Little Known Facts: A Novelby Christine Sneed
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Life as one of Hollywood's most handsome, charismatic and critically-acclaimed movie stars seems like a glitzy fairytale to the people who orbit around Renn Ivins. But for his grown children, Anna and Will, their father's fame threatens to permeate every aspect of their lives. For Anna - a diligent medical student with a promising future ahead of her but not so promising romantic prospects - the exploits of her celebrity father are a source of embarrassment and, at best, bemusement. Her brother Will, on the other hand, is floundering in a quarter-life crisis. The only thing to outlast his directionless career and failed relationships is his trust fund, but while he and Anna may be happy to use their father's money, they're less happy to use his influence.
As the family, lovers and hangers-on of Renn Ivins struggle to forge their identities in the colossal shadow of his celebrity, Christine Sneed deftly unravels the secrets they tell each other and themselves. Little Known Facts is a multi-layered, deftly observed novel of the fallout of fame and fortune.
“Impressive. . . hypnotic. . . hard to put down. . . . Little Known Facts is juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward…. Sneed is such a gifted writer… Her depiction of both proximity to celebrity and celebrity itself had me totally convinced.” Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times Book Review (cover)
“An entertaining, formally inventive read …the world that Sneed creates in Little Known Facts-- a blend of truth and fiction that weaves real life actors and directors into Renn's everyday life -- makes for a clever take and a fun read.” Los Angeles Times
“I grabbed Christine Sneed's novel Little Known Facts on my way out the door this weekend and ate it up. It's a great canny read: wry, observant, inventive in style, rich in character. Christine Sneed knows her Hollywood, but more than that, she knows her people.” Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins and National Book Award finalist for The Zero
“Sneed possesses uncanny insight into the power dynamics in families, friendships and workplaces. Exquisitely structured, with its spotlight segueing among characters, bits of tabloids, journal entries and overheard conversations, Little Known Facts is one of those rare novels that is both profound and fun.” Chicago Tribune, Editor's Choice
“An ensnaring first novel that delves into the complex challenges and anguish of living with and in the shadow of celebrity. Sneed's wit, curiosity, empathy, and ability to divine the perfect detail propel this psychologically exquisite, superbly realized novel of intriguing, caricature-transcending characters and predicaments…As Sneed illuminates each facet of her percussively choreographed plot via delectably slant disclosures--overheard conversations, snooping, tabloids, confessions under duress, and journal entries, among them--she spotlights ‘little known facts' about the cost of fame, our erotic obsession with movie-star power, and where joy can be found.” Booklist (starred review)
“Sneed is a graceful prose stylist; sentence by sentence Little Known Facts is clean, spare and uncluttered.” San Francisco Chronicle
“The gravitational pull of fame in a celebrity-obsessed culture informs this smart, fresh debut about a family living in the shadow cast by its larger-than-life patriarch.” Bonnie Jo Campbell, National Book Award finalist for American Salvage
“Sneed inhabits her characters' interior lives with impressive clarity and precision.” Time Out Chicago
“Goes beyond the tabloid headlines… Sneed effectively blurs the line between fact and fiction and brings each character to life.” Kirkus Reviews
“Christine Sneed's compelling first novel, Little Known Facts, reads with the effortlessness of a page-turner. The story is located at an intersection of romance - make that romances--fame, and physical beauty, and yet Sneed's insight into her credibly drawn characters combined with the novel's multi-faceted construction make the story anything but formulaic, and confer upon its subjects the depth and grace of the author's lucid prose and book's imaginative construction.” Stuart Dybek, author of I Sailed With Magellan
“Christine Sneed's Little Known Facts is a contemporary, culturally vibrant novel brimming with superb dialog, a sharp sense of scene and narrative pace, emotional/psychological clarity, and a bracing humanity. A blazing piece of work.” Floyd Skloot, author of In the Shadow of Memory
“[An] impressive debut…a Hollywood tale that aspires to complicate the traditional Hollywood narrative.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“I tore through this instantly engaging box of literary candy in a weekend and immediately thought: TV series, HBO or AMC-style.” MSN
“Five years ago, Salman Rushdie was so impressed with fiction writer Christine Sneed that he included her work in 2008's Best American Short Stories anthology. But the Evanston resident has kept a low-profile, occasionally producing more short stories in the years since. That's about to change though, with the publication of Sneed's elegant first novel, Little Known Facts.” Chicago Magazine
“Sneed writes with authority and deftness.” New City
“Well-crafted and character-focused . . . . the story's shifting perspectives are expertly intertwined and never heavy-handed . . . . Little Known Facts tells a story that moves beyond the salacious lives of its characters, illustrating the difficulties and obsessions that are as common within Hollywood as outside of it.” Zzyzzyva
“If Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins had an illicit affair, Christine Sneed's Little Known Facts might be the love child.” Kirkus Reviews
“I really, really loved Little Known Facts. From the point f view of those closest to Hollywood super star Renn Ivins we see that flaws and foibles of the airbrushed lives of the rich and famous and the people closest to them. This is a deeply sensitive novel that takes the reader into a world of usually glamorized or carefully spun by publicists, revealing the havoc wreaked on most of the lives of ex's and offspring and lovers and the stars themselves. This insightful novel avoids moralizing, though in the end the moral might well be 'Be careful what you wish for.” Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover
“I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The writing is fresh, and so honest. And she shows us that everyone, no matter how famous or rich, is human and capable of making mistakes. All we really want in life is to be happy and content but many of us never get there because we are so wrapped up in what we should be doing or what others think of us. Will struggles in the glitzy shadows of his move star father, only not really sure whether he should go to law school or follow in his father's footsteps, or even in his mother's or sister's. both of whom are successful medical doctors. How can any of these related people have a healthy romantic relationship when their father is on his third wife, the most recent one the age of his daughter Anna?
While we all read the tabloids about famous movie stars like Brad and Angie, little do we know that they are all wondering about their role in this world. Christine Sneed brings us into their world, showing us that not matter how famous one may be, all of us are facing the same question. Who are we and what do we want from our life? An insightful read, Little Known Facts will make you think, make you laugh and perhaps feel a little sad at how fame and fortune can give a family such wealth, yet also cause so much damage to our intimate lives. Everyone will want to read this novel to catch a glimpse into this world of glitter and fame of Hollywood.” Annie Philbrick, Bank Square Books, Mystic, Connecticut (President, New England Independent Booksellers Association)
“While we all read the tabloids about famous movie stars like Brad and Angie, little do we know that they are all wondering about their role in this world. Christine Sneed brings us into their world, showing us that not matter how famous one may be, all of us are facing the same question. Who are we and what do we want from our life? An insightful read, Little Known Facts will make you think, make you laugh and perhaps feel a little sad at how fame and fortune can give a family such wealth, yet also cause so much damage to our intimate lives. Everyone will want to read this novel to catch a glimpse into this world of glitter and fame of Hollywood.” Annie Philbrick, Bank Square Books, Mystic, Connecticut (President, New England Independent Booksellers Association)
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Read an Excerpt
LITTLE KNOWN FACTSA Novel
By CHRISTINE SNEED
BLOOMSBURY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Christine Sneed
All right reserved.
More times than he would care to count, Will has witnessed his father's ability to silence a room merely by entering it. He has seen his father's expression change in an instant from utter exhaustion to the bright, sometimes false plea sure of being the center of attention, the person on whom every pair of eyes is fastened, some with desire, others with envy. His father has won coveted annual awards and routinely earned millions of dollars for a few months' work in front of a camera and has attracted the admiring, sometimes slavish attention of some of the world's most powerful men and beautiful women. Despite his own early marriage, he has achieved the goals that many men set for themselves in adolescence but abandon when they marry young and begin to produce children and acquire mortgages and jobs they aren't thrilled with and wives who, after a few years, can barely tolerate their bullying insipidity and dispiriting lack of imagination. Will's father, Renn Ivins, is in his early fifties and divorced from two women who did not tire of him before he tired of them. Will is shorter than his father by two inches and at twenty-six already witnessing his hairline's recession, whereas his father still has a full head of movie-star hair. Will believes that even his name is less interesting than his father's: Billy, though he has asked people to call him Will since his second year of college, and now it is only family—his parents and his sister Anna, and a few childhood friends—who still call him Billy.
His mother was the first woman to marry and be left by his father. She is a pediatrician and for a long time was furious to have been discarded for a younger woman with no obvious merits other than her witless adoration of Renn and the supposed ability to suffer more gracefully the sex scenes that he has pretended since the beginning of his career to dislike—his claim has always been that he submits to them only to avoid an argument with the director. Sex scenes, he has said, are his least favorite scenes to film because they aren't at all sexy. If you actually paused for a moment to consider it, how could you believe that the actors are enjoying themselves while choreographing intimate acts in front of a film crew, most of them little better than strangers? How many people, in any case, want to be studied and critiqued while making love?
The first Mrs. Ivins has told her children that she was too smart for him, that from the beginning, she saw through his selfishness and self-obsession. Behind it, there was a simple message scribbled on a dingy wall: Pig. Over the intervening years, Will's sister has tried to defend their father by telling their mother that she thought he was the nicest man she knew, that she missed him when he was gone, that she thought he was more fun than anyone else. Twelve years old when the divorce went through, Will kept his opinions about their father mostly to himself. They weren't as generous as his sister's, but they weren't as unkind as their mother's either.
Despite his easy access to casting agents and directors, Will has not followed his father into a career in film. Four years postcollege and he still has not come across anything that fills him with suspense or a sense of purpose for more than a few weeks at a time. He has everything he needs materially, and on some mornings when he wakes in his three-bedroom condominium that sits within view of an imposing hilltop museum, a home that he paid for with one check drawn on his trust account, he feels restless and out of sorts. The unearned spoils of his comfortable life, the Europe an stereo system, the nearly weightless down comforter, the copper cooking pots he almost never uses, all seem incidental, as if he has awakened in a privileged stranger's home. He has used his father's money but has not wanted to use his influence to sign with an agent and begin the process of auditioning for roles he would never previously have imagined himself pursuing. He is not interested in gaining weight to play a paunchy stoner or an unshaven flunky in a biker movie. He does not want to be cast as the waiter with two lines who serves the film's stars their lunches. As a witness to and a sometimes-grudging admirer of the great roles his father has played—the noble statesman, the tragic 1920s film star, the human rights worker murdered for his ideals in a deadly, faraway land—Will understands that he would want immediately to be cast as the hero.
"I thought you were going to start applying to law schools," his sister says when they meet for dinner to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday. It is mid-October, the weather perfectly mild, the famous southern California smog less dense than usual because of winds off the Pacific. Their mother is in New York attending a convention on new pediatric allergy treatments, their father in New Orleans filming a script he co-wrote with a friend about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Anna is unmarried and boyfriendless. Will has a girlfriend, but she is in Hawaii for a week with two college girlfriends to celebrate their thirtieth birthdays. Danielle is four years older than he is, already divorced. He has never been married and wonders if he will ever want to be.
"I'm still thinking about it," he says, meeting his sister's clear green eyes. She is pretty and kind and could have a boyfriend right now if she wanted one, but claims she is too busy. "I took the LSAT two months ago."
This news surprises her. "Seriously?"
He nods. He hadn't told her that he was studying for it; he wasn't sure how he would do.
"How did it go?"
"All right. I got a one sixty-four, which is good enough for a lot of schools, but I think I want to go to Harvard or Yale."
"You could get in," she says, cutting a big piece from her steak. It is red in the center, shockingly so. He has always ordered his steaks medium well. They are both meat eaters, she more guilty about this than he is. She has tried vegetarianism several times since their teens. He has never tried it, knowing he would give up within a week.
She's right; he could get in. It is because of their father. The Ivies like the offspring of the famous. Most everyone, especially the non-famous, do. But he wants to be admitted based on his own talents, not his father's.
"I don't know," he says. "Maybe. I think I'm going to retake the LSAT anyway."
"You're sure you want to be a lawyer?" she says.
"I think so."
"I just think it'd be interesting." He likes the idea of understanding something arcane and potentially tricky, of being a person other people go to for answers.
"Do you want to stand in a courtroom and argue for murderers' lives in front of a judge and jury?"
"Alleged murderers," he says. "I don't think I want to do criminal law."
"But that's where the action is."
"I don't need to be in on the action, Anna. What ever that means."
She looks at him for a few seconds. "You say that now, Billy, but—"
"But what?" he says, impatient.
"I just think you'd probably want to do something a little more interesting than sit in an office all day surrounded by affidavits and filing cabinets."
She has always been the better student. She is in her last year of medical school at UCLA, very close to earning her diploma, as their mother did over twenty-five years earlier, but she does not want to practice pediatric medicine; instead, she intends to specialize in family medicine so that she can offer everyone primary care, particularly those who can't afford it. She has told him that she might even go to Africa someday to volunteer in a clinic. She isn't interested in the big paychecks that many of her classmates seem to be chasing, in part, Will supposes, because she already has money. Nothing is certain yet, but she will do her residency after she is placed in a good teaching hospital, and then she will decide where to go next. Will does not want her to go to Africa or some other place where he would not want to visit her. For a while it bothered him that she has done something so different with her life than anything he has ever considered doing, but over the years, his adolescent jealousy has turned to reticent admiration.
"Do you plan to start next fall?" she says.
"Probably. There's still enough time to apply. Most of the deadlines aren't until December or January."
She cuts off another piece of her steak and looks at it on the end of her fork. "Dad's flying back from New Orleans on Friday and staying until Sunday night," she says quietly. "He probably told you. This is the only time he'll be here until they're done shooting Bourbon at Dusk."
"I haven't talked to him in a couple of weeks."
"You should call him more often, Billy. He says you don't unless you need something."
He feels anger prickle his scalp. "That's not true."
She hesitates. "Don't get mad. He was probably just in a bad mood when he said that."
"I called him last week. He's full of shit if he says that I only call when I need something." It sometimes takes him a week or more to get through to his father. They are both in the habit of waiting two or three days to return each other's calls. Anna always seems to have more success reaching him, but she also calls more often.
"He asked if we'd have dinner with him on Saturday. Can you?"
"I don't know. I think I have something planned already."
"Reschedule it. I bet you haven't seen Dad since his birthday."
She is right, but he doesn't admit it. Their father's birthday is in April. It has been almost six months since their last dinner together, at his favorite restaurant, an Italian place in Santa Monica where the ardent and merry owners refuse to let him pay for his meals and only ask permission to take his photo, to have him sign autographs for their relatives back in Salerno. It is their plea sure, their honor, to have him eat their humble lasagna, their minestrone and sweet cannoli. Their smiles split their handsome, aging faces, and Will can barely look at them, he feels such a painful mix of shame and pride.
"I'll let you know, Anna."
She purses her lips but doesn't say anything.
After he drops her off at her house in Silver Lake, he calls his friend Luca, who was supposed to have returned two days earlier from several weeks in Australia. Luca is his closest friend from high school and prone to devising practical jokes that involve convincing impersonations of celebrities and politicians. He has almost perfected Will's father's voice and sometimes calls pretending to confess to a fetish for lawn mowers and athletic girls wearing men's underwear. To Will's mind, Luca fits the stereotype the rest of the world seems to have of southern Californians—happy, never anxious, half stoned. When he calls Luca's cell number, he is routed directly to voice mail and his friend's lazy voice declares that he's "hanging in the land down under until November 1." Will is disappointed that he has decided to stay on the other side of the world for another month. It is likely that he has found a girlfriend, which a year earlier kept him in Paris at his father's place for two extra months.
Will knows that he could do the same thing—disappear overseas for months at a time—but the idea has never appealed to him. He likes California, his apartment, his sister and mother's proximity. He spent a semester in Scotland during college and drank too much and slept with girls who liked him because his father was Renn Ivins. Luca once asked him, "Wouldn't it be worse if you had a famous brother? Your dad at least is twice your age. It's not like you can go on a double date with him."
"Why couldn't I?" Will had said.
"I guess you could, but why would you? He's your dad, you freak."
He dials his father's number now and is surprised when he answers. Renn sounds tired and deflated for a few seconds before his voice rises to its usual breezy conversational pitch. "I just talked to Anna," he says. "She said you took her out for her birthday. That was nice of you."
The compliment makes him feel shy. "It wasn't a big deal. She went out with Jill and Celestine for lunch, so it was just us at the steak place she likes in Pasadena. Mom's in New York. Anna might have told you." He is the dutiful son, filling in the blanks for his absent father. He can't help it. He has always wanted to be good, to be applauded too for this goodness. But Anna's comment that their father thinks he only calls when he wants something rankles. Still, he can't find the nerve to confront him, not so soon.
"How's Danielle?" his father asks.
"She's in Hawaii with a couple of friends."
"Why aren't you with her?"
"She didn't invite me."
His father hesitates. "I want to ask you something."
Will feels his stomach sink. "Okay."
"We've had a couple of people quit down here, and my assistant is taking a leave of absence. Her mother just found out she has cancer, and she asked Trina to come home for a while. I wondered if you'd be interested in flying down here to fill in for her until we're done shooting. You'd be making phone calls and running errands for me. We've got about a month left. Unless you're busy."
It has been several years, since his second year of college, that he has worked on a set doing odd jobs for his father. The last time was for a film that had an enormous cast of extras, which Will had been hired to assist with, and was shot partially in Kenya, partially in Kashmir. He developed digestive problems in India and had to be sent home early. His father had asked him two years later to help with a shoot in Romania and Russia, but Will had declined. This is the first time since then that Renn has offered him work. "I don't know, Dad. Can we talk about it when you're here? Aren't you coming home on Friday?"
"No, not anymore. There's too much going on right now."
"Can I at least think it over for a day or two?"
"No, I need to know to night. If you can't do it, I have to make other arrangements."
"Can you give me an hour?"
He sighs. "All right. One hour. That's all I can afford."
Before they hang up, Will says, "I thought I was the one who called only when I wanted something."
His father laughs softly. "You called me, Billy."
"I don't call you only when I need something."
"Did I say that you did?"
"That's what Anna told me."
"I don't remember saying that. I'm sorry if I did. I must not have meant it."
After they hang up, Will sees that his sister has sent him a text message: Dad not coming. No dinner Sat. Ur off the hook.
In the morning he catches a flight from LAX to New Orleans. His ticket is waiting at the airport, the machinery of his father's life well lubricated by his fame and large bank account.
His sister says she's happy that he'll be helping their father again, but asks in the same breath about his plans to retake the LSAT.
"I can still do it when I get back," he says.
"Don't you have to study?"
She laughs. "In New Orleans?"
"Why not? If I don't apply this fall, I can always do it next year."
It takes her a long time to reply. "Yes, you could," she finally says. "If you still feel like it."
New Orleans is much warmer than he expects when he steps out of the terminal and into the town car his father has sent for him. The outlying areas of the city have a stunned look, the effects of the hurricane still visible, despite the years that have already passed. He feels both guilty and relieved to have been living so ignorantly elsewhere, unaware of the scope of the city's troubles. His father's interest in it, his research and his four visits in the years since the storm, had until now only seemed to be a businessman's pragmatism: here was a beleaguered region that could enhance his reputation and earn him more money if he managed to fashion something cinematic out of the ruins.
He is taken directly to the Omni Hotel on St. Louis and Chartres by a silent driver, an older, completely bald man in a dark gray suit. His father and a few of the film's actors are also staying at the hotel, his unit production manager having negotiated a good rate on a block of rooms, but no one is in the reception area to greet him. The Quarter looks as he remembers it, largely unscathed by the storm, its black wrought-iron balconies glistening in the sun, their hanging ferns and flowering potted plants as effusive as he remembers them from a trip during his junior-year spring break, several months before the hurricane. His father's film is being shot in the Quarter as well as in Metairie and on a shrimp boat in the Gulf. Will read the script early in the morning before he got on the plane; his father had given him a copy months earlier, but he had only glanced at it then. It is genuinely good, a story about a brother and sister trying to recover their livelihood after the storm and to keep their mother's health from failing.
Excerpted from LITTLE KNOWN FACTS by CHRISTINE SNEED Copyright © 2013 by Christine Sneed. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Christine Sneed has a creative writing MFA from Indiana University and has lived in Chicago and Evanston, IL since 1998. She teaches creative writing at DePaul University, Northwestern University and Pacific University. Her story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry, won AWP's 2009 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, first-fiction category, was named the Chicago Writer's Association Book of the Year, and has been chosen as the recipient of Ploughshares' 2011 first-book prize, the John C. Zacharis Award. It was also long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and named one of the seven best books of the year by Time Out Chicago. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Short Stories, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Notre Dame Review, and a number of other journals. Visit her web site at http://www.christinesneed.com.
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This novel is told from the points of view of several people who are close to a very successful film actor, director and screenwriter. It's a page turner that also is written with especial care for word choice and characterization. It's also structurally innovative. I highly recommend it.