Interview: Kirstin Valdez Quade
CRAFT is excited to welcome Kirstin Valdez Quade as the guest judge of our 2021 Short Fiction Prize. She spoke with us about her new novel, The Five Wounds, and story collection, Night at the Fiestas. We found her via Zoom in the eaves of the James Merrill house, where she is a Writer-in-Residence. She spoke with short fiction section co-editor Albert Liau and answered questions about craft from Liau and associate editor Suzanne Grove. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. —CRAFT
Albert Liau: The Five Wounds is a fantastic reading experience. It is an immersive story, and for those of us who are looking, we can find craft elements being used to these degrees that at least I had not seen before. I enjoyed not only the story, but getting a sense of how it was working on the page and through the arc of the entirety of the novel.
Kirstin Valdez Quade: That is so kind of you to say. Thank you.
AL: I noticed The Five Wounds moves from one POV character to another. It always does so with a consistent narration. Even though we are seeing things from the perspective of these quite different characters, there is a continuity to the narrative voice—a voice that brings us close to the characters but is quite distinct from them as well, using turns of phrase that the characters themselves probably wouldn’t use, but that aptly describe their circumstances. It reminded me of George Saunders’s perspective that “[a] story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer.” I’m curious, how did you develop this narrative voice?
KVQ: I love that Saunders quote. I would say, between equals and about equals. It’s really important to me that I, the writer, the narrative voice, not look down on the characters. I really love writing about characters who are thoughtful, and thoughtful about their own experiences, and have some self-awareness.
I know a lot of writers who love the first-person point of view, and I’ve certainly written a couple stories in the first person. But I adore the close-third point of view because it is so elastic. With the third person, we can zoom out so that we are looking at the character from a distance and then we can zoom right into their brains and actually take on the language of the characters’ thoughts with free indirect discourse.
That flexibly is such a delight to me as a writer. And as a reader, actually. My happiest storytelling mode is third-person limited.
AL: That is interesting to hear that it’s your happiest mode. George Saunders at one point said that sometimes when a path opens up and allows you to be the most joyful that you can be on the page, you have to take that path, no matter what your other plans may have been. It is interesting to consider the resonance between that and what you’ve described. Along the lines of your relationship with the characters through the narrator, Chris Abani once said that a story can only have one protagonist: the character with the most potential for change. In the novel, Amadeo, Angel, and Yolanda are all vivid characters, each at the brink of transformation. As you were drafting the novel, how did you think about whose story you were telling and about the interplay of these three main characters?
KVQ: I get where Chris Abani is coming from. I think especially with a short story that is definitely true—there is only so much real estate. It can be really tricky to tell a story of multiple characters. Although, George Saunders does it beautifully in “Victory Lap.” I would say that story belongs fairly equally to the two teenage characters.
I have heard from some readers who have said that The Five Wounds is Amadeo’s story, and I have heard some say it’s Angel’s story. I really thought of it as being both of their stories and about that relationship evolving. Yolanda’s story is there, too, but her story is not quite as prominent as Amadeo’s and Angel’s.
AL: What about Brianna? You bring us into her life in the same manner in which we are brought into the lives of Amadeo, Angel, and Yolanda, but she doesn’t get as much attention, which makes sense given that we are focused on the family, this multi-generational dynamic. It seems like an interesting choice to bring Brianna into the story where there is an intimacy with her that the narrator has by extension of the reader.
KVQ: Brianna is an outsider. She is, of course, not a member of the family. She is also an outsider to the community. I wanted to write from her point of view—partially because she interested me and I had fun being in her point of view, but also because it felt important that her point of view open up the story a bit more. I worried that if the novel was just about the family, it might begin to feel a bit claustrophobic. And, after all, the family is affected by external forces. The choices of each family member affects the others, and there are also these external pressures that they must contend with. I wanted to widen the scope to include a voice from the larger world.
AL: This hadn’t occurred to me while I was reading the novel, but it occurs to me now as you are describing the way in which Brianna brings more of the greater world into the novel, that her character allows the narrative to breathe, opens perspectives. In addition to managing point of view very fluidly and intentionally, you also manage time in the book with this incredible deftness—in the first half or so of the book, much of the narration moves back and forth through time, interweaving the characters’ present actions with their memories as well as thoughts about the future, expectations, hopes, dreads. As a reader, it feels like the past is present. It is deeply a part of their lives where these memories are coming back, the effects of past decisions, past experiences, they are still being felt. How did you approach the relationship between narration and time? Did you plan out how the past, present, and future come together in the storytelling or did that emerge more organically or intuitively?
KVQ: I would say it emerges organically. I think my experience of being in a family is that our pasts are always there; each family member brings their own history that shapes whatever is happening in the present moment. It was clear to me early on that this story about the Padilla family was going to reach into the past. It does, it reaches into Tio Tivé’s past and his relationship with his son—and it reaches in one moment as far back as the earliest Spanish presence in the region.
The balance between the past and present narratives grew organically, and also changed quite a bit with revision. I’m a person who loves backstory. Left to my own devices, I will put in so much! Part of that reflects how I see the world. We are our backstories. I tend to write long—the novel, my stories, too, are significantly longer in earlier drafts. A big part of revision, then, is identifying what is essential and cutting away what isn’t.
AL: So, we took this divide and conquer approach where Suzanne focused mainly on Night at the Fiestas, and a number of her questions relate to that. I am really curious about how these two books are, in a sense, in conversation with each other through time and elements of craft. Suzanne says: As I read your short stories in Night at the Fiestas, I kept thinking about how brilliantly you build character and create setting through highly specific details that invoke a powerful mood with such immediacy. For example, I knew I was hooked on your writing the moment I read the third paragraph of “The Five Wounds,” the story that first appeared in The New Yorker in 2009 and would ultimately become the novel:
This is no silky-haired, rosy-cheeked, honey-eyed Jesus, no Jesus-of-the-children, Jesus-with-the-lambs. Amadeo is pockmarked and bad-toothed, hair shaved close to a scalp scarred from fights, roll of skin where skull meets thick neck. You name the sin, he’s done it: gluttony, sloth, fucked a second cousin on the dark bleachers at the high school.
Do you find that these details arrive first—images and sensory elements that appear from the start and help to drive the narrative—or do you often begin with story and fine-tune these details during revision?
KVQ: The details emerge from the writing. The details are how I get to know the characters. When I wrote that paragraph, Amadeo was just beginning to show himself to me. I have to be paying attention to these kinds of details early on in the drafting process, because if I’m not, then the story is not as clear to me. I know writers who swear by the shitty first draft and it’s all about getting the story on the page and then going back in and filling in details. I have tried that. I believe people when they say it works, but it doesn’t work for me. If the writing is too shitty, if the details aren’t sharp enough, if I’m not seeing the world clearly, I am not engaged in the story. So, I really do have to spend time looking closely early on in order to care about it.
AL: Along those lines of taking a close look early on, is there a way in which approaching a short story is different than approaching a novel? Is there something that is common to both, like taking the time to look closely at details?
KVQ: The process of writing a short story for me is about trial and error and a slow build. I start with a character, and as the situation becomes clearer to me, the character becomes more complicated, the mysteries become sharper, and I get a clearer sense of which mysteries I need to pursue. I am constantly taking wrong turns as I write. I don’t outline, I don’t have a clear sense of where the story is going. It means that often, I will get to the end of the story and realize that I took a wrong turn midway through and I need to go back to that spot and try again. I wish my process for writing the novel had been different. I wish it had been more deliberate. I wish I’d had a clearer map in the beginning. But I didn’t. I took a lot of wrong turns, and was discovering the story as I wrote it. I’d start one subplot, realize it wasn’t going anywhere, and tear it out and start again. It was fun, there was a lot of discovery, but it wasn’t efficient. I hope I have a roadmap for the next project!
AL: Tell us a little bit more about that, tell us about how the discovery played out. Was there something about the short story “The Five Wounds” that stayed on your mind and demanded that it take the form of the novel? Did it keep growing over time? Was that process of discovery kicked off by something in the initial short story that really stayed with you?
KVQ: When I published the short story, I saw it as just a short story. I had no intention of returning to these characters. It was only two years later, when I was looking at some new story drafts, that I realized that those beginnings of stories were dealing with the same constellation of characters. I thought, oh, this is Amadeo and Angel and Yolanda. I thought, gosh, maybe I have more to say about these characters. I think one of the questions that inspired me to extend this into a novel is: What happens next? In the short story, Amadeo, who is playing the role of Jesus in the Good Friday procession, has heard this rumor that someone generations ago asked for the nails, and he gets into his head that he can change his life if he does the best performance possible. At the end of the story, he asks for the nails. In the very last moments of the short story, not to ruin any surprise endings, he sees his daughter standing there before him. He has this epiphany that oh, it is not about asking for the nails or doing the best job of playing Jesus. Transformation, and the possibility of change, lies right there with his daughter. That is where he needs to be, paying attention to his relationship with his daughter.
I like a good epiphany just as much as the next girl but, I wondered, what happens the next morning? He goes to bed, he wakes up in his same bed in his childhood bedroom, and his daughter is there and pregnant and about to give birth and still needing support. How does he change? Is this epiphany enough? I suspected for Amadeo it wasn’t enough. I think often, in life, we need epiphany after epiphany after epiphany. Only then does it stick. Character change is hard. That is why every year we revisit the same batch of New Year’s resolutions. I suspected that change, for Amadeo, was going to require a longer path.
AL: I can’t help but think of something that Alexander Chee once mentioned: the central narrative question of every literary work might be, will the protagonist ever find out something important about themselves? It seems from what you are describing, The Five Wounds provides an interesting counterpoint to what Chee is saying. Amadeo and Angel are almost constantly learning things about themselves. But that doesn’t translate to change or action. Learning isn’t enough until, toward the end of the novel, some really extreme things happen.
KVQ: That rings really true to me. I am drawn to characters who are self-aware and have some powers of introspection. I think that people are constantly thinking about their inner lives and reflecting on themselves, and to translate those understandings into actual change is much harder.
AL: Power dynamics are vividly portrayed throughout the novel. With regards to Angel, the youngest of these main characters, it seems like she is trying to wield the sexual and emotional power she has just begun to lay claim to—sometimes to hurtful effect. Yet she still shines with a striking earnestness. I’m wondering if that is connected to the interest you have in self-conscious, self-aware characters. In terms of developing Angel, were you able to naturally relate to Angel in this capacity, or were there real challenges writing this character?
KVQ: Angel really is a counterpoint to her father who has a lot invested in avoiding introspection. If he does stop for twenty minutes to look at himself, it is going to be a bummer. But Angel insists that he pay attention to her. She is a thorn in his side, she makes demands on him. She is also really joyful and funny.
As a writer, I had fun being in her company. I love how Angel sees the world, the judgment she passes on the adults around her. She is earnest and she does believe that she can change her life, until she is stricken with doubt and the understanding that the cards are stacked against her. But, she has this brand-new baby—it is absolutely urgent that she give this child the life she wants him to have.
Amadeo’s company wasn’t always the most fun. The difference between Amadeo and Angel is that Amadeo is still living for himself. He still sees himself as the star of the story. He still sees himself as a child who is entitled to the care of his mother and everyone else around him.
Angel’s straddling childhood and adulthood. She is still a child; she still needs her parents’ support. But she is already thinking of herself as the mother of this new human being and she wants to give Connor a good life and give him options. Did that answer your question?
AL: Yes; although, I am still really drawn to this question—maybe “complex” is the way to describe Angel’s character. I’m curious, are there other perspectives you drew upon in order to create that complexity?
KVQ: Do you mean in life?
AL: I’m curious where this character came from in terms of you, the author, and, I guess, part of it comes from seeing the contrast between the original short story and the novel. Of course, everyone is much more fully developed in the novel, but I see hints in the short story of who Angel is or who she becomes, how she is portrayed in the novel. I could never have extrapolated what she would become in this novel—this full-fledged character, this person who is wrangling a lot in her life. How did she come together in your mind?
KVQ: Part of it is that in the short story we are in Amadeo’s point of view and he doesn’t see her as a full human being. First of all, he doesn’t know her that well; when the story opens, he hasn’t spent much time with her. He sees her as having a supporting role in his life. As I extended the story into a novel, one of the fun things for me was actually finding out who Angel is, how she sees herself. And as far as real-life inspirations for that character, I’ve worked with young people pretty much since I graduated from college. God, teenagers see you so clearly and they are passing judgment. They’re at the beginning of their lives and have this wonderful idealism.
When I worked as a grant writer for a consortium of nonprofits in Tucson working to raise the quality of early childhood care and education, one of the organizations ran a teen parent program. I did a site visit there and I was in this classroom with these young women. I was so impressed by how serious these kids were about their roles as parents and doing right by their children. I was struck by their swagger and their earnestness and their humor.
AL: You mentioned urgency earlier, and Suzanne mentions here: The idea of urgency is something both writers and critics alike speak about with frequency. I find it’s often hard to pin down exactly what gives a narrative urgency, but I feel it immediately when I read it. In “Ordinary Sins,” for example, there is a sense of propulsion: we hurtle forward into this precise moment in Crystal’s life, and nothing will stop us from hearing her story. Do you ever feel a sort of pressure from the story itself—the story insisting itself into existence—and do you think that momentum translates onto the page?
KVQ: As a writer, I need to feel urgency. Often, that urgency is just interest and curiosity. That is the engine behind the story. I want to find out what is going to happen. When I am not engaged, the writing is slack—it’s bad writing. Alice Munro has a wonderful quote about this: “The only choice I make is to write about what interests me in a way that interests me, that gives me pleasure.” I think about that all the time. It’s what I tell my students. You have to write the story that interests you, that matters to you. Otherwise, it won’t have a sense of urgency, and if you don’t care about it, neither will the reader.
AL: It’s great to hear you are encouraging students to embrace discovery. In the workshops I have been in, seldom has this been touched upon. This actually relates to something that Suzanne was particularly curious about. You’re an assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. Has teaching affected your own writing in any way, or perhaps affected the ways in which you approach or view craft? What have you learned from your students?
KVQ: It’s a joy to get to spend time in the classroom talking about great published literature and about craft and helping students see great opportunities for complicating their narratives. As a professor of creative writing I am constantly holding forth about how to write effective dialogue, say, how to tell a good story. But, when I sit down in front of my computer, it is really important that I have that curious beginner’s mind. The writing doesn’t work if I think I am an expert. That’s one thing my students teach me. When I see their enthusiasm for their characters—just the joy that they take in exploring the worlds in their stories—it’s an important reminder of why I am in it, too. It is for the play, for the excitement of finding out who these characters are. That’s the best thing about being a fiction writer—we get more than one life.
AL: Suzanne would also like to know when you read for pleasure, what reaches out and grabs your attention first? For her, it’s always the voice. Even the most vivid imagery or unique premise won’t grip her unless she falls into a rhythm with the narrator. What elements of craft most pull you into a story?
KVQ: I would absolutely say voice and a complicated character. An interesting character that feels mysterious to me, and I want to get to know more about them.
AL: In your 2018 interview with Allison Futterman in The Writer, you say: “I love the short story: I love its flexibility, its distillation of language, the pressure it exerts on the moment. A story demands that the reader look closely. And yet, despite the intensity and constraints, a story can be surprisingly capacious.” What will you be looking for in the short fiction when you’re judging the CRAFT Short Fiction Prize?
KVQ: I will be looking, again, for compelling characters and for the stories to be posing interesting questions of their worlds, of me as a reader, and of their characters. I am always looking for characters who interest me and confound me and surprise me. That is where the delight is, in the surprise.
AL: If I can ask a related follow-up question: Is there something else you find charming or delightful about a story, or maybe specifically about its characters?
KVQ: To me, humor is one really delightful surprise. I think, again, of George Saunders’s “Victory Lap.” One of the points of view that we sink into for a brief period is that of a kidnapper and rapist; he is a horrible, terrifying character. Being in his point of view is deeply uncomfortable. Despite that, Saunders’s writing is really funny. I don’t know how he pulls that off. I’m not a reader who is inclined to find the perspective of a rapist especially funny. But he pulls off that trick; it’s amazing. And, he makes it so I am not allowed to dismiss this guy even though he is such a horrible, horrible character. Saunders insists that I see him as a person who has also suffered. That doesn’t mean that we let him off the hook. I am still allowed to hate him and be glad when he gets clocked in the head with the geode. But I’m not allowed to dismiss him.
AL: It’s interesting what stories can do to us when they have a degree of insistence, and really keep pushing at us in a certain way. So, I think we just got a few minutes left. Would it be okay to do a couple lightning-round style questions that are super-quick and kind of fun?
KVQ: Sure, I get nervous…
AL: Whatever comes to mind… So, what books or stories do you find yourself frequently recommending?
KVQ: My mind always goes blank when I’m asked this. About a year ago I read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. I’ve given that to about six people. It is such a delightful book, a wonderful depiction of this relationship between this child and this old woman, and a really beautiful exploration of grief. It is a wonderful, delightful, funny, painful book.
AL: When you’re writing, do you try to stay in the zone by not reading other things, or are you still soaking in works of art and literature in the midst of a project?
KVQ: I am constantly reading and—when we could—going to museums, and listening to audiobooks. I started writing this novel in 2011. I published the story in 2009. So, that’s a lot of years with these characters. I had to keep reading as I wrote it.
AL: Is there a certain something that you like to read like a counterbalance to the work you’re doing, or maybe to more deeply engage in the work?
KVQ: I read really broadly. I read literary fiction, of course, I love George Eliot, but I read thrillers, too. I learn from all kinds of books. I remember reading The Da Vinci Code voraciously when it came out, and not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it’s not great writing. I remember thinking, oh wow, these really short chapters are like crack. They make me want to keep turning the page. I need to remember that this works. Even when I don’t love a book or I’m not totally in awe of it, I’m always learning.
AL: Last question. Having read so widely, is there one particular book that really got you into writing or got you further into being a writer?
KVQ: No, I don’t think I could narrow it down to one. I’ve always read. I do remember in seventh grade reading Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I had never read a novel like that before. There was a description of one of the characters who cries “oily tears.” That description stopped me in my tracks. It was so vivid and so wonderful. I had never thought of tears that way, and I saw the man’s face perfectly. I thought, I want to be able to write that.
AL: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your books with us and share these perspectives on writing. It has been fantastic to get your thoughts behind the scenes of The Five Wounds and Night at the Fiestas.
KVQ: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure speaking to you, and I’m so grateful to you and Suzanne for these incredibly thoughtful questions. It’s so fun to talk about the craft! I love that this is what you guys do…. It’s so much more fun than questions about, like, my biography. This was a total pleasure.
KIRSTIN VALDEZ QUADE is the author of the story collection Night at the Fiestas, which won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at Princeton. Her novel The Five Wounds released in April 2021.
SUZANNE GROVE currently serves as the associate editor for CRAFT. Her fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Barren Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, No Tokens, Okay Donkey, The Penn Review, Porter House Review, Raleigh Review, XRAY, and elsewhere. She has also received honorable mention for her fiction appearing on Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Work in Progress website. You can find her at SuzanneGrove.com.
Ever eager to find fascinating, fanciful fiction, ALBERT LIAU is an editor at Montag Press, a niche/nano publisher based in the San Francisco Bay Area with an expanding, eclectic catalogue spanning a range of literary and genre fiction. Albert is a short fiction section co-editor at CRAFT.