Smarts, Quiet Strength, and Stubbornness: A Q&A with Kirstin Valdez Quade

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

If you haven’t already heard of Kirstin Valdez Quade, you should admire her for this: Google has nothing on her. She’s not on any social media platforms, but her photos are all great (no shots where she’s blinking or has her hands up trying to explain a metaphor). In fact, the whole of her web presence is her author profile over at Norton and her page at the University of Michigan, where she’s teaching writing as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor. Essentially, she is living the pre-millennium dream, judged only by her writing and what she decides to reveal.

Normally, this feat would impress me, but it proves nerve-wracking when asking her questions. Nevermind that Quade is also a former Stegner fellow, won the 5 Under 35 Award, and has work published in "The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere” (the dream bio). Her low profile gives me two impulses: to ask her everything (How old were you when you lost your first tooth? How do you feel about kettle corn?), and to leave her alone.

This is what you need to know about my response to NIGHT OF THE FIESTAS: I’ve spent a year reading short stories almost exclusively, but Quade does something I’ve only seen in the best non-fiction, which is step back and allow the characters to speak for themselves.

Quade’s stories are not about language (though for the record, it’s lovely) or morals or creating charged moments. They don’t even have a particular concern for plot. Take “Nemecia,” for instance, a crude summation of which could be, simply, “Maria’s cousin lived with her until she didn’t.” And yet, the relationship between Maria and Nemecia is so complex that Maria spends years of her life trying to unravel it.

Like her work, Quade is gracious and searching. She takes her time, though not in a way that seems guarded or calculated. She lets things breathe.

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Brazos Bookstore: In an interview you did last year with The New Yorker, you said you "can never find [your] way into a story until [you] have a character." Which of your characters do you admire most? Which character challenges you the most?

Kirstin Valdez Quade: I care about all my characters—after embodying their points of view for the months or years it takes for me to write a story, I can’t help but care about them—but I think I most admire Crystal, the protagonist of “Ordinary Sins.” Despite some of her questionable decisions, she has smarts and a quiet strength and a stubbornness that she’ll need in the next few years. And while she has a tough road ahead of her, raising twins on her own, I think she’ll be a good mother, because she’s thoughtful about her weaknesses and determined to overcome them.

My most challenging character was probably Maria, the speaker in “Nemecia.” In telling the story of her cousin’s life, she is really telling her own story, and in many ways, we both faced the challenge of trying to understand her relationship with her troubled cousin and what that relationship meant to her own conception of herself and her past. Despite fearing and resenting Nemecia, Maria also adores her cousin and longs for her attention. Even as Maria comes to understand how damaged Nemecia is by witnessing a grisly murder, Maria still envies her cousin, not just because she gets sympathy from the adults around them, but because the trauma sets Nemecia apart and gives her a story.

BB: What surprised you the most when putting NIGHT OF THE FIESTAS together?

KVQ: As I was organizing my stories into a collection, I was surprised to discover how many themes I returned to again and again. I thought these ten stories were fairly diverse—my protagonists are men and women, children and retirees, set in the past and in the present—yet over and over I was writing about longing for transformation and betrayals within families.

As someone who works on stories for a very, very long time, it’s scary to no longer have control over them and not to be able to continue to tweak them. And yet it’s also kind of a relief, because I can officially move on to new stories!

BB: Many of your stories end with a single powerful image, a fixed shot, rather than a plot resolution or a particular lesson. How do your stories indicate when it's time for you to leave them?

KVQ: I really appreciate your saying that the images are powerful. Often I’ll have a sense of what I want the emotional arc of the story to be, and where I want the story to end, but I won’t fully understand how to get there. Or I’ll have the image I want to end with, but won’t exactly know what it means to the character or the story. My task, then, is to figure out what has to happen in the concrete world of the story to get the character to that emotional place.

BB: How does setting shape the way you think about a story? What is your connection to New Mexico?

KVQ: My mother’s family is from Northern New Mexico and has been there for hundreds of years. When I was a child, my parents and I moved away, and we continued to move all over the Southwest for the rest of my childhood. But through all those moves, we always returned to Santa Fe, and my grandmother’s house in particular always felt like home to me. The landscape of New Mexico inspires my work because it feels suffused with history and family history and my own history. When story ideas occur to me, they’re often inseparable from that landscape.

BB: You'll have no idea who we'll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

KVQ: What’s the worst advice about writing you’ve ever received and why?

BB: Speaking of, Reif Larsen wants to know: What book brought you back from the darkness?

KVQ: What a great question! I’d have to say Alice Munro’s RUNAWAY, which reminded me there’s salvation in looking closely at a situation. In her stories she continues to peel back layers, revealing deeper and deeper layers of the story, deeper and deeper layers of mystery. And her curiosity about people seems to be limitless. She looks so closely at her characters and their situations, and that quality of attention is breathtaking.

Night at the Fiestas: Stories Cover Image
$25.95
ISBN: 9780393242980
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - March 23rd, 2015

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