An Interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade

The Five Wounds explores what it means to have faith, both in and outside of the church. In past interviews, you’ve mentioned your intimate history and conflicted relationship with Catholicism. Was it ever difficult to challenge religious themes so candidly in your writing? How can writers explore the deeply personal, like religion, while still letting their characters find their own way? 

As a fiction writer, I’m always exploring the deeply personal in my work: questions of family obligation, of longing to change one’s life, of connecting with others. I can’t imagine writing about themes that don’t feel personally urgent.

My novel engages with the cultural history of Catholicism in northern New Mexico and the foundational narratives—elements that are central to my understanding of a place that matters so much to me. I think it’s really important that we challenge these narratives, examine whose experiences have been written out of the narratives, and consider who these narratives benefit and who they hurt.

The Catholic Church’s role in the region—across the globe, really—is, of course, complicated. It provides community and sustenance and ritual, it’s the source of so much beauty and art and music—and it also served as an excuse for the forced subjugation of native peoples by the Spanish colonists, a legacy of pain that persists today.

These issues all get filtered through the specific needs and desires of the characters—Amadeo, in particular, because he’s turned to these traditions. Angel, on the other hand, doesn’t think much about Catholicism at all!

You were born in New Mexico and have spoken about feeling a sense of belonging there growing up. When building the fictional town of Las Penas in The Five Wounds, was it important to you to accurately depict the New Mexico landscape you’re so familiar with, or did you take creative liberties with the setting to better serve your story?

The beauty of writing about a fictional town is that you can take all kinds of liberties! But it was absolutely important to me that my depiction of Las Penas be “accurate,” that a reader who knows the area might recognize it, if not in its particularity, in its broader strokes. So the history of Las Penas is much like the history of other villages in the region, and it shares traits with those other villages.

At the same time, it was important to me that the village not be recognizable as any particular village. I wanted the flexibility that writing about a fictional place allows, and I also wanted to make clear that the characters are fictional.

The main narrative of The Five Wounds is told in the present tense. For this story and others you’ve written, are there specific elements that help you decide on tense, or is present tense something you often gravitate to?

The past tense is definitely my default—it is, after all, the most common storytelling tense, the one we use when relating stories of our lives to our friends or the events of the day to our loved ones. But there was something about the immediacy and rawness of the story “The Five Wounds,” which the novel grew out of, that seemed to demand the kind of immediacy that the present tense offers. When I decided to expand the story, I toyed around with switching it to the past tense, but the story already felt to me like it was unfolding in the present.

How did your approach to revision look different when developing The Five Wounds into a full-length novel? How liberal are you when cutting content, and is there anything specific you look for?

Cutting is always a major part of my revision, whether I’m working in a short form or a novel. I know I write long, and I know as I’m writing that much of the material won’t make it into the final version. When I first started writing, if one of my readers said an element wasn’t working, I would try and try to make it work before, eventually, cutting it. Now, because I’m fortunate to have wonderful readers I trust, if someone suggests I make cuts, I make the cuts, and gratefully.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned your love for backstory, a love that is evident through the delicate unraveling of your characters’ pasts throughout The Five Wounds. Does backstory naturally interject itself as you write, or do you find it helpful to map out its contents and placement beforehand?

I never map out anything—though often, when I’m in the thick of a tangled draft, I wish I did! I find myself slipping into backstory when I need it as the writer, when I’m trying to learn who the characters are and what brought them to the present moment. Often my own questions about a character arise when a reader’s questions might. Which does not necessarily mean that the reader needs all the information I discover in backstory! I typically write long drafts, and much of my revision process consists of cutting—weeding away everything that isn’t necessary so that the story can thrive. And much of what I end up cutting is backstory—material I needed to get to know the characters, but that weighs down the story’s forward motion. The key is to give only as much backstory as the reader needs without making it hard to find the path back to the present story.

You’ve said that the process of writing The Five Wounds was a bit trial-and-error, and that you hope to have a “roadmap” for your next project. Which approach would you suggest for budding writers practicing their craft, and how can writers avoid feeling restrained by an outline?

I don’t think I’ll ever be a writer who outlines before writing. I’ve tried it, and I know it works for other people, but it really doesn’t work for me. If I know what’s going to happen, then the mystery drains away, and I’m not as invested in the story. Once I’m deep in a draft, however, I will outline—I’ll map where I’ve been and where I think the story is going—but with the understanding that it is always going to change.

I advise budding writers to try both methods: outlining and writing into mystery. It’s only through trying lots of different methods that a new writer can figure out which process works best for them.

I see that you earned an MFA in fiction writing. Did you find your graduate school experience to be an indispensable step toward your later success with writing, and would you recommend that aspiring writers take part in a program like this?

At the time, the MFA was the right path for me for many reasons: it allowed me to devote two years to reading and learning and developing my craft; I found a wonderful community of fellow writers whose work I admire and whose feedback I am deeply appreciative of; and I found a mentor who changed the way I think about fiction. Being in an academic program also gave the pursuit a kind of legitimacy that was important to me at the time, and gave me a kind of permission—and it made it easier to explain to my family what I was trying to do! Having said that, though, there are so many paths to becoming a writer, and an MFA is just one of them. I definitely advise my students not to take out loans for MFA programs, because writing is financially precarious as it is.

You’re currently working as an assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton. Did you always see yourself teaching, or was writing your primary goal? Have you faced any challenges, or unexpected benefits, to balancing careers as both a writer and professor?

I love teaching, and I was a teacher before I was ever a published writer. For me it’s an excellent complement to writing. I get a lot of energy out of being in the classroom and I feel incredibly lucky to spend time with my students talking about stories. It is, of course, challenging to balance teaching and writing because there is never enough time in a single life!

For your next project, do you think you will move away from short stories and continue writing novels, or will both continue to call you? Do you find that you prefer one form of storytelling over the other?

I love both the novel and the short story form! I read both and I know I’ll continue to write both. And in fact I have two projects in the works now: a new story collection and a novel!

Kirstin Valdez Quade, Interviewed by Jessenia Hernandez

Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of The Five Wounds, which is currently shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and is longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize. Her story collection, Night at the Fiestas, won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, and was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. It was named a New York Times Notable Book and a best book of 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the American Library Association. Kirstin is the recipient of a Lannan Fellowship, the John Guare Writer’s Fund Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She teaches at Princeton.

Jessenia Hernandez earned her B.A. with majors in English and Communication Studies from Florida Atlantic University. She dabbles in writing poetry and short fiction and had her short story “Skin” published in FAU’s literary magazine, Coastlines. She loves to read YA fiction, high fantasy (the kinds of books with a map of a made-up world at the front), historical fiction, and the occasional cheesy romance to get her through reading slumps. She has worked as a writing consultant and bookseller, and one day hopes to edit and/or market fiction novels. She also earned a certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from FAU, and constantly strives to advocate for the rights and representation of marginalized communities. When she’s not reading or writing, you can find her scream-singing to musical theater songs or experimenting with baking.