Christine Sneed is the faculty director of Northwestern University’s MFA & MA in Creative Writing in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago. The Virginity of Famous Men is her second collection of short stories and her fourth book, on the heels of last’s year’s Paris, He Said, a novel set in contemporary France.
Her stories often tackle divergent themes of loneliness and family. In “The Prettiest Girls,” a Hollywood location scout decides to smuggle a woman he lusts after out of Mexico. In “Beach Vacation,” a mother comes to terms with the unpleasantness of her own son. Harking back to her 2013 novel Little Known Facts, several stories are concerned with the notion of celebrity—particularly the Tinsel Town variety.
Last week, The Virginity of Famous Men was named to the fiction shortlist for the 2016 Chicago Review of Books Awards, which recognizes the best books by Chicagoland writers each year. I recently spoke with Christine about her short fiction, the influence Midwest has had on her as a writer, trying to understand human behavior, and the outlook of today’s MFA students.
Lisa Katzenberger: How long did it take you to write this collection?
Christine Sneed: I wrote the stories over a period of about nine years while I was working on other manuscripts. So on and off for probably close to a decade.
Lisa Katzenberger: Has living and growing up in the Midwest influenced your writing?
Christine Sneed: Yes, it definitely has. Even though I’ve written about characters who are living in Los Angeles and Paris—which are two cities I have visited and am interested in—I think that just growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, you learn things about other people and the way the world works. What you learn if you grow up in Libertyville is different than what you learn if you grow up in Manhattan. It was a pretty calm, quiet upbringing. So I think it helped me become more of an observer in some ways. Maybe if I was constantly in a noisy, busy populace I wouldn’t maybe have become a writer. But I had a lot of quiet, contemplative times.
But I think the values here are pretty much community and family centered. I think I didn’t feel this pressure to be out doing stuff in the world all the time. Maybe I would have felt different if I had grown up in a place where there was a lot more activity night and day than there was in Libertyville.
Lisa Katzenberger: You received your undergraduate degree in French Language and Literature. What was your path to get to where you are now?
Christine Sneed: I studied in Strasbourg my junior year at Georgetown. That was the year I realized I wanted to be a writer, living aboard that year. And then having the opportunity to visit a number of other big cities in eastern and western Europe, I was introduced to new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing I wouldn’t have probably been introduced to as quickly if I had stayed on campus that year. It really stoked my curiosity about other people and their experiences of the world.
And I realized how big the world is. People talk about it being so small now with the Internet, but at the time in 1991, when I was studying in France, we didn’t have email yet. People had to hang out with people. The world literally felt like it hadn’t been untapped—I hadn’t tapped much of it yet. That year just really encouraged me to be more ambitious about exploring other possibilities. And also being a language major and learning another language and learning other ways of seeing the world was instrumental for me as a formative experience and helped me be curious about other people’s thoughts and experiences.
Lisa Katzenberger: Writing short story collections requires the ability to generate more ideas for stories, which means developing more characters and plotlines. How do you continue to come up with fresh ideas?
Christine Sneed: I keep a notebook and I really like short stories as a reader as well as a writer. I realized several years ago that one source of inspiration for me is Harper’s. The essays in Harper’s are all extremely well written and they also do a lot of quirky stuff in their readings sections. There’s so much in there that’s so rich. And I find that I’ve had a number of ideas from reading it. And they might not necessarily be from the article, but it triggers some thought of what I can write a story about.
I’ve kept writer’s notebooks for probably almost 20 years now. I’m very slow to fill them, but I also put story title ideas down and also ideas for characters, so I go back to that sometimes. And I forget some of the stuff I’ve written, because the notebook I have now I’ve had for nine years now—it’s really beat up. There’s a ton of stuff I could look at again and try to mine that if I need to figure out something that I want to work on next.
Lisa Katzenberger: One of my favorite lines is in “Beach Vacation.” She was not the only woman in the world with a teenage son. Millions of other women had survived the same affliction. I think it says a lot about how you showcase your characters. They may be going on vacation, navigating a divorce, or in a young college relationship, but each of their stories reveals how those very general experiences are so very different for each character. How do you show so much character depth?
Christine Sneed: There’s a tendency—I think it’s human nature, whoever you are—to assume certain things about people that maybe you don’t know very well and to make snap judgments about behavior. If I’m teaching something that’s somewhat morally complex, like if we’re reading about adultery or something like that, that tendency to judge very quickly is something that I’m always fighting against—although I do it myself.
In fiction when I’m working on a story I want to try to understand the fact that a lot of conflicting emotions make up our behavior. The decisions we make to behave or respond a certain way in a situation. In the story “Older Sister,” the main character, a victim of acquaintance rape, is imagining that all these girls would think of her as a slut or an idiot or how could she do such a stupid thing and get so drunk. I think we never know how we’re going to behave until we’re in a situation like that. I want to try to understand the complexity of all the feelings that we often don’t even know we’re feeling. We don’t know how we’re going to behave until we’re faced with a series of decisions that we need to make.
Really I’m writing about our flaws. You can’t have an interesting story if you don’t have someone making a bad decision, or at least dealing with the aftermath of a series of bad decisions. I’m just trying to be compassionate and understanding behavior.
Lisa Katzenberger: How do you determine the right setting for each set of characters and stories?
Christine Sneed: Often I think of the characters first and the setting usually is secondary. There are cases like the title story, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” I knew that I wanted to set that in Paris as it picks up a year and a half after the novel Little Known Facts.
I knew that I was going to set it in Paris and Paris itself was going to be kind of a character. “The Functionary,” for example, that story is set in DC and I was imagining Mexico. It really depends; sometimes the setting sets the precedent for what follows, but often it’s the characters. I see them before I see the setting.
Lisa Katzenberger: The Chicago literary scene continues to grow and thrive. What are your favorite ways to be involved in the Chicago literary scene?
Christine Sneed: Chicago Public Library has a lot of programs that they’re trying to promote and help bring more school kids into the libraries and get them to read. I’m taking part in some of the library’s fundraisers. I love to support those initiatives.
And also the live literary series. I used to co-curate Sunday Salon Chicago with two other women. I try to go to book launch parties and readings and try to promote events at local independent booksellers as well. There is so much going on in Chicago.
Lisa Katzenberger: What’s your perspective about pursuing an advanced degree? Do you see a difference from your experience with an MFA vs. what students are going through now that you’re teaching?
Christine Sneed: When I was an MFA student in the mid-90s, twenty years ago, I was a poetry MFA for one. People assume that as a poet you aren’t going to make any money.
I wasn’t in the MFA program because I thought I was going to write the next bestseller and become a millionaire like Gillian Flynn or Veronica Roth, who wrote Divergent in her dorm room at Northwestern and then became a multi-millionaire because it got picked up by Hollywood.
Those are the narratives that students are hearing today. We didn’t hear those narratives so much in the mid-90s. So I think there’s this feeling in lot of programs now that you can get an MFA and immediately get a book contract if you have a good thesis and then you’re on your way.
Well, that happens for a couple of people once in a while, but those stories that are hyped by the publishing industry, like the Emma Cline book The Girls, she got a two-book contract for two million dollars. That’s insane. No publisher should be paying that much money for a book, unless you’re like Barack Obama. But even then, you have to sell the international rights and it has to be a best seller internationally for you to even make up that money.
But students hear this and they think they’re going to be so rich, but it’s not likely. The fact that those are the narratives that are being sold to students these days, it’s very deceptive.
I can speak from experience. My second book Little Known Facts was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review in February of 2013. It was a split cover with Teddy Wayne and we both got great reviews, from well-known writers, and neither of us got a best-seller. We did fine, those books sold okay, but I didn’t earn out my advance. We didn’t sell a lot of copies, all told. Nonetheless, we sold a ton more than if we hadn’t had that review. Even with the biggest cherry on the top of the sundae that you can imagine, other than an Oprah pick, there’s no guarantee you’re going to make a lot of money or get a film deal.
I try to be very encouraging but I also try to be realistic with students about the fact that it’s a really tough career. I was almost 40 when I published my first book, and I had an agent already for 6 or 7 years by that point. And I didn’t even get the book sold through an agent, I won a book contest, the AWP’s Grace Paley prize. And a friend suggested it, one morning we were in the office at DePaul where we were both teaching, and he said why don’t you enter a few book contests. And at that point I’d been out of grad school for eleven years and was really getting depressed and desperate. So it just finally happened, but I was almost 40.
Lisa Katzenberger: What do you feel about the short story form?
Christine Sneed: It’s always mystified me why readers and publishers are so negative about the short story form. Not all readers are down on short stories, but booksellers and publishers are often kind of like “Oh, a story collection, no one wants to buy it.” Even Alice Munro, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, but she’s not a household name, but she should be because she’s a genius.
The Best American Short Stories anthology that comes out every year, that’s actually a bestseller every year. So to me it’s kind of a paradox, why is this form so often vilified, when people do appreciate it if they take the time. But again, the bias against it persists, and I just wish that we could find a way to blow that out of the water. People like John Updike in mid-20th century and F. Scott Fitzgerald earlier, they actually could support themselves by publishing short fiction in the glossies like The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Atlantic Monthly. There was a time when it was possible to be a short story writer and make a living. I just always feel like the form is so rewarding as a writer and a reader that I wish more people would try to approach it with an open mind.
FICTION – SHORT STORIES
The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed
Published September 13, 2016