Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Christine Sneed’s flash piece “First Date,” published in the latest issue (Vol II, No 3) of The Hong Kong Review, has been chosen as the story of February for Metacircle Readers Club. Readers, after they finished reading the story, were showing enthusiastically how much they were enthralled by the many subtle and poetic moments of the story and how much they were inspired by an ending that suggests love and hope.
The passion of the readers led us to invite Christine Sneed to this interview, in which Christine Sneed and Tony Huang talked about the arts and crafts that are essential for the writing of flash pieces, the connection between flash fiction and prose poem, the importance of writing and reading during the pandemic and so much more.
This interview is the first of the series of interviews in 2021. According to Tony Huang, founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review and founder of Metacircle Readers Club, this interview is also the first that will be included in the new “Interviews and Reviews” project that will be published regularly online. The day when the interview happened, it snowed heavily in Tianjin, one of the two locations The Hong Kong Review is based in. People at the interview were extremely excited about the snow. They felt, according to some traditional belief, the snow at the beginning of the year brought hope, something they found resonating with the ending of the story “First Date.”
Tony Huang: Hi Christine, nice to meet you! It has been almost half a year since the last time we talked. Most of the students here have read your flash piece “First Date” published in the latest issue of The Hong Kong Review. We’ve gotten feedback from readers and they are extremely excited, so here we are to have an interview with you!
Christine Sneed: It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for publishing this story and inviting me to talk about it.
Tony Huang: Thank you so much for publishing with The Hong Kong Review! Would you please show us more about what inspired you to create “First Date”?
Christine Sneed: I actually had an idea that I might write a whole book that consists of separate pieces of people going on dates, like the first, second, third dates, and then some other types of dates mix in. I wanted to call the book The Date Book, which is another way of saying the calendar or an appointment book, and here date stands for people going out together to meet for the first time or as a date night for couples who have been together for a long time. In different pieces of stories, I try to examine marriages and relationships, especially relationships that are in danger of falling apart. Just like the second date, central park date, lake date, etc., I am planning on writing a whole series of flash pieces based on dates, and this is what initially comes to the piece of “First Date.” Maybe I will be galvanized to continue this series of flash fictions this year.
The fact that we are having this conversation reminds me of getting back to the creation of this series of work because it was such a pleasure writing the story. It ends up exceeding my expectations especially because of the sweetness between the couple. They’re so hopeful, even though they are used to being disappointed, which I think is part of the human condition. I am always intrigued by these complex emotions that underscore human behaviors, and this is the reason why I often come back to the idea of disappointment. Many of us get disappointed, so I am wondering how people deal with this disappointment and try to avoid it.
Tony Huang: Yes, this is exactly how readers respond to the story, especially during the pandemics. After reading the story, they feel the reaffirming tone in the story. Since you mentioned the many “date stories,” are these stories interconnected, or are they independent of each other, each bringing out a new cast of characters?
Christine Sneed: Probably a combination of the two. I may write some pieces that have recurring characters, but I am not sure yet. These two characters (from “First Date”) may reoccur if I do write the stories. But at this point, the couple of stories that I’ve written are not about the same characters.
Tony Huang: Several years ago we had an interview with you about your collection of short stories, The Virginity of Famous Men. We were impressed by the art and the craft you had in the stories. This time your story “First Date” seems to belong to a different category of writing. It’s more like a flash piece. Are there differences in terms of technique and craft between the two different kinds of writing? Do they require slightly different skills from writers?
Christine Sneed: You know, for me it's always about character ultimately, so the difference is really just the length. I think I might have mentioned this at some point when we talked about The Virginity of Famous Men but I'm guessing this is mostly a new group of readers and students. I worked on poetry in my MFA and I got a degree on poetry rather than fiction, and I still think about language in more or less the same way when I was writing more poetry. I think about compression—fitting a lot into a small space. Novels obviously allow you to be very extensive, so you have a bigger canvas. They take a lot longer to write than a flash fiction piece or a short story usually. Even in the two novels I published, especially the first one, The Little Known Fact, the chapters in some cases were published as short stories first. So I was very much thinking about the arc of a story that can be contained within 20 or 25 or 30 pages, and when I'm writing flash fiction it's similar. It's just a smaller canvas, so you try to give the impression of building a complicated world in fewer words. That's always the foundation for me. I want the world to seem real even if it's one page, or 500 words, as opposed to 85,000 words like a novel or 7,000 words like a short story. The craft is not really that different, at least as I work. I think in very granular terms about the story and the character. I can place them in a setting where things naturally happen. And then I just write the frame of the story, how many pages is it, how much time am I covering. Normally, it takes place over the course of just a couple of hours.
Tony Huang: In many of the flash, there is probably very little or meager plot within the small span of length. So when people are writing short stories and flash pieces, do they have different focus when they are creating plots?
Christine Sneed: I think so. I think often plot is sort of secondary in flash. It's more about a moment or an impression, and character, again, or setting too, than it is about a big climactic moment in a character's life. I currently teach a flash fiction class for a school in New York called Catapult. Several pieces that I assigned to my students there are in fact prose poems. The line between the two genres is blurry, but in that case it’s very impressionistic, and the story is not as present in some of those poems than in other flash fiction I assigned for the class. I think you can liken a flash piece to a narrative poem in some cases. A flash is like a snapshot, like a photograph that freezes a moment or an impression of a character. That's what I aspire to do when I write flash.
I actually taught a poetry for prose writers class this past fall for Northwestern and I designed the class for online. I was reading poetry again in a way that I hadn’t read in many years, so I was thinking about language differently than I normally do as a prose writer, which was great and really rewarding. I think it's useful for prose writers to read poetry and other genres, because as writers you need to keep feeding your brain and seeing how other writers do it, whether it's in your genre or a different one.
Tony Huang: Amazing! This actually connects to our next question for you about the possible boundary between flash fiction and prose poetry, and we actually find that the boundary is extremely blurry.
Christine Sneed: Yes, they’re pretty fluid. Prose poetry and flash fiction are often hard to distinguish. In a prose poem, if you put line breaks in it you can make it more like a traditional poem, whether it’s free verse or more traditional forms, like sonnet, but it’s often hard to distinguish prose poetry and flash.
Tony Huang: In “First Date” and many of the stories in The Virginity of Famous Men, we find the stories are told by female characters of a wide range of age. What are some of the things or crises these female characters often face that prompt you to bring them into your fiction?
Christine Sneed: As I said before, I'm always very interested in how people handle disappointment and in wish fulfillment, like what happens when you get what you want and if it changes your life. Probably not in the way that you expected in any case. So my character's often are quietly going about their business. I don't write dramatic story—I mean to me it's dramatic—but there's no weapon, there's no gun or knife in my stories. I don't have physical violence usually in the work that I write, so I'm just really interested in exploring what it's like to be a person whether it's a woman or a man, male or female character who wants something and what would they do when they don't get it or when they do get what they want. That's really always of interest to me because I think we spend so much time hoping that something exciting will happen or we're hoping we'll make more money or we're hoping we'll meet someone who will make us look good. Our friends will be jealous of a husband or a wife or whatever it is. I think a lot of us if we're high achieving, we want to impress other people. That impulse is, to me, human, and I'm certainly susceptible to it, but it's also the cause of a lot of disappointment and anxiety. Those are themes that I probably have been writing about for almost as long as I've been writing for a long time. It's just like quite normal things that happen, but how do my characters do when they encounter resistance of one form or another, because there's got to be a conflict and character flaws. It's not like someone is racing against the clock to find a cure for cancer. I don't write those types of stories. People who write them are much better at that type of stuff than I probably would, because I'm just not interested in that. I’m not that interested in external conflict. Instead, I'm really interested in internal conflict—the emotional states that we all live with inside from day to day.
Tony Huang: We find that you’ve been teaching at Northwestern University and many other literary programs. How do you coordinate between your job as a teacher and your job as a writer? Are the two experiences enriching one another? Christine Sneed: Yes, they definitely are, especially when I was teaching a lot of first year writing to undergraduates. I was teaching a lot of composition classes and teaching students how to write critically. I learned a lot about like why these papers aren't as good as they should be and how would problem be solved. I’m also teaching a lot of introduction to fiction writing or beginning creative writing that has made me a better writer. You learn a lot from other people's work that's not polished. I think it's harder to learn from work that is polished, because it just seems like it was handed down from the heavens or something and it's perfect, so it's harder to learn from something that's great. You have to see different drafts and you need to see the choices that the writers made, because most great books were not written in one draft. You know they made changes, and so writing that's rough is often very good teacher. I think that's how reading so many thousand pages of students’ work has made me a better writer. I need to figure out how and why certain thing is not working. I need to see what's wrong with this sentence structure, so I'm very mindful of that. And I will always think about how do I make sentences interesting and how do things come together so that they seem organic and natural.
Tony Huang: Some professor writers often complain that their knowledge and awareness of theories may interfere with the spontaneity of their writing. Have you ever been bothered by this?
Christine Sneed: Not really, because I was a French major in college, I didn't study much literary theory. I studied a little bit when I went to grad school, because in the MFA program where I was a student we had to take literature classes and some of them required the reading of literary theory, but for the most part, I don't know a lot about literary theory. I'm just not that fond of abstractions and that's one of the things that I found and I still find frustrating about—the construction of work. I just don't have the patience to try to understand what the deconstruction is actually saying, because I really am interested in the world that is physical, rather than the cerebral, abstract attempt to pull apart a story, a novel or a poem. For me reading is more about mood, about the sensory experience of inhabiting another person's imagination and inhabiting the world of the story or the poem that's on the page. Literary theory just doesn’t do that. So I just don't have the patience for it. To answer your question, it doesn't really at all affect me, because I don't have this big body of knowledge related to literary theory. I’m more knowledgeable about literature itself, so I don't have the same concerns that I think some people who try to write fiction or poetry after they got their PHD in literature would have. Fortunately I'm not plagued by that.
Tony Huang: We’ve been living in a tough time ever since the beginning of January last year. What were some of the most important things you did last year that helped you survive?
Christine Sneed: Probably some of the same things that you're doing. To be honest, aside from the fact that I can't fly home to visit family and friends in Chicago or go elsewhere on a plane, my life wasn't that much different, because I mostly teach from home. All my work is usually online. I wasn't able to see friends that often, but we did more zoom visits. We couldn't go out to eat that often, but actually in LA we were able to eat outside at some restaurants, and we've done that periodically in the last eight or nine months. We've traveled within California and we just came back from this town called Cambria, which is right on the Pacific Ocean about 3 and 1/2 hours away. So we have traveled, but it is only by car. The thing we love the most is going to the movie theater, and we have not done that in a year. Compared to people with small children, our lives have been fairly simple and manageable, so it's just a lack of social contact that we miss. It's been okay and I've just been very busy because I taught more than usual and had more work in 2020 than I had in a while, so it was an okay year, other than the fact that I didn't get to see people that I normally would see, because it’s still not safe to travel extensively if you're not vaccinated especially.
Tony Huang: What do you think is the significance of reading/writing in such an apocalyptic time?
Christine Sneed: It's invaluable. It always has been for me, and I think most writers feel that way, even if it's harder to get writing done if you're home working and your spouse or your partner or your kids are home all the time. That’s a challenge that I suspect would be difficult for some, but no, it's important as ever, if not more so, because I think people spend way too much time watching TV and watching movies and looking at Twitter and Facebook, which are fun but they're all so stressful because of all the political stuff. We also have an extremely contentious election this past year, and then the insurrection on January 6th in Washington DC was extremely stressful. That political situation was even more stressful than the pandemic. I think that’s the case with a lot of people. I'm glad that last year is over in part because of that, but now, of course, with people getting vaccinated, they’re now being more busy than they have been in a long time. It almost looks like normal life, so things are starting to go back to a relative normalcy and I wish more people read but I don't think many people read as they need to read.
Tony Huang: Some friends around me begin to talk about how their writing has been influenced, both in tone and subject matter, by the pandemic. I remember one of them is even saying that the pandemic has made the second person narrative a more “legitimate” form of narrative for her. Have you felt any change the pandemic has brought to your writing?
Christine Sneed: It's not entered my work. Maybe I'll write about it at some point, and often I think a lot of writers will write about major events after they've passed, so that might happen in my case. For example, a lot of writers can't write about the place that they live until they leave it, so I find myself actually writing more about Chicago now that I live in LA, but I did only sometimes when I lived in Chicago. Also, when I lived in Chicago, I wrote an entire novel that was set in Los Angeles mostly. So maybe the same thing with the pandemic, a lot of writers will return to it as a subject once we're through it, and I'm not sure I will write much about it. For me, as I said, it's been sort of normal life for me other than the fact that I can't do some of the things I like to do, like visit friends, go to movies, and fly, so it hasn't disrupted my routine workwise much at all. How much can you really say that's new about having to be confined to the same rooms day in and day out. I’m sure you can say things that are new to your individual experience, but I’m not writing about the pandemic, not even in the scripts. There have been some movies that have come out that have already treated that topic but I haven't seen them. I'm just not interested in them at this point. I might be later.
Tony Huang: Are you in the middle of some writing projects? Do you mind sharing with us some of the things you are doing?
Christine Sneed: I'm working on a novel that is about two women. It’s alternating points of view, both in the third person. They're both in their early thirties, and they're both trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Both of them are engaged in activities that they could be arrested for. I don't want to say too much about it, but they're both doing things that they wouldn't want to tell their parents about. We will put it that way, and it's very personal. The characters are very much thinking about how they interact with their fathers, for example. One of them doesn't know her father and she wants to meet him. She was raised by her mother in Paris, and she never knew her father because that was the way he wanted it. I'm also working on some scripts. I'm actually adapting a story that's in The Virginity of Famous Men for the screen. I'm adding all these other plot threads to the feature script because it'll be probably 100-page script from a 20-page story. I’ll have to add quite a bit. It's a good exercise. I've learned a lot about writing for the screen. That has been humbling. I'm actually much more confident writing stories, but it's good to try other things. I'm also working on a young adult novel that is mostly written in letters. It's an epistolary novel that focuses on a family member’s relationship with her daughter, but I'm really not working on it that much just because I've been doing these other things. But I'm excited about all these projects. They are all really rewarding.
Christine Sneed has published some of her stories in The Southern Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, Best American Short Stories 2008, Massachusetts Review, and Best New Stories from the Midwest. Her first book is the story collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, and she has also published two novels, Little Known Facts, and Paris, He Said, along with a second story collection, The Virginity of Famous Men.
Tony Huang, Ph.D., is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review. He is also the founder of Metacircle, Metacircle Fellowship Program and Metaedcuation. His poems, translations, and scholarly works have appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly and other venues. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.
Reported and edited by Nina (Xinqi) Zhang