Melissa Fraterrigo interviews Christine Sneed about her novel ‘Please Be Advised,’ the nostalgia of the office job, and the publishing industry.
Please Be Advised
Please Be Advised
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Melissa Fraterrigo: I had so much fun reading about the day-to-day peculiarities and foibles of Quest Industries—self-described frontrunners in collapsible office products as they inspire their absurd version of corporate culture through nearly a year of memos. Some of the memoranda include office matchmaking, the annual Secret Santa exchange, the flawed Wellness Survey, and more. What are some memos you chose to expand upon and which did you ultimately choose to cut?
Please Be Advised
MF: At times, I felt as if I were an employee, reading one of these memos in my inbox. What are your hopes for how the book might speak about corporate America in the 21st Century?
repeated lives in a place they wouldn’t choose to give those hours to if they had income from other means. If only we all had jobs we loved so much, as the saying goes, it feels like we never have to work a day in our lives! (I don’t know if I believe that’s possible—even a job you love must have its good days and not so good days.)
MF: A Workflow Specialist reminds employees that bathroom visits must not exceed two per day and Mid-Level Management instructs employees not to leave a collapsible paper cutter on their desks during Bring Your Child to Work Day. With such an array of characters, it would be easy for them to lack distinction, but that’s not the case at all. The company-wide storytelling program, Your Story of Personal Triumph, really assists with this. Were you aware from the start that you’d need to include such a throughline to bring these characters and the office community to life, or did these aspects evolve on the page?
Please Be Advised
MF: I always feel like each book we write teaches us something. What are some of the key takeaways you discovered through the drafting of Please Be Advised?
CS: I think, above all, this book reminded me that I need to permit myself to have fun—I can’t write anything well if I’m not enjoying the story and the characters. When I’ve taught fiction-writing classes with beginning writers, sometimes one or two will say they feel they have to write about tragic or serious topics. I tell them sure, they should write about those topics, but only if they are of keen interest.
You can’t fake enthusiasm and curiosity. You have to go to where the heat is generated in your imagination, where the light is on. Otherwise, it’s likely you’re not going to be engaging anyone with what you’re writing—including yourself.
MF: You have said, “A strong protagonist does much of the heavy-lifting in a work of fiction. The plot itself might not be very compelling or original, but if you have characters that seem to live and breathe on the page, they will more likely than not keep a reader invested.”Two protagonists who seem to do just this are the new office manager, Ken Crickshaw Jr, who left his previous position as a county coroner under unusual conditions relating to the autopsy of his wife, and the often irrational and sometimes drunk President Bryan Stokerly, Esq. Can you talk about these characters and how they aided the narrative?
CS: I had so much fun writing memos for both these characters who are, as you note, the book’s two protagonists, although I’d say Bryan Stokerly is more of an antihero than a hero. As I wrote farther into the book, I realized they were essentially foils for each other. Bryan is a scofflaw, and Ken, although he’s a disgraced coroner who’s had trouble with the bottle, is now more likely to tipple a kale smoothie than a bloody Mary. Bryan, however, would sooner give away all his bags of misbegotten corporate money than stop drinking.
One of the main pleasures of writing this novel was that it permitted me to take on the voices of dozens of characters, but Ken and Bryan (along with Wilma Joon) are the ones I probably most enjoyed writing. The tensions between Bryan and Ken gave me the opportunity, especially near the end, to play up some of their faults (and underscore the madness that can sometimes grip a person forced to spend so much of their life working in a corporate office—or pretending to work, as in Bryan’s case) and reveal a few secrets that I hope add to the comedy.
MF: I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book, so much so that my thirteen-year-old daughter later picked up my copy and was grinning soon after. It is obvious reading these pages that you were having a great deal of fun drafting this book. That seems to be such a basic aspect of the drafting process—that the writer should find joy in the process. Were there particular authors or works of humor that offered guidance?
CS: George Saunders has definitely been a strong influence, perhaps especially his older story collections In Persuasion Nation and Pastoralia—his mastery of tone and voice are always an inspiration. The story “Jon” is one I still think about often, along with “The Barber’s Unhappiness” and “Sea Oak.” They’re very funny and somehow also very sad stories. How he manages to write about what I’d call tragic characters, but at the same time have you laughing until tears are nearly streaming down your cheeks . . . it’s kind of jaw-dropping. I heard him say at an event he did when Tenth of December was published that when he writes, he hopes for laughter but he’s also going for tears.
Tangentially, I’ve taken improv, late-night comedy-writing, and stand-up classes. I did this a few years ago, mainly as research for a feature script I was writing, but I learned quite a lot about joke structure, timing, and how to heighten and tighten jokes, techniques that have helped with fiction-writing too.
MF: You’ve published three novels and two collections of short fiction with traditional and university presses, and your third is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2023. Congratulations! What are some of your current observations about the publishing industry? How has it changed throughout your career, and how do you help your students at Northwestern University and Regis University navigate these changes?
CS: Thank you! Yes, my third story collection, Direct Sunlight, is slated for publication in June 2023. Most of the stories were first published in literary journals, but there are a couple of new ones I wrote specifically for this book. Long live the short story!
Regarding the current publishing landscape, from what I can tell, there are more people than ever writing books. Many writers are self-publishing, but others are still choosing to go the traditional route of finding an agent who subsequently submits their manuscripts to traditional publishers, both corporate (i.e. generally New York City-based) and independent or university presses. With review space shrinking in periodicals and with bookstores inundated with requests for events, there’s more competition than ever for readers’ time and book-buying dollars.
It’s very difficult to sell a novel, and even more difficult to sell a story collection to a corporate press, though if the novel is a debut, it’s not quite as hard as it is if you’re a midlist author, meaning you’ve probably sold a respectable number of copies (e.g. 3,000-10,000 copies) and had reviews in mass-market periodicals, but you’ve never had a New York Times bestseller.
Nonfiction isn’t necessarily easier to sell, but I’ve noticed that agents who used to take fiction have changed their focus and now only rep nonfiction writers. Nonfiction sells better than most fiction, and more men read nonfiction than fiction. More women than men read, however, and if you read fiction, you’re more likely to read genre fiction than literary fiction. (The latter is what wins the Pulitzer in fiction and the National Book Award, which makes it possible to be a critical success, if not a commercial one.)
Runaway commercial and critical successes such as the literary fiction title All the Light We Cannot See, for example, are anomalies (it’s like winning the author lottery). A number of years ago, I read somewhere that many readers read only one or two books per year, and they often read the same one or two titles. Needless to say, it’s a stony and steep path to climb. I teach to earn my living. Even with four books published by Bloomsbury, reviews for these titles in the NYTBR, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and other periodicals, along with some literary prizes, I couldn’t interest Bloomsbury or another corporate press in publishing more of my books, despite trying for the last several years.
I’m grateful to 7.13 Books, Tortoise Books, and Northwestern University Press for publishing my next three books; these editors weren’t worried about the sales tracks tied to my previous books. Their main concerns were whether they liked the work I submitted and felt it had literary merit. They can’t offer large advances, but consequently, there’s less pressure to sell large numbers of copies. My advances for these three books amounted to less than a thousand dollars all told, but in one case, the royalties will be split fifty-fifty with the press, so we might make a few thousand dollars each if the book sells well (by indie press standards). My Bloomsbury advances totaled a little over $115,000, which is much more than most independent and university presses are able to offer, but modest for four books by corporate publishing standards, especially compared to the seven-figure advances (for one book, in many cases) auctions sometimes garner for authors (often debut authors, i.e. writers with no prior sales track) and their agents.
Furthermore, I’m spending quite a lot of time and money promoting my forthcoming books and will be very lucky if I break even. I do freelance editing as well as teaching in order to keep food on my table and the lights on. Other writers I know make ends meet in the same ways and have little to no downtime between their paying work, their writing, and their personal obligations to family.
You have to love the process of writing, because it is the only guaranteed reward. Fame, an interview on Good Morning America or Oprah, big paydays—they’re not guaranteed to anyone, and the writers who do reap them would probably admit they’ve been very fortunate. They might have written terrific books, but they also had some serious good luck along the way.
Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press), as well as the story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies from storySouth and Shenandoah to Indiana Review and The Millions. She teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and is the founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers’ Studio where she offers online classes on the art and craft of writing. Melissafraterrigo.com.