Christine Sneed interview: Le mot juste

Novelist Christine Sneed shares advice for making every page a work of poetry.
By Jack Smith | Published: December 12, 2017


Christine Sneed

 

The Christine Sneed File

  • BA in French, Georgetown University

  • MFA in Creative Writing, Indiana University

  • Published two novels and one short story collection

  • Short story “Quality of Life” appeared in The Best American Prize Stories 2008

  • Short story “The First Wife” appeared in PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012

  • A second collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, is due to be published by Bloomsbury in September 2016

  • Teaches for the MFA programs at Northwestern University and University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

 

“A strong protagonist,” says Christine Sneed, “does much of the heavy-lifting in a work of fiction. The plot itself might not be very compelling or original, but if you have characters that seem to live and breathe on the page, they will more likely than not keep a reader invested.”

Sneed’s protagonists keep readers invested because they are layered with such depth that we come to know them like real people. We know what dominates their thoughts: what they want out of life, what they might have to settle for. Her two novels are rife with complicated conflicts, sometimes of her characters’ own making, and yet they don’t willingly borrow trouble. They make choices, like all of us, and some choices are like stepping into a river. There are undertows. The pleasure in reading a Christine Sneed novel is seeing how her protagonists struggle to stay afloat as well as they can – and to do more than that, if they can.

Sneed also fuels reader interest with intriguing story settings. For her first novel, Little Known Facts, it’s Hollywood, though it would be more accurate to say the Hollywood movie industry itself. The novel centers on Renn Ivins, a rich world-class actor, but an abject failure in the family department: a womanizer with two unsuccessful marriages and two mostly estranged children. His behavior can border on the bizarre, especially when he clashes with his son Will over eligible women. To get beyond his father’s gravitational force, Will moves to Paris and gets busy writing a film script entitled Little Known Facts about his dysfunctional family. On the whole, Sneed’s characters struggle to situate themselves outside of, or within, this Hollywood mogul’s solar system.

Her current novel, Paris, He Said, is set mostly in the City of Lights. Jayne Marks, a fledgling artist, isn’t succeeding in the New York art world. She meets gallery owner, Laurent Moller, a wealthy Parisian who invites her to live with him in Paris, where he promises to support her career. For Jayne, Laurent’s offer is a ticket out of a life going nowhere fast, and she might be falling in love with him. In lesser hands, this novel could end up a tawdry romance, but Sneed’s premise becomes an opportunity for novelistic probing. Capturing the deep interiority of her characters, Sneed portrays the ordinary push and pull of human relationship, the uneasy dynamic of expectation and result, and the unwieldy prospect of human happiness.

Sneed’s command is particularly evident in the trajectory of her characters, her careful delineation of their self-knowledge. Character development is a gradual accretion of felt experience, the sensitive distillation of experiences and the realization of a new, possible equilibrium, however tenuous. But nothing is wrapped up in a tidy package.

Literary fiction, Sneed says, “ideally mirrors, with precision and insight, the world and our experiences as thinking and feeling social creatures. This mirroring is also, however, one of the aspects that can frustrate readers who are looking for answers, for closure. The world, at least in my experience of it, doesn’t consistently offer the answers we are hoping to have when something ends – a relationship, a job, or, in this case, a story.”

In the end, Sneed’s gripping narrative voice is the hallmark of her fiction. As a stylist, she crafts detailed, lucid prose that holds her protagonists up to the light, exposing the myriad interstices of their complex beings. In addition, her acute sense of the right word – the mot juste – helps draw readers into the characters she so marvelously creates.

 

How does setting generally come to you in the process of writing a story or novel? Why did you choose Paris as a setting for your new novel? What did it help you accomplish?

I generally have a pretty good idea of where a story or a novel will be set before I start writing a new work of fiction. In the case of Paris, He Said, I knew before I’d written the first word that I wanted Paris to be the setting where most of the novel’s events took place. I was a French major in college and spent the obligatory junior year abroad; writing Paris, He Said allowed me to examine my sometimes-complex feelings for the French and their culture. Many Americans have such a strong attachment to France, and Paris in particular, and again, I hoped to understand my own feelings for this country and city a little better, as well as explore Paris’s hold over the American imagination. It is the celebrated aspects of Paris’s beauty – its art, architecture, fashion, food, parks, grand boulevards – that seduced me into setting my novel there.

 

The setting in this novel is vividly portrayed. Can you walk us through your process of creating it? Did you study maps, take pictures, do very much research?

I have visited Paris probably a dozen times since the year I studied in Strasbourg. When I was writing Paris, He Said, I traveled twice to the city from my home in Evanston, Illinois, for several days to make sure that I correctly portrayed the details I chose for the novel, and I did study maps and travel guides such as Lonely Planet’s Paris guide. I also took pictures and scribbled many pages of notes as I walked through the city, especially the 18th arrondissement, which is where Laurent Moller’s apartment is; I located it on rue du Général Foy, a few blocks southwest of the Gare Saint-Lazare train station, near a beautiful little park called the Square Marcel Pagnol. I looked at photos of Paris as I was writing some of the more descriptive passages, too. This helped me recall the feelings of awe that I felt when seeing these streets and landmarks in person.

 

How were you able to gather enough information about Hollywood to able to write Little Known Facts?  What made you want to write about the movie industry?

Like many other people, I’ve always been curious about Hollywood and the film industry. When writing Little Known Facts, I drew on my impressions from the visits I’d made to L.A. over the last 12 years or so, and I have family members who work in the industry. Hearing some of their stories about the difficulties of making a living as an actor or producer or screenwriter – and about what might happen if you do make it – inspired me to write about the effects, as I imagined them, that fame has on the famous and their intimates.

 

You often make use of expository prose and narrative summary. This is a risk in fiction writing, and yet you achieve dramatic power. How do you manage to do this?

Well, I do sweat these parts of the story quite a bit; I do a lot of editing. A couple of years ago I saw George Saunders speak in Chicago around the time of the release of Tenth of December, and he said something that I continue to think about often, that is, how he tries for a line-by-line energy in each of his stories. I realized that this is also something I aspire to. If you’re using interesting enough language, and you’re doing your best to immerse your characters fully in a fictional world – one that seems immediate and sincere and authentic – these expository passages will ideally snap to life, but it takes time, for sure, along with a sometimes ruthless editorial eye. There really is a lot of revision involved. One thing that I try to do in my work is show how much I love the world, and to write with precision about it. I name the type of tree, for example, and describe its leaves. I want to be able to see it clearly, and I hope my readers will too.

 

Spirited dialogue is crucial to page-turning work. How do you write dialogue? What are some tips you can give beginning writers?

One thing I’ve come to realize is that the dialogue in good films has helped me learn to write better dialogue in fiction. And paying close attention to people who are talking who don’t know you’re listening – occasional eavesdropping on the bus or the subway, or in line at the library or at the movie theater – is very instructive. I like to listen to other people in an unguarded moment.

 

You notice how some people change the subject without ceremony; non sequiturs are an excellent tool in dialogue writing because people’s thoughts are often discursive, and reflecting this in dialogue can create an authentic ring to an exchange between two characters. It’s also a good idea to dispense with the routine parts of conversation, such as: “Hi, how are you?” and “I’m fine, and you?” Pauses also are sometimes a good choice. The playwright Harold Pinter made effective use of them. Silence can be very expressive.

 

How do you get started on a novel? How much do you manage the process, and what are your writing goals as you proceed? 

I usually begin with a character, and I often have a title, though in the case of Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, ironically, I didn’t. The titles came later, but with the short stories I’ve written, the titles have almost always come first. While I’m writing, I often jot down ideas in a little notebook I keep on my desk – plot points, bits of dialogue, notes on structure. I also do try to write a certain number of words every day. One writer friend goes by line count. Whatever it is that helps you get words down on the page, that’s what you should do. But I think it’s good to have a goal in mind when you sit down at your desk.

 

Is there a moment in the writing process when you know: I’ve got it?

I don’t think I ever feel confident that I do. But with luck, I reach a point where I realize the characters seem to be people who could exist, and that if I met them on the street, I’d recognize them.

 

When did this happen with Jayne and Laurent?

I didn’t really have a confident sense of who Laurent and Jayne were until I started the second draft of Paris, He Said. Once I started rewriting, however, I realized that I did know who they were. The process of getting to know a character is similar to how it is in real life: You spend time with someone and gradually you begin to understand who this person is, and possibly, some of what resides in his or her private heart.

 

Laurent’s story isn’t as central as Jayne’s, but he’s clearly an important character. What did he need to accomplish for your novel to work?

With Laurent, I knew from the beginning that he was cosmopolitan and a devoted, but not an amoral, pleasure-seeker. I wanted to try to understand how someone like him operated and saw the world, and I was thinking about powerful, wealthy men such as entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, perhaps, and film stars or other celebrated artists who have access to the most beautiful women and men in the world. What kind of person do you become when you have so many opportunities to experience pleasure? Does it make you a happier person than someone who doesn’t have access to glamorous people and experiences? This was at the core of my attempts to understand and create a character like Laurent Moller. He had to be someone who could make a reasonable argument for his behavior because this is a novel, at heart, in which I have to make sense of how people like Laurent, a man of many privileges, choose to live their lives.

 

In both of your novels, you shift from third to first person. Why did you make these shifts, and what were you trying to achieve?

 First-person point of view allows a kind of intimacy that is harder to access with third-person, but there’s also the danger that a first-person narrator will alienate the reader, and so the distance or detachment almost instantly at hand with third-person is valuable if you’re striving for more objectivity in the story. I found switching point of view invaluable while writing Paris, He Said in that it permitted me to approach Jayne’s and Laurent’s interior lives from different angles. I could have them speak in their own voices and also have a third-person narrator portray them with more of a sense of detachment, if not complete objectivity.

In my first novel, Little Known Facts, I used first-person with a few of the characters that I wanted to lend especial poignancy too – Renn himself and his two ex-wives, for example. There’s something more plaintive in their sections, perhaps, than in the others. They are making appeals to readers – to like them, to trust them – that I didn’t think would have as much power in third-person.

 

In Paris, He Said, why did you choose sections for your two point-of-view characters instead of alternating perspectives?

I originally wrote this novel solely from Jayne Marks’s point of view, in close third-person, but as I was working on the second draft, I kept thinking about Laurent having his say, and I knew that I very much wanted to dedicate at least one section to him, but I didn’t want to switch from one character’s point of view to the other within the same section. It would have compromised my attempts to create a fully-realized emotional and intellectual life for each of them, independent of the other. Having my main male character explain some of his behavior, to defend himself, in a sense, in his own extended section, was one way I tried to transform him into a more complex and possibly more sympathetic character.

 

What can beginning writers learn about point of view? What’s your advice, based on your own writing?    

Frequently when a story isn’t coming together, point of view is one of the first elements a writer should examine: Should this be in first-person instead of third? It can be instructive, for sure, to change from one to the other. Narrative voice is also very much connected to point of view. For me, overall, I’d say that point of view is instinctive. I hear the voice in a certain way and know that it has to be first or third. I write more in third-person than in first; I like the detachment of third. It seems, perhaps ironically, more freeing than first, which is very much governed by the personality you’re creating with the “I” that guides the story.

 

How much revision do you do?

I do a lot of revision. It’s especially crucial with a novel manuscript. I rewrote about 90-95 percent of Paris, He Said from the first draft to the second. I basically started over; I opened a new Word document, copied in a few pages from the first draft and more or less trudged forward as if I were writing a new novel. Then I wrote five more drafts. My editor and I worked on seven drafts all told before she signed off on it and it went to the copy editor. She and I both scrutinized each sentence closely. I suppose that I am usually trying for a kind of prose that reads like poetry, a quality John Updike once said that he aspired to too. He wanted a reader to be able to choose any one page out of his novels and be able to read it as if it were a poem. Overall, the revision of this novel was absolutely exhausting. My first novel, Little Known Facts, however, came out almost intact; this was a rare experience, though, for me. It might be my first published novel, but it’s not the first one I’ve written.

 

Do you have a regular writing schedule? A regular writing place?

I don’t have a regular schedule, but when I’m working on a novel manuscript, I generally try to write every day, and get about a thousand words down if possible. I do have a preferred place for writing though. It’s the desk in my kitchen/study area. It’s near some west-facing windows, and it gets a lot of bright afternoon light. It’s the one place in the world where I feel relatively focused and sane.

 

Any tips for beginning writers on getting novels completed and published?

You have to be very persistent about putting your backside in the chair every day and facing rejection and continuing to work despite the disappointments and frustrations. You also have to be able to differentiate between criticism you can use and the kind that you can’t. In workshops I usually find that one or two people will read work in the way the author hopes to be read, and they will give feedback that speaks to one’s own preoccupations as a writer. The other feedback, the writer has to be able to filter out. I also think it’s important to finish a full first draft before you show it to someone because it’s very easy to get derailed when you’re in the middle of a long project if you show someone new pages and he or she says, “I don’t think this character/this plot thread/this structure works.”

 

What’s your final advice to beginning writers?

Saying no when you’d much rather say yes to an invitation to see a movie, or to go shopping, or to go away for the weekend – this is one the biggest challenges of being a writer. You have to find a balance; do say yes, for sure, sometimes, but also get disciplined about saying no.

 

Jack Smith is the author of Write and Revise for Publication and two satirical novels, Hog to Hog and Icon.

 

 

 

 

The education of Christine Sneed (by way of five books)

Endless Love by Scott Spencer
“The main character, David Axelrod, is the most compelling unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. A truly virtuosic and inordinately affecting novel.”

 

Runaway by Alice Munro
This is probably my favorite book by the brilliant Munro. The depth and beauty of the characterization in these stories is a touchstone for me.”

 

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
“This devastating novel reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. The spare language and brevity of the book – 199 pages – remind me that every word should be necessary.”

 

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

“A friend of mine used the words ‘purposeful play’ recently to describe something he’d read, a phrase which also perfectly describes this charming and erudite book.”

 

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

“The lushness of Franzen’s sensual prose and the affection he shows for his characters continue to instruct me. Franzen is a Coetzee foil, you could probably say; in any case, both writers do what they do so well.”

 

 

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