Christine Sneed on Little Known Facts
The Chicago writer discusses her debut novel.
Christine Sneed’s career trajectory bears little resemblance to that of Renn Ivins, the protagonist of her novel-in-stories, Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury, $25). Ivins is a larger-than-life Hollywood actor who started getting roles at age 22, his fame skyrocketing from there. Sneed, a Chicago-based writer who teaches at DePaul and other universities, has been quietly, determinedly plugging away at her craft for years. After nearly a decade of submitting stories to journals, she published her first collection in 2010, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, winning AWP’s Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, among other accolades.
Little Known Facts examines celebrity from various close vantage points—Renn’s family, exes and admirers—and Sneed inhabits her characters’ interior lives with impressive clarity and precision. The 41-year-old shared some little-known facts with me about her novel and writing habits.
Why did you want to explore celebrity?
I wrote the first chapter, “Relations,” as a short story. I’d been thinking about what it would be like to be the son of someone famous and be an adult. You’d be meeting people who suddenly discover your dad’s this famous guy. What if you were competitive with your father both sexually and professionally? I finished the story, and then a few months later, decided to keep writing about this family. Ego, jealousy—they’re such a big part of the human experience, but no one wants to talk about it.
Chapters focus on different characters, and the chapters from the mother’s perspective, Renn’s first wife, are my favorite. She’s not a martyr.
I loved writing from her point of view. You have to have one character in a book that has a conscience—someone to counterbalance the ego and appetites that the other people are being ruled by.
Her chapter “Meaningful Experience” is immediately gripping because it’s the first one written in first-person. Were those P.O.V. decisions intuitive?
Yes, pretty much. But writing in first-person can be hard because I think it’s really easy to alienate your reader if you are not writing a nice or interesting or engaging voice. Jonathan Franzen—I quote him all the time—says, “If you don’t have to write in first person, don’t do it.” You have to get the interiority right.
Did that take a while to achieve?
Yes. In fact, I tell my students to try to write from a more detached third person. A lot of times with beginner or intermediate writers, they’re using first-person and don’t know that their character’s coming across like an asshole.
You got your M.F.A. in poetry, but have you always been interested in fiction?
Yeah. I wrote some fiction before grad school, but it was so bad.… I had a huge crush on Ralph Fiennes, and I kept trying to write a story about a woman and man in love but they couldn’t be together. I wanted to write this really lyrical and beautiful fiction, but it’s not how I write.
Have you always had a strong work ethic?
I don’t necessarily write every day, but I write often. It took me 15 years of intense writing before I wrote a novel that a New York publisher wanted to buy. You have to be dogged.