Why did you think you had the right to write about Paris?
I don’t think that fiction writers need to ask permission. I used to think that we did, but eventually, probably sometime in my mid-20s, I realized permission wasn’t going to arrive at my doorstep from anyone, and so the best tack to take was to go ahead and write whatever I wanted to. If I was going to write about people I knew, however, perhaps then I’d need to ask permission, but I wasn’t planning to. Nonfiction writers do need to worry more about permission than novelists do.
I chose Paris as a setting for my new novel because I was a French major and studied in France during college. I wrote Paris, He Said in part as an attempt to understand my feelings about the French and their culture, and why I so admire it, but can also see some of its shortcomings.
This will sound a little ridiculous, because it’s very much a small-picture detail, but while I lived in France, I learned not to take things for granted, such as orderly lines at the post office. We Americans generally are pretty good at creating lines and standing in them. The French, not so much. Americans are also much more likely to take showers every day and change their clothes every day too. The French are famously fashionable but they are not as concerned with cleanliness as we Americans are. (Because of our Puritan origins? I’m not sure.)
There’s a May-December romance in Paris, He Said. The two main characters, Jayne Marks, a 30-year-old American, and Laurent Moller, a 52-year-old Frenchman, are an item. Why do your stories often feature these kinds of age differences?
I’m not sure why. Maybe I have unacknowledged Daddy issues? No, I really don’t think so, but I am curious about what attracts people of different ages and backgrounds to each other, and a big age disparity further complicates an already complex dynamic. As a writer, I like trying to map the psychological twists and turns in a sexual relationship – the happy beginnings and the not-so-happy endings (in some cases).
There’s a character in your novel, Susan Kraut, who is a real person. What’s the story here?
Susan is a painter and painting professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who also lives up the street from me in Evanston, Illinois. I met her about 15 years ago when I worked at SAIC in an administrative job in the student affairs office. Her work is beautiful, atmospheric, and brilliant, and she was willing to let me visit her studio, ask her many prying questions about her process, her teaching methods, and her formation as an artist. She permitted me to cast her as Jayne Marks’s mentor and former professor in Paris, He Said, too. It was a huge amount of fun to write about her work and to have her in the novel.
Did you go to Paris to research this novel?
I did. I’ve been to Paris about a dozen times, and I went back twice while writing this novel, in September 2013 and 2014. I’d like to go again this September, but my teaching obligations preclude this. C’est dommage. Zut alors.
What else do you think we should know before we let you get back to the dishes?
Along with Susan Kraut, Scott Spencer is this novel’s presiding spirit – read his novels if you haven’t yet! Reread them if you have. He’s a stunning novelist (I smuggled in a mention of him near the beginning of Paris, He Said). He wrote probably the single most compelling unreliable narrator I have ever encountered – David Axelrod in Spencer’s National Book Award-nominated (and 2-million-plus-copy-selling) Endless Love.
CHRISTINE SNEED’S story collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry won the Grace Paley Prize, Ploughshares’ John C. Zacharis Prize, and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Her debut novel Little Known Facts won the Society of Midland Authors award for best adult fiction and was named a top ten debut novel of 2013 by Booklist. Her short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories and New Stories from the Midwest. Sneed teaches at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and lives in Evanston, Illinois.
Author photo credit: Adam Tinkham