Writing literary fiction is a pursuit for neither the impatient nor the faint of heart. It takes years to learn the craft, then more years to break into the famously insular, heavily guarded world of high-level publishing. It's a slog, in short, punctuated by a steady drumbeat of rejection and self-doubt.
Chicago-area writer Christine Sneed learned all this the hard way. For most of the first decade of the new century, she wrote short story after short story, sending dozens of them out to literary magazines and mostly getting negative responses (or, worse, stony silence) in return. Once magazines did start accepting her work, it still happened only once or twice a year, the success rate hovering at less than 10 percent. She also wrote several novels, none of which advanced very far toward publication.
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"There were times when I thought, 'I'm spending my life on an activity that's not making me any money or bringing me much validation from the outside world,'" she recalls over a recent lunch at Heartland Café, a few El stops south of her home in Evanston. "If you sent out hundreds of résumés and you only got one or two job interviews, you might feel like there was something else you should be doing with your time."
But Sneed kept at it, teaching at DePaul, Loyola and Roosevelt universities, among other schools, to make ends meet. "I loved writing, and I lived simply — I didn't have a husband or children — so I didn't need a lot to keep going," recalls the writer, now a youthful-looking 41. "I always assumed it wouldn't happen overnight, but somehow I felt like it would eventually pay off — that over time I'd have less difficulty publishing things, and that someday I would publish a book. Maybe I was deluding myself."
But she wasn't. In 2008, Salman Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses," "Midnight's Children") selected her modern-day fairy tale "Quality of Life," about a young woman caught up in a May-December romance with a sinister, manipulative older man, for the annual "Best American Short Stories" anthology, placing Sneed in the rarefied company of Alice Munro, George Saunders, Jonathan Lethem, Tobias Wolff and other masters of the genre.
That same year, her book-length manuscript, "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry," won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. The AWP sent the contest judge, Allan Gurganus, several boxes of manuscripts by hundreds of "talented and endearing writers," recalls Gurganus, author of the best-seller "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All." "But one kept bobbing to the top of every pile. I found Christine Sneed's stories funny and heartbreaking at once. She has a forgiving, merciless eye. She seems to have known her characters for life and in their previous lives."
The collection, in turn, caught the eye of a New York literary agent, Lisa Bankoff of International Creative Management. "It was amazing," Bankoff says. "I was drawn by her language, her characters, and just the simple fact that in my experience, many short story collections are uneven — you tend to like one piece a lot more than the others. With her book of stories, they're all equally riveting and compelling, and they touch you in places that go deep. It indicated to me that this was someone who could and should sustain a novel."
Sneed, who prefers the short story form over that of the novel, wasn't so sure. "If I had my preference, I think I would be a short story writer, even though the pressure from New York — editors and agents — is to produce novels," she says. "The short story form is so compressed, close to a poem — self-contained and perfect, like a beautiful dress. A novel can be beautiful, too, but it has so many more moving parts, and so many more things can go wrong. I just like the purity of the story form, and your ability, in a collection, to have a fresh start every 20 or 30 pages. And with a short story, you spend a couple of weeks writing it, but a novel requires so much more commitment." She smiles. "Maybe that's why I'm not married."
But Sneed put aside her fear of commitment long enough to produce "Little Known Facts," to be published in the U.S. and Great Britain this week by Bloomsbury (which also brought out the paperback edition of "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry" last month). In "Little Known Facts" — about the travails of the friends, ex-wives and especially the adult children, Anna and Will, of a major Hollywood movie star named Renn Ivins — Sneed considers the corrosive effects of fame on those who live in its dazzling, toxic nimbus.
"It sounds like a bit of a potboiler — automatically when you write about Hollywood, there's the association of Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon, the big mass-market paperback novelists — but it's not at all," Sneed says. "I think some early readers on Amazon and Goodreads are expecting that, because the reviews are all over the place — they're like, 'This book is not what I expected.' I'm gritting my teeth right now, because they didn't read it the way it's intended to be read. It's a literary novel, and this is a topic that cries out for serious examination in fiction, because it's such an important part of our culture. What would it be like to be the child of someone like Harrison Ford or Paul Newman? It would be really hard, because you see them getting so much attention, so much of it unnatural. How are you treated, and how is your life affected by that? You have everything, materially, that you need, but maybe not at all emotionally. Especially if you're the child of a famous person, you're really in for it. A friend of mine who works in Hollywood says there's a joke there that if you were bad in one life, you come back as a star's child."
The topic has intrigued Sneed for years, dating to her teens, when she often got crushes on movie stars — "Christopher Reeve in 'Superman' being the first," she recalls with a smile. "It was such an interesting fantasy, imagining knowing movie stars and being their girlfriend. But as I got older, I realized that this would be such a nightmare. Being in a romantic relationship is hard enough, but if either person is famous, adding that extra pressure is extremely interesting to consider. The jealousy and the success — people assume that when you become wealthy, all your problems are solved, when in fact it just creates different problems. A couple of years ago I was thinking about that, and that was the moment when the match flared — the flashpoint that started me writing this novel."
Bloomsbury is rolling out the book with considerable fanfare, and Sneed is prepared to accept that as a result, dealing with the effects of fame might become less abstract for her in the foreseeable future. But she isn't counting on it. Her latest completed novel manuscript, "The Goddess Complex," was not accepted by Bloomsbury, in part because the publisher viewed the story, which has a college-age protagonist, as young-adult fiction. ("The jury's still out on that," Bankoff says.) "It just proves that you can struggle for years and then get a big break, but things are not necessarily easier after that," Sneed says. "I might still have to write another five novels before I publish another one. But I'm not going to be deterred."
Her friends expect no less. "She's a charming person, and sort of glamorous, but there's a strength in her, too," says her fellow Chicago fiction writer and Indiana University alum Adam McOmber ("This New & Poisonous Air," "The White Forest"). "She pushes herself through a lot of the obstacles that every writer goes through in that long incubation period that a career in fiction usually has, and I'm always impressed. Through all the waiting and all the setbacks, you have to believe that something good is going to happen, and Christine always does that."
And as a storyteller, of course, Sneed is more interested in plotlines with obstacles than those in which the heroine sails through unimpeded. She has empathy, but not necessarily an excess of sympathy, with her characters and herself. "I'm more interested in the disappointments than the successes," she says. "I really love my characters, but I let them make their mistakes ... because that's more interesting to write about, and because we all make mistakes, some of them more severe than others. I hope I don't seem unkind, but I like our flaws, which are what make us human."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose works appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"Little Known Facts"
By Christine Sneed, Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $25
Christine Sneed will appear at several literary events throughout Chicago during the next several weeks.
For details, visit christinesneed.com.