Christine Sneed has published four books of fiction, all since 2010, when her collection of short stories, Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry, won the AWP’s Grace Paley Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press. Since then she has been both highly productive and consistently strong in her work, and it seems like she arrived at book publication already formed as a serious, accomplished artist.
Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry is a dazzling collection and—though when it came out Sneed’s stories had been published in many excellent literary journals and included in Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize anthology—was my introduction to her work. At the time, I was one of the judges for the LA Times Book Prizes in Fiction and First Fiction, and had been swamped with books. Yet Sneed’s collection was so strong and surprising that it stood out immediately, as all three of the judges agreed in naming it a finalist for that year’s award in first fiction.
In 2013, her first novel, Little Known Facts, was published by Bloomsbury and reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It went on to win the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award and the Society of Midland Authors Award. Bloomsbury also published her second novel Paris, He Said in 2015 and is the publisher of her second collection of short stories, The Virginity of Famous Men, forthcoming in September 2016.
There is a seamlessness and breadth to Sneed’s fiction. The themes and narrative strategies and, sometimes, the characters and situations flow back and forth between the shorter fiction and the novels. There is also a fine balance between explorations of the inner life of her characters and the characters’ place in the worlds of work or the larger culture. Her skill with point of view and the essential elements of craft is both impressive and deployed with genuine subtlety.
This interview was conducted by email shortly after I finished reading The Virginity of Famous Men.
The Rumpus: The thirteen stories in your new collection are told from a broad range of perspectives—a mother enduring the strains of a fading relationship and the deeply disturbing company of her teenaged son, the estranged wife of a famous actor, a male studio production supervisor, a sixteen-year-old girl, a call center employee. There’s even a story told in the form of a job application, including an extended CV. Do you make a conscious effort to vary the voices and viewpoints? What do you find this variety offers you as a writer?
Christine Sneed: I don’t know if make a conscious effort to vary the characters and subjects that I write about, but I do find myself keeping track of ideas that come along, as probably most writers do, and whatever seems most interesting to me when I flip through my notes before I begin a new story is usually what I will try to write about next. The stories in The Virginity of Famous Men were written over a period of about eight or nine years, and I felt fortunate to have quite a few to choose from when it came time to put together the collection. I’ve read that some readers want a thematically linked collection, but I’m more interested in trying to put together what I think are my strongest stories, and in them, I hope some unifying themes and style choices will be noticeable.
Rumpus: Without being graphic your work is notably frank and probing about relationships. Would you talk a little about this aspect of your writing?
Sneed: So much of what determines our happiness, I believe, is who we choose as our intimates. Tangentially, Americans, despite many of us being prone to sometimes-eyebrow-raising disclosures about our private lives on social media, still retain what I think of as reactionary views about sexuality and intimacy. Men might be chastised for being promiscuous, but I think they’re more likely to be given a pass, due to a “men will be men” attitude that still prevails in the Western world. They don’t usually experience anything like the virulent shaming and verbal abuse that women who are sexually adventurous are sometimes prone to experiencing. I’m curious about these contradictions and find myself writing about them.
Rumpus: Your fiction shows a deep understanding of the way relationships unravel, and of the tensions and distortions that evolve in them over time. How have your views grown as your writing developed?
Sneed: I hope I’ve gotten a little more sensitive and forgiving as I’ve gotten older. I remember teaching Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee’s masterpiece (about a fifty-two-year-old man and the aftermath of his disastrous affair with a student), to a group of undergraduate English majors several years ago, and among other things, these nineteen- and twenty-year-olds were surprised that a fifty-something man still had a libido and had set his sights on someone so much younger than himself. He behaved badly, for sure, but my students’ feeling that he shouldn’t have a sex drive at all startled me. I probably would have reacted similarly when I was their age. One thing the passage of time has shown me is that you never know how you’ll behave in a situation until you’re in that situation yourself. This is something I think about quite a bit.
Rumpus: Have your travels abroad affected you as a writer?
Sneed: They have, especially the year I spent in Strasbourg in college. I traveled from that city to many other European cities during those nine months overseas. It was for sure a formative time for me as a writer and as a woman struggling to figure out what to do with my life. I also was able to look at America and the privileged life I led there with a little more objectivity than I could have if I’d spent that academic year on my college’s campus in Washington, DC.
Rumpus: How do you manage the abundance of your literary imagination and productivity? Do you have multiple stories and novel projects going at the same time?
Sneed: (Wow, thank you!) Sometimes I do work on a longer manuscript in tandem with one or two shorter pieces—whether it’s a short story or an essay (though I don’t write many of the latter). I keep a couple of notebooks too into which I record ideas for story titles or characters or situations, and these notes help me quite a bit when I’m feeling at loose ends and not sure of what to work on next.
Rumpus: Your first book was published when you were thirty-nine. Tell us about your literary apprenticeship, influences, and journey toward book publication.
Sneed: The path to my first book’s publication was serendipitous. A friend I taught with at DePaul for several years suggested that I consider entering a few book contests because I’d told him that I’d had an agent for about seven years but nothing had worked out and I wasn’t sure what to do, etc. And so I took Dave’s advice and entered four contests and it was pretty miraculous that I ended up winning AWP’s Grace Paley Prize a few months later. But by that point, I’d written three novels and probably more than a hundred short stories, so I wasn’t a novice, though I definitely felt as if I was spinning my wheels when it came to trying to publish more than a story or a poem in a journal, and I didn’t really know whether my work was good enough yet to merit a book.
Similarly, I found a generous and thoughtful mentor my senior year in college when I enrolled in Roland Flint’s poetry workshop, and his subsequent letters and insistence that I not expect anything to happen overnight probably kept me from feeling too desperate during the fifteen years or so post-college when I was maybe publishing two stories a year, but not for lacking of trying. I was sending out hundreds of story submissions annually. I’d had an easier time publishing poems (I was a poetry MFA) but I realized that a poem takes up only a page or two, in most cases; a short story takes up quite a few more and the real estate in a literary journal is very dear.
Rumpus: A recurring concern in your fiction is the imbalance created between couples by celebrity—what happens when one partner is widely known and even beloved. What do you think this phenomenon tells us about contemporary relationships?
Sneed: I think that under ordinary circumstances (i.e., neither person is famous), it’s already hard enough to make a long-term romantic relationship work, but add fame to the calculus. I also think it takes a very generous and tolerant non-famous partner to stick with the famous person, especially if s/he wasn’t famous when they first got together. And add to it the fact that the Web makes it extremely easy to meet admirers… well, there are a lot of temptations to be ignored, or else embraced. Thirty years ago, the Pandora’s box of the Internet wasn’t yet a fact of life, and celebrities inhabited a more remote, hard-to-reach plane.
Jealousy is a potent emotion, of course, and Facebook, texting, email, fan Web pages… In theory, being someone like George Clooney’s or Halle Berry’s paramour—woo hoo—how great would that be? But wait a minute… er, no, probably kind of a nightmare.
Rumpus: Renn, the Harrison Ford-like character from Little Known Facts, is back in the title story of your new collection. He—and those in his orbit—are fascinating, and you see them with great complexity. Are you done with him yet?
Sneed: I’m not sure! I probably am, but I can’t rule out that I won’t write about Renn and his family one more time. The effects of fame on the not-famous people who are close to a celebrity—this is definitely a topic that continues to interest me. I also had such a good time writing Little Known Facts and I still feel close to those characters; I have been thinking about doing a little more with them, but I’m not certain which form it will take.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Do you have novel ideas lined up beyond what you’re currently writing?
Sneed: For the first time ever, possibly, I feel superstitious about describing what I’m currently writing. It will say that it is a novel and I’m enjoying the process of writing each new section quite a bit. I’m also working on a couple of new short stories and one or two personal essays.
Rumpus: Do you tend to read as an element of preparation for your work—for research or inspiration? If so, what?
Sneed: Unless I’m writing trying to write about a historical figure, I don’t really set out to read or research with a specific topic in mind. Mostly what ends up inspiring me and affecting my work are books by authors that I love, e.g. Alice Munro, William Trevor, Edward P. Jones, Scott Spencer, Mavis Gallant.
Rumpus: Who are some of the authors you’re most drawn to? The ones who have disappointed you?
Sneed: I can’t think of a writer who has disappointed me recently, but some of the authors I’m drawn to are the ones I mentioned above, along with Jim Harrison, the poet Gregory Fraser, and debut novelist Jen Beagin. I also read Suspended Sentences not long ago, a collection of novellas by Patrick Modiano, that I liked quite a bit. I want to read more of his work soon.
Rumpus: What are you reading for pleasure?
Sneed: I recently read Outline by Rachel Cusk and was instantly seduced by it. I loved its subtlety, quiet humor, Cusk’s spare, but also, somehow, lush style, the oddly hypnotic effects of her pacing, along with the exotic setting of a very hot and dry Athens. The book reminded me of another writer whose work I greatly admire, W. G. Sebald.