Christine Sneed is a local author clearly hitting her stride. This past November the DePaul University professor published her debut short story collection Portraits of A Few of the People I’ve Made Cry to glowing reviews after first claiming the 2009 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. Praised by Booklist as “an exceptionally smart” collection written with a “supple mix of wit, frankness, and compassion,” Portraits features ten provocative stories that explore the complexities of romantic love and fame and was recently named a finalist for the 2010 LA Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. On Sunday, March 13th, you can hear Ms. Sneed read from Portraits when she visits EPL’s 1st Floor Community Meeting Room at 2 p.m. along with fellow local authors Pamela Ferdinand and Suzanne Clores. In anticipation of her visit, we recently spoke with her via email about the positive response to Portraits, the nature of celebrity, the state of short fiction, and her work on both a novel and new story collection.
Evanston Public Library: You’ve earned some wonderful recognition for your short stories with “Quality of Life” being selected for The Best American Short Stories 2008 and your debut collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry winning the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. How does it feel to have your work included with stories by T.C. Boyle, Alice Monro, Jonathan Lethem, and Nicole Krauss? What is your reaction to how well Portraits has been received?
Christine Sneed: I’m very excited that Portraits has received such generous reviews, and of course I was wildly flattered and disoriented (I couldn’t believe it – for weeks I kept wondering if it was a practical joke) to have been included in BASS 2008. I had started seriously to question my sanity – why had I spent innumerable hours of my life writing and making almost no money to speak of – just before I received the phone call on a day in late February 2008 that “Quality of Life” had been chosen by editors Salman Rushdie and Heidi Pitlor. Being included in this anthology – one that I had read and admired for years – did a lot to keep me hopeful about eventually publishing a book of my own.
EPL: Could you give us a window into your writing process for Portraits? How did you choose the stories for the collection, and when did you start work on them? Could you share some of your inspirations for the various stories? Did some come easier than others?
CS: The oldest stories in Portraits were written in 2002, the newer ones as late as November 2008, just a couple of months before I sent the manuscript in to the contest. During that same time period, I wrote a couple of novels, a novel-in-stories, and at least two or three dozen other stories. Needless to say, I could have chosen entirely different stories; I’m not sure why I chose the ones I did. I guess they were the stories that I thought worked together best. I can’t speak to what inspired me to write them – I often think of a title and then end up writing a story that I think works with it. In recent years, I’ve been interested in how Americans respond to fame, and this of course is a theme present in a few of the stories in Portraits. Most of them did come pretty easily – at least four were written in about a week or two, including “Quality of Life” and “Interview with the Second Wife.”
EPL: Many of your stories in Portraits explore the perils of romantic love and do so in the context of May-December relationships. Was this a conscious decision or a coincidence? What intrigues you about romantic relationships between women and men much older or younger?
CS: It’s actually a coincidence that four or five of the stories feature May-December romances. I suppose I’m just curious about what draws people to each other, and when there’s such an age gap, it’s even more intriguing. I think I’m most interested in what it is that each character hopes to find in the other that he/she can’t find in someone closer to his/her age.
EPL: Throughout Portraits, many characters become physically or emotionally intimate with virtual strangers. What is it that makes these characters trust a stranger when often they seem to doubt or mistrust themselves?
CS: I think A LOT of people leap into bed and/or relationships with people they don’t really know and shouldn’t be trusting so soon. For one, it’s human nature to be foolishly hopeful. Sometimes a person’s loneliness is also so overpowering that s/he can’t be trusted to make good decisions about whom to spend private time with.
EPL: In “You’re So Different” and “Alex Rice Inc.,” celebrities and “regular” people cross paths in everyday life. What interests you about the nature of celebrity? Can you discuss the complex mixture of jealousy, envy, attraction, and self-criticism triggered by these encounters?
CS: With the rise of programs like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, along with other reality shows like The Bachelor and Survivor, I’ve been pretty disheartened by how people seem to believe that being famous is the best thing ever. I really don’t think it is, and I suspect that plenty of famous people would agree with me. Fame and the famous very much interest me too because like most people, I have been drawn to actors and musicians and other public figures at various times and have had romantic attachments to them. I understand why so many people are insanely interested in famous people, but I also think it’s unhealthy and sad. Americans are not known for having a lot of self-knowledge or spending a lot of time reflecting on their motives and motivations, so writing about fame was a way for me to try to remedy this problem in myself, and also, I hope, help the people who read these stories to think about celebrity in a new way. We adore the famous but adore their missteps and humiliations even more – it’s really a childish thing. I don’t think there’s any remedy for it either.
EPL: In “Interview with the Second Wife,” a doctoral candidate tells the spouse of a deceased author, “I don’t mean to imply that he wrote anything but fiction, but you can’t deny that many writers are inspired by the events of their own lives… [Y]ou must understand that a reader naturally wonders how close the author is to his characters and their experiences.” How do you respond to questions about how much of your stories are drawn from your real life?
CS: I don’t get these questions too often because I usually say during a reading that these stories truly are fiction – they are not drawn from my own experiences. I really love making things up and imagining the lives of people very different from myself.
EPL: In recent years, the state of the short story has become the subject of vigorous debate most notably in high-profile essays by Stephen King and A.O. Scott. What is your opinion on the health of this art form? Is it “alive but unwell,” or is it poised for a resurgence? How do short stories and journals like Tin House and Glimmer Train fit into the world of blogs, tweets, and the Kindle?
CS: A lot of people I know love to read short stories; I think part of the problem is that the publishing world has for some reason decided to villify the form. But look at anthologies like Best American and O. Henry Prize stories – these books are best sellers every year. Not a lot of people read literary journals like Glimmer Train and Tin House compared to the books that the big NY trade houses are selling, but those two journals do have a lot of readers in the world of letters and they’re more interesting to me than blogs and tweets, which are like crumbs instead of the whole cookie. I keep a blog on my web site though, so I shouldn’t be so critical, I guess. As for Kindle, I think it’s inevitable that more and more people are going to use them rather than buy hard copies of books.
EPL: When you visit EPL on March 13th, you’ll be reading along with authors Pamela Ferdinand and Suzanne Clores. How did you become acquainted with these two local writers? How do you see your respective works relating to one another?
CS: I taught with Suzanne at DePaul for a few years and Pamela’s work was introduced to me by a mutual friend. I think they’re both very smart, sensitive and lovely writers.
EPL: Can you give Portraits fans a sense of what you’re working on next? Do you have future plans for another short story collection or perhaps a return to poetry? Also, rumor has it you’re working on a novel titled O Husbands! Can you tell us a little about what to expect? How does the process of writing a novel differ from work on a short story?
CS: I already have a new story collection that’s been ready for about a year; it has more stories about fame and its title is The Virginity of Famous Men. O Husbands! is going through a third revision and I hope it will be ready to go soon. My agent has already sent some of it out to a few publishers, and it’s still under consideration. O Husbands! is about polyandry, the female equivalent to polygamy. It’s a comic novel but also a very serious one in that it looks closely at a lot of American double-standards about gender and sexuality.
I’m planning to start a new novel soon and am writing new stories too.
Interview by Russell J.