned out, “Please Be Advised” is entirely composed of interoffice email memos. What attracted you to this form? What were some of the challenges (or joys!) of writing this many memos?
I was a poetry MFA student and have always been attracted to compression in writing—how much can be said with as few words as possible? How many images and how much specificity can I cram into these few lines? Short stories have probably always been my favorite fictional mode, and flash fiction is also close to my heart (although I still prefer longer short stories—Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones are two of my favorite writers—both of whom write long short stories).
The fresh start each new memo offered was one of the most reliable joys writing “Please Be Advised” offered. I generally find the blank page exciting and less frightening than the baggy, monstrous middle (to steal a metaphor from Henry James) of a story- or novel-in-progress. Anything is possible at the outset. And each memo also permitted me to write in a different voice. I really had fun with this. I think there are about fifty different characters whose voices are featured in the memos.
The book follows a number of notably funny characters—and the office space itself becomes a kind of character—what was it like to write an ensemble cast?
Having so many characters to work with was very much a pleasure—I do think, however, that if I were trying to manage a roster of characters as large as this one in a more traditionally structured novel, it would be a greater challenge than it was in “Please Be Advised.” The compression and brevity of most of these memos required perhaps even more of a focus on voice and specific details than in other stories and novels I’ve written.
The fact that each memo needed either to telegraph a previous subject or introduce a new one also helped—essentially, I could go anywhere I dared topically, and this was greatly liberating. It’s not that each memo is a non sequitur—I really did try to make each seem as if it were one car in a long, well-connected train—but readers, I hope, will nod in recognition at the manifold topics populating the book, and anyone who has worked in an office—whether corporate, nonprofit or scholastic—might also identify with the vein of absurdity that governs some of the characters’ actions and pronouncements.
I was aiming for the illogic of office logic and how the workplace sometimes promulgates ennui and frustration as well as comedy and pathos. There are certainly elements of caricature here, but my goal was to make everyone working at Quest Industries plausible, and even, on occasion, lovable. My editor, Kurt Baumeister, also made a key suggestion early on in our work together about adding a couple of different plot threads, which helped to open up the book even more.
Some of my favorite parts of the novel are the “Stories of Personal Triumph” the employees are encouraged to share. The stories run the gamut of reveals, from a guy who’s taken his nickname from a 7-Eleven run-in with the Dalai Lama and a wife who ambushes her husband with an at-home wisdom teeth extraction. These insider snippets brought to mind how Americans tend to overshare about their lives, but also, conversely, how little we know the people who populate our lives, perhaps especially our coworkers. I’d love to hear about your process for imagining these pieces of the book.
If I remember correctly, one day after I’d written a couple of memos by Mid-Level or Upper-Level Management, I thought, “I need to get more individual characters into this book, and I really want to show them as goofballs and compulsive thought-broadcasters—so… Let’s see… Maybe a ‘story of personal triumph’”?
The name itself struck me as self-consciously corporate, in the vein of those bland motivational posters that feature words such as “ACHIEVEMENT” and “PERSEVERANCE” emblazoned across a mountain or a beach at sunset. Soon after I wrote the first one, “Harvard University,” credited to one of the book’s more hapless characters, Bill Dubonski. These stories of personal triumph were very much my favorite memos to write, perhaps especially “Male Stripper,” “His Royal Badness,” and “My Husband’s Wisdom Teeth.”
You have another book coming out, a short-fiction anthology you’ve edited called “Love in the Time of Time’s Up.” There’s been a real sea change in how we, as a culture, view sexual aggression and the abuses it perpetuates, thanks to the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. How do you see this book fitting into the conversations we are currently having about sex and power?
When I came up with the idea for this book in January 2020, I was thinking in part of “Cat Person,” a short story by Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker that went viral in December 2017, two months after the story broke in The New York Times about Harvey Weinstein and his decades-long predatory sexual behavior. (“Cat Person” concerns a young woman dating an older man, a relationship that devolves into sexual harassment.) As a writer and reader, I’ve always been interested in vulnerability, desire, hypocrisy, and the way many of us try to evade self-knowledge, especially when it comes to intimate relationships.
I wanted to assemble a collection of stories that address the Time’s Up and Me Too movements with nuance, pathos and unexpected humor in a couple of cases, by writers I respect—among them, Lynn Freed, Gina Frangello, May-lee Chai, Karen Bender, Amina Gautier, Jenny Shank, Cris Mazza—and allow both writer and reader to approach these subjects through a fictional lens rather than a memoiristic or journalistic one. The contributors approach the anthology’s themes from many different angles—I was thrilled by the range of characters and situations they came up with. There’s of course regret and terror in these stories, but also desire and hope.
Like “Please Be Advised,” “Potpourri,” the story of yours included in “Love in the Time of Time’s Up,” is set in Chicago. I know you lived in Chicago for many years before relocating to Southern California in 2018 and remain connected to the literary community here. What parts of the city do you miss? What draws you to it as a setting for your work?
I miss the city’s expansiveness and its multifarious neighborhoods, the rattle and screech of the CTA trains, especially in the Loop, the water taxis on the river, the early-morning loneliness of the Lakefront in Rogers Park where I lived for a while before moving north to Evanston. Fortunately, I’m able to come back to Chicago often, in part because I work for Northwestern University, in part because my parents and friends live in the city and suburbs.
It’s true, too, that my identity as a writer is rooted in Chicago—it’s where I began writing seriously and for many years after graduate school, it’s where I continued to write. It’s also a magnificent independent bookstore city, and now it has the American Writers Museum, too—not by accident. I’m sure its founders took the measure of Chicago’s literary history—Hemingway, Algren, Hansberry, Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Dreiser—and thought, “What a dazzling, bookish city.”
To my mind, Chicago and its inhabitants are characterized in part by their openness and lack of artifice—many Midwesterners, myself included, might be a little shy and reserved upon first meeting, but we are nonetheless friendly and seek out good conversation. This gregariousness has always been a source of comfort and inspiration for me—as both a person and as a writer.
Will future work be set in Chicago? And speaking of future work, what are you working on?
Definitely—Chicago is a source of inspiration and nostalgia for me, and I think it will likely always figure into my work. Of the two novels I’m slowly writing now, one is set in Chicago and the other in north-central Wisconsin. I’ve found that since I moved to Pasadena four-and-a-half years ago, I’m drawn to Chicago as a setting even more so than I was when I lived there. Other writers have doubtless said something similar about this phenomenon: you see the place more clearly—its beauty and banquet of attractions and curiosities—when you aren’t living there.
As for the novels I’m working on, I started them both over two years ago and have been intermittently distracted by other projects, but am hoping to finish full drafts of each this year. They are not comedic novels, but there are, I hope, glints of humor in them. I really do think that finding the humor in life, even when current events are extremely painful and onerous to contemplate, is essential to staying on an even keel—or as even a keel as one can manage. I know that’s true for me.
Christine Sneed’s launch for “Please Be Advised,” in conversation with Rachel Swearingen, “How to Walk on Water.” Wednesday, October 29, 7pm, Women & Children First, 5233 N Clark.
Sara Rauch is the author of “What Shines from It: Stories” and the autobiographical essay “XO.” Her author profiles and book reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Lambda Literary, Los Angeles Review of Books, Curve Magazine, and more. She lives with her family in Massachusetts. www.sararauch.com