An Interview with Jamie Quatro

Desire in Body & Spirit
Photo by Stephen Alvarez

Jamie Quatro’s first short story collection, I Want to Show You More (2013), was remarkably good. Her first novel, Fire Sermon, is even better. Both books explore those dramatic experiences—the beginnings and ends of affairs; visionary moments when the world seems on “the cusp of cataclysm,” revelation, or both—when the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the carnal, touch one another. Quatro is a true cartographer of desire, showing that the longings of the body and the soul aren’t two autonomous states but constitute a singularly vast and singularly wild territory. Her fiction is sexy, it’s theological, and it’s consistently and surprisingly both at the same time.

The main character and narrator of Fire Sermon, Maggie, is a writer. She’s also a wife, a mother, a lover “of the Christian mystics and quantum theory and Moby Dick”—and, first in letters and then in person, the lover of a poet named James. Maggie loves James’s poetry before she meets him, in part because of its ability to discipline chaos into form, making energy more fully alive through its ordering: “He’s a formalist. Writes in a hyper-regular iambic meter, but with all this, I don’t know … riot inside the lines.” Quatro’s novel does the same. There’s riot everywhere: passionate letters, intense and transgressive sex, long-held and long-loved relationships put into danger. But this riot lives within Quatro’s exquisitely controlled prose. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, Fire Sermon is a marvel, sharp and musical, imaginative and intelligent. The riot also lives within, depends upon, the ordered structure of marriage. As Maggie puts it, “unless something is forbidden I cannot want it with any intensity.”

Fire Sermon takes its title from the third section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. (It also comes, as did Eliot’s section title, from a sermon by the Buddha about self-emptying.) Eliot’s poem provides one of Fire Sermon’s epigraphs as well: “To Carthage then I came // Burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest // burning.” The selection is a perfect choice for Quatro’s novel, which like Eliot’s poem is a compressed and daring work that burns burns burns on every page. Fire Sermon is about adultery and all that drives it: the desire for ecstasy, for self-abandonment, for temptation, and the motorizing force of guilt. Yet it’s also about the burning desire for God, and for poetry—even, paradoxically enough for a novel whose plot revolves around extramarital affair, for the slow burn of a loving marriage, all those “gathered years: grains of spilled salt brushed from a table into an open palm.”

I spoke with Quatro recently by e-mail.

Anthony Domestico: Let’s start with the obvious question: why a novel? What was it about this particular story that asked for the longer form?

Jamie Quatro: I’ve been getting this question a lot lately! When I started drafting, I didn’t know Fire Sermon was a novel. I was sneaking off to write these little prose poems and hotel scenes and letters from one imagined character to another, all to avoid working on another novel that was under contract. There was something deliciously subversive about cheating on the contracted novel. It was my secret, no one would ever know—or so I thought. I think the intensity from that sense of rebellion translated itself into the narrative, and into the novel’s formal structure.

A. D.:  This novel centers on adultery. So too did many of the stories in I Want To Show You More—and, of course, so too do many, many works of fiction, from Flaubert to Franzen. What is it about forbidden desire that proves such fertile imaginative territory for you, and what are some of your strategies for making new this traditional driver of narrative interest?

J. Q.: Yeah, there are six or seven infidelity stories in that collection. But the couple in those stories never touch. Their affair is one of word and imagination only. When people called the book “shockingly erotic” and “darkly sexual,” I was thinking, But they don’t even have sex! Which just goes to show that eroticism is in the build-up, not the consummation.

Now that I’ve finished the novel, I can see that one thing I’m doing in Fire Sermon— without claiming any conscious intention (I don’t think writers ‘intend’ things when they draft; at least, I don’t)—is taking the infidelity theme more deeply into the realms of both body and spirit. Pushing, hard, on the sexual/sacred connection. Why? Who can say, really. Maybe to find out what I believe or don’t believe about fidelity and infidelity. Maybe to experience on the page something I’ve never experienced—or would never allow myself to experience—in real life. Maybe to take a road-not-taken.

A. D.:  A panel moderator asks Maggie, “point blank, if [she] was a believer.” Are you? How would you being to answer that question?

J. Q.: These kinds of autobiographical questions are tricky to navigate. The implication is that Maggie is a stand-in for me, the author. While Maggie in some ways resembles me, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation. Maggie is navigating a set of experiences radically different from my own, both within her marriage and in her relationship with James. Her theological and philosophical perspectives are also different from mine on a number of levels. I suspect that her answer to the question “are you a believer” would likewise be different. In fact, I wonder what her answer would have been! I never wrote the panel scene, of course; Maggie only mentions the question in a letter.

But I’ll give this one a try: Yes. If “belief” often means only the intention to believe; if “faith” often means a desperate faithfulness to a faith I used to have, in the past; if “being a Christian” feels, to invoke Wendell Berry, like being “out on a wide river in a boat, in the fog, in the dark” (without a paddle, I would add); if “identifying with Christ’s sufferings” means recognizing that the pinnacle of his suffering was the experience of God’s total, annihilating absence (“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken”)—then yes, unequivocally I’m a believer.

A. D.: In C. S. Lewis’s “Is Theology Poetry?”—a lecture mentioned in Fire Sermon—Lewis writes, “Theology is … poetry to me because I believe it; I do not believe it because it is poetry.” Do you agree with Lewis here, that “Christians … enjoy their world picture, aesthetically” primarily because “they have accepted it as true”? Can theology be aesthetically pleasing without the warrant of belief? What role does aesthetic pleasure have in your own sense of belief?

J. Q.: I think Lewis also says in that lecture that if the theological worldview is poetry, it’s bad poetry. There’s nothing “poetic,” in the classical sense, about an all-sufficient, all-powerful, all-knowing deity who has always already rescued creation from an ultimate evil.  

A non-theological worldview, what St. Athanasius (I’m currently reading On the Incarnation) calls the Epicurean one—all things coming into being by chance, with no divine intention or providence—that’s the more poetic idea, Lewis says. The fragile cell dividing and dividing, developing gills and fins and climbing up onto land and into reptilian and mammalian life, up into the primate and the homo-erectus and homo-sapien. And then the tragic self-awareness: the great heaving struggle through millennia is for naught, the sun will flare and go supernova and the whole thing will burn out and all of it will have been without meaning. And yet we go on in the face of it all. The existential Sisyphean heroes. That’s poetry.

Theology gives me a framework to think about the world, but it doesn’t give me the world. And I want the world.

But I don’t find worldviews or theologies poetic. They’re too abstract. Poetry—good poetry—is a whorl of wood in a kitchen table, the two-days-old scent of garlic on fingertips, “spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head” (the last from Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances”). Theology gives me a framework to think about the world, but it doesn’t give me the world. And I want the world. I believe God wants me to want it. My trouble isn’t attachment to reality, it’s that I’m not attached enough. I’m not sure why—the constant buzz of the internet? The natural progression of age?—but most of the time I feel as if there’s a scrim between my eyes and the world. I can’t see or hear or smell or taste properly. What I end up longing for, most days, is longing itself. “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” To bring us back to Lewis.

A. D.:  Maggie quotes T. S. Eliot on the lamentable bifurcation of literary culture: “The last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world.” If Maggie is right, if what Eliot feared would happen has already happened, how can we fix the situation? What are some of the grounds on which the two literary cultures could begin to reengage with one another? Are there Christian writers (poets, novelists, theologians) who you wish non-Christians would read? Non-Christian writers who you wish Christians would read?

J. Q.: I’m not sure that self-consciously “Christian” art will ever be literature. I mean art that comes with a particular version of the truth it wishes to communicate for missional or exhortative purposes. This is the problem with “evangelical” culture as a whole. It promises the “good news” of forgiveness when most people don’t feel they’ve done anything they need forgiveness for. If a pharmaceutical sales rep came to me and said, Good news, we have the cure for that horrific skin disease of yours! and I thought my skin looked just fine, I wouldn’t think the “news” was good. I might be offended. I would certainly think the sales rep was insane.

And I don’t care, or even want to know, if an author is “Christian” or “non-Christian.” What do those terms even mean in the context of art? I have been told by religious readers that my work is “too obscene” to be Christian. One reader said she threw my book against the wall when she read the short story “Demolition,” in which the parishoners destroy a historic church building and form a cult, substituting oral sex for communion. That reader was unable to read beyond the literal. She was not probing layers to see the cautionary tale buried in the fable. I have also been told by non-religious readers that my work is “too Christian” to be of interest. One reader said she was turned off by any words that smacked of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, words like pastor or baptism or sacrament. I thought, Well, there goes Chekhov, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Beckett, Camus…

Just give me the truth, you know? The truth of the world as it is, not as I want it to be, or think it should be. The intoxicating allure of illicit sexual pleasure. The darkness of existential despair. I don’t care what the personal views of the truth-teller are. If it’s truth, it’s God’s truth, as the saying goes.

A. D.:  Maggie says that reading James’s latest collection “unlocked something for [her]. Cleansed [her] perception,” offering “a renewed sense of holiness about the world.” What’s the last reading experience you’ve had like this?

J. Q.: Reading Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds. What a collection. So much pain, so much grace.

A. D.:  Maggie and James’s love grows out of shared reading: “students of the Christian mystics and quantum theory and Moby Dick,” they read and talk about Fanny Howe and C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot and The Cloud of Unknowing, and this talk in large part leads to their affair. How do you think about the relationship between reading and love—in particular, how love of a book can expand outward, into the world outside the book?

J. Q.: Probably most of us have had the experience of finding out another person loves a thing you love, too. The delight in the discovery, and the aesthetic frisson the connection can engender. There’s a moment in the final story of my collection, “Relatives of God,” when the narrator and the other man are on the phone and they realize, at the same moment, that they both adore Honeycrisp apples. In that moment “…there was—what else to call it?—something like joy.”

A. D.:  You end your acknowledgements with a list of some of the many writers, including Thomas Merton, Madeleine L’Engle, Simone Weil, and Virginia Woolf, “whose language and ideas informed and influenced the writing of this book.” It’s a lovely account of how, as Elaine Scarry puts it, beauty “seems to incite, even require, the act of replication.” I’m wondering if you’d mind saying, in just a few sentences, what immediately strikes you as interesting or moving or remarkable about these short quotations taken from some your favorite writers.

From Christian Wiman’s poem “After a Storm”: “My sorrow’s flower was so small a joy / It took a winter seeing to see it as such.”

J. Q.: “Numb, unsteady, stunned at all the evidence / Of winter’s blind imperative to destroy.” The joy in this poem is that in the midst of sorrow—and the sorrow seems to be an existential one, a bewildering encounter with the inhuman brutality of the universe—the speaker looks up to see the “bare abundance of a tree whose every limb was lit and fraught with snow.” A glimpse of something that almost suggests meaning, almost suggests an intelligence—even a holiness—on the far side of the storm.

A. D.:  From Fanny Howe’s Indivisible: “Who dares to ride between all things forever like the chirp from a bird’s beak before it finds an ear? I don’t know who they are. I don’t know who God is, godding inside of me.

J. Q.: This reminds me of something my Presbyterian grandmother said to me once, when I asked her about her lifetime of deep faith. I thought she’d say it came from a dedicated spiritual practice—prayer or meditation or taking the Lord’s Supper, something along those lines. But what she said was: “Most of the time I forget about God. I go for months without thinking of him. But He never stops thinking of me.”

A. D.:  From James Salter’s Light Years: “Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.”

J. Q.: Incarnation, embodiment: Salter knew this is where art lives and breathes. That at the end of our lives, ideas and theologies and intentions and feelings and all the rest will disappear. We’ll forget all of it. The yellow apples, though.

A. D.:  From Maggie Nelson: “Despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither towards justice nor away from it. It is pharmakon. It radiates.”

J. Q.: It seems wrong to comment here, like I’d be undermining Nelson’s point. Let’s just let this one radiate.

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Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period was published last fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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