Short Stories are the Jan Brady of Literature
A Q&A with Kirstin Valdez Quade, author of Night at the Fiestas
Short story collections are the Jan Brady of literature while novels are Marcia. Novels may boast the lion's share of attention, but short story collections offer distinct pleasures: a diversity of characters; revelatory endings; and (since a collection is often a writer's debut) an introduction to a striking new talent. One example of such a talent is Kirstin Valdez Quade, author of Night at the Fiestas. If this is the first time you've heard of Kirstin, I assure you, it won't be the last. To learn more, read the Q&A below.
Published on LatinoLA: September 10, 2015
Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas (Norton), which received a "5 Under 35" award from the National Book Foundation. She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award and the 2013 Narrative Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Narrative, Guernica, The Southern Review, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She was a Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote Fellow at Stanford University, where she also taught as a Jones Lecturer. In 2014-2015, she was the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. Beginning in 2016, she will be an assistant professor at Princeton University. For more information, visit http://www.kirstinvaldezquade.com
Q: There is a lovely kaleidoscope of characters in Night at the Fiestas who seem connected by the act of seeing. For example, Maria won't let go of her vision of Nemecia, Margaret sees the characters in her art more clearly than the people in her life, and Ofelia suffers from the ojo. Are you drawn to characters who are observers who are perhaps not self-aware? Or do your characters choose you?
A: You're absolutely right that I am drawn to characters who are interested in the world--just as with the actual people in my real life, I'd rather spend time on the page with characters who are thoughtful and observant, who notice the people and events in their lives and comment on them in ways that are funny or original or otherwise compelling to me. I get to know my characters by noticing what they notice.
And while I like to write about characters who are self-aware enough to think about and question their own motivations, characters' blind spots are as revealing as their insights. For instance, in "Nemecia," Maria thinks she's telling the story about her complicated and traumatized cousin, but she's actually telling her own story: the story of how she's devoted her life to preserving this dark episode in her family's history, the story of how she's been so focused on the wounds of the past that she's cut herself off from love and connection in her adult life.
Q: As a creative writing teacher at Stanford and the University of Michigan, what tried-and-true advice have you shared with your students?
A: The advice that I share most frequently with my students--and that I think about myself--is the importance of noticing. Curiosity and openness are the most essential traits in a writer, and they can be practiced. I ask my students to keep a notebook and write down something interesting every single day: an anecdote, an image, a factoid, an overheard conversation, some observation about the world around them. Partially it's an exercise in looking for material, but more than that, it's an exercise in seeing. I've done this myself for years, and I find that when I fall behind in my notebook, I see less. The world actually becomes a less fascinating place.
Q: Teachers often learn from their students. Have your students informed your writing, and if so how?
A: Particularly at the undergraduate level, my students are really open to taking risks with their work and playing on the page. These are skills that, when I began to publish and identify as a Writer, slipped away from me for a time. As I began to take my work more seriously, the work itself began to feel deadly serious, and, as a result, some of the joy seeped out of the process--and the quality of my work suffered, too. The prose felt overworked and leaden. My students remind me that at root, writing is about play and exploration and asking questions, and I'm incredibly grateful for that reminder.
Q: Many aspiring writers are not necessarily familiar with the groundwork that precedes publication. Could you describe your journey from unpublished writer to acclaimed author? For example, if there were rejections along the way, please share as that may be heartening for some of my readers to know :-)
A: Oh, god, yes! Many rejections! Rejection is such an ugly word, and sounds so painful, but it doesn't have to be. I approach it as just part of the writing process. Getting rejected--and then bouncing back--is a skill that takes practice, just as, say, writing effective dialogue takes practice. Certainly rejection can sting, and it's important to acknowledge that sting--and then move on. A friend of mine makes sure that she always has a story out with a journal so that even in the face of a rejection she has something to hope for. For my part, I tend to focus all my anxiety on the writing itself, on making sure the story is as developed and polished as I can possibly make it, so that by the time the story goes out, I have very little anxiety left.
For years I didn't think about publication at all. I focused instead on reading and writing and getting a sense of my range and the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. It was really important to me that I give myself the space to learn the craft without the pressure of thinking about the publishing world. I still keep the two aspects of the work very separate. I write at my desk and do business-related tasks in the living room.
Q: Who is your agent and how did you meet him/her? If you don't have an agent, how did you come to be published by Norton?
A: My agent is Denise Shannon, and she's wonderful. I met her when she reached out to me after an early story appeared in The New Yorker. She came highly recommended as she also represents my graduate school advisor, the extraordinary writer and teacher Ehud Havazelet. I feel incredibly lucky to have found her!
Q: If you knew then what you know now, what might you have done differently when seeking publication of Night at the Fiestas?
A: Throughout the process I asked for advice from friends and mentors, and they shared their own experiences with me generously. If I could do it again, I might ask even more questions!
Q: In contrast, what was one really smart choice you made that you recommend to other writers seeking publication of a short story collection?
A: One thing I am grateful for is that I took my time with the writing. (Nearly ten years, actually, which might be too much time!) But by the time I sent the manuscript out, I knew I'd done as much as I could with the stories and that the manuscript was my best effort. Not that it was perfect--it wasn't, and it went through lots more revision later--but it was as good as it was going to get in my hands alone.
Q: Do you have upcoming publications or events that my readers should have on their radar?
A: I am taking some time away from teaching, and I'll be spending the next year working on my novel and traveling for book events. In the near future, I'll be at the Brooklyn Book Festival (September 20), the Southwest Festival of the Written Word (October 2), the PEN/Faulkner Gala (October 5),and the Texas Book Festival (October 16-18). I'll also be visiting several universities to read and speak with students.
Excerpted from Latinidad?« ?® 2003 by Marcela Landres
Marcela Landres is the author of the e-book How Editors Think. She is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published and was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster.
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