When Christine Sneed begins a story, she never knows where her characters will take it.
"Usually I'm about halfway through and I still won't know what's going to happen at the end," Sneed says, "but I have some sense of where I'm going."
The award-winning author has the experience to avoid early-draft pitfalls, and shares this knowledge with her students at Northwestern University and Regis University.
"They're writing toward an event, and they're not sure what it is," she says, "so sometimes we'll have twelve pages of exposition, and then we have two paragraphs with characters interacting -- which is where the heart of the story is."
Sneed says a writer needs to have her main characters interacting in a specific place -- and in dialogue -- within the first two pages.
"When you see the two characters interacting, there's a relationship there," she says. "One of the characters has more power, one character has something the other wants."
Sneed calls this tension the "furnace," and it's where she begins the stories in her latest book, The Virginity of Famous Men.
Each story features characters making peace with the choices they've made. In one, "Clear Conscience," we meet Michael, who's recovering from a nasty divorce. Meanwhile, his sister-in-law Sasha takes a consulting job in Michael's hometown of Chicago. The two start meeting regularly for dinner.
One night, Sasha drinks too much and admits she's not all that much in love with Michael's brother, Jim. Michael, who's always been attracted to Sasha, realizes he might have a chance with her.
"Since Michael is dealing with the aftermath of his divorce and trying to find someone else to date, he's very susceptible to the charms of his sister-in-law," Sneed says. "I just wanted to see what would happen when I get Michael to be mindful of his feelings when he knows that the moral choice is not to go after Sasha."
Sasha, who wrestles with her own conscience, later turns the tables on Michael. Sneed reads an excerpt from this story below:
Another story, "The First Wife," highlights tensions common in the entertainment business.
Screenwriter Emma gets swept off her feet by film star Antony Grégoire, marries him, and then recounts their skid toward divorce. Part memoir and part Hollywood survival guide, Emma's story advises the reader never to fall in love with someone famous -- no matter how special that person is or makes you feel:
If you are married to a man whom thousands, possibly millions, of women believe themselves to be in love with, some of them, inevitably, more beautiful and charming than you are, it is not a question of if but of when. When will he be unfaithful, if he hasn’t been already? It isn’t easy, nor is it as romantic as the magazine photographers make it look, to be the wife of a very famous, memorably handsome man. There are very few nights, even when you are together, when you don’t wonder what secrets he is keeping from you, or how long he will be at home before he leaves for another shoot or another meeting in a glamorous city across one ocean or the other, with some director or producer who rarely remembers your name. Marriage is a liability in the movie business, despite the public’s stubborn, contradictory desire to believe that this particular marriage is different, in that it will endure, even prosper, with children and house-beautiful photo essays in Vogue.
There were always so many others lurking about, hoping to take my place, if only for a few days or hours. It was like being married to the president of an enormous country where nearly everyone was offering him sexual favors, ones he really wasn’t scorned by anyone but me for accepting.
Sneed takes this story beyond the famous/not-famous split to explore the tensions between the good-looking vs. the incredibly good-looking, and women and men.
He was the beauty in our household, and I was not the beast but the brains. I wasn’t ugly or plain, and I remain neither ugly nor plain, but in college, when for a while I fantasized strenuously about becoming an actress, it soon became clear to me that I liked making up the characters more than playing them. I also realized early on that men age much better in Hollywood than women do. My husband will never be old in the same way that I will be. Even if my fame were as great as his, I would be called an old woman much sooner than he an old man. But I will never be as famous as he is, and although he can be blamed for many things, this isn’t one of them.
"My Yahoo account always brings up headlines about celebrities," Sneed says. "And one day there was a story about Jennifer Aniston's and Brad Pitt's break-up, and the fact that Angelina Jolie was the one he left Jennifer Aniston for. And I thought 'What would it be like to be married to someone like him?' And that was where that story began," she says.
All of Sneed's stories are set in the "real" world, except one. "Roger Weber Would Like to Stay," features a ghost who banters -- and even flirts with -- a woman named Merilee.
Merilee has a "pleasant-enough lover" named Brian, but she finds Roger much more intriguing. It's not that he's handsome or was a concert pianist in life. It's because he listens to her, and refrains from judging:
He knows many of her secrets and seems unconcerned that she once used the opera glasses her great-aunt Anna Maria willed to her to spy on the next-door neighbors while they ate dinner in the nude, their long-haired dachshund sitting obediently at their feet. He does not care that her elbows are covered with sandpapery skin, or that she rubs her right knee obsessively when she is nervous, or that sometimes she has trouble concentrating on her job ...
And, unlike Brian:
Her ghost friend, for one, never assumes that she will always end up in bed with him because she has done so in the past.
"I was thinking of the idea of a dream man and how ridiculous that idea is," Sneed laughs. "And of course the dream man in this story has plenty of flaws which come out later."
Sneed wrote this story, in part, to experiment with wider boundaries. "Even though I'm using the conventions of a real story," she says, "it's nice to have a character who gives information about 'the eleventh dimension' as Roger calls it, which is death."
The Virginity of Famous Men (Bloomsbury USA) is Sneed's fourth book. She spoke with WNIJ about her novel, Paris, He Said, in December of 2015.
We welcome your comments below about our interview with Christine Sneed and our other Read With Me authors. And please use #WNIJReadWithMe when talking about these books or authors on social media.