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An Interview with Christine Sneed
By J.M. Wolfe

Christine Sneed is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at Indiana University. She teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's graduate writing program and Pacific University's low-residency MFA program. Her short story collection Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry was awarded Ploughshares' John C. Zacharis prize for a first book, and was chosen as Book of the Year by the Chicago Writers Association for traditionally published fiction. Her latest book is the novel Little Known Facts.

How do your stories normally begin their life? Do you use prompts? Does an idea or situation stick with you until you start writing or do you start with a character?

I often begin with a title; I was a poetry MFA student and this was also how I usually began poems.  Then a voice arrives and various details about a character and his or her situation.  I don’t work from an outline, though sometimes I have a sense of where a story will end up while I’m the middle of writing it, but this is almost never the case at the beginning.

Your stories deal with some pretty oppressive situations. Do you ever have to step away from any characters or stories while you're writing them?

I don’t because it’s rare that I find the situations oppressive while I’m writing them.  This isn’t how I experience other writers’ work though – I’m more affected by what they’re putting their characters through than by what I’m doing to my own.  Despite how hard I might be on my characters, I mainly feel relieved that something is happening and that it seems honest and organic to the narrative.

How has teaching about writing affected your own writing?

I think it’s helped me be a better writer.  I must justify what I view as good writing v. not-so-good writing, the decisions I make as a writer, why I love certain books more than others, etc.  For example, when I tell students that “cheap” works better than “frugal” in a specific context, I have to be able to explain why.  You can’t bluff these things, or rather, I can’t.  Similarly, when I see a problem in a student’s story, I think about how I would write it if I were its author.  This helps me quite a bit with my own work; I’m guessing that many writing instructors do puzzle out these things, and ideally, it helps us practice our own craft more confidently, or at least a little less anxiously.

How do you feel about the increasing demand for mass social interaction when it relates to the writer? Do you think it helps or hurts the quality of an author's work?

It’s not really a good thing.  It might be a good thing for selling books, which most of us (or, probably, all of us) want, but the actual act of writing and the focused, deep attention and commitment necessary to creating smart and interesting work, aren’t helped by it.  In a way, we have to live with a kind of split consciousness now – one side of us is trying to immerse ourselves in the intimate, evolving world of our characters, while the other is aware that Twitter and Facebook and our blogs are also there, demanding our attention.  It’s also easier to post a 140-character tweet about what we’re working on than it is to do the real writing.  And I don’t think this superficial social interaction does much for our powers of concentration – this is a concern that many people are discussing today, and there’s that book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, in which he thoughtfully examines the Web’s worrying, attention-foreshortening effects on its users. 

How did the process and experience of writing your novel compare to writing a short story?

Little Known Facts was the most fun and the least effortful novel manuscript I’d written of the four novels and one story cycle I’d written before publishing it.  (It’s also the first novel I published.)  I approached each chapter the same way that I do the writing of a short story; I intended for every chapter to have its own narrative arc, but also for all of the chapters to cohere and rely on and enrich each other as the reader progressed through the book.  The novel I’m writing the second draft of now, however, has been harder; it has one point-of-view character instead of the eight that LKF has; I might add a second POV character to this new draft, but in general, the sustained energy required to write long-form fiction with one POV character is difficult to maintain.  A short story is easier for me to write because I don’t worry so much about not being able to pull it off.   And if I don’t, it took me three weeks instead of two years to write.  I can live with that more comfortably.

Read her short story 59 Ways of Looking at Domesticity here.