Books In Conversation
Christine Sneed with Blake Sanz
Please Be Advised
(7.13 Books, 2022)
I first met Christine Sneed ten years ago, not long after her debut book of short stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Excited to teach her work to my students, I invited her to my class, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. I remember her from back then, and think of her today, as an incredibly generous writer, someone who’s always championing excellent and under-appreciated literary work. She’s witty and wise about movies and fame and the literary world, and lately, she’s been busy as ever, editing an anthology of short stories entitled Love in the Time of Time’s Up—out this month from Tortoise Books, about fraught relationships post #MeToo—and simultaneously ushering in her newest work of fiction, Please Be Advised, a novel told in office memos, also being released being this month, by 7.13 Books. In Please Be Advised, a work that calls to mind Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End and TV’s The Office, Sneed comically explores office culture in the twenty-first century.
Blake Sanz (Rail): What were the origins of your interest in writing a book like Please Be Advised? How did your idea of what it would be change as you wrote?
Christine Sneed: I wrote another comedic novel just before I started the memos that eventually became Please Be Advised. I really love writing humor, and this book naturally arrived in the sense that after having written a goofy sex comedy (titled The Month of September), I wanted to keep writing in a sort of off-kilter voice.
I was so tired from writing somewhere around 1,000 words a day for three months, i.e., getting a draft on the page in a very short period of time. I started writing these short pieces, thinking I’d only write a couple of memos. I like writing in different forms and have written stories in the form of a cover letter and résumé, and in the form of an annotated checkbook.
After I had written a few memos, I thought, “Maybe this could be longer—maybe this could become a novel.” I kept writing and eventually realized I needed to find a way to get individual voices into this book. That’s when I began thinking specifically about characters like Bryan Stokerly, Esq., and Quest Industries’ office manager, Ken Crickshaw Jr., who comes to Quest after losing his job as a coroner in a small town in northwestern Minnesota. Other characters, too, started to appear.
Rail: Who were the original characters in the earliest memos?
Sneed: Dottie Flowers, outgoing office manager—she was the only one with a name before Ken and Bryan appeared. In the early nineties when I was first out of college and before I went to grad school in Bloomington, Indiana, I had a job at a company with an office manager named Dottie. In Please Be Advised, the character Dottie Flowers is not based on the real Dottie, who also had a different last name, although I now can’t remember what it was! (The company I worked for was located at 1 E. Wacker Drive, which is also where my fictitious company, Quest Industries, is located.) Some of the details in PBA are real, but the characters are all fictitious. I didn’t want to base them on anyone real, in part because many of my characters are such lunatics.
Rail: Yeah, it is a madcap comedy. It goes beyond the kind of comedy I've seen from you in the past. I feel like you're really upping the ante. You're pushing yourself to be funny in every paragraph, or at least every page, and I’m used to seeing humor from you, but not at that pace. And I imagine it being a joy to write a story which has that level of ambition. Was the process of writing this book different from the process of writing prior ones?
Sneed: I've been writing quite a few feature and pilot scripts, and I've also taken a few classes specifically about crafting comedy: stand-up and improv classes, and a late-night comedy-writing class as well at UCLA from an alumnus of Second City, Holly Wortell.
Even when some of the memos seem relatively serious, they end up devolving into a joke, i.e., some joke that asserts itself by the end.
It seemed instinctive to me to move from serious to comedic—I’ve watched a lot of funny shows and movies and watched comedy specials. Like HBO’s Veep, for example. Every page of each script probably had two or three jokes, and even in scenes when there's a serious issue, they turn it into a joke. I was really impressed by that and tried to emulate it. If you do it regularly, with any luck, you become good at it. It's like learning a complicated dance; you train yourself and figure it out through practice and repetition. But it helps if you have a predilection for it.
Rail: You were talking structure, and it occurs to me that it’s really masterful how Please Be Advised unfolds early in a way of simply revealing who these wacky people are. But then, at a certain point, there’s a momentum that has been built around larger issues. You find yourself asking, “Will the company survive? This audit is happening—what will happen there?” So, those things give a sense of what we’re moving toward. And, without giving anything away, it’s clear that the identity of the company helps lend structure to the piece, and yet it never feels that way. And so, I wonder, as you talk about the structure of jokes—is it true that the identity of the company was a larger structure that you wanted us to pay attention to? Was that something that emerged organically in the writing, or was it that you were trying to link from joke to joke, moment to moment?
Sneed: I really don't think I specifically thought of connecting these memos to some larger concern. Kurt Baumeister, my editor, suggested adding a couple of new plot threads, after he acquired it, and I added the IRS audit. Even though the book did read to both of us like a novel before I added new plot threads, the new memos did create more of a narrative arc. Kurt kept asking me about Ken Crickshaw, Jr: “He’s a disgraced coroner, and he got run out of town by his own daughter because he botched his ex-wife’s autopsy. You have to give us more because he just seems kind of sinister.”
I didn’t intend anything sinister, and therefore I was glad that Kurt suggested adding more to Ken’s arc, because he is really the moral center of the novel. He’s kind of my alter ego in that he's exacting and does not suffer fools. He’s trying to get this dysfunctional company—that’s been led so ineptly by Bryan Stokerly, who is a con man with a British accent and has gotten Quest into murky waters financially.
As I worked on PBA, I was thinking about characters more than anything else. That’s always been my M.O.—if you can create vivid characters, the story will naturally unfurl.
Rail: Did you come to think of Quest Industries itself as a kind of character?
Sneed: Quest Industries is a close approximate to a real company, Quest Technology, that was the parent company of a corporation I worked for after college for two years, but I don’t even remember what technology they trafficked in—its name always struck me as abstract and unspecific—which is one of the things I was thinking about as I wrote Please Be Advised: buzzwords and the ambiguity of what really goes on in a lot of corporations. I’d see some enormous office buildings off the highway and wonder what they were doing all day. I was thinking about this as I wrote PBA and satirizing this climate and atmosphere, this ennui.
Rail: Ennui comes up quite a bit in the book. It's everywhere, both the word and the sense of it. Across all the different characters, and you have such a wide diversity of weirdos, and across all of them there is a unifying sense of how they use corporate language to communicate. I was wondering, was that a challenge you felt you had to confront? That is, the need to both distinguish characters and to have them all feel very much of that Quest Industries office speak?
Sneed: It was organic, fortunately. Having taught business writing classes—probably twenty of them when I was teaching undergraduates, I was very familiar with office speak. Once you figure out some basics, it’s not terribly hard to write effective business correspondence.
But the thing that was always the most fun was—the fact that my characters say the things they’re not supposed to say—Bryan Stokerly, in his last memo, for example, writes “the sexually frustrated Ken Crickshaw, Jr.”—something no one is supposed to say, especially in a business memo! And that was the fun of the book for me: having the characters say all the things they’re not supposed to say. These characters would be very likely fired in a real corporation.
I portray most of them as oversharers. What they’re guilty of is being honest. And this was the whole point of it for me of writing memos. Business writing is sometimes (often?) about finding a way to make harsh truths palatable.
When an interviewer asks, “What is your biggest weakness?” Who is ever going to say something truthful? “Well, ma’am, I spend six hours a day looking at porn, and I'm an online gambler. And I lie to my children.” Who’s going to say that? It's just ridiculous. The stuff we have to pretend that we'll put up with in our work lives! Which most of us do out of financial necessity because we have families to support. This anomie, this bullshittery, is what this book is about. I wanted to challenge the absurdity of pretending you’re someone you're not in order to pay your bills. I figured out in my late twenties that I couldn’t stand working in an office, doing the same thing day after day. I was fortunate I could pivot to teaching—I had an MFA and was writing in the off-hours and had been trained to teach in graduate school too.
Rail: You can feel the delight that these characters take in going beyond the pale of what they know they're supposed to say. That’s part of their joy. And it’s probably part of our joy in reading, to feel that release.
Sneed: Thank you. When I was writing the matchmaker memos for Hannah Louise Schmidt and Bill Dubonski, I think this is when the beyond-the-pale aspect really came to the fore. For example, when they’d say something such as, “After dinner of veggie burgers and sweet potato fries, we went ahead and decided to have intercourse.” Which is expressed in a clinical way, despite it being an incredibly intimate detail they’re sharing with 178 other people. But I wanted it to be discordant, and I loved the irony implicit in using the business memo format for conveying this kind of shockingly personal information.
Rail: Did stand-up comedy have any effect on how you wrote this?
Sneed: In a sense. I wrote most of the book before I took a stand-up class, an improv class, and a late-night comedy-writing class. When I went through it again after Kurt at 7.13 Books had accepted it for publication, I punched up some of the jokes because I’d learned a few things about joke-writing—the late-night comedy class especially was terrific. I re-learned how much of the humor is in the timing and the details, also repetition and callbacks when used strategically.
Rail: I want to go back briefly to this question of your interest in writing stories that have a clear structure to them. This one is obviously told in memos, which is both exciting to visualize, I imagine, but also potentially limiting. And I know that, for myself, when I write stories that have a conceit that feels limiting, it usually ends up being liberating in some way. I’m wondering, were there any moments in the writing of this book where the fact that you had constrained yourself to memos lead to a new and interesting insight into how to depict the character or otherwise fulfill something crucial to the story?
Sneed: You know, the memo is such a malleable form. The key for me came pretty early in the book. I started writing it in October of 2017, and I had most of it written by the spring of 2018. But, pretty soon, probably by November of 2017, when I had written about ten memos, I realized I had to try to add more individual voices, and that’s when I came up with the idea of the Stories of Personal Triumph. I was thinking about business-speak, i.e., “personal triumph,” and corporate storytelling.
Rail: Corporate storytelling?
Sneed: I was interviewed a number of years ago by a company outside of Chicago interested in hiring someone to teach storytelling to their employees. Remembering this when I was working on PBA, it seemed like a key way to add even more insanity into the novel, i.e., I’d have many of the characters share personal stories with all of their colleagues at Quest Industries. I wanted each story to be about a different topic that had nothing to do at all with the office. In this way, I would be able to bring in various aspects of the outside world, and many of these characters shared stories about their private lives, which were entirely inappropriate for the workplace.
Rail: In those Stories of Personal Triumph, you can see how every character who writes one is just fumbling through what they think it’s supposed to be. They’re not sure what to do. In some of them, they’re angry, and they just want to vent. It ended up being a clever way, as you’ve said, to get a panorama of voices. And it leaves the question for the reader: What are some of these other co-workers going to think about these stories? We don't often get their reactions, but we’re invited to imagine—
Sneed: You get a hint of it here and there. Chantal Watkins said before she shared her own story that she liked Harry Sanchez’s about adopting a pug. And Ginny Snell mentions Wilma Joon’s story—Ginny says, “Oh, maybe I can have my husband's gall bladder removed at home,” in response to Wilma’s story about tricking her husband into having his wisdom teeth removed at home.
Rail: Some of the praise for the book compares it to things most readers will be aware of. The Office, Dilbert, Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members. How do you see this book fitting within the tradition of that kind of lineage? I love all of those, and so many of them are now a little older. Do you think office culture has changed in any way since those artists were making the statements that they were making about it? Is there something that you're trying to get at that’s slant-wise to what those shows and books were looking to do?
Sneed: Not really. I do think office culture has changed because of the pandemic, but I remember listening recently to an episode of the New York Times’s The Daily podcast about surveillance software that a lot of companies are now using to make sure their employees are actually working when they’re working remotely. There are problems with it—in some cases, it’ll clock the wrong amount of hours worked. That culture of the boss, you know? Like Quest’s President Bryan Stokerly, Esq., the avatar of this selfish, not very community-minded leader. He considers himself to be cool, to be a good guy, but he’s only out for himself. He’s thinking, “How much has our stock increased in the last two quarters?” “How many units have we sold?” Work is not about individual experiences anymore. In most cases, it’s only about money, about profit.
That’s the whole book. It’s about greed. The buffoonery and the hollowness of someone like Bryan Stokerly.
Rail: What was it like to write that character?
Sneed: He’s someone I enjoyed writing because he's a nutcase, but certainly I wouldn’t want to work for him. I was looking at pathological personalities, and how capitalism apologizes for them and in some cases celebrates them, because the party line on this is, “It’s fine because we’ve made so much money, and [again] that’s all that matters.” But this mindset is destroying the world.
Rail: It’s interesting to hear you comment on the darkness lying underneath the jokes of this book.
Sneed: It’s unsettling to imagine the reason these jokes are funny is because we actually think our work lives resemble those in this book. My experiences have been similar to a certain extent, but not as hyperbolic. Nonetheless, in the many offices where I’ve worked, whether they're academic or nonprofit or corporate, there have been so many things that I’ve laughed at, but also thought with anger or frustration, “Seriously?” I worked at an office job in a graduate school and sometimes ate my lunch at the reception desk where I answered the phones and greeted visitors. One of the higher-ups soon told me I wasn’t allowed to eat at my desk. This pronouncement struck me as both mean and petty. It’s not like I was flinging food around or leaving crumbs on the desk or taking three hours to eat my sandwich and chips. I’m so glad to be a writer because I can explore these feelings and this petty tyranny in fiction. If I still had to live with these sorts of rules, I don't know what sort of person I would be—because I find them enraging and dehumanizing.
Rail: I’m trying to think of a bridge between the two books—Please Be Advised, which we’ve been talking about, and the anthology that you recently edited that’s coming out soon, too, Love in the Time of Time’s Up, about fraught relationships between men and women in the world post #MeToo—and it occurs to me that there are questions of gender at play in both. Sometimes we see the men in Please Be Advised take a lot of liberty with their employees. I wonder if you might comment on that. Are you playing with the psychology of a male leader in a corporate environment versus a female leader, a male employee versus a female employee? To what extent was it important for you to explore that?
Sneed: It wasn’t a main concern of mine, but a couple of female characters do comment on the office as a patriarchy. Also, Ken Crickshaw Jr. and Bryan Stokerly are the two most frequently present characters in the book. They’re men, and they’re both making all the rules. Ken is well-meaning, but Bryan is not. He’s completely self-absorbed and an inveterate alcoholic, too—a pathology I mined for humor while also obliquely pointing out its problems.
In Love in the Time of Time’s Up, however, Roberta Montgomery’s story, “The Sacrament of Brett,” about Brett Kavanaugh, and Elizabeth Crane’s story, “Dudes, In Theory,” about a woman swiping her way through a gauntlet of men’s profiles online—in these and others, it was interesting how the authors examined gender in both funny and dark ways. In some of the stories in the book, the men aren’t the villains. For example, Melissa Fraterrigo’s story, “Lil,” has a woman who's in the role of the predator.
Gender, of course, is inescapable. In an office, and certainly if you're looking at #MeToo and Time’s Up, you're going to be talking pointedly about gender.
Rail: What was the genesis of the book?
In gathering these stories, I solicited work from writers whom I really admire, and a number of them committed. As for how the idea of the anthology came together, one day I was thinking about Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” which was published in The New Yorker in December 2017. It went viral, and I thought about how fiction is such an interesting way to access topics and issues like #MeToo and Time’s Up, and I was curious what various writers I knew would do with it. I ended up writing a story for the anthology too, “Potpourri,” about a sex worker who ends up having an unexpected encounter with someone she knows from her prior life. My protagonist in this story isn’t blameless. She’s not a victim in any traditional sense. I wanted all the stories to have complexity, and in some cases, moral ambiguity, too.
Rail: Was it the idea of seeing what fiction might have to say about current issues? I taught a class recently called “Fiction Writing about Hot-Button Issues,” and we started with “Cat Person” and moved through other stories that touch on things that have been in the news—climate change, police treatment of people of color. What do you think fiction can accomplish in writing about such issues that’s different from what journalism can accomplish?
Sneed: You get access to a character’s thoughts. You can inhabit them. It’s like a good film. You watch from the point of view of the character, or the director. You feel things, obviously, when you read a nonfiction account—say, the Harvey Weinstein story by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor that was published in October 2017 in the New York Times. I think desire is always interesting as a topic. But it’s also abstract, and I wanted to know how these writers would access it. What new things might they show us about the human condition, what different points of view?
I then began thinking about editing an anthology about #MeToo—I think it’s an interesting topic, and certainly a lot of people were talking and thinking about it. This was in January 2020, a few months before the pandemic really clobbered us all. So, I thought, “Well, maybe I can get a good press interested in it.” My agent at the time said, “Yes, that's a really good idea.” I wrote a proposal, gathered contributors, and four sample stories, but then the pandemic hit, and she didn’t think it would sell. I ended up querying a number of presses—the Feminist Press and several university presses, most of which did not respond—anthologies are difficult. Nonetheless, I had fifteen great writers lined up with terrific stories, writers including Lynn Freed, Gina Frangello, Joan Frank, May-lee Chai, Amina Gautier, Jenny Shank, Rachel Swearingen, Karen E. Bender. I eventually approached Jerry Brennan at Tortoise Books who read the proposal and the sample stories quickly. He was very enthusiastic, and I was relieved and thrilled.
Book Launch for Christine Sneed’s Please Be Advised:
Tuesday, October 25, 2022, KGB Bar, 85 East 4th St. 7 PM
More information: https://bookshop.org/lists/7-13-kgb-october-25-2022-7-pm