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The Scarlet & Black

Writers@Grinnell: Kirsten Valdez Quade

Photo by Kosuke Yo.
Photo by Kosuke Yo.
Photo by Kosuke Yo.

Kirsten Valdez Quade is an award winning author. Her collection of short stories “Night at the Fiestas” has received national acclaim, including being recognized as a New York Times Notable Book. Quade sat down with The S&B’s Lily Bohlke to discuss form, process and how to weave emotion into art.

The S&B: Could you tell me a bit about your books and some of the themes you want potential readers to know about?

Kirsten Valdez Quade: It’s a collection of 10 short stories and it’s set largely in northern New Mexico, but not entirely. It’s largely centered around Hispanic characters in Hispanic northern New Mexico and when I envisioned it, I really wanted it to be a portrait of this place that matters to me. It’s where my family is from and I moved from when I was a kid. We were really itinerant; we moved around a lot and that was really home. I was really interested in this region as a place because there was such a long history about violence and conquest and re-conquest. I’m interested in the way those things are still alive and powerful today, and I’m also interested in what it means to long for home and the tension between certain nostalgia and reality.

The S&B: Do you write yourself into your stories?

KVQ: I think by virtue of the fact that I wrote them, I’m in all of them. All of those characters are some aspect of me. From the 33 year-old deadbeat dad to the elderly Anglo Connecticut retiree. They’re all part of me, certainly.

The S&B: Do you think it’s possible for writers to separate themselves?

KVQ: I think things have to be emotionally true. I think the emotions have to come from the writer to be convincing. I do think the writer has to put him or herself into the work. Even if the characters and the circumstances are entirely unlike anything the writer has experienced. The key is to find the places of commonality. Because we’ve all felt lost, we’ve all felt loneliness, joy, connection. Those are just human experiences. I think that’s the way into a character who feels so distant from you. It’s through those shared experiences.

The S&B: How do you make your choice to write short stories? You’re writing a novel, and how is that different?

KVQ: I love reading short stories. I really love short stories. I love the intensity of them; I love the freedom of them, the fact that I get to spend time in your character’s mind and body and then at the end of that story spend time in a new character’s mind and body. I find that really thrilling. It’s such an opportunity to live so many different lives. Novels are very long. It requires a level of stick-with-it-ness and it’s also really exciting to stay with a character longer, to see that character develop over time and to give that character more space on the page.

The S&B: Could you talk a little about why you think joy in fiction is important?

KVQ: I think it’s an emotion that gets overlooked a lot in art, in fiction, and if my job as a fiction writer is to create full, complicated characters, then my job is to also explore joy because that is part of the human experience and I can’t look away from it and it does feel tricky for me. It’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time with on the page but it’s something I’m excited about and feel a responsibility to do. I think I’ve been remiss in that.

The S&B: What are some of your inspirations?

KVQ: The seed of the story is often from some experience of my life, or from a story I’ve heard, or an overheard moment or an interaction that I’ve had. Often I’ll think about moments where something just didn’t quite sit well and I continued to go back over and over in my mind and that will often become the seed.

The S&B: Do you write things down? How do you begin something from a seed?

KVQ: I generally don’t start with notes. Maybe later in the process I will. In the beginning I just launch in. Usually, something presents itself to me, some character, and I just start following. I write the first line, and something will peak my interest and I just follow my interest down any twisting path it leads me. Once I’m three-quarters of a way down a story and I think, ‘what am I writing here?’ and then I have to think about it more and usually my first draft is kind of a mess and then in my second draft, that’s where I really start to think about, ‘ok, so what am I talking about here? What kind of language do I see recurring?’ And then I try to shape it.

The S&B: Any key pieces of advice you give to your students that you can share with us?

KVQ: I think the two best pieces of advice I can give are pay attention and be alert to the world and follow your interest and what feels really urgent to you. Those are the pieces of advice that when I’m feeling stuck or struggling, that’s what I return to.

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