Interview with Christine Sneed
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.