Kirstin Valdez Quade writes short stories that wrestle with the bonds and obligations of family, faith, and place. In the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro, each of her stories builds to a moment of simultaneous shock and recognition, revealing both the beauties and absurdities of human character. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Her 2015 collection Night at the Fiestas 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, a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, and was named a New York Times Notable Book and a best book of 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the American Library Association. Her other awards include the John Guare Writer’s Fund Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. She teaches in the creative writing department at Princeton. A novel is forthcoming in fall 2021. She was interviewed by Image’s executive editor, Mary Kenagy Mitchell.
Image: Some of your very first published stories were in The New Yorker. Their editing process is famous for being really exacting. What was it like for you to work with their editors, especially as a young writer? What have you learned from being edited in general?
Kirstin Valdez Quade: If I had three wishes, I would definitely use one on having every single thing I write pass through the hands of my editor at The New Yorker, Willing Davidson, who is such a smart reader. Of the first story I sent them, “Nemecia,” which became the first story in my collection, he said, “We’re not going to take it, but this is your ending,” and he pointed to a spot about two-thirds of the way through. I thought, “My God, he’s right.” I had gone through so many drafts trying to figure it out. It was such a relief, and I felt so grateful.
He has saved me a lot of humiliation. “The Five Wounds” was the first story they published. Before he even passed he cut it down by at least a third. I had worked on that story a long time, and I knew it well. But when I read his edited version, I almost couldn’t tell what he’d cut. His cuts were so surgical and so smart.
This has happened with every story of mine he’s worked on. The cuts, when I see them, seem so obvious, and yet I don’t come to them on my own. The same goes for Deborah Treisman, who edits at the next stage. There are such incredible readers at The New Yorker.
In general, I love being edited. It is such a gift to have a smart person spend time with my words with the purpose of making them better. I don’t always feel that I’ve gotten better at writing over the years, but one way I know I’ve gotten better is that when a good reader tells me to cut something, or that something isn’t working, I just go for it.
I used to struggle to make things work. I’d put so much energy into revisions, trying to make something work because I was attached to it. Ultimately I’d always cut it anyway, so it’s a relief now to just cut away.
Image: Maybe now that you have more work under your belt, it’s easier to trust that there’s more where that came from, and the next thing will be better.
KVQ: It’s true. I remember, in my very first creative writing class, tackling a revision and being afraid that I was going to lose what was good in the story. I’m no longer afraid of that.
Image: In your stories, northern New Mexico isn’t just wallpaper or setting, but more like another character. Many of the stories delve into the very particular spirituality of that region, which includes indigenous, Catholic, and Mormon faiths. Were you always aware of that spirituality, from childhood? Did leaving home let you see it in a different way?
KVQ: I left New Mexico when I was a kid, after my mother married my father, a geologist who studies deserts. We spent much of my childhood moving. We lived in trailers and out of our van and in tents, all over the Southwest. I went to something like thirteen schools before high school. But New Mexico really was home. That was where my grandparents lived, where we returned to, and where my early childhood had been; it was where I felt a sense of belonging. I spent summers there in high school and college and graduate school, and I still visit several times a year, but I haven’t lived there since I was a kid.
Catholicism is central to my sense of identity as a New Mexican and a member of my family—it feels integral to New Mexico itself. I can’t think of Santa Fe without thinking about going to mass with my grandmother. Later, we lived in Salt Lake City for several years, and there I really felt my difference in not being a Mormon in a predominantly Mormon community. As so often happens, different aspects of your identity stand out more vividly in different contexts. It was in Salt Lake City that we were Catholic, and that became a central part of my identity. The Catholic community at the Cathedral of the Madeleine was important to us socially.
Through all of that, even as a kid, I was interested in questions of faith. My parents encouraged us to explore different faiths. My best friend was Mormon, and I would go to mass in the morning and then in the afternoon I’d go with her to her Mormon ward for the service and children’s meetings. When I think back on it, that’s a lot of hours on a Sunday devoted to church! But I was interested in what other people believed. My mother took us to visit a Presbyterian church, a synagogue. We went to a mosque. She really did want us to get a sense of the range of how people worship. My dad is a geologist who studies early man, and an atheist, so I had that influence as well.
Image: You write about Catholic ritual—the liturgy and the sacraments—from what feels very much like an insider’s point of view. What are your memories of doing preparation for first sacraments as a kid?
KVQ: I remember before my first confession there being so much pressure. I remember waiting in line and being so nervous and really wanting to get it right, and also being afraid that when the moment came I was going to forget my sins. And I think another part of me felt that I was just a kid and hadn’t actually sinned that much.
Before my first communion, I asked my grandmother what the host tasted like. She said, “Oh, it’s just a cracker. It’s nothing,” but I didn’t believe her. I thought it must taste special—but, indeed, it’s just kind of a bad cracker. Afterwards I do remember feeling like I was now a full member of this thing that was larger than me, and that being a really exciting thing.
Image: Your story “Ordinary Sins” features a flawed but sympathetic priest who seems to sincerely believe that he can help a young pregnant woman who works in the parish office. The story hinges on such a true, ambivalent, heartbreaking description of the way that sacrament that’s supposed to bring us closer to God can go sideways. Have you known good confessors? What makes someone good confessor?
KVQ: I wish I’d known really good confessors. If I had, I’d probably confess more often! Of all the sacraments, to me it’s the most beautiful and moving one, because it’s about second chances and forgiveness and bringing one’s flaws to the surface and naming them and making a commitment to do better. I feel lucky that it’s an option.
But yeah, it’s a weird thing, whether it’s face to face or in a little booth where your face is shadowed. It’s supposed to be anonymous, but I always wondered, even at my first confession, “Is it really secret, or does the priest know exactly who I am?” The truth is, the priest probably doesn’t really care.
The idea of hearing confessions was so appealing to me. I wanted so much to be in there with the priest and to hear everything he was hearing. I was jealous that he got to hear all the secrets of the parish.
But it’s also a terrible burden, to have people bringing you these powerful confessions, which was something that I was interested in in “Ordinary Sins.” I was also interested in the problem of a priest having to counsel people on issues he may have no experience with. I always think it’s a little funny that priests do marriage counseling. Not that you have to have been married to offer guidance, but it’s a tremendous responsibility. The consequences are major if you get it wrong.
Image: Catholicism theoretically honors the body, in that its central doctrine is that God takes on human flesh in the incarnation—but in practice that’s not always the truth of Catholic culture, now or ever. A number of your characters seem burdened by that legacy. I’m thinking of Amadeo in “The Five Wounds,” who is viscerally repulsed by the sight of his young daughter’s pregnant body; or Christina the Astonishing, who can’t stand how ordinary people smell. Do you feel that ambivalence? Have you found ways, in or outside Catholicism, that religion can actually live up to this idea that the human body is made in God’s image and is therefore holy?
KVQ: I absolutely feel the ambivalence in Catholicism about how bodies are valued—because there’s also the question of whose body is valued and whose bodies have been systematically devalued over the years. That’s one of my central difficulties with Catholicism as it is now. One reason I still find it meaningful, one reason I keep returning to it in my work and in my thinking, is that I do believe that we’re all made in God’s image and that there is something precious about every human being. I get really angry when I don’t see that being demonstrated by the powers in the church.
I think every person being able to make choices for his or her own body is pretty important. Jesus made a choice about his body. His sacrifice was a choice. He knew what he was getting into. Right now I’m writing a collection of retellings of saints’ lives, of which “Christina the Astonishing” is one. I’ve always loved the stories of saints’ lives, but I’m so angry with some of those stories, particularly the stories of the virgin martyrs, who undergo horrible sexual torture and then are held up as examples of chastity.
I find those narratives appalling and damaging. In particular, I’ve been trying to write a story about Maria Goretti, an eleven-year-old child who was sexually assaulted by a man who lived with her family. When she resisted, he stabbed her fourteen times, and the big miracle is that she forgave him on her deathbed. There are Maria Goretti clubs in Catholic schools that are supposed to encourage girls to look up to her as this model of chastity. But that’s not what chastity is. Telling your rapist that God doesn’t want this—that’s something else.
I am so enraged by this narrative and the way that this child’s suffering and death have been used by the church to control and shame and terrify other girls. I keep thinking back to her deathbed forgiveness of this man. Was it real forgiveness, or was she afraid to meet God with anger and outrage on her soul?
These stories can be so meaningful and can help make sense of an unjust and world, but they can also be damaging. That’s some of what I want to explore in this collection.
Image: “Christina the Astonishing” is partly about this phenomenon that saints are difficult to live with, that they’re hardest on the people closest to them. Have you known people like that? Is there anything good about having someone like that in your life?
KVQ: I’ve known a few people who certainly think they’re saintly. But no, I think one of the reasons the stories of saints are so powerful and can serve as examples is that we read these simplified versions of their lives, but we never have to actually know them—much less live with them. I imagine that in real life many saints were either unbearable or profoundly boring.
I’m lucky to know a lot of really good, generous people, but they don’t fall into any of those standard narratives of saintly lives. They’re people who just keep on trucking and being good in the face of a lot of injustice and ingratitude.
Image: So many of your characters are shadowed by a fear of not really belonging within their families, of being displaced by interlopers; they seem to long for this stable but unattainable trio of father-mother-child. Your characters long for other things too—romance, success, escape into a bigger world—but those family relationships seem to be the things that create a physical gut punch. Does it feel true to you that, in the end, our families are what cut us the deepest?
KVQ: Absolutely. I was looking back over my stories and came across one that dealt with romantic love, and I realized I almost never write about that. I thought, what’s wrong with me? I’m always writing about families—parents and children, adult children returning to their parents, pain that gets passed down through the generations. I’m so interested in families of origin—no one knows how to love us and wound us like our families. Those hurts last people’s entire lives.
My great-grandmother was the postmistress in her little town in Torreon, New Mexico, but in the early 1930s, when her husband became county clerk one town over, they moved. They left my great-aunt Mary behind with her grandmother to stay during the week, and my great-aunt really saw that as abandonment. It hurt her. Her younger sister, my grandmother, went with her parents to Estancia, and from her perspective, Mary being left behind was no big deal. Mary stayed with a grandmother who adored her and spoiled her and gave her everything (and who didn’t like my grandmother much—whenever my grandmother visited, her grandmother would yell at her and call her a cabracita, a little goat).
But for the rest of her life, my great-aunt felt the sting of that abandonment. One of the last times I saw her, when she was in her nineties and suffering from dementia, she told me, “My mother and dad gave me away.” It was so heartbreaking. That was how she experienced it, and that hurt never went away. Those family fears and longings are universal. I’d wager that even the most secure child experiences them.
Image: I read in an interview that you’re an Alice Munro fan, and I feel like even if I hadn’t read that I would see it in your stories. What do you love about her? What makes her different from other fiction writers, to your mind?
KVQ: What I really love about Alice Munro’s stories is that the mystery you think you’re pursuing is never the mystery that she’s actually exploring. She’s always after something so much more complicated. One story I love to teach is “Silence” from her collection Runaway. It’s part of a trilogy of stories about a character named Juliet. In the opening of “Silence,” Juliet’s daughter Penelope disappears. She’s nineteen, a young adult, and she goes to stay at a “spiritual balance center” and then just vanishes. (I always think it’s funny when students say Munro is slow. She’s not—I mean, there are missing persons and decapitations and bodies being burned on beaches!)
Anyway, the story opens with this mystery. We’ve been primed by watching thrillers and BBC mysteries, and we think we know the formula: You start with a missing person, and the arc of the story is about finding that person. With Munro, that’s not the case. “Silence” is a maddening story, because Juliet doesn’t seek out her daughter in any sustained or logical way. She never tracks down the postal codes on the mysterious blank cards that arrive once a year. She never files a missing person report. She doesn’t question any of Penelope’s friends. There’s a resistance on Juliet’s part to actually seeking her daughter.
It becomes clear to the reader that the mystery we’re really following is not where Penelope had gone, but rather what is up with Juliet. Why is she resistant to finding out the truth? I love that. Munro’s stories always have another layer, like peeling an onion. She always goes deeper. You think you’ve arrived at the deepest emotional reality, and then she questions it and draws us in deeper. She’s constantly inverting the conclusions we think we’ve arrived at.
Image: John L’Heureux, who died this April, was an important teacher of yours. Before he came to Stanford, he had been a Jesuit priest for nineteen years, and he wrote from a Catholic point of view, in a complicated way. It strikes me that something you have in common is that you both treat characters in ways that are both morally unsparing and also on some level nonjudgmental. That is, you both have an empathy that isn’t opposed to clear sight—you both seem to see tremendous failings and tremendous dignity in people. Is that something you learned from him?
KVQ: That’s a really flattering comparison. John L’Heureux’s freshman seminar on the American short story was the very first class I walked into at Stanford. There were, I think, twelve of us around the table, and I was terrified of him. He could be an intimidating teacher. He was so smart and witty, and he could be brusque. It wasn’t a creative writing class but a reading class, and every week we wrote responses to short stories. I still can see his elegant, precise pencil notations in the margins of my papers.
I remember I wrote a really boneheaded response to Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby,” a heartbreaking story about a young white woman in the antebellum south who gives birth to a child who is clearly biracial. This is a real crisis; she fears she’ll be accused of infidelity or of having black blood in her lineage, and she ends up heading off to the swamps with the baby. The implication, of course, is that she’s going to kill herself and her infant. The only excuse I can give is that I was eighteen and maybe hopeful, but I wrote that she was going off to seek a new life. John wrote one line at the end of my response: Oh dear, it seems we’ve read different stories. I’m still mortified by the memory.
My writing improved so much in that class. My reading and thinking became more rigorous because of his rigor. Every week he would give us a sheet of sentences taken from our papers, and then we would correct them as a group. Every week I would scan to see if I had written a horrifying sentence. That exercise was so incredibly useful. I can’t diagram a sentence, but I know when a sentence doesn’t sound right, and much of that is because of that exercise that John put us through. It’s what I want for my students. I want them to feel uncomfortable when there’s something wrong with a sentence.
Image: Are you like him at all as a teacher? Do you think your students are ever a little scared of you? Or do you have a different style?
KVQ: I doubt any of my students are scared of me! In my first semester teaching I tried the sentence exercise, and my students rebelled. One student said that I was being mean and humiliating them, which was certainly not my intention. So now I do the exercise with sentences culled from previous years.
I think about John all the time as I teach: I think about his love for literature and how seriously he took our work. He trained such a careful eye on our stories.
I can’t pull off John’s wit or his sternness, but what I try to emulate in the classroom are his attention and his rigor and his pleasure in good literature.
Image: He seemed to combine a sort of grumpy moral rigor with a real generosity toward people. Do you think those two things are connected?
KVQ: They are. John was so generous to me—with his time, with books. I was on financial aid and didn’t have money to buy books, and when he was clearing out his library he’d email and say, There’s a bag of books outside my office for you. These are books that are on my shelf now, books that I still refer to. These gifts meant so much for my own writing. One of the books was a collection of one-act plays, and that summer I wrote a one-act play. Nobody ever saw it, and it was terrible, but I wouldn’t have written it without him.
What I love about his work is that the humor is so biting and the tenderness so tender. I’m laughing along until my eyes have filled. When I went back to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, I workshopped the story “Ordinary Sins” in his class. I was very nervous about him seeing it because I am not a priest and I don’t know any priests well, but he was really helpful with that story.
Image: Do you remember anything he said about it?
KVQ: In the draft he saw, midway through the story the priest ends up getting murdered. I was so proud of myself for writing a story where something actually happens. Clearly that wasn’t where my interest lay, though, because I did not address the murder at all. John said, “This isn’t the story. The story is elsewhere. It’s in the relationship between the priest and the young woman.” He was, of course, right.
Image: You write about the politics of race and class in ways and are subtle but incisive. A couple of your characters really lay bare the way that privilege creates blindness—but you stop short of inviting us to sneer at people like Parker, the blueberry heiress in “Jubilee,” or Margaret, the wealthy painter who moves to Santa Fe from Connecticut in “Canute Commands the Tides.” Is there any part of you that’s tempted to just go for broke and give us a harsher, more satirical picture of those types of people? Why is it so important to you to keep humanizing them?
KVQ: Oh, absolutely. I’m very tempted to pillory some of my characters—and not just the privileged ones. Amadeo in “The Five Wounds,” for instance. I started off really angry with him, and in early drafts I didn’t allow him to be a full human, because I was so busy judging him. In “Canute Commands the Tides,” Margaret originally had the same name as a woman who rear-ended me in a parking lot in Santa Fe. I was so mad. She was wealthy, and she had just moved to Santa Fe, and I was like, “Oh, so you think you own the roads, too?!” This from somebody who doesn’t actually live there anymore!
In my first draft, my characterization of Margaret was really harsh. But as you spend time with a character on the page, you can’t help but humanize them. The longer you look at someone, the more you see, and the more complicated and mysterious they are. That is the revision process. In every single case, when I have started writing from a place of judgment, from a thirst for revenge, it doesn’t result in a good story. I have to revise my way to a more complicated understanding of the characters. What you say about privilege creating blindness is so true, but I think scarcity creates blindness too. When we’re missing what we need, that hole can blot out our vision, can become the only thing we see. Everyone’s blind in some way.
Image: “Canute Commands the Tides” feels like a sort of homage to Flannery O’Connor transposed to Santa Fe: the good woman whose goodness is too small, a wealthy person who is self-servingly sentimental about the people who work for her, the slow build toward what feels like an inevitable outbreak of violence. I wondered: did you ever set out to write a story that follows O’Connor’s form, here or elsewhere, or does that just happen naturally because she’s such a giant?
KVQ: O’Connor is on my mind a lot in life, and definitely when I was writing some of those stories. When I was writing “The Five Wounds,” the works I was thinking about most were O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. Parker and Greene’s whiskey priest in particular were on my mind as I was constructing the character of Amadeo, trying to get to a deeper and more humane understanding of who he is.
As for “Canute,” when you say that, it’s so obvious that the story has a very O’Connor arc, but I don’t think I was thinking about her consciously. I do know that I was reading a lot of her at the time, so it makes sense that she would find her way into the story.
Image: You’ve mentioned revision a number of times. Is there anything else to say about it that you haven’t said?
KVQ: I love revision. For me that’s where most of the work happens. I hang onto stories for a long time and go back to them over and over. I often leave a lot of time between revisions so I can see the story with new eyes. I’m a different person when I go back to it. For me, the central job of revision is getting to a deeper understanding of my characters, and allowing them to be more fully themselves. That often means clearing out a lot of the junk that I’ve built up around them.
John L’Heureux said that we get to know our characters by spending time with them in a particular context, the same way we get to know the people in our lives. I find that framing of characters, as real people who we’re getting to know, really useful. It can sound goofy, because of course they’re not real people—they’re words on the page; they exist only in my imagination. But I do find that approach helpful when I’m revising. If they’re people who have their own resistances, how I can get to know them in spite of that? How can I place them in situations that challenge those resistances?
Image: Your story “The Five Wounds” is partly about this desire to dissolve the messy self into a larger, more meaningful, more noble story: Amadeo Padilla isn’t just playing Jesus in the passion play; the first sentence says “Amadeo Padilla is Jesus.” And the story makes it viscerally clear that this isn’t something he can do lightly or inexpensively. Amadeo at first seems like a pretty unlikely candidate for the job of Jesus. Why is he actually secretly perfect?
KVQ: You put it beautifully when you say it’s not something he can do inexpensively. It costs him. As I said, when I was writing this story, I was thinking so much about The Power and the Glory. Greene’s whiskey priest is a bad priest. He’s a drunk, he’s fathered a child, he’s failed in so many of his vows and responsibilities, but he’s nonetheless capable of real sacrifice and real compassion. When I first encountered that book in high school, I was moved and transported and dazzled, and I knew even then that this kind of contradiction was something I wanted to explore.
If you’ve failed in some major ways, as Amadeo has, and then you want to sacrifice your life, which is what he wants to do, you’re going to have to work really hard. The trouble for Amadeo is that the sacrifice he thinks he needs to make isn’t the one he needs to make.
Image: I read that you are working on a novel? Could you tell us a little about it? Also, how does working on a novel feel different from working on short stories? How did you figure out that you had a novel-sized idea?
KVQ: I’m just doing some last editor’s changes right now. It’s not finished, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.
My novel takes “The Five Wounds” as its starting point. It stays with that family and extends their story. My editor asked if I’d ever considered turning it into a novel, and at first I said no, that it was just a story. But her question sort of sat with me a while. I was working on about four different stories, all in various stages, and I realized that they all had essentially the same constellation of characters: a deadbeat dad, his mother who cares for and enables him, and his daughter. I realized maybe I am writing a novel—because clearly there was something about this constellation of characters that I couldn’t let go. I kept going back to it. So I thought, okay I’ll give a novel a shot.
The question that really spurred the novel into being is, what happens after you’ve asked for the nails and crucified yourself, as Amadeo does in the passion play at the end of the “The Five Wounds”? Jesus died and was entombed and then rose again, so his story only lasted three days longer. But if you’re not Jesus, what do you do the next day, when you’re still you, inhabiting your same old life?
I’m really interested in how a person changes over the long term. Because a dramatic gesture is great for the moment, and maybe for a short story, but presumably this guy’s going to wake up the next morning and still be faced with his failings. His pregnant daughter’s needs, her anger at having been let down, are still going to be there.
So the novel follows that family through the baby’s birth and first year. It’s scheduled to come out in early 2021.
Image: Is there a certain kind of mind that’s attracted to fiction as a mode? That is, that’s made to write fiction and not essays? If so, how you would describe that kind of mind?
KVQ: I’ve always told myself stories, always imagined myself into other people’s lives. I used to love going to friends’ houses when I was a kid, because I loved seeing how they lived and how they interacted with their parents. I also liked walking down the street at twilight when people had turned on their lights but hadn’t yet closed their blinds, and peering into people’s houses.
I think story and imagining my way into other people’s existences is just how I make sense of the world. I’ve written some essays. I love nonfiction. It’s a genre I’d like to get better at, and I am playing around with a longer nonfiction project that looks at violence in my family. But one of the tricky things is that I fictionalize without even knowing I’m doing it. It’s so ingrained in me. Even if I’m writing a very short nonfiction essay, I have to go back through it and be very rigorous with myself, and ask at each line, Is this actually true? Did this really happen? Because the pull toward fiction is so strong. Fiction tells the truth through fabrication, so I tend to think that that’s the best way to get at whatever truth it is I want to tell. These fictional strategies just present themselves to me—so I have to really be stern with myself when I write essays.
There’s a way in nonfiction that conclusions can just be stated outright, which you can’t get away with in fiction. In fiction, truths and conclusions are trickier to pin down. They’re nuanced and contradictory. But as soon as I say that, I think that can be the case for nonfiction too.
Featured image: Tod Papageorge, Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 1969, MoMA, © 2019 Tod Papageorge
Mary Kenagy Mitchell began working at Image in 2000 as managing editor. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Image, Good Letters, The Millions, 3 Quarks Daily, Georgia Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, St Katherine Review, and Bearings Online. She lives in Seattle.