Christine Sneed’s Debut Novel: Little Known Facts

christine sneed

Christine Sneed is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at Indiana University and has published  short stories in Best American Short StoriesPEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern  Review, Ploughshares, Pleiades, Glimmer Train, Massachusetts Review, Meridian,Other VoicesGreensboro  ReviewRiver StyxPhoebe, South Dakota Review, and a number of other journals

Her debut novel, Little Known Facts, about a cast of characters orbiting Renn Ivins, a movie star with fame and  power equal to George Clooney’s, was both thought-provoking and a fun summer read and has been well-  received among critics, being recently named one of Booklist‘s top ten debut novels of 2013 and best new book  by a local author by Chicago Magazine

 LT: Little Known Facts was your first published novel. What was your writing process like?

 Little Known Facts is my second book, and it is indeed my first published novel, but I’ve written seven novels  (sigh…but they helped me become a better writer, I think, and most writers who have been at it for a while have  quite a bit of unpublished work in their desks and filing cabinets.)  I write most days of the week, if not all, when I’m trying to bring together something as long and fraught as a novel manuscript.  I edit on the page, usually after each new chapter is done; after this, I go back to the computer screen.  I’ve been writing for over twenty years, more than half my life (I started writing seriously in college, when I was twenty but wrote on and off since I was about ten or eleven), and it’s my job, no disputing this.  And like a job, you have to do it all the time if you want to keep a roof over your head.  Even if I’m tired or have a lot of other non-writing-related work to do, I go to my desk and write most days.

LT: The structure of the novel is very inventive; chapters that dive inside various characters’ heads and give us pieces of a story from different perspectives that come together to make a realistic whole. How did you conceive of this structure? Was this the plan all along or did you invent the structure as you wrote?

I did plan this from the start, or at least after I’d written the first chapter, “Relations,” and realized that it wasn’t only going to be a short story.   After I finished writing these pages, I knew that I wanted to tell the story of most of the characters I’d introduced in “Relations,” and I immediately began sketching ideas for subsequent chapters narrated by seven other characters.

LT: Each character seems so real and vivid; do you have a favorite or did you enjoy writing from the perspective of one character more than any other?

I think Anna was probably my favorite character to write – I enjoyed her two chapters quite a bit.  She’s probably also the least angry or bitter person of the eight point-of-view characters.  She wants mainly to be able to live her life with dignity, has noble aspirations with her medical studies, loves her parents and brother with fewer reservations and conflicted feelings than they all have for each other.  But of course she’s a flawed character too.  There’s her involvement with the married Dr. Glass, after all.

LT: What was your motivation for writing Little Known Facts? It seems a very appropriate novel for our Hollywood-obsessed culture; were you responding to or remarking on the “Hollywood-fetish” that is so trendy now, especially among young people?

Americans’ relationship with celebrity is one of many conflicts and contradictions, as I suppose a lot of interpersonal relationships are.  We want to be like the people we make famous, but at the same time, as soon as a celebrity does something stupid or embarrassing, the media is all over the story, and so many people love to make fun of this person, who in many senses is just as neurotic, unhappy, insecure as everyone else is – despite the fame, wealth, beauty, powerful friends, blockbuster movies and gold records.  These contradictions are what I wanted to look at most closely when I was writing Little Known Facts: why are we so sure that fame is the answer to all our troubles when we frequently see proof that famous people are as likely as we are to have family problems, relationship problems, money problems, etc.?  We buy the costly myths Hollywood sells us and then wonder why our heroes are so flawed. We should know by now that “having everything” isn’t really having everything – happiness, for one, is still elusive, maybe even more elusive for a famous person than it is for someone who isn’t famous.  Celebrities get used to a certain amount of attention, and when it starts to fade, then what happens?  Well, that’s where the story starts to go off script, and often, off the rails.

LT: Renn is certainly a “star” in the traditional sense; would you say he is also the “star” of the novel? Or is there another character that is more important or central to the novel?

He is definitely the focal character.  But each character, in his or her own way, is as important to the novel as he is.  Their stories too, as much as Renn’s, are what I wanted to tell.

LT: Were you thinking of any famous movie star in particular when you crafted Renn?

Not really, but men like Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Harrison Ford were inspirations initially – to have the kind of fame, beauty, success, and sex appeal that they all did in their prime – how would it affect their children?  Their sons especially?  These were the questions that got me started.

LT: The “pursuit of happiness” seems to be something each character deals with in the novel; would you say that Hollywood hinders these characters’ pursuit or is happiness just plain elusive whether you are famous or not?

little known factsI’d say that happiness is elusive for most of us, but having the kind of success that people might achieve in Hollywood, and consequently having so many people wanting things from you…that all exerts a kind of awful pressure, I have to believe, at least at times.  I also suspect that it’s possibly harder, the more famous you become, to recognize when you’re happy, and to sustain that feeling.  To be happy, I think you also have to know how to relax, and that’s not so easy, especially the busier and the more successful a person becomes.  Hollywood makes it hard, I think, to sustain a peaceful and happy state of mind; we’re such a competitive species, for one.  And the rage that Hollywood films and TV show, the violence and machismo, too – there’s a reason why these elements are so present in so much of our media – where does all that rage go?  That fear of being overlooked?  Of other people getting all the good things we think we deserve?  There’s so much to think about, needless to say.

LT: When did you decide you were going to be a writer? Was there a specific moment?

No, not really – I think I knew in junior high, when I was probably 12 or 13 that I wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until college and the year I studied in France that I realized I could go ahead and write without waiting for someone to give me permission to do so.

LT: Are there any authors you tried to emulate in Little Known Facts? Do you have an all-time favorite author/novel & why?

I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone in particular as I wrote this book, but I did want it to be good, of course, and I was thinking about some of my favorite writers, like Deborah Eisenberg and Alice Munro, along with Jim Harrison and Edward P. Jones, who write with such clarity and insight into the human condition.  One of my all-time favorite novels is Ian McEwan’s Atonement – that kind of emotional beauty and impact, well, he did something magical in that novel.  It was inspiring too.

LT: Is there anything that had to be cut from the novel, and if so, do you wish it had stayed? What was your editing process like?

You know, compared to the other novels I’ve written, and the one that’s coming out next year from the same publisher and editor (Bloomsbury and Nancy Miller), Little Known Facts had few edits and few changes before it went into galleys and eventually became a book.  Not much was cut, really – Nancy and I edited some things, removed a couple of paragraphs here and there, and I wrote a few new paragraphs, but really, there wasn’t a lot of work after Nancy and Bloomsbury acquired it.  The new book, which we’re still discussing a title for – that’s different, I rewrote about 90-95% of the first draft when I was working on the second.  It was as if I had written two different books with the same cast of characters.

LT: You’ve never lived in Hollywood; do you find you tend to write about subjects not closely related to you (as is the case with Little Known Facts) or do you tend to write more autobiographically? A mix? Why?

I don’t write autobiographically, not at all; if I’m writing about myself, it’s nonfiction, and in an essay, not a short story or a novel.  In the fiction I’ve written, I often think of a character first, an emotional situation, along with a setting, and go from there.  The one way my fiction might be autobiographical is that I’m writing about feelings that I might have had at one time; I want there to be emotional truth, but the rest – the people, the plot – that’s all made up.  Fiction is my favorite mode, for this very reason.  But it also allows you to tell the truth about human experience, and to do it in a way that is perhaps more universal than nonfiction, which is limited by the fact it has to focus on specific people who are currently living or once were alive.

LT: What’s your next project?

The novel I mentioned above, which is called In the Spring currently, which is set in contemporary Paris; we’re editing the second draft now, and it’ll be out in May 2015.  It was harder to write than Little Known Facts, but I think and hope it’ll be as good and as interesting, maybe a little funnier too.

LT: Do you have any advice to give to student writers?

This is what I always tell my students: you have to love the world; you have to be very curious about other people and their experiences of the world.  You have to read with purpose and commitment and love to read too.  You have to learn to say no to tempting, more effortless things to do like going out for dinner or watching TV or hanging out at the bar when you know that you should be writing.  You have to accept that sometimes your work will be rejected if you try to publish it; you have to move on and in some cases, revise your work, and often more than a few times.  Moving on, not getting lost in self-pity or self-doubt – this is very important.  A lot of talented people give up because they can’t deal with rejection; you have to take it in stride and keep going.  I’ve received probably two thousand rejection letters in the twenty-odd years I’ve been writing and sending out work.  I set them aside and move on and keep reading and writing.  If you keep doing these things, you are a writer; this becomes your life.