Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut collection of stories, Night at the Fiestas, was published in March 2015. Her work, much of which is set in northern New Mexico against what she has called “the miracle-laden Hispanic Catholicism practiced in the region where my family is from,” has appeared in The New Yorker, Narrative, and The Best American Short Stories. She has received a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation and is currently the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. She recently spoke with Commonweal’s digital editor, Dominic Preziosi.
Dominic Preziosi: Who has influenced your writing?
Kirstin Valdez Quade: When I got older, the writers who influenced me for my adult writing life were Alice Munro, definitely, and Flannery O’Connor, whom I love.
DP: Since reviewers and critics have mentioned O’Connor specifically in discussing your work, I wonder how you feel about this comparison.
KVQ: It is extraordinarily flattering, because O’Connor really is a lodestar for me. She’s a funny writer. And she has so much compassion for her characters, even when they can feel grotesque. She said she liked to write about “freaks and folks,” and she gives them deep inner and spiritual lives, and allows them to achieve grace. So many of these characters are people that might be overlooked. O. E. Parker in “Parker’s Back,” for example, or the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
DP: The past seems to inform very importantly the present that you depict in your stories. Some stories are set in a bit of an indistinct past, yet they feel quite immediate. Talk a bit about the importance of the past in your fiction.
KVQ: It must come from my experience of the world. I remember being a kid and looking through old family photos. I was fascinated with my grandparents’ lives and I would pester them with questions, feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t see around the frame of the photo – to look around the corners and see who else might have been in the room, or to know what that room smelled like. This was frustrating, on the one hand, but this frustration is also what I think has fueled my fiction. I was always interested in other people’s stories.
My place in New Mexico has in many ways been shaped by other people’s stories. My family has been in northern New Mexico for centuries, since the earliest Spanish conquest. When I was young we moved around a lot -- my dad is a research geologist; he studies deserts. But I always loved to hear the stories about the towns my family grew up in, and even more so after we left Albuquerque and set off on this itinerant existence for the rest of my childhood. I was always close to my grandparents and my great-grandmother. When I was a little kid my great-grandmother took care of me when my mother worked. I remember being with her and lighting candles at her altar. So, place and this sense of family history in northern New Mexico has always been important to me. I developed a deep connection to this idea of home, based on this place I left, even though we did return to it. I found I was both of the place, and not of it anymore.
DP: What do you make of the “place” of the modern American southwest in today’s political and cultural environment? Do you see yourself at some point more explicitly engaging such political issues as immigration?
KVQ: I don’t ever want my fiction to be overtly political, or even a vehicle for my own political beliefs. It’s not good for fiction. I don’t consider myself a political writer, but now that people are reading my stories and commenting on them, it seems I am touching on some of these issues, on issues of class and other things. But if I felt if my fiction was becoming political or didactic, it might be better to turn to essays. What fuels my fiction is uncertainty, and not understanding things. I’m writing into uncertainty. That’s where the energy comes from.
DP: A number of your characters make references to writers and books they’ve read – Monica in “Mohave Rats” mentions King Lear and has a daughter named Cordelia; Frances in the title story is reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Were Shakespeare and Hardy some of the writers who came into your life as a young reader?
KVQ: Definitely. I was such a reader. I spent a lot of time in the back seat of the car while we drove through those endless desert landscapes, and I read that whole time, voraciously and broadly, my reading determined pretty much by what was available in the library or bookstore wherever we were. We never had a functioning radio in the car, so I read a lot of books and they stayed with me. And in the case of those characters you mention, they’re using the books not just to imagine another life for themselves. They’re also using them as props—they’ve chosen them because they think they’re the books that the people they want to become would be reading.
DP: The adolescent protagonist of the title story seems intent on writing the story of her life, literally and metaphorically. When did you start writing? What was the first story you wrote?
KVQ: I think I wrote even as a kid. I have a sister five years younger than me and I remember telling her stories as we drove around the desert. My grandparents passed away this year, and we were going through the files and my mother found a story I must have written when I was ten. It was set in New Mexico, and it was about my great-great grandfather, who’d been kidnapped. So it was interesting to see that, and to see that these themes have been percolating in my work for a long time.
DP: Do you think about heritage as you envision and start to compose a story?
KVQ: I never have a plan that’s that clear. I start with a character in a situation – there’s a mystery, and the story builds out from there. But I am interested in families. People in families have so much knowledge of one another – how to love one other, how to wound one another. Small actions and gestures can become larger betrayals that have long-lasting consequences. I’m interested in that kind of intensity, the intensity that can arise within families.
DP: Your depictions of religious rites feel direct and firsthand. Were you exposed to such things growing up -- being the angel in the Corpus Christi pageant, or watching men play the crucified Christ? How important were such events in the communities you grew up in?
KVQ: My grandmother was for years and years in the altar society at the cathedral in Santa Fe. So I would go with her to wash the linens used in the Mass. I’d collect them with her, and I loved being able to go up to the altar. Yet I was also interested in the contrast between what happens during the Mass on the altar, that sacred space, and then how somebody would still have to do the laundry afterward. And yes, I did walk in a lot of processions, though not as a Penitente. The Corpus Christi procession [in the story “Nemecia”] was straight from my grandmother’s story. Corpus Christi for her loomed large; it was a huge deal in her small town. Her mother, my great-grandmother, would set up the altar every year and make dresses for all the little girls.
DP: In an interview with the New Yorker last year, you discussed how Crystal, the young protagonist of your story “Ordinary Sins” -- set in a parish office -- had found comfort in the “structure” of the church but is made anxious by its “human edifice” as encountered in a character who’s a priest.
KVQ: One thing that always fascinated me, sitting in Mass, was the separation between the priest and the congregation. We may see this priest as a symbol, or a channel to the divine, but of course he’s a human being. And when I was young I always tried to imagine my priest as a child himself, and what he would have been like as a child. The priesthood has always struck me, though, as being lonely. To be asked so much of on a daily a basis – it has just always struck me as difficult. What interested me in setting “Ordinary Sins” in a parish office is that so much of the work is done there. People’s weddings, the major events in their lives, discussions about their salvation. But it’s also in some ways “just” a workplace: people show up late, and there’s office politics, and I liked exploring that contrast.
DP: Another important character in that story is the assistant pastor, a Nigerian priest named Father Leon. He’s not perhaps the warmest or most likable character, not like the pastor, Father Paul. Yet you make him very sympathetic.
KVQ: Because I moved around I attended various churches, I was often struck by the differences in the priests at those churches. I’ve had some who were more focused on the primacy of conscience, which was more of my experience – that was Catholicism in my experience. But some did not touch on social issues, or had different stances on them than I had encountered. Father Leon is a man of conviction, who believes in things that are important to him, but he enters a community where those convictions aren’t welcome.
A book that’s very important to me is Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which I first read in high school. I remember where I was when I encountered this passage, which appears once the priest has ended up in a packed jail cell, with men and women crying around him: “When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.” I think about this passage all the time when I’m writing. It’s not pity. It’s empathy. Greene there captures for me the project of fiction. And not just of fiction, but of the world. Our job is to keep looking, and to keep looking closely. If you’re truly imagining what it is like to be that person, that’s the job of being a human being in this world. It’s a job I often fail at. But in my fiction that’s what I’m most interested in doing.
DP: How do think fiction should work? What is the most effective way to draw the reader in and keep them in the world of the story?
KVQ: Give your reader something to long for. I once heard someone say a popcorn kernel stuck in the teeth can be enough to get the story moving. But that’s the surface story. You have to have the greater longing underneath.
[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]