Peren­nial busy­body Kirsten Valdez Quade on the in­flu­ence of fam­ily and Santa Fe on her writ­ing

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - writer Kirstin Valdez Quade

Not too many years be­fore Kirstin Valdez Quade’s writ­ing be­gan ap­pear­ing in the The New Yorker or the an­nual col­lec­tion The Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries or be­fore she was se­lected as a Wal­lace Steg­ner Fel­low and Tru­man Capote Fel­low at Stan­ford, she was a kid bounc­ing around the desert South­west with her ge­ol­o­gist fa­ther, living in trail­ers and tents, soak­ing up ma­te­rial for sto­ries like “Mo­jave Rats,” in­cluded in her first col­lec­tion of short fic­tion, ti­tled Night at the Fi­es­tas (W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pany). Although she at­tended 13 schools in four states, New Mex­ico, where she was born, and Santa Fe, where her grand­par­ents lived, “re­main the land­scape that most fu­els my imag­i­na­tion.” The re­gion is the mag­netic north for most of her sto­ries as her char­ac­ters strug­gle with the de­mands of fam­ily, cus­tom, and reli­gion in a land where tra­di­tion both beck­ons and repels, and where the most im­por­tant de­ci­sions can in­volve hon­or­ing the past or break­ing with it, stay­ing or leav­ing. Quade cur­rently teaches fic­tion as the Del­banco Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan in Ann Arbor.

Pasatiempo: Sev­eral of the 10 sto­ries in Night at the Fi­es­tas take place in or around Santa Fe and Al­bu­querque. How did that back­ground in­flu­ence your writ­ing? Kirsten Valdez Quade: My fam­ily’s pres­ence in New Mex­ico can be traced to Cristóbal de Arel­lano. I was born in Al­bu­querque, and when I was small, I spent days with my great-grand­mother while my mother worked. As the old­est grand­child, I’ve been re­ally close to my grand­par­ents and older rel­a­tives, and have pestered them with ques­tions about their lives: about grow­ing up in the lit­tle towns of Torreon and Miami and Springer, about Santa Fe in the ’30s and ’40s. My grand­mother ac­cuses me of be­ing an en­trometida —a busy­body.

From the time I first started writ­ing, I’ve drawn on fam­ily sto­ries. When I was ten, for ex­am­ple, for a school as­sign­ment I wrote and il­lus­trated a pic­ture book about the kid­nap­ping by an Apache fam­ily of my great-great-grand­fa­ther, Jesús María Arel­lano, in the 1850s, when he was seven years old. And I con­tin­ued to draw on fam­ily sto­ries when I be­gan to write se­ri­ously. I wrote fic­tion be­cause there were al­ways de­tails that my grand­par­ents or great-aunt couldn’t sup­ply,

ques­tions that they couldn’t an­swer. So I be­gan to fill in the gaps my­self. Pasa: But your back­ground is not ex­clu­sively New Mex­i­can, right? Quade: My fa­ther is a re­search ge­ol­o­gist who spe­cial­izes in deserts, so much of my child­hood was spent fol­low­ing his re­search. We lived in Ne­vada, Utah, Ari­zona — I went to 13 schools — in­clud­ing, at one point, St. Fran­cis Cathe­dral School. Through all the moves, my grand­mother’s house in Santa Fe was the place we al­ways came back to, the place that has al­ways felt most like home. I spent most of my sum­mers in high school and col­lege there. And it re­mains the land­scape that most fu­els my imag­i­na­tion. Yet, be­cause I moved away, it isn’t en­tirely home. I some­times won­der if my sub­ject mat­ter would be the same if I’d never left. Pasa: When you are back here do you feel like an out­sider? Quade: A lot of writ­ers tend to be out­siders, and that’s cer­tainly the case with me. Hav­ing moved so much in my life, hav­ing al­ways been an in­tro­vert and an ob­server, I am per­pet­u­ally an out­sider. I don’t mind it. But, like I said, the one place I feel at home is when I’m with my fam­ily in Santa Fe. I do think my long­ing for New Mex­ico is part of what drives my fic­tion. It looms large in peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tions, and there’s been a lot writ­ten about it by in­sid­ers and out­siders alike.

Be­cause the his­tory of New Mex­ico is one of con­quest — mil­i­tary, eco­nomic, cul­tural — lots of peo­ple feel dis­in­her­ited. And one symp­tom of this is a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with in­sider-out­sider sta­tus. I think the his­tory of con­quest in New Mex­ico can ex­ac­er­bate this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, which is some­thing I’m in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing in my work. Pasa: The ti­tle story of your book and oth­ers are or­ga­nized around tra­di­tional cer­e­monies pretty unique to North­ern New Mex­ico. Yet, you have lived in places where peo­ple aren’t as at­tached to the Vir­gin or the Cross. Are you an apos­tate? Quade: I don’t con­sider my­self an apos­tate at all. I’m Catholic, although my re­la­tion­ship with Catholi­cism isn’t un­com­pli­cated. For as long as I can re­mem­ber, my grand­mother has been a mem­ber of the Al­tar So­ci­ety at St. Fran­cis Cathe­dral. From the time I was lit­tle, I would go there with her to col­lect the linens to be washed. I loved be­ing al­lowed to ac­com­pany her onto the al­tar and into the sacristy, those places that felt both im­por­tant and for­bid­den. Pasa: Amadeo, the main char­ac­ter in the story “The Five Wounds,” is a loser, seek­ing re­demp­tion in a clas­si­cally New Mex­i­can fash­ion. He wants to play the cru­ci­fied Christ in a bloody Holy Week pageant. What drew you to his story? Quade: I was in­ter­ested, in the case of Amadeo, in ex­plor­ing a char­ac­ter who, at first blush, might be eas­ily dis­missed — by the reader and by me. Af­ter all, he’s a dead­beat fa­ther, he’s un­em­ployed, he’s an al­co­holic. My project in writ­ing the story, then, was to try to em­body his ex­pe­ri­ence and to come to un­der­stand his fears and needs. He is him­self an out­sider, long­ing for ac­cep­tance. At the story’s open­ing, and again at the end, I use an om­ni­scient point of view that is largely aligned with the towns­peo­ple. My in­ten­tion was to high­light the ten­sion be­tween how Amadeo is seen by oth­ers, how he wants to be seen, and how he sees him­self. Pasa: One of the most mem­o­rable sto­ries in your book, ti­tled “Ne­me­cia,” is about two girls headed in op­po­site di­rec­tions, one seem­ing to aban­don all traces of her New Mex­ico ori­gins. There is a tragedy at the core of the story that helps de­ter­mine the des­tinies of the two girls. The one named Ne­me­cia em­braces a new life in Cal­i­for­nia. The other girl, Maria, stays put, though she un­der­stands that her life won’t be as glam­orous or per­haps as ful­fill­ing. The fore­word of your book says it is “de­fined by con­cerns of tra­di­tion and her­itage.” In “Ne­me­cia,” what were you say­ing about those is­sues? Quade: I think, on the deep­est level, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two girls in “Ne­me­cia” lies in what sto­ries mean to them. Maria, the younger cousin, is the keeper of the sto­ries. Af­ter all, she is the one who, later in her life, is look­ing back on the events of her child­hood and try­ing to make sense of them. She feels bur­dened by the past, by the re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­mem­ber their shared his­tory. Ne­me­cia, on the other hand, has rein­vented her­self en­tirely — changed her name and built a new life for her­self far away. Maria can’t quite be­lieve that her cousin doesn’t think about those old hard times, but all the ev­i­dence in­di­cates that Ne­me­cia, now Norma, has man­aged to cre­ate a life for her­self in which that past no longer haunts her. For Ne­me­cia, for­get­ting is a way of living with trauma, and though Maria can’t un­der­stand this, it seems to have worked for her. Pasa: How did you get started writ­ing? Quade: My de­sire to write started, not with the sense that I nec­es­sar­ily had some­thing to write about, but with a cu­rios­ity about what it’s like to be other peo­ple. When I was a kid, I was fas­ci­nated by other peo­ple’s fam­i­lies, by the jokes they thought were funny, by the odd habits that were com­mon­place to them. I used to love to go to friends’ houses, to see how they lived and how they and their par­ents in­ter­acted. An­other fam­ily can be like a whole other coun­try, with cus­toms and a lan­guage all its own. And, as with for­eign travel, it’s im­pos­si­ble to re­turn to one’s own fam­ily and not see it anew. I re­mem­ber, upon re­turn­ing from a friend’s house, get­ting an oc­ca­sional glimpse of the strange­ness of my own fam­ily, be­fore that glimpse was sub­sumed by fa­mil­iar­ity and rou­tine. Pasa: What’s the most help­ful crit­i­cism you have re­ceived about your writ­ing? Quade: Move deeper. My grad­u­ate school ad­vi­sor, Ehud Havazelet, was al­ways telling me I had to move deeper. It’s ex­cel­lent ad­vice, ad­vice I call on ev­ery time I sit in front of the com­puter. There are a lot of rea­sons my drafts aren’t deep enough — maybe I’m avoid­ing the hard work, or I’m afraid of what I’ll find if I put my char­ac­ters through that kind of scru­tiny, or be­cause I know that the work I need to do will be emo­tion­ally painful. Re­vi­sion for me is al­ways about dig­ging deeper and ask­ing my char­ac­ters hard ques­tions and un­cov­er­ing con­tra­dic­tions. But the work, if painful, is also ex­cit­ing, be­cause the more one digs, the more closely one looks at one’s char­ac­ters, the more deeply one ex­plores the story, the more there is to dis­cover. Fic­tion has to be emo­tion­ally risky. Pasa: Where do you want to go next with your writ­ing? Quade: As writ­ers, we con­tinue to re­turn to our ob­ses­sions and our cu­riosi­ties. I have a cou­ple of projects sim­mer­ing, and if I had to sum them up, I’d say they all in­volve fam­ily. Fam­i­lies fas­ci­nate me, with their va­ri­eties of love and obli­ga­tion and in­jury. Pasa: What com­pli­ment have you re­ceived about your writ­ing that means the most to you from a writer or a teacher? Quade: From my mother — though I’m not sure she meant it as a com­pli­ment. Af­ter read­ing one of my sto­ries, she said, “Boy, you re­ally no­tice a lot.” Pasa : Santa Fe has changed so much in re­cent years. When you’re back, how do you re­con­nect with your his­tory? Quade: Su­per­im­posed on the Santa Fe I visit sev­eral times a year is an­other Santa Fe that is made up of mem­o­ries and fam­ily his­tory. My grand­fa­ther is a stone­ma­son, and, over the last 60 years, built a lot of Santa Fe. When we drive around town, he’ll point out the work he’s done — this wall or that gallery. The brick cop­ing on top of the public li­brary down­town is his work. And he tells me sto­ries — about his friends at the old lum­ber­yard or about driv­ing up north to col­lect the stone.

The sto­ries are as vivid to me as what ac­tu­ally ap­pears be­fore me — my grand­mother’s ac­counts of at­tend­ing Loretto as a homesick four­teen-year-old, my grand­fa­ther’s mem­o­ries of my great-grand­par­ents’ bak­ery, my mother’s sto­ries about be­ing a teenager in the early ’70s. My own mem­o­ries are there, too, of play­ing in the ar­royo be­hind my grand­mother’s house and run­ning er­rands with her down­town, and spend­ing af­ter­noons with my grand­fa­ther at this or that job site, stack­ing bricks be­side him as he built this or that fire­place, or with my grand­mother in her of­fice at the leg­is­la­ture, where she worked for 50 years.

Maggie Shipstead

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