Interview with Christine Sneed

Writer Christine Sneed chats about her 40th birthday, Tea Partyland, clowns, pettymindedness, sex-scoundrels, her forthcoming novel, and why she writes stories (FYI, it’s so she can buy presents for the people she wants to see naked. Who knew fiction writing’s just all about the sex and money?)

Christine Sneed’s stories seduce us. Hot-as-sex and tragic, they illuminate the nature of attraction and the superficial yet character-defining scenes that follow acts of lust. Her characters open and wither and dry-up like flower-petals in an intricate garden; they desire and love and fuck like you would–do–given an attractive or intriguing partner. And such peepholes into the romantic lives of the beautiful and the famous—and the damned—somehow show us ourselves.

I see myself.

And I feel guilty.

I will be better, Christine Sneed.

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In five three-word sentences, tell me about the past five years of your literary career.

Doubt, then Defiance

Waiting = Hardest Part

Thanks, Mr. Rushdie!

Thanks, Ms. Pitlor!

I Heart AWP.

In this past decade, you’ve been published in The Best American Short Stories, won the Grace Paley Prize, written and published a beautiful and acclaimed story collection, and had a story accepted into the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. Ten years ago, where did you see yourself in ten years?

I don’t know if I have ever actually tried to imagine myself ten years into the future. I think I am firmly wedded to a belief in the unexpected, and also, the belief that if you work hard enough and really love what you do, and are honest with yourself about your writerly weaknesses and do everything you can to improve them through obsessive, exuberant reading and writing, you will start to achieve the things that most writers hope for – a) that someone smart will like your work, b) that someone smart will publish your work, and c) that someone (smart or not) will pay to publish your work, and as a result, based on the checks the publisher has so kindly (but sometimes with great delay) sent to you, you will be able to buy your favorite ice cream when the whim strikes you and pay your rent on time, and buy presents for the people whom you like to see naked on a regular basis.

Your stories are not overtly political. As a fiction writer, what, if anything, do you see as your responsibility to the “real world?” What is the writer’s role —art’s role–in a socially progressing and regressing world? Do you view fiction writing a democratic act–an act essential or central to our American democracy?

Recently I was at a reading in Chicago and someone asked the writer who was up on the stage, “Who do you write for?” and the writer replied, “That one desperate person who needs me to speak to them through my work.” I think that’s such an astute and almost romantic way to look at our work as writers. Interestingly, I worry about the opposite of what you express, i.e. that my politics are so transparent in my stories. In them, I frequently (but maybe obliquely) rant about conservatives and even have one character saying to another in the title story in Portraits that she’d better watch out, or the next thing she knew, she’d be voting Republican. I also think of “Walled City” as a political allegory. I’m so down on the pettymindedness that infects a lot of people, myself included, when it comes to living in a big city or in any city, for that matter, where we are told, so often, by our media (ads in particular) that we should fight for what we want – the biggest car, the most expensive handbag, the best haircuts, three palatial houses, and the consequences be damned!

I do think of writing as a democratic act, in that I hope to give voice to a lot of the very personal fears that plague people – if we all felt better inside our heads and hearts, it’s likely that the world would reflect this, but because there is so much unexpressed and sometimes violent private malaise in so many of us, our aggressive, imperial-minded policies reflect that anger and resentment and fear.

I’ve read your poem “Fifteen Hundred Clowns in One Room”—so sad—and your short story “Clown Testimonies.” And, on your website, this little joke:

Q. What did the cannibal say after he ate the clown?

A. That tasted funny.

Tell me about an interaction you’ve had with a clown.

I have interactions with clowns all of the time. On the highway, in line at the grocery store or at the post office. Isn’t this an inevitable part of human experience? Many clowns, however, leave their big red noses and floppy shoes at home; they like to disguise their clownishness. Which sometimes makes it difficult to recognize them, but I know that their essential clownishness is there, just below the plain, ungreasepainted surface. Sometimes they ask themselves questions such as, “If you had to choose between a VW Bug and a Mini-Cooper, what would you do?” Their answers are dead giveaways – they always choose the VW Bug.

In your interview with TriQuarterly Online, you mention a character you once wrote 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.” If you interviewed yourself, what would be your first question?

Actually, I did interview myself once for a Nervous Breakdown piece after my story collection was published (you might know that site). The question I asked there was: Are you sure that your stories aren’t based on yourself or on people you know? But here’s a better one, maybe: Just who do you think you are? The gall you have! Expecting people to pay you to publish your work, let alone read it!

And what’s the answer?

Well, writing (at least for me) is the best therapy out there, so that’s one of the reasons why I do it. I guess I expect people to pay to publish my work because I see a lot of other people getting away with it, so why shouldn’t I? (Hmmm…that sounds like a copycat criminal’s excuse; “Everyone else was looting the convenience store for Pop Rocks and Slim Jims. I thought, why shouldn’t I do it too?”)

Which of your characters would you most like to ask some questions? Have a drink with? A one-night stand? A relationship?!

Well, Lyndsey in “Quality of Life” – she’s someone I’d like to ask some questions, e.g. don’t you know that you can simply stop picking up Mr. Fulger’s calls? That you can stop going out to meet him? But at the same time, I feel this deep sympathy for her – I know that she feels like she owes him something. I think a lot of people are in relationships like theirs – one of the two principals is miserable but doesn’t know what to do about it. Mr. Fulger’s power, his authority, his money – these things are eventually like straitjackets for her.

I’d like to have a drink with Thea in “A Million Dollars.” There are a few things I think I could tell her that might make her feel better about her situation.

As for a one-night stand – won’t my boyfriend get jealous if I air my fantasies here? I honestly don’t know – a lot of the male characters that I write are kind of scoundrel-y. I do think Brynne’s boyfriend in “Twelve + Twelve,” Griggs, is a nice guy though. And maybe he’d be hot in the sack. Who knows…wait a minute, I created him, so I can make him a 5-star lover too.

Griggs might also be the guy I’d want to have a relationship with. Or Luis, Alex Rice’s bodyguard. He’s a nice person. I bet he would also be able to get us a lot of free movie tickets.

A lot of your male characters are scoundrel-y. It sounds like you’ve got a kind boyfriend and it’s a happy relationship and, as you’ve said in other interviews, fiction is fiction. So I don’t want to ask you if male scoundrel-ism is a theme in your life. But then I want to ask you: is it? Or do un-loveable men just create better stories—say and do things that drive intriguing plots? Or both, maybe?

I do seem to write about scoundrels a lot of the time, but you can’t really have a good story if you don’t have flawed characters. The women who tangle with these scoundrel types are also flawed, but often it’s in their case, bad judgment. Or else, I guess to be more kind, I could call it misguided hope. The men aren’t necessarily intentionally cruel, but they are not always as nice as they could be.

So what’s next, now? Any new characters for us to lust after and learn from? You know my rendezvous with my favorites are always too short. You need to write a novel!

Your wish is my…well, guess what, I have written a novel and it was just picked up by Bloomsbury USA. I am so damn thrilled. It’s called Little Known Facts, and it’s about a big-time actor named Renn Ivins and the effect his fame has on his two grown children (especially his son) and his two ex-wives, along with a couple of other people he is close to.

So is Renn Ivins a scoundrel?

Renn Ivins isn’t exactly a scoundrel – at least not all of the time. He does do some things that people will raise their eyebrows over, but I am about 95% certain that most readers (provided I have some readers…) will expect him to do the naughty things he does, because, well, he’s a movie star.

Little Known Facts. Tell me one.

Just learned this from reading one of my student papers: “karaoke” means “empty orchestra.”

You turned forty last weekend. Happy birthday! What’s the best present you got? Any wishes for the year ahead?

An end to the partisan bickering in this fraught, absofuckinglutely irritating year before the next presidential election (along with a big, mysterious hole opening up in the ground in the middle of Tea Partyland, one that sucks up the entire constituency).

The best present: a pair of woolly pink UGG slippers, from my beau. So cute!