Christine Sneed’s first book, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won the AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction in 2009, and this short story collection is being published by the University of Massachusetts Press on November 30, 2010. Allan Gurganus, a judge for the AWP Award Series, said of Portraits of a Few, “If this story-collection crackles with the energy of youth, it also feels written by a cool-eyed soul reincarnated at least three times.” Included in the collection is the story “Quality of Life,” which was also published in Best American Short Stories 2008.
Sneed earned her MFA in poetry from Indiana University. She teaches creative writing and literature courses at DePaul University and creative writing for the University of New Orleans’s low-residency MFA program. Sneed’s story “River” will be published in the Summer/Fall 2011 issue of TriQuarterly Online.
Below are excerpts from Sneed’s interview with TriQuarterly Online, in which she discusses her new book, upcoming projects, and creative influences.
TriQuarterly Online: How would you describe your new story collection?
Christine Sneed: It’s funny, I didn’t notice until after it ended up winning the prize that it has all female narrators. I normally write from both the female and male perspectives. I’ve written a lot of stories from the male perspective—more from the female perspective, naturally. It makes sense, I think.
Portraits of a Few is a very romantic collection. I think that is why so far it’s gotten really good reviews. It’s been reviewed by female critics who loved it. I’m flattered that they have felt so strongly about it. There have been three reviews thus far, and the critics were really taken by the frustrated, uncertain female protagonists who are trying to figure out if a certain relationship is going to work or what they are doing with their lives.
Also, I hope it has some humor in it. It’s not all depressing stuff. I don’t think any of the stories are really depressing, except “Quality of Life.” I always tell people that when I started writing that story, I thought it would be a happy story about an idyllic romantic relationship between an older man and a younger woman. Then it became something very different.
I’d just say the book is really romantic. It’s also somewhat sexy. I hope that people respond to the characters, that they are believable, and that they identify with them.
TQO: You say that you initially didn’t notice that the narrators were all female. How did you choose the stories to go into the collection?
CS: One of my friends is one of the two acquiring editors at Northwestern University Press, Mike Levine. We were having lunch one day, and I was telling him, “I think I’m going to enter this book contest.” A friend at DePaul had been telling me, “What are you waiting for?” And I said, “I just don’t know which of my published stories I want to put in this collection.” Mike told me, “Don’t just put in published stories. Add unpublished stories, too. People can find your other stories, so why not put new stuff in there?” I said, “I don’t know—they haven’t been given the thumbs-up by an editor, so people might not think they are good enough.” He said, “Don’t worry about it; just pick the stories you think go well together.
TQO: Many of the stories, including the title story, contain characters who are artists – painters, writers, sculptors, screenwriters, actors. What motivates you to write about artists?
CS: Well, my ex-boyfriend is an artist, and I was living with him when I wrote “Portraits of a Few.” I worked at the Art Institute for five years. I have a lot of friends who are serious artists. So I know a little bit about the art world. Also, being a writer, you are naturally curious about other people who do creative work. And it’s fun! People think it’s exotic and glamorous. I just finished writing a number of stories for a new collection; they are all about famous people, and movie stars in particular. I think we are really interested in what it’s like to be famous. It’s actually not that great. We have this romantic attachment to people we think we know because we have observed their work and it has affected us in some way. I was seduced by that idea and wanted to write about it.
TQO: One of the stories in the collection, “Interview with the Second Wife,” is structured around the transcript of an interview with the main character, Cynthia. It’s a very interesting structural choice. How did you come up with it?
CS: I was looking at a collection of Jonathan Lethem stories, and the title of one of them was “Interview with the Crab.” I didn’t actually read it, but I loved the idea. I had also written a story several years ago about a character who interviews himself, and I got that idea originally from Glenn Gould, the pianist. He’s been dead for thirty years, but he used to interview himself and had elaborate transcripts. I was actually thinking about writing a novel in interview form, which might be what I do next if I can ever finish my current novel revision. I just like postmodern form. I think it’s really fun. It allows new things to happen.
TQO: An idea surfaces in the story that interests me: the idea that writers (or their loved ones) are often asked whether the most outrageous parts of their stories are inspired by real life. In the story, the main character scoffs at the idea that all of her lover’s characters and inspiration came from his life. Yet young and beginning writers are often told to write what they know. How do you address questions about whether your fiction comes from real life ?
CS: You know, it really doesn’t. I’m experienced enough now as a writer to capably imagine some other person who is completely different from me, but it is only because I have been doing it for so long. And I have also been reading steadily for most of my life. I think the reason why people are instructed early on to write what they know is because they can write about that most honestly and authentically. It’s a good way to notice details. If you can describe someone you know or know of completely, that’s a great skill that you can carry over into stories about things that are completely made up. I certainly borrow a few small things from my life. Occasionally my family or something about one of my relatives or a close friend will appear, but such details are usually minor. I don’t want to be accused of libel. I think it’s great to write what you know, but that’s not what fiction is for, ultimately. Why not write an essay?
TQO: Is “write what you know” advice that you give your students?
CS: I don’t actually tell them that. But I was thinking the other day: “What do I actually teach? What do I tell people?” I think I just say you have to be awake. Your character has to want something. You should write about something you are interested in, whether it’s an event in your life or something else. But you should really care about what you are writing about, because it’s not going to be interesting to anyone else if it’s not interesting to you.
I’m teaching a workshop next quarter and in the spring called Writing What You Don’t Yet Know. It’s a class based on research. Students research one or two topics that they are really interested in and then write a story, and then a second story, whether it’s about the same topic as the first or not. But you have to somehow incorporate the facts that you have learned. I’ve written stories about René Magritte after reading about him because I was really interested in his work. And I’ve written a story about Glenn Gould. I thought it would be fun to learn with my students. It’s more interesting to write what you don’t know but can imagine. I am not a movie star, but I love writing about them because I am so interested in what it would be like to be famous and how exhausting it would be. Being famous became thoroughly unglamorous when I was working on stories about it. Especially stories about being married to a famous man—some of the stories are about how disastrous that is.
TQO: Your undergraduate degree is from Georgetown. What did you study there?
CS: I studied international business and French literature. I studied in France in my junior year. I was taking business classes because I thought I would do something practical. Little did I know that I wasn’t going to end up interested in working in the business world.
TQO: After Georgetown, what did you do?
CS: I graduated from Georgetown in 1993, and then I went to work in Chicago as a secretary in a company that sold highway safety products. I worked for the international sales guy who had contacts around the world. I worked there for two years, and I applied to MFA programs in ’95. I came back to Chicago in ’98 to work in an office at the School of the Art Institute because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make enough money teaching here and there, and I wouldn’t have had insurance either. I worked at the School of the Art Institute for five years. Then I decided I couldn’t deal with it anymore and applied for positions at four or five schools in Chicago. I had won an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship the previous winter, so that helped me feel a little more confident. And I had managed to save some money over that five-year period, so I thought if I didn’t have classes every quarter that would be OK. But it turned out I did. I got hired at Loyola and DePaul immediately, and I taught consecutively every quarter or semester at both for six years. Then I was hired at DePaul for a non–tenure track job. It’s a year-by-year contract. I think you can renew it five times, so I am supposed to be looking for tenure-track jobs now, but I’m not. I’m too busy launching my book, teaching my classes, and working on a revision of a novel. I should be thinking about jobs more, I guess. But I’ll worry about it later. Maybe tomorrow. We’ll see.
TQO: When did you decide you wanted to get your MFA at Indiana?
CS: I took at workshop at Ragdale in Lake Forest with David Wojahn, a poet who happened to be on the faculty at Indiana. I told him that I was applying for master’s programs, and he asked why I wasn’t applying for MFA programs since I was interested in writing. So I applied to eight or nine MFA programs, and I got into a few. Indiana actually offered me a teaching fellowship. I got tuition remission and a teaching stipend. Most of the people there have funding because it’s a small program. I had just lucked out in taking that class. David steered me in the right direction.
TQO: Your MFA from Indiana is in poetry. Do you still write poetry?
CS: I do, occasionally. Maybe just a few poems a year. Usually they are occasional poems for someone’s birthday. I actually wrote a poem in interview format just a few days ago—an interview with a streetlight.
TQO: What advice do you give to your students who write in multiple genres?
CS: I think it’s really good to try other forms, even if you think you are meant to write only fiction or poetry or screenplays. You come to appreciate the different responsibilities you have in each genre. Some people can’t write a poem to save their lives, but they can write a great story, or vice versa. You might as well try, though. It’s humbling, if nothing else. It reminds you how hard it is to do something well.
TQO: When you began writing, did you write poetry, fiction, or nonfiction?
CS: Well, a long, long time ago, when I was a kid, I started writing poetry. I was also writing in a diary, so that was nonfiction, I guess, but not for anyone else’s consumption. But poetry was really the first genre that I wrote. I also wanted to write fiction, so I did write stories. They were really awful. I had a lot better luck with poetry because I liked the fact that you could be very playful with a poem. You can with a story too, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to do it.
TQO: When did you start writing short stories?
CS: Probably in my second year in grad school, 1996. I had known all along that I was going to write fiction, but I just hadn’t had the guts. Then I took a fiction workshop for poetry MFAs with Alice Miller, who teaches still at Indiana. Her class helped me realize that when you sit down and write for several hours, and then come back the next day and do it again and again, you can write a story. I had already written some, but they were horrible. That was before I even applied to MFA programs. Also, in grad school I started reading more attentively. Having been a French major, I loved literature, but I wasn’t reading the way I read now. I would pick up books here and there. Joyce Carol Oates was someone I read a lot when in high school and college. I would read sort of scattershot. I had good English teachers in high school and we read a lot of the classics, but only in grad school was I finally introduced to a community of people really interested in literature. Both of my parents are avid readers, though, and my dad had been a journalism major at the University of Illinois. Books were always appreciated in my home—and still are.
TQO: You mentioned that you are working on a novel.
CS: It’s done! The first draft is done. O Husbands! That’s the title. It’s a satire. I love it. It needs some work, but I’m really excited about it. It’s such a strange book. I subvert the traditional gender roles. Traditionally men are considered playboys. They can go out and sleep around and it’s no big deal. It’s cool for them, how studly they are. But if a woman is promiscuous, she’s just considered a tramp and a low-life. I also examine the embarrassingly childish and depressing aspects of our culture, like reality TV. The book is set in the United States, but it is a slightly off-kilter US. The story centers on a psychologist. At the age of thirty, she decides that she’s going to marry three men and that it will work because they will compete with each other to please her. She doesn’t actually marry them, but she has a mock ceremony with each, and they cycle in and out of the house.
But the novel takes place in an America in which these girl gangs go out and deflower young boys. The main character had been a girl gang member in her teens, and she was very successful, deflowering hundreds of boys.
The story is meant to be a way to make men not afraid of women so that we can get along more harmoniously. It is a satire about our stereotypes and our prejudices against women. Also, I’m looking at all the garbage that people spend their time with, like the terrible TV shows that people watch. There’s no book like this that I’ve read. It’s off the wall. The message is that there really is no remedy for the fact that men and women just don’t get along all the time in the way that we want to, especially in marriage. It’s inspired in part by Laura Kipnes’s book Against Love. She is a major feminist critic, and she’s brilliant. She sees things so clearly. I love what she’s writing. I want to believe in monogamy; I’m naturally monogamous, but it doesn’t work all the time and it’s just hard.
TQO: The idea of this world that is a slightly off-kilter US is intriguing. It reminds me of the last story in Portraits of a Few, “Walled City,” which is kind of an off-kilter reality as well. Do you find yourself writing both satire and realistic stories often?
CS: I love satire. I write it quite a bit. But I find that often readers don’t know how to respond to it unless they have a similar sense of humor. I love dry humor, like that of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Satire is fun to write—but I try not to be preachy. People don’t want to be preached to at all. I don’t.
TQO: On your website you list “some music and books to spend your time with.” How do works make it onto this list?
CS: Some of the writers and performers are my friends, and so I’m helping out their work. Some are just books that I love, like Atonement by Ian McEwan. Steve Almond is a friend, and I love his work. He’s very accessible, and it’s too bad that people of dismiss him sometimes. He’s also an in-your-face type of guy. He writes a lot of political articles, and he’s very smart and sort of a polarizing figure. He went on The O’Reilly Factor once and they cut him off because he brought up allegations of Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment of one of the show’s producers. So they just cut his feed and then everything went dead. He’s awesome. Similarly, the other writers on my list are friends or colleagues or just authors who I love. Like Deborah Eisenberg—her stories are amazing. Twilight of the Superheroes is her most recent book, and she won a MacArthur Fellowship last year. I add to my list occasionally. Another writer on it is Peter Cameron, a really great novelist and story writer. He’s smart and very low-key. I like his work a lot.
TQO: Which books on the list do you like spending the most time with?
CS: Updike and Jim Harrison, and I include Alice Munro on the list too, I think. I don’t actually go back and reread books that much, because there is so much I want to read and I’m not a fast reader. So I always pick up stuff that I haven’t yet read. But I think I like a lot of the same writers that many people do. Charles Baxter is great—his stories more than his novels, even. He’s in the current Best American. He’s so funny.
TQO: What frustrations do you find yourself trying to avoid when you write? Are there any frustrations that you welcome?
CS: If you are talking about external frustrations, it’s hard to block out the voice that says, “I should be doing this instead. I should be answering those e-mails. I should be preparing my class for tomorrow or watching the Netflix that I’ve had sitting on my TV for four weeks.” But I try to remind myself that when I’m not writing, I feel guilty that I’m not writing.
I don’t really write with an outline; I just try to go with the story and write it as honestly as I can. There are times when I know that I’m being lazy and taking a shortcut, and then the story doesn’t work. Luckily that doesn’t happen very often. I find that the main frustration is failure to just sit down and write. I’m so busy, and I try to populate every day with a little too much. I think a lot of people do that. I don’t know how to balance as well as I’d like to.