Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman – CHRISTINE SNEED

CHRISTINE SNEED

TAKES THE FIFTH WITH DANIEL LIBMAN

Photo courtesy of Adam Tinkham

Christine Sneed‘s most recent book is The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short StoriesO. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and has been the recipient of the Grace Paley Prize, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award, Society of Midland Authors Award for best adult fiction, and others.  She lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches in the MFA programs of Northwestern University and Regis University.

Christine Sneed is an exceedingly kind human and a frank conversationalist. Fifth Wednesday Journal met with her in one of her favorite Evanston coffee shops on a snowy Wednesday in December. Not only is she generous with her time, she even brought cookies, as well. Sneed spoke candidly about Hollywood and the male power structure — a frequent subject of her fiction — but she was just as clear-eyed and forthcoming when discussing the ups and downs of publishing and academia.

 

Fifth Wednesday Journal: How long have you lived in Evanston?

Christine Sneed: On and off since 2000. I lived in Rogers Park for three years, on Farwell. Actually in the building that’s in the Stuart Dybek story, “Farwell.” When I read that story I was like, wait this is the building I live in!

 

FWJ: Do you consider yourself a “Chicago writer?”

CS: Not really. My books do seem to sell pretty well in Chicago, probably because I have relationships with people here, and they sell a bit in New York and Los Angeles. But the rest of the country is like, who’s that?

 

FWJ: What about in the literary tradition sense?

CS: I don’t think of myself as being a regional writer. I really don’t. Maybe because I was a language major in college and I lived in France, and I speak French and some Spanish, and even though I have lived mostly in the Midwest, I don’t think I’m a writer of this region. Other people might feel differently. It has to do with theme maybe. I’m much more interested in universal themes, such as how people deal with their insecurities and the mistakes they make and then what they do with those mistakes. I always like putting characters in situations where they don’t behave well. And then: What are they going to do to get out of it? I mean you get a choice: The most extreme option is that you can kill yourself or the happier (and more interesting, from the storytelling standpoint) alternative is you can figure out another way to go on.

 

FWJ: Where do you generally start when you’re working on a new piece of fiction? Is it character or situation or . . .?

CS: Often it’s the title. Maybe that’s because I was a poetry MFA and the way I worked on poems is that I thought of a line and it would become the title. I find the same thing works for stories. Not always, but The Virginity of Famous Men was the title of a different story I wrote fifteen years ago. I just thought, I like this title, and I think it’s one that speaks to the characters in my second book, Little Known Facts. The title story is actually a continuation of the novel, picking up a year and a half later. Those characters are all fully developed in that novel but I wanted to write another story and use it for the collection.

 

FWJ: When you start do you always know if you’re working on a story or a novel? Does that change your approach?

CS: Usually I just think what I’m working on is a short story. Paris He Said is a pretty traditional novel in that it doesn’t have any stand-alone sections and it has only two narrators. I really wish short stories were more interesting to New York publishers, aside from “Cat Person.” Everyone is talking about that story now. I wish short stories would get their due because they’re like poetry: incredibly intricate as a form. I’ve been writing them for a long time and I’m more confident writing short stories than when I started and still think they’re so much more interesting and rewarding in some ways than a novel. I say that to people and they say it’s just because my novels haven’t sold well.

 

FWJ: Do people pay attention to that?

CS: In New York they do. I have not been able to sell the last two manuscripts I went out with. They’re sitting in a drawer. My editor at Bloomsbury was interested but she couldn’t get anywhere with them because everyone is looking at sales track. It’s corporate. It’s amazing that the “Cat Person” writer got a seven-figure deal for her collection, and it’s all because that story went viral. It’s completely unfastened from reality. Story collections — unless you’re George Saunders, are tough sells. Even Alice Munro was basically a mid-list author until she won the Nobel. Sorry to be talking about the business, but to me it’s so frustrating, the difficulty of publishing and making a living from writing.

 

FWJ: Does that have an impact on your creative process?

CS: No. No, fortunately, it doesn’t in that when I’m sitting at my desk, I’m not thinking, “Oh my god I’m not going to be able to sell this.” I do think about it, but I’m also going to write whatever the hell I want, because I’m going to write a story that I would want to read.

 

FWJ: It seems to me your stories have obvious commercial, even cinematic possibilities.

CS: Thanks — I think so too. In my first book there’s a story called “Quality of Life” and people have asked, “Can I have the film rights to this?” And I’ve said, sure. But let’s be honest, it’s not like they’re going to be able to do anything with it. The same thing was said about Little Known Facts, which is set in Hollywood but is still very character driven. That’s where the confusion comes in. I write about characters but I’m also interested in pop culture.

 

FWJ: Your approach is literary. The topics are pop culture but they’re examined with a literary sensibility. Like the idea of celebrity.

CS: For me it’s a really interesting topic. I find film interesting. But also the amount of power famous people have. At the same time they’re at the mercy of the press, and fate, and their own sometimes-bad choices.

 

FWJ: In many of your stories the celebrities are all a bit trapped by fame. Not entirely, not in a cliché way, but you mostly present fame as a double-edged sword.

CS: That’s the thing I find most interesting about it. My partner’s sister works in Hollywood and she has worked with people like Paul McCartney and Madonna, hugely famous people, and we’ve talked a little bit about it. I’m amazed that she’s not at all impressed with herself. Most of the time when people know famous people they’ll say, “Oh so and so is my cousin” or “I just had lunch with so and so,” but my partner’s sister isn’t like that at all. For me, celebrity is a myth that Hollywood sells us: a perfect life, perfect happiness. How can this possibly be true? You look at someone like Mel Gibson who for a while there had it all, but look at all the things that happened to him. He sort of brought it down on himself in some ways, his own ego, but that’s one of the things I find interesting. Someone like Meryl Streep is very atypical. She’s been very successful from the beginning, essentially, from when she was discovered in New York in the 70s on a Broadway stage and became this Hollywood star. She’s become an icon and she continues to get enviable rolls. That is not the normal trajectory for a female movie star. Nicole Kidman has managed to hang on for a long time but there is probably a lot of painstaking cosmetic maintenance going on. America is hugely interested in youth and in worshipping youth. I knew a woman who used to work in Hollywood who told me the basic currency for an actress is: Are you fuckable? Once you’re not fuckable anymore you get grandmother roles. You have to be fuckable to get a good role.

 

FWJ: Is it different for men?

CS: I think so. If you look at the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there are a couple of important female characters but in fact the men are the ones with more interesting roles and are more sympathetic. I think also because men are not expected to look hot. There are obviously some good looking male actors, but someone like James Gandolfini, a heavy guy, not known for his looks. Louis CK is a perfect example, or Woody Allen. There’s no way Scarlet Johansson would want to hang out with Woody Allen if he were a normal guy. To me it’s such an interesting contradiction, but also an incredibly complicated part of our culture — which we export globally. That’s what people internationally think America is: Hollywood.

 

FWJ: How strict are you with your writing habits. Do you have set hours?

CS: Not really, no. I sometimes write for three to five hours a day. But I don’t sit straight through. I try to write for about an hour, an hour and a half and then come back later. I usually try to hit a word count, 1,000 words a day when I’m working on a novel. If I can get that done then I’m usually pretty tired. I was working on this sort of goofy, satirical thing recently. It’s straight humor. A sex comedy set in Evanston. It’s kind of naughty and the voice is deadpan, one joke after another. It’s been a lot of fun to write.

 

FWJ: How has your writing process changed over the years?

CS: Fifteen, twenty years ago I didn’t have as much experience with characterization, maybe I wasn’t as good at picking out which details needed to be in there. It’s like learning how to cook: with any luck, you’re going to get better. You’re going to learn to layer things or add different spices as you continue to progress. Years ago I read an article about Joyce Carol Oates that said she can write a short story in one sitting. I was like, how can you do that? How is that possible? And now I get it. I couldn’t do it in one day, but maybe three days.

 

FWJ: Isn’t that kind of sad? Isn’t JC short-changing herself by working so quickly? Can the end product be as good after three days as opposed to, say, a month of work?

CS: I think so. It’s like someone who has cooked the same meal over and over again. If it’s the first or second or third time you’ve made your favorite bouillabaisse sauce it’s going to take longer. And then suddenly you’re like, “Well I know how to do this.” But again, it depends on the situation. I find because I’ve been writing longer-form fiction lately, writing short fiction is a relief. I don’t have to spend two years on it before getting to the point where it’s readable. I know some writers, some really good writers, a friend of mine from grad school has been in Best American Short Stories twice, who told me, “I have so much trouble writing quickly. I have to spend a year on a short story.” I do think it’s related to confidence in some ways. I feel more confident writing a short story than an essay or a novel. But I’ve also written a lot more short stories, so I suppose that’s logical.

 

FWJ: You started with poetry. How are you as a poet?

CS: I haven’t written much of it in the last ten years but probably I was serious about it for fifteen years before that. Definitely in grad school. I worked with Yusef Komunyakaa. And one poet I loved is Lynn Emanuel; she wrote some collections in the early 90s including The Dig and Hotel Fiesta for the Illinois Poetry Series. She’s someone I admire. I like Merwyn too. I don’t really write like him but I like his work. There’s also a writer who has had a couple of collections named Joshua Clover, and one of his books is Madonna anno domini. He won the Whitman prize and I loved that book. It was wild and strange and beautiful.

 

FWJ: How did the transition to fiction come about?

CS: I knew before I went to grad school that I wanted to write fiction but it was so bad. I think it’s hard to write good fiction when you’re in your early twenties. Zadie Smith is an exception and Dave Eggers.

 

FWJ: And the “Cat Person” author.

CS: She’s actually in her mid thirties.

 

FWJ: Aha.

CS: Even though that story reads like it’s autobiographical and probably part of it is. I was just writing such bad fiction in my early 20s. One thing I learned in grad school is how to read. I was reading a lot before too, but it was kind of all over the place, but grad school helped me focus.

 

FWJ: Do you ever give up on a story in the middle?

CS: I have. Actually a story titled “Whatshisname,” which is in The Virginity of Famous Men, I wrote part of in 2009, and went back to it when I was working on Paris, He Said. I did seven drafts of that novel and two of those drafts were ninety-five percent rewrites where it was almost an entirely different book. My editor said of the first draft, “This isn’t working,” so I started over. Same characters but everything else was on the whole very different. Sometimes, regarding an abandoned piece of writing, I’ll go back and think, “Oh I actually like this. Why did I give up on it?”

 

FWJ: You’ve said you’re not writing toward a specific ending, so then how do you know when you’re there? How do you know when it’s time to leave your characters?

CS: One thing about short stories, and I say this about literary fiction when I talk about it, is that it’s character driven, but it’s also meant to reflect life accurately. We don’t get answers very often in life. So to me the ending in a story has to feel organic. I don’t usually know what’s going to happen. It’s instinctive — it’s very hard for me to see that far. Some people say, “I’ve got this great scene in the middle and I know how it’s going to end.” With literary fiction it’s incredibly difficult because it really is supposed to be a reflection of life and in life we don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next. I wait for the characters to be in a place where I can leave them. Something else is going to happen but it’s going to be off screen.

FWJ: Do you listen to music when you write?

CS: I used to but I don’t anymore. I find that it gets intrusive. I used to listen to classical. I’ll listen to music if I’m writing emails or grading papers, but not while working on my own writing. I’ve learned to write with other stuff going on in the room. Some people can’t and they’ll have to go to the library or a writer’s colony or something. I write better at home.

 

FWJ: Do you still submit stories to magazines through the slush pile?

CS: Oh yeah. Still do. I get rejected a lot. Usually if the journals are edited by grad students, if I have the hubris to send them a story, it will get rejected. But I can’t keep sending my stories to the same two editors because they’re going to get tired of seeing my work at some point. I don’t want to be greedy about it.

 

FWJ: I think emerging writers with a story or two, my students for example, they would be surprised to learn that someone with your track record still has the same struggles as they.

CS: I would bet George Saunders isn’t waiting a year to hear from American Short Fiction and then gets a rejection. But, I tell my students: only submit to places where you want to be published. If you submit to twenty places, carpet bomb, and then one of them takes your story, you might be like, “Shit, I didn’t want them to take it.”

 

FWJ: But don’t you always feel that way? Like, as soon as someone takes a story isn’t your first thought: I should have tried one step higher on the food chain?

CS: Not really. When the New England Review published me, I was thrilled, and those are the stories that have been in The Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry anthology.

 

FWJ: Do you mind talking about politics?

CS: I don’t mind talking politics. Like most people I am not a fan of Trump or most Republicans, the part of that party that has sold their souls to corporate CEOs. It’s hard for me to reign that part in when I’m writing. I really want to say things. But then that’s what an op-ed is for. I don’t write opinion pieces because I think I don’t have anything new to say. I write about it as fiction in the guise of humanity and humanness. The story “Older Sister,” which ends up being about a campus rape — I hadn’t started with that idea. I started off writing about a person who discovers she has a half sister. Then I realized: binge drinking needs to be a part of this, and her back story sort of took over. I’ve seen this with my students. This one young woman in a class of mine years ago — she was a freshman and she had blonde hair and suddenly she came to class with black hair and this haunted look in her eyes. I started thinking, “What happened to her?” Another student told me she was abusing drugs or alcohol and then she sort of disappeared. I’ve written about this topic in other stories: college is really this land of lawless pleasures. There are no parents there.

 

FWJ: I was thinking in light of the #metoo moment which we’re in, that your work can be seen through a more political lens, especially now that these sorts of Hollywood relationships are under closer scrutiny. Are you thinking about addressing that through fiction or otherwise?

CS: That’s part of why Hollywood is interesting. Women are valued for very specific things. The protagonist of my story “Words that Once Shocked Us”* isn’t even old, she’s about forty or forty-one, and she’s already thinking her days of sexual viability are over.

 

FWJ: Would you ever consider addressing these issues head on?

CS: A friend of mine who read the first couple chapters of this novel I’ll be trying to sell in a few weeks said, “You should have more political stuff in there.” And I said, I’m trying to write work that’s tant — you have a very short amount of time to get someone’s interest. I’m interested in the subversion of hyper-masculinity, like all these stunts Putin is pulling, Trump too. I never name Trump in the novel but he’s alluded to several times. But if anything, I try not to be overly political.

 

FWJ: You teach a workshop, right? Can you describe one of the writing exercises you’ve had good luck with?

CS: I assign an exercise which I probably got from someone else, I don’t remember, but I’ll give this list of people: like a person who cleans a Las Vegas hotel room, a person who has thirty pairs of blue jeans, a person who likes to dumpster dive but is not homeless . . . Then you have to write ten interview questions as if you’re a journalist going to interview them. And then the next thing is, answer those questions in the voice of that character. The idea is to try and avoid the stereotypes. Tell us something that isn’t obvious. My students seem to like it.

 

FWJ: What books do you have them read?

CS: My grad fiction classes read Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories. It’s so good. And I also had them read one of my favorite books ever, All That Man Is, a David Szalay novel. He was long-listed for the Man Booker — that book is so damn good. It’s actually a story collection but it’s marketed as a novel because there are nine chapters; nine individual stories about nine individual men, only two of them are linked. Szalay goes deeply into their interior lives and it’s an amazing book. The writing and the character development and the psychological weight, it’s incredible. The other book was actually a book from an MFA friend of mine name Dana Johnson. She lives and writes in Los Angeles. She has a collection of stories out called In the Not Quite Dark, and among other subjects, it’s about being a woman of color in Los Angeles. She writes about men too. It’s really good. Counterpoint put it out in 2016.

 

FWJ: And who are the writers you’re recommending right now. Who should we be reading?

CS: Scott Spencer, of course. All four of David Szalay books. I really like Elizabeth Strout, especially Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge. Rachel Cusk. She’s written twelve books and I’ve read all but one. I’m obsessed with her work. I think she’s a genius. When I was younger I read a lot of Lorie Moore in grad school and I liked it a lot. Jim Harrison is someone whose work I admire a lot, too. His earlier novels are really beautiful. John Updike had an effect on me as well. His line-by-line energy is like George Saunders. William Trevor, and Alice Munro — I love her.

 

_____________

Daniel Libman is Pushcart Prize and Paris Review Discovery Prize winner and the author of the story collection, Married But Looking. He regularly writes the “Taking the Fifth” interview and is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

 

*“Words that Once Shocked Us” was first published in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Spring 2012.

 

 

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