Christine Sneed’s third book of fiction, Paris, He Said, dives into Paris like a tourist in love: we sip kir and admire wrought iron, marvel at Parisian fashion, and are privy to charming and complicated arguments about the perfection of roast chicken. There’s a reason why this author won the prestigious Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. In the same way that her first novel, Little Known Facts, took us into the nitty-gritty of Hollywood egotism, Paris, He Said brings us into the prism of Parisian beauty and all its trappings: the pride in good manners, good taste and good food; the expectation that everyone’s idea of sex is fluid and permissive; that all is fair in love even when it isn’t.
Paris, He Said received a warm review in the New York Times Book Review, and made the Best Books of Spring list in O Magazine. Both reviews acknowledge Sneed’s skill at representing the insecurity women have around their ambition, but neither mentions how one of her inspirations, John Updike, was a master at similarly drawing his characters’ interior lives. In the best, most pertinent ways, Paris He Said’s Jayne Marks reminds me of Rabbit, Run’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom; both characters attempt to escape the constraints of their lives, get caught in self-created webs of uncertainty, and must reckon with the conditions of their decisions and limitations for happiness. Because Sneed’s heroine is a single, female artist, her struggle brings to light a contemporary conflict particular to women—namely their reliance on youth and beauty, and their reluctance to believe in themselves.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on your third book of fiction! Let’s talk about the titling process as it relates to your novel’s development. I know originally your title had been Paris Gare St.-Lazare…
Christine Sneed: Yes, well so much of the publisher’s concern—and frankly, mine too—is appealing to a larger readership. And, coincidentally, three-word titles are in vogue right now. In the Spring was also the novel’s working title for several months. I got my MFA in poetry, and when I was writing a lot more poetry than fiction, I tried to think of compressed, sensory rich titles. Often I would start with a title and then write the poem (and later, the story). Titles help lay the foundation for the work, and you know, I’ve heard a number of people say that writing fiction is world-building. Novels need to feel like a version of real life to their readers. Paris, which is such a sensuous, beautiful city, and Gare Saint-Lazare, which is both a train station and a Metro stop, were my original building blocks.
Rumpus: I know Paris is beautiful but I can’t really put my finger on why. Yes, the architecture, the parks, the art, the food. Is that the essence of its beauty to you?
Sneed: It’s also such an old city; it’s almost 2,000 years old. That’s why many of the streets, in the center of Paris especially, are cobblestone. The city was built on the banks of the Seine and grew outward from there; the arrondissements are configured and numbered in a conch shell shape. The French sensibility, from what I can tell, is very attuned to beauty and quality. They don’t necessarily want big or flashy things, or consumer goods that are cheaply made. They want quality and are willing to go to several stores rather than a big box store: the chocolate store, the flower shop, the pork butcher, the beef butcher, the linen shop.
Rumpus: Why is your main character, Jayne, an educated woman, particularly taken by the offer to move to Paris with her older benefactor/lover?
Sneed: Jayne doesn’t have the confidence that she actually has talent. When she meets Laurent Moller, he’s interested in her professionally and romantically. He wants to support her and she makes a practical decision and agrees to move to France with him. But the romantic situation changes once they get there—Laurent tells her that he has a don’t ask/don’t tell policy for their relationship, and then she must reckon with the outcome. The book hinges on the question of how much of a heterosexual woman’s identity is hitched to the post (financially and sexually) of the man with whom she is involved.
Rumpus: I’m interested your comment on the transition women make from college life to professional life. You have a line, “At twenty she had stood on the same hilltop and believed without question in her right to everything she desired: prosperity, love, the admiration of friends and strangers, a long and healthy life.” How do you frame Jayne’s expectations differently as they clash with reality?
Sneed: One thing she quickly realizes post-college is that life is expensive, especially in a big city like New York or Washington, DC. She also has a debilitating crisis of confidence as an artist as soon as she leaves the comforting confines of the university. And she makes the mistake that a lot of us make—she compares herself to other, more successful people. She is lucky to meet Laurent, for sure, who helps her get started as an artist but she realizes before long that what he’s offering her isn’t an ideal situation, despite how it might look from the outside. I don’t think an ideal situation is possible, in any case, and she has to figure out how to learn to live with the choices she’s made, and be grateful for the good that comes out of the arrangement (which is very good for her professionally, if not personally).
Rumpus: There’s an older, more successful female artist in the picture once they get to Paris. You base this character on a real Chicago artist, Susan Kraut, with the same exact name. How did you envision this character complementing or foiling Jayne’s path?
Sneed: I imagined Susan as Jayne’s helpmate, not at all as an adversary. She’s also the only professor who really encouraged Jayne’s talent. The real Susan Kraut is an excellent teacher and a brilliant painter, and so it was a thrill to write about her and her work in this novel—the paintings I describe in the book are Susan’s real work, but the events that occur in the novel with Susan are all fictitious.
Rumpus: Jayne walks this tense line between mature affection for Laurent and childlike petulance. More than once she compares him to a father figure, or herself to his daughter, almost without pause. Is this an inevitable struggle, do you think, for a female protagonist of her social class, or does she struggle because, on some level, she is at odds with her own choices?
Sneed: I think what Jayne struggles with more than anything else is claiming and then enjoying wholeheartedly what Laurent is offering her—a job, sex, time to paint, opportunities to show her paintings, food and lodging. She doesn’t feel worthy of his patronage—that’s the heart of the matter, which I realized after I finished writing this book. If she seems petulant with Laurent at times, it’s displaced emotion; she feels most petulant with herself for needing his help and support.
Laurent, being an older, worldly man, and a wealthy one, clearly has the advantage in their relationship, but Jayne’s youth and talent and physical attributes are also a kind of power. Nonetheless, in the world as it’s currently run, men with money are the people who are going to be calling the shots, and that’s certainly the case in this relationship. But Jayne isn’t helpless; she can walk away, something she thinks about at length in the book.
Rumpus: Stylistically, your prose is almost built out of silk and lace; that’s my way of saying it’s very beautiful. In contrast, Jayne’s character seems exclusively made of uncertainty, lack of confidence, and resentment. She aspires to have a life of beauty, but she lives with very little internal joy and very few moments of grace, except, oddly, when working on her art. How did this contrast drive you as you were writing?
Sneed: I don’t see her as truly resentful of anyone, at least not initially, other than the people she perceives to have dismissed her in New York because she’s not successful in any obvious way—she’s not making much money, she’s not exhibiting her work (but it’s true that she isn’t doing enough to get her work into world, at least not when the book opens). She lacks confidence in the face of other people’s successes, and in New York, as in any world-class city, if you see others with so much more than you have, it’s hard not to compare yourself and feel as if you’re coming up short. I feel a lot of sympathy for her situation and so I decided to give her an enormous stroke of good fortune by orchestrating her meeting and subsequent liaison with Laurent Moller. But the real story is about how she makes choices that force her to sacrifice certain things, such as her idea of what a romantic relationship should be—she’s an idealist when the book opens, but not so much when the book ends.
Rumpus: Jayne is a lovely woman who is in some ways unlikeable. I am quite aware, as a reader, that I am judging her more than I am sympathizing with her. I want her to succeed and yet I am extremely frustrated with her shortcomings. Can you talk about the pleasure and the pressure of writing a female protagonist who makes mundane, poor choices that for better or worse challenge her sense of self?
Sneed: I really adore Jayne, and don’t think she’s unlikeable, even if her choices might seem questionable to you and other readers. Some readers have told me that they strongly sympathize with her confusion and her lack of self-confidence. Others, I think, might see her as an opportunist and a pragmatist. It’s true that she’s somewhat opportunistic (though not really a pragmatist), but Laurent is also opportunistic. Both of these point-of-view characters are flawed, but let’s be honest —if you don’t have a flaw or two, you probably don’t have much of a story.
I see her as open to new experiences, a risk-taker, and also desperate for change and something better than her hand-to-mouth life in New York. And because this novel is focused on its two main characters’ interiority, I spent quite a lot of time on their thought processes and motivations. What I realized about Jayne and her situation as I was writing might be off-putting to some, sure. I do think, however, that many creative people, male or female, share certain qualities with her. I don’t think her choices were poorly considered either—I would have made many of the same ones, I suspect, if I were in her shoes. And I don’t think of myself as a particularly courageous or risk-loving person. But maybe I do have a kind of “what will be will be attitude.” There’s little in life that is irreversible—if you go somewhere and don’t like it, usually you can leave.
Rumpus: Jayne is a hard worker; very little about her indicates indulgence and privilege, except maybe her taste for comfort. This is a good character trait by American standards, but it has different repercussions for Jayne as a woman in France. Sketch that cultural conflict a bit, if you will.
Sneed: My impression of Americans and the French, after studying in France and from my ongoing friendships with a number of French people, is that Americans are generally more reserved than the French are about some things—we would never have a president, for one, as the French did with François Mitterand, who’d be permitted to have two separate families. American culture also has a deep puritanical streak that many French people don’t understand (e.g. it’s an enormous hypocrisy that America is at the center of the billion-dollar porn industry but we have all these megachurches and ostensibly religious people who wield significant influence in our government). Jayne is reserved herself, to some extent, but tries hard to enjoy the luxuries Laurent offers her, and also to be a little less rigid about monogamy, though it’s difficult for her. This is, I suppose you could say, a coming-of-age story. Jayne grows up during the course of this book.