In Christine Sneed’s debut novel, Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury, 2013), readers are given a behind-the-scenes look at how the other half lives — specifically, movie star Renn Ivins; his ex-wife, Lucy; and their two grown children, Will and Anna — but, to borrow the title of Renn’s second ex-wife’s tell-all, this isn’t gold. Renn’s success as a leading man over the past 25 years, with a recent turn toward directing Oscar-caliber dramas (think George Clooney, or Robert Redford in the ’80s), has provided him and his children, not to mention his exes, with more money than they could ever spend, but it’s also earned them a lifetime’s supply of paranoia, ensuring that they’re never quite certain of the motivations or true intentions of friends and lovers.
Birdman, which is up for nine Academy Awards this weekend, stars Michael Keaton as an actor whose biggest claim to fame is his portrayal of a comic-book superhero decades earlier, although his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), knows him best as a guy who was absent for much of her childhood. The relationship between Renn and Will Ivins in Little Known Facts is more complicated: sons, whether they care to admit it or not, often yearn for their fathers’ approval, but since Will is the son of a world-famous sex symbol, he also finds himself competing with his father for the approval, and affections, of women half Renn’s age. As fellow novelist Curtis Sittenfeld wrote in her front-page review of Little Known Facts for The New York Times Book Review two years ago, “Sneed’s real interest isn’t the treachery of Hollywood; it’s the more universal treachery of the human heart. Repeatedly, Renn and his children make romantic choices as ill advised as they are understandable. That they themselves recognize their own mistakes neither prevents nor solves them.”
Because each chapter of Little Known Facts is told from a different character’s perspective — Sneed has said that the book’s first chapter was originally conceived as a self-contained short story — a suspicion hinted at early in the narrative may not be confirmed by another character until 100 pages later, and, even then, without the original character ever learning that he or she was right all along. Sneed’s attention to detail rewards close reading, making Little Known Facts somewhat like a suspense movie you watch a second time so you can reexamine all the clues and red herrings that led to the big twist at the end. She also has a knack for creating fake movie titles that sound authentic, including “The Writing on the Wall,” “You Knew Me When,” and a Vince Vaughn road-trip comedy called “Uncle Fenstad’s Last Request.”
“Movies have helped me write dialogue,” Sneed told the Chicago Tribune in 2012, so it seemed only fitting to ask her for a list of five favorites that have inspired her and, as she put it in a recent e-mail, “helped me see what narrative and interiority can be — the characterization, the pathos, the subtlety of the writing in some cases.” (It’s worth noting that when she’s not writing new stories, Sneed is busy teaching fiction writing at Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Pacific University, yet she never fails to send prompt, thoughtful e-mail replies. I don’t know if other novelists are the same way, but if you want to try your luck with Harper Lee, go right ahead.)
Without further ado, at least until this year’s three-and-a-half-hour Oscar telecast begins Sunday night, here are Christine Sneed’s top picks:
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Witness (1985): “A tie! Two dramas directed by the Australian genius Peter Weir that easily withstand repeat viewings. Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver in The Year of Living Dangerously and Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Witness are perfectly cast. They smolder — what heat they generate! My teenaged heart wasn’t the same after seeing these two films.”
A Room With a View (1986): “It’s just … well, it’s a perfect film, probably Merchant-Ivory’s best. And the E.M. Forster novel it’s based on, I read it in college my freshman year, a few years after I first saw the movie in the theaters up in Madison, Wisconsin, where my mother was in veterinary school at the time. For days I wandered around dreaming about this gorgeous Edwardian-era story, wishing that I could be the beautiful Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), wooed by the blond, impetuous, mournfully handsome George Emerson (Julian Sands).”
A Heart in Winter (1992): “The soundtrack is one reason why I can’t forget this subtle, beautiful film about a love triangle between a violinist (Emmanuelle Béart), her wealthy older boyfriend/benefactor (André Dussollier), and a violin maker (Daniel Auteuil, who was also Béart’s off-screen lover for many years). Auteuil’s character is the titular heart in winter, and the way the characters’ conflicting desires are played out is moving and powerful. French cinema is one of the grace notes of my life (not all French films, of course, but many).”
You Can Count on Me (2000): “This is Mark Ruffalo’s breakthrough — no one else, I don’t think, could have played the troubled Terry Prescott with such pathos and vulnerability. Laura Linney and Matthew Broderick are also great, respectively, as Terry’s put-upon sister and her uptight boss, who end up in a motel room before long, and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has a small but important role as a small-town pastor. You Can Count on Me is one of the best films ever — I saw it in the theaters three times, maybe four — and certainly one of the best about siblings who, after a childhood tragedy, are still trying to figure out as adults how and who to be in the world.”
Amélie (2001): “I love this wild, imaginative, romantic, marvelous comedy/love story. Each scene is an amazing tableau, and Audrey Tautou, as the title character, is at her most charming and lovely.”
Five years ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the maximum number of potential Best Picture nominees from five to ten, so Popdose is following suit and allowing Sneed to talk about two more movies that have made an impression on her:
Purple Rain (1984): “Another movie that, for years in the ’80s and early ’90s, took up a lot of psychological real estate in my head. For one, I had no idea that a prim midwestern girl like me could find such an androgynous rock star so sexy. And that soundtrack — ‘When Doves Cry,’ in particular — holy shit.”
Hard to Hold (1984): “A guilty pleasure. The film is horrible, but there are some great songs on that soundtrack, which, like Purple Rain, I have on vinyl; ‘Love Somebody’ is in the top seven or eight of my favorite Rick Springfield songs. (‘Me & Johnny,’ from his 1983 Living in Oz album, is number one, probably, not ‘Jessie’s Girl’ or ‘Don’t Talk to Strangers.’)”
Paris plays a supporting role in Little Known Facts, but it receives top billing in Christine Sneed’s second novel, Paris, He Said, which arrives in bookstores May 5. Her first book, the 2010 short-story collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, is available in paperback from Bloomsbury and includes “Alex Rice Inc.,” in which a Paul Walker-type action star enrolls in college in his early 30s (not inspired by James Franco’s adventures in academia, Sneed once told me), and “You’re So Different,” which centers on a successful screenwriter attending her 20-year high school reunion.