On Family History, Teaching the Craft, and Bouncing Back: Santa Fe Literary Review speaks with Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of The Five Wounds, released this year, and Night at the Fiestas, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. She is the recipient of a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, the Rome Prize, a Stegner Fellowship, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Members of the Santa Fe Literary Review were honored to interview Valdez Quade over Zoom on February 23, 2021.
SFLR Staff: To begin, please tell us about your connections to New Mexico in general and to Santa Fe in particular—and how those connections have influenced your writing.
Valdez Quade: My family has a long history in New Mexico. I was born in Albuquerque, and most of my extended family is in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. My parents and I moved away when I was a child, and I had a pretty itinerant childhood. We lived in many different places, mostly in the Southwest, but through all of those moves, my grandmother’s house in Santa Fe was the place we returned to, the place my sense of home and family and belonging centered on. I went to third grade at the St. Francis Cathedral School, I spent summers with my grandparents, I would go for extended stays. I loved—still love—being surrounded by family, and from the time I was a child, some part of me has been waiting and expecting to move back.
I’m lucky to be very close to the elders in my family, to my grandparents and my great aunt, and when I was little my great-grandmother took care of me while my mother worked. That sense of history and proximity to earlier generations and their stories of the small towns where they were born has been really important to my sense of my place in the world—and it absolutely comes out in my writing. So much of my fiction is about family and family history. On the page, I am able to return to this place that I love and that I left, and that I’m always longing to return to.
We’re very excited about the release of your second book and first novel, The Five Wounds. Could you tell us about this book and your process of creating it?
My novel The Five Wounds is an extension of a story with the same title that appeared in my story collection [Night at the Fiestas]. It centers on the Padilla family. Amadeo is an unemployed alcoholic, and he has not been present in his daughter’s life. At the beginning of the book, Angel, his teenage daughter, shows up on his doorstep enormously pregnant and announces that she’s moving in. The relationship between father and daughter forms the center of the novel as they both navigate what it means to be a parent and a child. The story is steeped in Catholic tradition, especially New
Mexican Catholic tradition. Amadeo is a penitente (a member of a fictional community of penitentes resurrected by his great-uncle) and he’s thrown himself into his role. He thinks that it will help him turn his life around—and he feels derailed by his daughter showing up.
About a year after I published the short story, “The Five Wounds,” my editor emailed to ask if I would consider turning into a novel. I said, No, absolutely not, it’s a story! And I moved on to other stories. A year after that, though, I was looking at some stories in progress, I realized that in these three stories I was dealing with essentially the same family dynamic: a mother and her grown codependent son, and his estranged daughter. I realized, I’m clearly not done with these characters yet. There’s something about these characters that still has a hold on me. So I thought, Maybe I am writing a novel, after all. I had a summer without teaching, so I told myself, This summer I’m going to give it a try and see where this goes. The novel picks up where the story leaves off, and it follows the first year of the life of Angel’s baby.
As a writer, what are some of your goals and aspirations? What’s next for you?
My main goal is to continue growing as a reader and a writer. So many of the writers I admire continue to develop and change and to deepen their work over the course of their writing lives, and that’s what I hope for. The English writer Penelope Fitzgerald started writing fiction at age sixty, and from then until her death she wrote ten beautiful novels that are all really different. I admire that so deeply. I hope to keep challenging myself to explore new forms and subject matter.
You teach as well as write. How does teaching influence your writing—and vice versa?
I feel really lucky to get to spend my days talking about literature and helping new writers to discover their material, hone their craft, and learn how to bring each story closer to the fullest and most complicated and most interesting version of itself. Teaching is one of the great gifts of my life: I get to be immersed in language and story and to spend my time with really interesting people who have really interesting stories to tell. My students remind me of how exciting writing was when I first started writing, what it’s like to have that “beginner’s mind” and to be discovering and playing. I find [my work with them] to be a really helpful reminder of that state. As writing became my career, the stakes felt higher, the expectations felt scarier, and there have been points when I’ve been in danger of losing that sense of play that drew me to writing in the first place. I’m really grateful to my students for reminding me that at root, writing is about exploring, asking questions, and being curious about the experiences of other people.
Talk to us about writerly rejection.
If you pursue writing, or any artistic path, rejection will be a part of it. It’s always a part of it. Learning to bounce back from rejection is a skill like any other that you must develop as you’re learning to write. You have to learn to write dialogue, to construct a scene, to write specific sensory detail—all these skills need to be developed, and rejection is just another. When rejections come, I think it’s really important to let yourself feel sad—it is disappointing! it is hard!—and then set that aside and keep going. It helps to realize that you don’t need to take it personally, and a rejection of any one manuscript is not a global verdict on your talent or character or promise as a writer. If you are ever in a position to choose from among a pile of manuscripts for publication or a prize or admission to graduate school, you understand how many compelling, wonderful pieces don’t get selected. I have a friend who makes sure she always has a story out on submission. Having something out there being considered is a hopeful state for her, and as soon as something is rejected, she revises and sends it out again.
Rejections can also be a gift—they can teach you something. As an editor was rejecting the first story in my collection, “Nemecia,” he said, “And by the way, I think your story ends here.” He marked a spot about two-thirds of the way through the story. He was exactly right! I revised it again, ending it right on the image he had pointed out, and I sent it out again and it was eventually taken. So practice rejection, and then get good at bouncing back.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Along with the usual advice—treat it as a job, remember that writing is a long game, be patient—my main piece of advice is to be observant. Ask questions. Get in the habit of really looking around you. One of the practices that I’ve had for years now, and that I make my students do, is to write down one interesting thing a day. I’m not much of a journaler, but I do keep a notebook and I try to notice and record one interesting thing a day. It can be anything: an overheard exchange, a line I read and loved, a scandalous anecdote. I call them my Notable Items. Many of mine seem to involve animal attacks. I’ve found that when I fall out of practice, I notice less in the world. It’s a little trickier during the pandemic when we’re not out and about and constantly talking to new people, but so much is happening to us and around us, even if we’re spending a lot of time in our homes, and we can witness that.