A Question of Character: An Interview with Christine Sneed

By Alba Machado

Christine Sneed seems to be on a crest of a wave now. After Salman Rushdie selected her work to be included in the 2008 Best American Stories, she went on to win the AWP's 2009 Grace Paley Prize and a publishing deal for her collection of short stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry. Her first published novel, Little Known Facts, was named one of Booklist's top ten debut novels of 2013, and she is now at work on a second novel, Paris Gare St. Lazare. But her success was neither easy nor overnight. A visiting writer at Columbia College Chicago this spring, Sneed recently met with one of our Creative Writing MFA students, Alba Machado, at a bustling coffee shop in Evanston, where they discussed breaking into publishing, the future of short stories, building strong characters, and how a long career in writing can change a person.

Alba Machado: You got your big break when Salman Rushdie selected your story, "Quality of Life," to be included in Best American Short Stories. It's an unsettling story about a woman involved with an older man, and while I was reading it, I kept asking myself, Is this sexy? Is it creepy? Is it romantic? How did this story originate?

Christine Sneed: When I started writing it, I thought, oh, this will be a happy story about a May/December romance, we'll see what happens. But then when I got into it a couple pages I was like, Mr. Folger is kind of a predator! So I'm just gonna go that way. Once I realized it was going to be kind of sinister, it just ended up working out that she is going to be in the thrall of this guy who is basically making her decisions for her – which, as I wrote it, I realized, well, that's what a lot of us want. We don't really want to be responsible for our choices. But we are, ultimately. At the same time, we often end up letting other people decide for us. In Lindsay's and Mr. Folger's case, she's younger by a lot of years, and she also doesn't have a lot of money. If you have money, and you're older, and you're a man, I think you have a lot more power than a woman perceives herself to have. There are sexual politics at play. I think that's how a lot of people live. We sort of go along with things without really questioning why we're doing them; it just seems so much easier than making a fuss. For me, that was really what was at stake – that autonomy that she had. She has it, but she doesn't feel like she does.

AM: When you write, then, is that what you ask yourself, "What are the biggest stakes here?" Is that what caused you to shift gears while you were writing this story?

CS: I didn't think about it consciously, like, "Oh, this is going to be a story about gender, power, class, and ageism." It just ended up going that way. I thought, you know, there's more here than just a happy, sort of like, "Oh, too bad he's so much older than me, and it's over." It's more about her changing her life for him and he's not even that present for her, but he is, because psychologically he's very controlling. When that story came out, I remember one of my former students at DePaul, she read it, and she used to date this police officer, and she was like, "Oh my god, I felt so much like Lindsay. I dated this guy and it brought back all these awful memories." I think women essentially abdicate some of their autonomy when they're in relationships. With fiction, short fiction, especially, I don't know all this stuff will happen before it does. Normally, short stories, they evolve; I don't have an outline when I start out. I don't think many writers do use outlines when they are writing short fiction.

AM: It seems difficult to give your reader a strong sense of character in the space of a short story, and yet you do. How do you make this happen? Particularly with characters like Renn, the Hollywood legend at the center of your novel, Little Known Facts, characters whose experiences seem to be so far removed from your own?

CS: Interiority. If you know how to pick your details, you can really do a pretty good job of sketching your character in just a few lines. That's a skill. It took time to develop that skill. I look at my earlier stories and they're paper thin, metaphorically speaking – and literally, too. I didn't have the depth of characterization that I do now. I'm able to do that now, but that's because I've been writing fiction for twenty years, intensively writing. This is always quoted by people all over the place, but Malcolm Gladwell made famous that 10,000 hours theory. That's a lot of it. If you keep doing something, you're probably going to get better at it. For me, I think also what helps my characters seem real is that I really like them. People say, "Renn, he's such an asshole," and I'm like, "No, he's not! You would be hard-pressed to behave any differently if you were in his shoes." I don't really write about scoundrels. I don't write about drug dealers. I don't write about murderers. I'm not interested in that. I could write about someone who inadvertently murders someone else, or kills someone; that's a different thing, I think. But truly contemptible characters, I just don't want to be close to them.

AM: Did you love Mr. Folger? The predator?

CS: I didn't love him, but I think I understood him. You don't really get his interiority, you get hers. The story is a very close third person to Lindsay's point of view, not Mr. Folger's. You don't know what he's thinking, other than the fact that he wants to control this woman, and it's not that hard to do, and he gets his kicks from that. But he's not a murderer. He's just a manipulator. There's a difference. Renn's a manipulator, too. So is everyone. Because we're all looking out for number one, whether we want to admit it or not.

AM: Aside from being somehow likeable, what makes for a compelling character?

CS: Someone you recognize. Someone you could maybe be, yourself, or who at least you can understand, you can know why they do what they do, and that, even if they don't make the choices you would make, you understand why they make them by the end of the story. For me, a story – and this is not an original thing – a story is about a desire. What is it that this character wants? That's usually the problem I see in a story that's not working yet, when I look at student work. We don't know what the character wants, or there's no sense of this person being transformed in some way by this desire, and by the end of the story he or she should be transformed by a desire – whether it's to get to the post office on time or to steal his brother's wife or to find a new job or to buy a new refrigerator and surprise his wife, who's ready to leave him. Pretty ordinary things, but then they take on the dimension of something somewhat extraordinary or magical. All these common storylines become interesting because you add these details, you put these embellishments on these very bare-bones narrative threads.

AM: Returning to "Quality of Life," your Best American story, what do you think it was about that story, at that time? Why did it turn out to be your big break?

CS: I don't know. A lot of it is chance. Editorial capriciousness. That story, I'd been sending it out for four years before the New England Review picked it up. I had been publishing fiction for, like, nine years at that point, a few stories a year. You just never know. It's like a blind date. You hope it works out – the chemistry between you and the editor, or maybe the editor's having a terrible day and everybody's work is ending up in the trash. Having guest edited journals a couple of times, I know that so much of it is just personal preference, you know, like I like stories about dogs and someone else likes stories about cats, or we don't want stories with gore or people throwing up. We all have these prejudices.

AM: So you have a pretty thick skin, then?

CS: Well, you know, I think people are used to overnight success stories, and they're not the norm. But we hear about them. That's what the media likes to focus on when, in fact, most people struggle quite a while, as writers, or musicians, or movie stars. And writing is good because, you know, you don't have to be eighteen. It's better to be older. You get better with age, usually, and experience – unlike soccer players, or football players. They're over the hill at thirty. You have to be extremely persistent. Most people will tell you – successful writers, they send out work a lot.

AM: Do you think short stories might regain popularity because of digital media?

CS: There's a bias in the publishing industry that's conditioned people to mistrust short stories. That's something that's been talked about. New York doesn't want short story collections; they want novels. They are sort of dictating what people get – and then, as a result, that's what they like. It's like that argument: people wouldn't eat Doritos if they didn't like them. Well, maybe they shouldn't have been sold to us in the first place. Of course we like them. They're there. Or if people didn't like reality TV, then they wouldn't produce it. Well, someone had the idea, and then, they sold it, and yeah, we liked it, but that's not to say we don't like intelligently written scripted dramas. We do.

AM: You don't sound very optimistic.

CS: No, I think there's a chance that story collections will come back, because look, for example, at George Saunders. His Tenth of December was a bestseller. And so was Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove. The publishing houses made those books lead titles and their authors were also famous already, so it helps if you have that platform to build on. I think if they started offering more short story collections, people would buy them. I mean, Best American is a bestseller every year. There is a market for short stories. I mean, there are still a lot of journals, and there are a huge number of online publications now. I think that New York has just found that novels sell better, but that's also what they put their money behind – so, I mean, of course, yeah, they're going to sell better, if that's what you're promoting. But the short story form is not going to go anywhere. There are plenty of people, like Alice Munro, for example, who just won the Nobel Prize in literature – she's always been a short story writer.

AM: Now that you've achieved some level of success as a writer, what's been the most gratifying thing about having reached this point in your career?

CS: One thing that's nice about it is you have a few more readers than when you started out. I like knowing that someone, somewhere, is actually excited about what I'm writing – aside from myself. It's nice also to earn some of my living from my writing whereas for fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years I was really not making any money from my work, other than a few bucks here and there from published stories. So that's nice, too. You know, and also opportunities, like being a visiting writer at Columbia – that's wonderful. I just think that it's nice to be more a part of the literary conversation, meet other writers, have a chance to mentor them, too. That's a big part of it.

AM: What were some sacrifices you had to make?

CS: I was really single-minded about writing and being a writer, so I didn't really think of anything as being a sacrifice. I didn't want the traditional things that I think a middle-class heterosexual woman often wants: I didn't want to get married at any specific point; I didn't want to have kids, ever. Even though I was getting a lot of rejection letters – in one case, for a year – I just thought: well, I'm just going to keep trying. I just felt that there's nothing I'd rather do than write. Sometimes I would wonder if I'd never sell a book, or if I wouldn't find the right agent. But even when I doubted what would happen with my work, I never wanted to stop writing. It didn't feel like a sacrifice; it just felt like life. I just couldn't imagine not doing it. I felt like I'm gonna keep working on being a better writer and pretty soon people will start paying attention. It took a while. But it seems to have happened. If you're tenacious and you really make an attempt to improve, you're gonna get better, eventually.

AM: How do you feel you and your work have changed since you started writing?

CS: In a way, it's sort of perverse. I feel like I have less confidence. I know how to write a story, but then I think, "What if it's not good?" When I look at the things that have happened in the last few years, I'm like, wow, that's pretty impressive, you know? How did this happen? Are you sure? Is this me? That earlier bravado that I had, I realize that was really important for me to have, to believe that I could send out work and have someone publish it. But I've encountered minds greater than my own and I've been doing that for years, reading people who are better than me, and I just aspire to be as good as they are. I mean, how can you be as good as someone like Edward P. Jones or Alice Munro? I don't know. It might not be possible. But you try. That striving is something I think about more, and it excites me. I don't think "Oh, I wrote a great story" when I get something accepted. I think, "Are they sure?" Dealing with ego, keeping sort of a humble, maybe somewhat self-deprecating perspective is really important because there are going to be times when you don't get what you want. And that is a huge part of what determines your character: how do you deal with disappointment? I mean that not just in the fictional sense but in reality. You want things, but you don't always get them. So what do you do with that disappointment? Do you just try to move on or do you dwell in it, become, like, a self-pity monster? Those things for me are sort of the eternal question. How is your character informed by your success, and by your failure? That's something that I think about with my work. You have to have a character with a flaw. I realize, too, with my own experience of life, well, one day I'm happy, the next day I'm not. In the same hour, I feel up and down, up and down – I just find that that's becoming more common as I get older. I don't know if it's because I'm just aware of my mortality more than I used to be, well, maybe this will work out, maybe it won't. It's just those questions. I keep asking them.