The way we care for each other, or fail to care for each other, is central to Christine Sneed’s shimmering new short story collection Direct Sunlight, published in June by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. Each of its twelve stories confronts, to some degree, how we often let down the people we care about (including ourselves) despite our best intentions. The result is a consistent low-level yearning for connection, whether it come from lovers, family, a capuchin monkey, or a pygmy horse named Peanut Sundae Pie.
Yet each story carves out its own identity through Sneed’s skilled characterization, sideways humor, and precise details: a husband’s ashes and his pool cue kept in the hall closet, an upended bowl of freshly picked lettuce, an African violet with care instructions on the marker. If we all only came with care instructions perhaps we wouldn’t be, as one character suggests, “such a lonely, confused, angry species, all of us wanting so much what we can never have.”
I was lucky enough to talk with Sneed over email about her collection, the alchemy of titles and first lines, teaching, kangaroo humans, The National, and more.
The Rumpus: Chicago misses you, and since many of these stories are set in the Chicago area and across the Midwest, I sense you miss Chicago as well (maybe not the weather). I’d first like to ask you to grossly generalize the differences between being a Midwestern writer and a West coast writer.
Christine Sneed: As I’ve seen other writers say, we don’t often write about a place where we;ve lived for a long while until we leave it. I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve written more fiction set in Chicago than in LA since I moved to Pasadena. And the opposite was true when I lived in Chicago (my second book, Little Known Facts, is set almost entirely in Hollywood/LA).
Out here, the film and TV industry dominates a lot of the arts-related conversation, but there are so many indie bookstores in the LA sprawl, so many readers and novelists and poets who are going about their business, writing with intelligence, wit, and pathos—Matthew Specktor and his tremendous nonfiction book Always Crashing in the Same Car is the first example that comes to mind. Dana Johnson and her most recent story collection In the Not Quite Dark. Brian Evenson, Percival Everett, and Maggie Nelson live and teach out here. J. Ryan Stradal, Michelle Huneven, Victoria Patterson live here, too. It’s a city of novelists and poets quietly coexisting alongside the star-marking industry.
Rumpus: You’ve had three books come out in the last year: Please Be Advised (7.13 Books), Love in the Time of Time’s Up (Tortoise Books), and now Direct Sunlight. First of all, congratulations! Second of all, what the hell? And third of all, how has the experience publishing with smaller presses differed from your experience with larger publishing houses?
Sneed: Thank you for the kind words/congratulations. So, here’s the story: I sold my third and fourth books in 2013 to Bloomsbury—The Virginity of Famous Men and Paris, He Said. They were published in 2015 and 2016, and it wasn’t until late 2021 that I placed the anthology, Love in the Time of Time’s Up, and my novel in memos, Please Be Advised, with the two indie presses you mention above. Soon after, I placed Direct Sunlight with TriQuarterly Books. I’d written about five or six novels and many short stories in the nearly nine years between book sales, so I had quite a few manuscripts sitting in pre-publication purgatory. I worked with a few different agents during that long stretch of disappointing years, and although I had a not-great sales track, these agents still thought they could place the novels I sent to them with corporate, i.e. New York-based, presses. They had faith in my work, and I was so pleased they did. But nothing panned out.
Indie presses are often staffed by generous, literature-loving people, and working with them is on the whole excellent from an editorial standpoint, if not a financial one. Indie press editors usually respond to emails quickly and seem happy to have you on board; they’re often very collaborative, too, with edits, book cover and design decisions, and publicity.
They don’t usually have much of a budget for marketing and publicity, but they don’t pretend to. Authors must do much of the work and foot much of the bill for publicity too. Sometimes small press books take off and you make up what you invested in them, but on the whole, it’s hard to break even.
Still, especially if you’re an academic and need to have a steady publication record in order to get tenure and/or promotion, these publications matter. I’m not tenure-track, although I teach a lot (as an adjunct for three to five schools in any given year), but I am still happy to have new books in the world—ones as good as, if not better (obviously, that’s subjective), than the four I published with a corporate press.
Rumpus: I’ve heard you mention before that the short story is really your jam (although I’m pretty sure you didn’t say it like that), but what is it about short stories that keeps you coming back to them?
Sneed: The best short stories are like compressed novels, and the depth and richness in them can be something close to miraculous. I’m thinking specifically of the stories of Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Deborah Eisenberg, and Elizabeth Strout. (Strout’s Olive Kitteridge novels are story collections masquerading as novels—at least as I see them.)
I love reading short stories and also love the challenge of writing them—this might be due in part to the fact I was a poetry MFA. The compactness and vividness of the poems I most admire (Lynn Emanuel, Dean Young, and Beckian Fritz Goldberg are three contemporary poets whose work made a lasting impression on me when I was a graduate student) inspired me to aim for this in the short stories I wrote when I found the chutzpah necessary to get serious about fiction-writing during my second year of grad school. Since then, stories have been my favorite literary form as both writer and reader.
Rumpus: Short stories achieve this “depth and richness” through an incredible economy (or compactness and vividness, as you put it), which is one of the things I love because it demands a lot from the writer but also assumes a reader’s intelligence. You end up with indelible moments like this, in your story “The Common Cold”: “Hart had a crumb at the corner of his mouth. I wanted to tell him but worried it would embarrass him. I hoped it would fall off on its own without either of us having to do anything about it.” You’ve managed to characterize both Hart and the narrator so efficiently in three sentences. All of your stories are filled with similar precision (and humor!) There’s probably not one single answer to this, but I’m interested in how these moments develop in your writing process. Are they a result of revision, of getting to know your characters in depth and then paring down, or is it more spontaneous, or both?
Sneed: This is an interesting question in part because when I teach a workshop with writers in the community (as opposed to an MFA workshop where the writers are generally more experienced), four out of five times someone will say, “I don’t want to put too many details in. That’ll just bog down the story.” My reply is, “Ninety-eight percent of the time, there are probably too few details. Load ‘em up. You can always pare them down later, but chances are you won’t need to.”
I don’t usually take out details in my own work either—unless something feels really ponderous. I might try to make a sentence more economical by avoiding passive voice or using fewer words in a prepositional clause, but for the most part, I’m usually adding sensory details rather than subtracting when I revise. It’s more or less instinctive. I do need some distance from a story to see it clearly enough to know if I’m overexplaining anywhere or repeating something unnecessarily (I have to set it aside for at least a week or more after a draft is finished before I go back to look at it again), but on the whole, if I get a character down on the page in a way where I can see and hear them in the setting where they’re located, I feel like I can keep going. I want them to be charming, at least to me. If I find them charming, I’m hopeful others will too.
Rumpus: You teach, and have taught, all over and to writers with multiple levels of experience. How does your teaching inform your writing and vice versa? And how has this evolved over your career (if it has)?
Sneed: Over the years a few people have asked me, “Doesn’t reading lots of student papers affect the quality of your work?” The subtext being the papers that aren’t well written must have a negative effect on my writing. But the opposite is true. Reading work I’m providing revision notes for requires me to think in specific terms about how to improve the work on the page in front of me. If I only read work that’s published and in good form, I don’t know if I’d learn as much as I do from reading stories, essays, and poems that still need more attention. This experience of learning from my students’ papers has been consistent since I began teaching college-level writing in 1995, and although I do have to dedicate a lot of brainpower to these critiques, they are good for my own writing practice.
Rumpus: Every story in Direct Sunlight contains a small moment (or several moments) of surprise. I don’t mean a cheap surprise, like revealing it was all a dream or all the characters are actually kangaroos. I’m talking about a surprise that is organic to the world you’ve created, something that fits perfectly within the parameters of the story but defies expectations. How do you make room for surprises in your writing process?
Sneed: I really didn’t know where these stories would end up until I wrote their final sentences. I suppose surprise is one of the things that keeps me writing—I want to know what will happen next. There really is a lot of instinct involved. Often I start with a title, and from it I’ll have a sense of tone. With “The Swami Buchu Trungpa,” for example, I knew the title was somewhat ironic, and that the title character’s real name would be something else. Following this, I quickly figured out that I wanted a woman to be the POV character, one who wasn’t (or was no longer) dazzled by the swami’s reinvention.
After I’ve written the first line, I’ll usually have some idea of where the story is going, or at least who the main character is. I do have to keep feeling surprised as I write, however, and each surprise must feel earned. No kangaroos pretending to be humans!
Rumpus: That story has an amazing first sentence: “Her mother had been sober for seven months when Nora moved to Paris with her employer, a man from Queens who had changed his name from Jim Schwartz to Swami Buchu Trungpa twenty years earlier.” I mean, how can you not keep reading?! So much is already there: setting, character, conflict. Can you comment more on your approach to writing opening sentences?
Sneed: As I mentioned, my MFA was in poetry, and when I was writing poems (for a few years I wrote a lot more poetry than fiction), I’d often come up with a title first, and the title informed the poem and its occasion. The same has generally been true for my short stories—if I have a title in mind that I like, the story will follow, and from the associative logic of the title, the first line will emerge.
The titles of the first two novels I published, Little Known Facts and Paris, He Said, however, didn’t emerge until after I wrote the full manuscript, and I’ve never loved them (the latter was initially titled Paris-Gare St. Lazare, which is the name of one of the city’s several train stations, but my publisher’s marketing department insisted we change it, probably assuming potential readers wouldn’t know what the title referred to). With my third novel, Please Be Advised, the title arrived early, and I like it a lot more than my other novels’ titles. I’m not sure why it works this way, but it seems as if a good title will spark the first line of the story. It’s one of those instinctive things that writers have to trust.
Rumpus: Writerly instinct has come up a few times in our conversation. Can you elaborate on what you mean by instinct? Is it purely a gift, or is it something that a writer can develop?
Sneed: Writerly instinct comes first from what we read—what we recognize as good writing, what surprises and moves us, and with any luck, also delights us. I don’t think it’s a gift—it’s something that grows and changes over time, and the more you read and write, the more you’ll likely have strongly developed instincts about what to do on the page with your own work. Our instincts can be upended at times—I think this is what happens when someone finds it difficult to move forward with new work or a revision. When this happens, it can be helpful to re-immerse yourself in the work of the writers you admire the most.
Rumpus: The stories here remind me of songs by the band The National. There’s a line in their song “Mistaken for Strangers” that sums up their whole aesthetic: “Another un-innocent, elegant fall/into the un-magnificent lives of adults.” A parallel sentiment runs throughout your collection; adult characters confronted with the disconnect between expectation and reality. First of all, do you listen to The National? And second, what makes the un-magnificent lives of adults such great fodder for short stories (and indie rock songs)?
Sneed: I don’t know much of The National’s music but a college friend sent me their song “Bloodbuzz Ohio” several years ago, and I just listened to it again (a great song). Like Radiohead, I should know them better!
Regarding why I write about the un-magnificent lives of adults, I suppose it’s due in no small part to my interest in domestic realism as both reader and writer (John Updike and Alice Munro are two of my pole-star authors—no one from the last century or so is better than they are—they might have equals but not betters).
Imagining what resides in the private hearts of other people: this will likely always be what most inspires me to write fiction. And real life is very strange at times (and always interesting—even the things some people say are boring—give me My Dinner with André over Iron Man and the like any day). It’s usually the stories brought into workshop that are based on actual events about which we find ourselves saying, “Sorry, that would never happen,” but of course the writer then says, embarrassed and/or defiant, “Actually, that really did happen.” I think our un-magnificent lives are quietly magnificent.
Rumpus: You’ve done so many of these kinds of interviews throughout your career, but what’s the one question you’ve never been asked that you wish someone would ask?
Sneed: This is hard—I don’t think, to be honest, I’ve ever thought of a question I wish someone would ask me regarding my writing. But in regard to other areas of my life, there are lots of questions I wish someone would ask: “Where would you like this enormous box filled with small, unmarked bills? It’s yours to do with as you see fit, ma’am, and we’re excited to provide you with the opportunity to live a less stressful, less toil-filled life.”
Also, “Is this Christine Sneed? This is Oprah Winfrey calling. I’m so pleased to inform you that I’ve selected Direct Sunlight as our next book club pick!”
And, “Can you believe it? Donald Trump fell down a manhole earlier today which turned out to be a portal to Hell!”
Rumpus: If you could leave readers with a homework assignment, what would it be? (Your assignment is to listen to The National’s 2007 album Boxer).
Sneed: Travel, if you can (even to somewhere only thirty minutes away), or at least go out and do something you haven’t done before, or haven’t done in a long time. Try for one of these experiences every week or two, or at least every month. I often resist going places that I’m not familiar with (Where will I park? How much will it cost? I have too many other things to do! goes the naysaying litany in my head…), but these new experiences (or not-experienced-in-a-long-time activities) generally stay with me, and I revisit them in my thoughts for years, almost always grateful I made the effort.
Photograph of Christine Sneed by Adam Tinkham.