• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
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    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
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  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed

BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)

Sunday
Apr122015

Identity + Theft = All of Us

A different version of this essay appeared in the New York Times on April 9, 2015.  This is the original draft. 

 

            Identity + Theft = All of Us 

The crime is known as the grandparents scam.  It’s a type of identity theft that many people have been aware of for a while, but my grandfather, unfortunately, had not heard about it before he had a very personal encounter with it.

A young woman pretending to be me called my grandfather on his landline and asked him to bail her out of a situation she had become embroiled in while traveling in Spain.  Drugs were involved, a lost passport, the police, and the caller pleaded with my grandfather not to alert my parents to her troubles.  She began to cry and my grandfather promptly gave in to her demands, all of them.  Over the course of about a day and a half, he sent three separate wire transfers totaling a little under six thousand dollars to a Western Union office in Spain. 

I learned all of this about a week and a half after these events occurred because my grandfather called me.  I was surprised by the call because usually, I call him or we correspond with handwritten letters. 

When he asked, sounding both hurt and surprised, “When did you get home?” I initially thought he was referring to a trip I’d made to New York the previous month, and I told him that it had been a couple of weeks since my return. 

After the briefest pause, he said, “No, when did you get home from Spain?” 

I sensed almost immediately what had happened; I had read about a similar scam and received emails from friends whose accounts had been hacked, a foreign country and an urgent need for money both mentioned.  My stomach shifted queasily.  “I wasn’t in Spain,” I said. 

He asked, laughing a little, if I was kidding.

“No,” I said. “I honestly wasn’t there.  What happened?”

He told me then about the girl, about how her voice had sounded so much like mine.  He did not want to believe that he had been conned.  The girl and her helpmates had doubtless looked me up online and learned enough details about my family and my career as a fiction writer and college professor to appear convincingly to be me when they got him on the phone.  The girl knew my mother’s and stepfather’s names, a detail that still chills me.  Where had they found them?  But then I remembered – there’s a short essay on my website about my parents’ dog, and I must have mentioned their names in it. 

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Monday
Feb092015

Q & A with Shari Goldhagen, author of the new novel, In Some Other World, Maybe

Tell us a little about your new novel.

In December 1992, three groups of teenagers head to the theater to see the movie version of the famed Eons & Empires comic books. For Adam it's a last ditch effort to connect with something (actually, someone, the girl he's had a crush on for years) in his sleepy Florida town before he leaves for good. Passionate fan Sharon skips school in Cincinnati so she can fully appreciate the flick without interruption from her vapid almost-friends—a seemingly silly indiscretion with shocking consequences. And in suburban Chicago, Phoebe and Ollie simply want to have a nice first date and maybe fool around in the dark, if everyone they know could just stop getting in the way.

The book follows these characters over the next twenty years as their lives criss-cross and intersect.

 

How did you settle on the timeline that you've chosen, which spans quite a few years of the main characters' lives?  

I’ve always been really interested in how events from youth impact the rest of our lives. So I wanted to follow the characters until the events of the movie had a sort of logical conclusion. The re-release of the movie twenty years later, ends up connecting some of these characters in different ways, so it seemed like a logical place to end things.

It’s not a tied-with-a-bow ending for some of the characters, and personally at least, I’m really interested in finding out what happens to some of them afterward. But it seems like the place where Eons & Empires is done for these characters.

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Monday
Jan052015

Ibises Strolling the Sidewalks, Writers in Shorts and Shades: The Sanibel Island Writers Conference  

 

          This past November I fled my drafty condo and the moody grey skies of Chicago for picturesque Sanibel Island, a haven much-loved by vacationers and retirees.  The beaches there are known for their millions of pretty shells, and it’s also the place where you’ll find the renowned J.N. “Ding” Darling bird refuge.  For the past nine years, the island has also been the site of an excellent writers conference affiliated with Florida Gulf Coast University.  I was a member of this year’s fiction faculty, which also included novelists and short story writers Lynne Barrett, Emily Franklin, Steve Almond, David James Poissant, Julia Scheeres, Darin Strauss, George Singleton, Jeff Parker, and Tom Franklin.  (The conference faculty includes poets, editors, novelists, essayists, publishers, live-lit veterans, literary agents, and musicians.  This is the complete list: Steve AlmondMK Asante / Lynne Barrett / Derrick C. Brown / Kevin Clark / Dean Davis / John Dufresne / Beth Ann Fennelly / Emily Franklin / Tom Franklin / Artis Henderson / John Hoppenthaler / Gary Louris / Jen McClung / Karen Salyer McElmurray / Kathryn Miles / Dinty W. Moore / Jeff Newberry / Jeff Parker / David James Poissant / Julia Scheeres / Christopher Schelling / Jennifer Senior / George Singleton / Christine Sneed / Wesley Stace / JL Stermer / Megan Stielstra / Parker Stockman / Darin Strauss / Johnny Temple / Karen Tolchin). 

            Tom DeMarchi founded the conference and has been its director since its inception in 2006.  He and his wife Karen Tolchin (who also works hard to keep each conference running smoothly) are both members of FGCU’s English Department faculty and are two of the nicest people you could expect to meet anywhere.  Richard Russo was so charmed when he met Tom and Karen not long ago while they were on vacation in New England that he agreed to come down from Maine to give the conference keynote this year.  

            I have to think it is their kindness and sincere interest in all the students and faculty at the SIWC that make it such a popular conference, along with the accomplished faculty, many with bestselling books to their names. 

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Tuesday
Nov112014

Q & A with Monica McFawn, author of the story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else

From the jacket copy: In the eleven kaleidoscopic stories that make up Bright Shards of Someplace Else, Monica McFawn traces the combustive, hilarious, and profound effects that occur when people misread the minds of others. The characters—an array of artists, scientists, songwriters, nannies, horse trainers, and poets—often try to pin down another’s point of view, only to find that their own worldview is far from fixed.

The characters in McFawn’s stories long for and fear the encroachment of others. A young boy reduces his nanny’s phone bill with a call, then convinces her he can solve her other problems. A man who works at a butterfly-release business becomes dangerously obsessed with solving a famous mathematical proof. A poetry professor finds himself entangled in the investigation of a murdered student. In the final story, an aging lyricist reconnects with a renowned singer to write an album in the Appalachian Mountains, only to be interrupted by the appearance of his drug-addicted son and a mythical story of recovery.

By turns exuberant and philosophically adroit, Bright Shards of Someplace Else reminds us of both the limits of empathy and its absolute necessity. Our misreadings of others may be unavoidable, but they themselves can be things of beauty, charm, and connection.

1. There's a lot of erudition in these stories - you have characters who know quite a bit about mathematics and police procedurals and horses, for example.  Are these subjects related to work you've done in the past (or are doing currently)?  

The subjects in the book range from things I know very well to subjects I knew almost nothing about when I began researching..  I’m an equestrian (and have owned horses for over twenty years) so I know a lot about horses, but math is another story.  I’ve never been a strong math student, and my math education ended in high school.  But I became interested in proofs and high-level math after watching a play, “Fermat’s Last Tango,” which was based on a true story about Andrew Wiles, a British mathematician who solved Fermat’s theorem.   The play made math, which previously seemed to me to be the driest of subjects, seem intoxicating in its high abstraction.

This appealed to me, and reminded of a brief period when I become really interested in philosophy.  I was reading things like Wittgenstein’s Notes on Color and Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.  I’d read these texts, and hardly anything would make sense to me.  But here and there, I’d feel a flicker of understanding, and it was as if this whole latticework of the world’s logic was being shown to me.  Then the clarity would recede, the words would seem like gibberish once more. 

I imagine that this is what it might feel like to be a mathematician, struggling to find connections and formulas that explain how the world works.  I see it as being a kind of artist—searching for this high, clear ideal—but an artist that is looking for something far more specific than anything a writer or artist would seek.  I liked the idea of exploring a character, like Aaron (the mathematician in my story) who has discovered a difficult proof--that private moment of exultation and disbelief before he shares what he knows with the world.

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Monday
Oct132014

Q & A with Jim Elledge, Author of Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist

A summary from the jacket copy: “Utterly unknown during his lifetime, Henry Darger led a quiet, secluded existence as a janitor on Chicago's North Side. When he died, his landlord discovered a treasure trove of more than three hundred canvases and more than 30,000 manuscript pages depicting a rich, shocking fantasy world—many featuring hermaphroditic children being eviscerated, crucified, and strangled.

“While some art historians tend to dismiss Darger as possibly psychotic, Jim Elledge cuts through the cloud of controversy and rediscovers Darger as a damaged and fearful gay man, raised in a world unaware of the consequences of child abuse or gay shame. This thoughtful, sympathetic biography tells the true story of a tragically misunderstood artist. Drawn from fascinating histories of the vice-ridden districts of 1900s Chicago, tens of thousands of pages of primary source material, and Elledge's own work in queer history, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy also features a full-color reproduction of a never-before-seen canvas from a private gallery in New York, as well as a previously undiscovered photograph of Darger with his lifelong companion William Schloeder, or "Whillie" as Henry affectionately referred to him.”

What initially interested you in Darger's story? 

I went to an exhibit of Darger’s paintings in April 2002 and was captivated by an image that appears over and over in his work: the “little girl with a penis,” as it’s been called. Sometimes Darger placed the figure in an Edenic setting, but often the figure is being tortured—strangled, eviscerated, crucified—by male adults in a forest or a battlefield. The figure of the tortured child had caused writers before me to believe that Darger was a sadist, serial killer, and/or pedophile. I don’t know why they came to that conclusion, but I didn’t buy it for a second, and I set out to discover what the figure actually meant.

How did you go about gathering information and organizing the narrative in a coherent manner? (It's so narratively adept and reads like a novel).  

My research took ten years, mostly in the Darger Archive at the Museum for American Folk Art in Manhattan, the University of Chicago’s special collections, and the archives of the Chicago History Museum. The last couple of years of that decade I spent writing the book, but I was doing research right up to the moment I sent the manuscript to my editor. I became pretty much a Google expert during that period, too. Luckily, I’m very organized, and so, with the help of my trusty laptop, keeping track of medical articles from the 1800s and census records from the 1920s, for example, was relatively easy. For the narrative, I just followed the chronology of Darger’s life, a very typical structure for a biography, except for the opening chapter. I wanted to open the book with the most important event in Darger’s life, and that, I believe, was the day his father and a local doctor filled out an application that allowed them to send Darger, a twelve-year-old, to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. In those days—this would have been in 1904—children could be confined in an institution for being truant, for talking back to parents, and in Darger’s case, for masturbating. Darger wasn’t even there when his father signed the application and changed his son’s life irrevocably.

 

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