The characters in Evanston resident Christine Sneed’s latest book run the gamut of human experiences. From old to young, from the Hollywood famous to the hopelessly average, they populate the pages of her new collection, “The Virginity of Famous Men” (Bloomsbury USA, $26).
The collection’s short stories, after one of which the book is named, delve into the themes of love and loss and the decisions we make about relationships that affect us the most.
Sneed spoke with Chicagoly about developing characters, her Midwest influences, and why she likes writing about the pitfalls of fame and wealth.
Chicagoly: Where did these stories come from?
Christine Sneed: All of these stories have been published in literary magazines, all thirteen of them. I wrote them over a period of ten or twelve years, so they’ve been around. Some of them are much newer. Most of them are at least a few years old.
What is it like to look back at your writing years after you finished it?
It’s actually a relief that I’m not embarrassed by them. I love writing short stories, so I felt very grateful that my editor thought they were good enough to merit being included in a collection. I just felt happy that in my thirties I was writing stories that were readable.
From where do you draw inspiration for these characters?
Part of it is I’m just curious about other people, and I think a lot of writers would say the same. … One thing that fiction lets you do is you get to inhabit other people’s consciousnesses. The idea of being able to be someone else emotionally and intellectually, it’s one of the things that I love about writing fiction. From observing people around me or from reading other people’s work, reading journalism, reading magazines, different articles … the world is obviously so rich and I would rather write about people different from me.
Many of your characters find once they’ve achieved their dreams, their lives fall short of expectations. Is disillusionment inevitable? Why is that compelling?
I do think that we do change over time, and the fear of change often creates turmoil in our lives, and that to me is an interesting subject for fiction. How the pressures of the world, when they’re exerted on us, what happens to our relationships, especially our most intimate relationships—that if you become successful in a way you always hoped you will be, how do you reconcile who you are now with who you once were? Often when you become really successful, you sometimes leave behind the people who helped you get there. That to me is very interesting.
There’s a Midwest flavor to this collection. How does Chicago/Evanston inspire you?
Being a Midwesterner, being from Libertyville and now from Evanston, I just think that the Midwest is just a really complex place, because there’s certain stereotypes that come with Midwesterners. We’re supposed to be pretty uptight and friendly as well.
There’s a lot of religion, especially the Christian—Lutheran and Catholic—religion. There are big families, a lot of alcoholism. … The human character itself is very contradictory. I am always interested in these complexities and contradictions in our characters.
Does your job as a writing professor influence your writing?
It does. I would say that my students’ work, we critique it, I see what they’re doing, and when I offer my comments to them, I think about how can this story be better. I’m always thinking about what they’re doing that’s working and not working, and I apply that to my own work fairly often.
Who are your favorite authors?
Oh gosh, can I give you a couple? There’s the Canadian short story writer (and Nobel laureate) Alice Munro and Scott Spencer, who is an amazing novelist. They are just brilliant. They just have an incredible ability to inhabit the consciousnesses, the interior lives, of their characters. They write with such vision and sympathy and empathy for their characters.
You write often about the rich and famous. What interests you about them?
I think we often think that the famous and the rich are very happy and we would be happy if we had those things, too. … But we can see the truth that a lot of these famous people are not happy. They have divorces, like Brad and Angelina. We call them by their first names, but they’re strangers to us. … They’re so wealthy, and so many people are dependent on them; there’s a lot a pressure. The fact that a lot of us don’t think beyond the surface, for me as a writer, I’m interested in getting beyond all that and getting to what’s there, or what I imagine to be there.
What are you working on next?
It’s a novel set in central Wisconsin, also set partially in Hawaii and California. It’s about a small town, and what happens when there’s suddenly a huge amount of money that comes into that small town.
Matt Yan is the award-winning editor of 22nd Century Media’s The Northbrook Tower newspaper.