By Daniel Ford
I gushed over Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, enough in last month’s 5 Books That Need To Be On Your Radar, so I’ll just say it was a true pleasure to read cover to cover and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Quade graciously answered some of my questions about her early influences, why she loves short stories, and what inspired Night at the Fiestas.
DF: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Kirstin Valdez Quade: I’ve wanted to write since I was a child. I don’t exactly know where the impulse came from, since I didn’t know any writers, but I was an avid reader, and I always identified with the characters who wrote: Harriet the Spy, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March. While I wrote short stories and poems throughout high school, it wasn’t until college that I took a creative writing workshop and began to make a more serious study of craft.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
KVQ: In high school I first encountered Graham Greene, Tobias Wolff, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Carver, Sandra Cisneros. Each of these writers influenced me and made me think about the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
KVQ: My process is pretty dull: no music, no cafes, just me at my desk. I have a parrot, and he’s often in the room, rustling around behind me. Occasionally I’ll wear headphones, but just to tether me to my computer. I never outline, mostly because discovering what will happen is what keeps me engaged in the story. The couple times I tried outlining, I felt like I was just filling in the blanks; the writing was a slog and not very good. My way is pretty inefficient, though—it takes a long time to feel my way through a story, and I take wrong turns, and have to backtrack.
DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
KVQ: I love the short story, too! As both a reader and a writer, I enjoy the variety. I can try on a character’s experience, and then, in the next story, explore the experience of someone completely different. I think of the story collection as a box of truffles. Each offers its own surprises, but they complement and echo each other.
DF: How long did it take you to complete Night at the Fiestas?
KVQ: I’m almost embarrassed to say! I started the first story, “Nemecia,” in 2005 or 2006, so I worked on the book for nearly 10 years. But in the beginning I wasn’t especially aware that I was Working on a Book. Rather, I was learning how to write stories, figuring out my material, getting a sense of my interests.
DF: Did the ideas for each story originate differently when you were planning out the collection, or did you find ways to connect them during the writing process?
KVQ: I really just wrote the stories that presented themselves to me, the stories that felt most exciting and urgent. In the beginning I didn’t think of them as part of a whole, but from the beginning there were thematic connections between the stories. Most were set in the Southwest, and in New Mexico in particular. Many showed a concern with the pressures exerted by the past. I began to think of the collection as a fractured and incomplete portrait of the place my family is from.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
KVQ: We (readers and writers) get to know characters the same way we get to know the people in our lives: by spending time with them, by seeing how they act under pressure, by watching how they navigate the relationships in their lives. What I love about fiction is getting to play pretend, getting to try on different existences. I am in all of my characters—or at least some version of me is in all of them. I am as much the beleaguered eldest son in “The Guesthouse” as I am the artistically frustrated retiree in “Canute Commands the Tides.” People have asked which of my characters is closest to me, and my answer changes every time.
DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in Night at the Fiestas?
KVQ: I find myself writing about family and the little betrayals that can occur between parents and children, brothers and sisters. The family is such fertile terrain for fiction, because there’s shared history there, such intimacy and love, and yet our families are forced on us. No one knows quite how to push our buttons like our family members, and small gestures can take on huge resonances.
DF: Your stories are set in New Mexico and have a very distinct, Southwestern United States feel. How were you affected by the region’s culture growing up and how did you go about recreating it in your stories?
KVQ: I am from northern New Mexico, and my family has lived there for centuries. I’ve always been really close to my older relatives and interested in their stories, and because of this I have felt very connected to the landscape and history of the region. When I was a child, my parents and I moved away, and we lived all over the Southwest—Nevada, Utah, Arizona—but through all the moves, New Mexico was the place we returned to, the place that felt most like home.
DF: Your book received a rave review in The New York Times Book Review and garnered other high praise from a variety of sources. What’s that experience been like and what are your future plans?
KVQ: I am incredibly, incredibly grateful. It’s scary to send work out into the world. Writers depend so much on the goodwill of readers, on their willingness to give generously of their time and attention. It means so much to me when a reader says that something I’ve written entertained or resonated with them, because one of the reasons I became a writer was to make that kind of connection with a reader. My plan for now is to keep my head down and to work on the next project.
DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?
KVQ: The advice that I keep in mind as I’m working comes from Alice Munro: “The only choice I make is to write about what interests me in a way that interests me, that gives me pleasure.” Staying faithful to your interests is really liberating, and allows you to takes risks in your work. Plus, if you’re interested in the story you’re telling, that energy and urgency is bound to come through, and it’s far more likely your reader will also be interested.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
KVQ: I once came in second place in a limbo competition at the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 124. The man who came in first was a foot shorter than I am, so I consider it a victory. Plus, the second place prize was a beer cooler, which is also great for transporting string cheese.
To learn more about Kirstin Valdez Quade, visit her official website.