Award-winning author Christine Sneed explores the idea of pure happiness with her anticipated second novel, Paris, He Said.
When she isn’t turning out novels, Christine Sneed teaches fiction writing at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois.
In the nearly five years since debuting her first book, the award-winning collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, author Christine Sneed hasn’t slowed down: The Libertyville native published Little Known Facts—which was recognized by Booklist as a top-10 debut novel of 2013—then took up posts teaching fiction writing at both Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, and is now celebrating the May 5 release of her new novel, Paris, He Said. Focusing on the relationship between a transplanted young American, Jayne, and her benefactor/lover, Laurent, Sneed’s novel centers on the notion of unearthing true happiness. For Sneed, happiness comes from traveling with her partner, Adam, to California’s central coast and from writing from her home in Evanston and her office at Champaign-Urbana (and from satisfying her sweet tooth with Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered marshmallows). Here, the rising star novelist talks inspiration, why age is more than a number, and how writing is all about seeing.
What inspired Paris, He Said?
I was a French major in college, and I also worked at the School of the Art Institute for five years after graduate school. I was working on a manuscript that I had sent to my agent, and we both weren’t that excited about it. I started thinking about my second book, Little Known Facts; there’s a chapter set in Paris, and I realized that I loved writing about France.
Have you woven any personal experiences into the novel?
The third section has a lengthy scene [with] the main character and her mentor, Susan Kraut, who’s based on an actual painter and painting instructor at the School of the Art Institute—she’s in the novel as a real person I’ve fictionalized. My interactions with artists in the past certainly influenced how I wrote that scene.
May-December romances have been a recurring theme in your work; what is it that intrigues you about age in relationships?
In this case, it’s about 22 or 23 years between Jayne and Laurent. [I’m intrigued by] the psychological aspect of the difference—which is also, in this case, a socioeconomic difference because Laurent is much wealthier and has a lot more financial power. I find the potential for misunderstandings and frustrations and also heightened expectations interesting, and in this case they’re intensified by the age gap.
As a professor of writing, what do you advise your students?
I tell them—this will probably sound vague—that writing is about seeing: They have to be awake; they have to note specific details. They have to know how to describe a person, and not just physically, but they have to understand someone’s psychology, and that it takes a long time to create someone convincing who’s not yourself. I also tell them they have to read minds greater than their own. I tell them to challenge themselves.
What works challenge you?
A couple of my favorite writers are Scott Spencer, who’s a novelist who’s known for Endless Love, a brilliant literary novel made into two awful film versions—people think about that, but it’s a really serious novel that was nominated for the National Book Award. I also really admire Deborah Eisenberg and Alice Munro.