Kirstin Valdez Quade

Year of Graduation: 
Kirstin Valdez Quade

​"... if you only see one sentence into the future, then you can keep the faith."

A conversation with
Kirstin Valdez Quade ’98

By Daneet Steffens ’82

Daneet Steffens ’82 interviewed Kirstin Valdez Quade ’98, whose first short-story collection, Night at the Fiestas, was published this spring. Some of these stories found early homes in The New YorkerThe Best American Short Stories and Guernica, and last year Valdez Quade was chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 by none other than Andre Dubus III. Her stories are potently steeped in their physical landscapes: Whether it’s the author’s ancestral home of northern New Mexico, a fictional trailer park drawn from Pahrump, Nevada, or fancy California blueberry fields, the sense of place jostles fiercely for space with pitch-perfect characters, while Valdez Quade’s incisive turns of phrase thrum with both darkness and humor.

Q: These stories contain many damaged souls: lost mothers, abandoned daughters, isolated cousins, lonely half-siblings, deadbeat dads. But, messed up as they are, you portray them all with an incredible level of empathy. How do you make that particular magic happen?

Kirstin Valdez Quade Night at the FiestasQuade: Empathy’s presence is what I most hope for when I’m working on a story. Fiction is an empathetic practice. In both reading and writing fiction, it’s all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and the trick is getting it right. It takes many, many drafts to get it right. I often start with a character that I find on the surface to be dismissible; some of my characters are not great people — I think they’re trying to be better, but they’re extremely flawed. So that’s my starting point: I’ll think, “What’s going on with this character? Why do I want to see this person as a person?” Then my job is writing the story and then, after years of revision, to actually get to a place where I’m not judging. Because sometimes when I start off, I am judging my characters, and that’s problematic. As a writer you cannot judge your characters; you have to try to be your characters, to understand what it would be like to be that person with that particular set of limitations and flaws and virtues, and then walk with them through their story.

Q: What was it like to have Dubus champion your work?

Quade: It was incredible and stunning. I was in my pajamas on a Sunday morning working at my desk when I got the call. For weeks it was a wonderful shock. I remember reading House of Sand and Fog when it came out: Dubus creates this situation where you empathize with everybody in the story and yet it’s an impossible situation. They’re fighting over this finite resource, this house; there’s no way that everyone can have it and the reader doesn’t even know what to root for. I remember thinking, “That is what a story needs to do. It needs to make us feel for everybody in the situation — and to feel deeply for them.”

Q: You’re currently teaching creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. What do you enjoy about working with other — and younger — writers?

Quade: I love teaching. I find it really invigorating to talk with others about literature and writing. Writing is such an isolated activity — you’re alone in your office and it’s just you and your computer and your own brain — so I find it really refreshing to leave that space and interact with my students. Also, I think that so much of writing is about problem solving; when I am engaged with my students and with other people over their manuscripts, I’m looking for solutions, ways the story could improve, and all of that is practice for when I turn to my own manuscripts.

Q: What kind of walls do you hit as a writer yourself, or find you have to work through with your students?

Quade: When I look at a manuscript, either a student’s manuscript or a manuscript by one of my peers — because I do share work with friends — or one of my own manuscripts, often it’s flawed in some way: There’s some way in which the story isn’t working. Is the character not entirely embodied on the page? Are the motivations fuzzy? What exactly is not working? Then comes the problem-solving part, which is figuring out the specific things that the writer — or that I — can do to make that next draft work.

Q: You’ve got an acknowledgments page packed with friends, fellow writers and fellowships. Writing is considered a solitary experience, but what about the community experience have you benefited from?

Quade: Thank God I’m not a solitary writer in a garret! I feel so lucky to have been surrounded by really good writers and readers. My very first writing workshops in college at Stanford were really supportive places. We brought in work to entertain and move each other and that was my first audience, fellow students sitting around the table. In grad school at the University of Oregon I found a similarly supportive community. And when I returned to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, I was again just so lucky, being with writers whose work I read for pleasure joyfully. To be around that was incredible: I felt invested in making their stories better, and I felt that they were invested in my stories, too.

Q: You’ve talked previously about equating faith and fiction. Can you describe that thinking in more detail?

Quade: Some of my favorite classes at Exeter were religion classes and I still remember the thrill of grappling with the questions we discussed: The learning approach was all about questioning; the act of questioning seemed to be paramount in those classes and that just really struck a chord with me. And I think fiction is about questioning, too. I don’t write a story because I know what it’s going to be about and I know what I want it to say or what ideas I want to come through. I write a story because I have questions and am trying to follow those questions until some truth emerges, somehow.

Q: Was there anything else about Exeter that continues to make an impression on you?

Quade: What I learned about close reading at the Harkness table was such a revelation, that the text could keep opening and opening and opening, deeper and deeper and deeper. I carry that with me all the time, every time I read, every time I teach. Those discussions are what I want to replicate in the classroom; that thrill I felt as a student learning how to read is what I want to impart to my students. And, as a writer, that’s the reading experience I want to inspire in others.

Q: You mentioned years of revisions. When did you first start working on this collection?

Quade: I was out of college and living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in 2005 when I started “Nemecia.” Several of the stories I wrote in graduate school, several during the Stegner program. If I had known that it was going to take 10 years, I don’t know that I could have maintained that commitment. But if you only see one sentence into the future, then you can keep the faith.