An Interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade
Conducted by Roberto Cruz
Night at the Fiestas is a book that takes us to a New Mexico that is home to different sets of experiences. This book brings to life the struggle of different characters that are fighting to survive the current state of their lives. It is a collection of stories that not only narrates these different lives but reflects on deeper issues of faith, spirituality and internal conflict.
Each story is different from the other, but reveal similar urgency and despair. Whether it is the story of the character Maria veraciously being consumed by the preference of her own parents for her cousin Nemencia, or the quest of man looking to redeem himself at the expense of his relationship with his own daughter. The story of a young woman faced with hearing the confession of her own priest and his past. These stories hit upon some of the internal conflicts characters are forced to face as they try to stay true to themselves even when everything they know crumbles.
Quade is able to give life to every aspect of the characters life in a very particular way. Ultimately, Quade’s characters save themselves from the tortures of their own lives through their process of coming of age. Elements like these best serve to give a balance to their lives and reveal some of the interesting elements this book touches upon.
-Roberto Cruz ('17)
How much of a role does the setting play in your stories? New Mexico seems to be highly emphasized throughout the series of short stories.
The landscape of New Mexico is deeply important to my fiction—and to me. My family has been there for hundreds of years. It’s place with a long and complicated history and is home to several cultural traditions—Native American, Spanish and Latino, Anglo. It’s interesting terrain for fiction because it’s so culturally vibrant and because of its history of conflict.
We left New Mexico when I was a child. My father is a geochemist and his fieldwork took us all over the Southwest and overseas. Throughout all those moves, though, we always went back to Santa Fe, where my grandparents still live. It was the place that felt most like home to me, yet, because I had left, it became suffused with my longing to return. Much of my writing has been about trying to understand this place that has such a hold on me.
Does the order of the stories follow any specific path? Was there any sort of overall story you hoped to tell as the book went on?
When I first conceived of my collection, I thought a lot about Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; I wanted my collection to be comprised of stories that were varied in style, tone, time period, and point-of-view character, that all examined the inhabitants and landscape of northern New Mexico. I thought “Nemecia,” and “The Manzanos” would be fitting bookends because they take place in the same small town and are both told from the point of view of first person narrators. In ordering the other eight stories, I tried to balance tone and subject matter.
The first story “Nemecia” was a very powerful story. Was there a particular reason you began with that story?
Thank you for saying it’s powerful. “Nemecia” is the oldest story in the collection, and it is the one story in the book that has its seed in an actual event from my family’s history. When my godmother was a young child, she watched as her father, in a drunken rage, killed his father-in-law with an iron poker and put his wife in a coma. For the rest of her life my godmother never spoke of the episode, and I only learned the story after her death. I was stunned that this person I’d loved and thought I’d known had experienced such a trauma, and I initially began writing to fill in the gaps in the story, to try to understand my godmother’s experience. As I wrote, I discovered I was less interested in the crime itself than in the repercussions of that violence, in how that violence, despite being shrouded in secrecy, continues to wound.
The character Nemecia isn’t my godmother, who was generous and vivacious and full of family loyalty. Even if I start with a character or situation that resembles something actual, in the course of exploring the story and trying to make the story work, fiction always takes over.
Each short story develops every character in great depth; how much of this comes from your personal connections to people in your life? Were any of these stories inspired by events that transpired in your own life? If so, what aspects of your life can we see included in any of the short stories?
The job of the short story is to delve deeply into character—and certainly that’s what keeps the process of writing interesting and fun for me. I start a story because I’m curious about a character and want to discover more about his or her motivations. All of the characters are fictional—even if, in a few cases, they share some traits with real people in my life. And in trying to imagine the experience of someone else, I invariably put myself into the characters. It’s truer to say that each of my characters—whether an angry young man or a traumatized child or a WASPy retiree—is in some way a part of me.
The last story sort of gives some closure to the book as a whole. How did you decide to make this the last story?
I’m glad you think “The Manzanos” gives the book closure—that was certainly my intention. It is tonally distinct from the other stories in the collection: more lyrical and elegiac, its structure is more of a collage than a traditional, chronological narrative.
“The Manzanos” is set in Cuipas, in the same tiny town where “Nemecia” is set, but it takes place nearly eighty years later, when many of the inhabitants of Cuipas have died or moved away, when the town itself is crumbling. The story is about loss and the attempt to preserve a history that can never be retrieved.
Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas, which was a New York Times Notable Book and won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, as well as a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Narrative Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She was a Wallace Stegner at Stanford University, where she also taught as a Jones Lecturer. She’s been on the faculty in the M.F.A. programs at University of Michigan and Warren Wilson, and, beginning in 2016, will be an assistant professor at Princeton University.