Interview by Alina Grabowski
Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of the debut story collection, Night at the Fiestas, which received the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. It was a New York Times Notable Book, and was named a best book of 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the American Library Association. Quade is also the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the 2013 Narrative Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Narrative, Guernica, The Southern Review, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.
On October 19th, 2017, Vanderbilt University’s MFA program hosted Kirstin Valdez Quade as part of the Visiting Writers Series. It was a privilege to spend time with Quade, who was unfailingly generous during her visit. We spoke after an insightful craft talk she gave to the MFA students about revision, obsession, and the ways both religion and fiction “reach towards the infinite.”
Interviewer: I thought we could start by talking about the idea of writing about a place where you’re considered both insider and outsider. Would the landscapes of these stories have held the same appeal if you’d grown up in Santa Fe or Albuquerque, where many of them take place?
Kirstin Valdez Quade: It’s hard to know something like that. I do think one of the reasons I’m a writer is that we moved around so much when I was a child, and I was always the new kid. I was always in a new environment and trying to figure it out. I was always watching, trying to suss out what the social situation was, and where I might fit in, and who I was in this new place. We’re different people in different contexts; different aspects of our identities become more pertinent.
When we lived in Salt Lake City, we were suddenly more Catholic. We attended Mass each week, and Sunday school, and participated in all the social events of the church. When we moved from Salt Lake City, that fell away a little bit. In the next place, other things became more relevant. It’s hard to know who I would be if I’d always lived in New Mexico. I think writers are often on the outside, watching.
It’s interesting to consider the ways different settings highlight certain aspects of your identity. I’m thinking about your story “Ordinary Sins,” and how Crystal’s pregnancy seems all the more visible because she’s working in a church.
Yes, certainly. I didn’t always love moving when I was a kid, and I really missed my best friend. But moving made me pretty adaptable. I could make myself at home pretty quickly in the new place. The real gift of all those moves is that I can imagine many different lives, because I’ve had windows into different lives: from, say, a fairly affluent neighborhood in Salt Lake City—we weren’t affluent, but we were in that school district—to a trailer park in Nevada.
I’m also interested in the way female sexuality functions in your stories. Frances in “Night at the Fiestas” and Andrea in “Jubilee” both construct their sexuality in intentional ways; they want to be seen as more experienced than they are. What interests you about this performance of sexuality—a performance that doesn’t align with one’s actual sex life?
Frances and Andrea are both in their teens. That time is so much about performance of sexuality. You’re figuring out who you are as a person in the world and as a sexual person in the world and grappling with all these ideas about who a person should be.
Frances really wants to be seen as a sexual person. She’s excited about the prospect, and I was interested in writing about a character whose sexuality feels positive. She wants to be painted nude by this artist. She wants this sordid sexual experience and doesn’t feel a whole lot of guilt or worry surrounding that.
I think that’s an exciting narrative to read, as well. Women are often taught to see sexuality as shameful, and then you have this young character who is very excited about this aspect of her life.
When the painter calls her a whore, she’s shocked by it and hurt by it, because she saw herself differently. But on some level, she enjoys it. The fact that he calls her a whore gives her permission to take his money.
It seems like many of your stories explore that tension of identity; the dissonance between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Is that a tricky balance for you to maintain as a writer—when a character views herself differently than the reader does?
Well, we never see the whole of ourselves, especially because we are in flux. We might have an idea of who we are in a relationship, but we never know exactly how other people are seeing us. And it can come as a shock when we come to understand that somebody is reading that relationship differently.
Can we talk about how you handle writing emotion? I was really struck by the emotional impact of these stories, particularly because in writing workshops, there’s this fear of sentimentality. I’m wondering how you handle complicated emotional territory without veering towards something that feels melodramatic or sentimental.
As a reader, I am drawn to work that feels emotionally risky. Judy Claire Mitchell said that if you aren’t close enough to look into the gaping hole of sentimentality, then you aren’t close enough. I love this idea of sentimentality as a black hole. You don’t want to get sucked in, but you want to walk the edge of it. There is a tendency in student work and some contemporary work in general to veer away from emotion, because fear of sentimentality is so powerful—the result is that everything becomes very stripped down. That kind of work doesn’t resonate as much for me.
Characters typically have a pretty clear sense of what they’re feeling at a given point. Emotion is powerful, and we feel it in our bodies as well as in our minds. That’s something I want to reflect on the page, and I really admire work that is willing to rub right up against that. I think of George Saunders. Nobody would ever call him sentimental– he’s so dark and so funny. But his work goes right up to the edge. Some of his stories—“Tenth of December,” “Victory Lap”—some of them teeter. Those stories I admire for the emotion in them. I think work is only sentimental when it’s reaching for the easiest possible emotion and when that emotion is the only point.
In the work that I admire most, in Alice Munro, for example, we always know what the characters are feeling at any given moment. She is very clear about the internal landscape of her characters. What’s interesting about that is that there’s always another layer of the emotion. In Munro, emotion is always complicated and subverted. She asks us to look closer and closer and still closer, to not be satisfied with the pat emotional response to an event.
I think what I admire in the work that I love and that moves me is that there are these deeper layers, and that’s I think what makes the characters feel so complex and so living. That’s what I want to do with my work. So, I try to write my way deeper and deeper and deeper.
Does that factor into the revision process for you, as well? Finding these emotions?
Absolutely, yes. Where can I go deeper? Where can I complicate the emotion and be more honest about it?
You mentioned that you tend to write long drafts. When you’re initially writing, is it an unselfconscious process, just putting everything on the page without revising?
No, it’s not that at all. It takes me a long time to get to a first draft because I go over everything so many times, and I creep forward. It’s not the most efficient way to write. People say, “You’ve just got to write that shitty first draft.” I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work for me, because if the writing is too shitty and if the story is too surface-y, then I’m not engaged enough to keep going. Now I accept that I have the process I have, and that’s what I have to work with. I stay interested in my characters by revising as I go, and getting to know them deeply as I go. Only through getting to know them can I actually listen to them, to see how the story really ends.
In terms of characters, we were talking earlier about how the first and the last story are in conversation with each other in a certain way, through the first-person narrators and setting. Are there any other stories in the collection that you saw as speaking to each other?
Not in the same way as in “Nemecia” and “The Manzanos.” There are themes that come up again and again. Clearly, I have this preoccupation with family. Clearly, I have this preoccupation with violence and the legacy of violence and ambition.
Just hearing you speak now about the legacy of violence, I wonder how you think about the depiction of violence. It seems like fraught narrative territory, and in some of these stories, the violence is filtered through family myth. What are you thinking about when you’re introducing these violent scenes or legacies?
I don’t know that I am thinking, exactly. The histories emerge in the story as I get to know the characters. I am interested in the way that sometimes these violent histories aren’t spoken about. Sometimes the legacy is silence. And yet not speaking about something doesn’t make it go away.
New Mexico has a long violent history of conquest— economic conquest and military conquest— and that violence exerts a pressure today, in families, in communities. The disparity between rich and poor in that region is a kind of violence and a source of violence, and it has a long history.
You wrote these stories over a period of ten years. After putting together this first collection, what did you learn that you’ve used in writing your next project, a novel?
I have complete faith that work can get better, that revision makes work better. I remember being an undergraduate and being really afraid to revise, thinking, “I’m going to lose what’s good.” That’s not a fear I have now. Work gets better with revision.
I’ve learned to have faith in my characters. They will show me where the story needs to go.