The stories in Kirstin Valdez Quade‘s debut collection Night at the Fiestas veer from carefully observed to visceral, showing complex familial dynamics and zeroing in on questions of class and geography. Quade is equally adept at showing a community from the inside and deconstructing it from the perspective of an outsider. The result is a moving portrayal of numerous lives across several decades of life in and around New Mexico. I reached out to Quade to learn more about the collection’s origins, her approach to the characters’ beliefs and dynamics, and more. This interview, conducted via email, is the result.
Some of the stories in Night at the Fiestas, such as the title story and “Nemecia,” are set a few decades in the past. Do you generally know, when you begin writing a story, when in time it will be located?
It was important to me that my stories explore lots of different perspectives and time periods. Usually when a character occurs to me, he or she is located in a situation, and the story’s general milieu—time period, physical setting, etc.—is part of that. Of course, occasionally some of these elements change as I write and as the story makes its own particular demands. In the case of “Nemecia,” I knew from the outset that the bulk of it would be set in the mid-thirties. The seed of the story was a bit of family history—my godmother’s father murdered her grandfather. I just kept the time period and the general setting and fictionalized from there.
Whether the characters are devout or outsiders, religion plays a significant role in a lot of these stories, from “The Five Wounds” to “Family Reunion.” Do you generally begin stories like these with the characters, or with the ways that religion and society interact?
Having grown up as Catholic in the Southwest, questions of religion have long been a preoccupation for me, but I always begin with the characters. Any time I try to write a story about ideas, I fail—mostly because I am far more interested in people than in abstractions. I’m interested in exploring religion in my fiction because religion is, at root, about longing—longing for closeness to God or the infinite, longing to transform oneself, longing to not be so alone in the world. Longing is also, of course, the engine that drives most stories. Usually my characters find their religious aspirations complicated by earthly demands, and often what they are looking for can’t ultimately be found in religion.
A number of these stories feature shifting power dynamics, especially “Jubilee” and “Canute Commands the Tides.” Do you generally have a sense of where those upheavals will lead when you start writing, or does that sometimes surprise you?
I am always surprised. Often my entry into a story is a pair of characters who wield power over each other—parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and employees—because power imbalances are inherently dramatic and interesting. I mean, are there any relationships that are truly balanced? If there are, they’d be boring to read about.
In most stories the balance of power changes from scene to scene. Power between people is such a shifting, layered, tricky thing; we wield power over others in ways overt and subtle, and when you look closely, the sources of power can be surprising. In “Nemecia,” the title character’s power comes from her trauma. In “Canute Commands the Tides,” Margaret has the money and social stature, of course, but Carmen’s power over her employer lies in her “authenticity” and in her willingness—or not—to offer Margaret acceptance and friendship. Andrea, the party-crashing protagonist of “Jubilee,” finds solace in the ideas about power systems that she’s picked up during her freshman year—until she discovers that they can’t quite contain her shame and ego and longing and anger.
Where did you first encounter King Canute? Was there a point when you knew that you wanted to work his story into one of yours?
I first learned about Canute from my friend, the visual artist Heather Green, with whom I share an admiration of Elizabeth Bishop. She’d came across Canute in Bishop’s “Britannia Rules the Waves.” At the time, Heather was working on an installation that drew in part on the myth. I found that Bishop’s image of those innumerable blinking eyes, and Heather’s oil paintings of a red chair engulfed by waves, and the myth of Canute all stayed with me. Two years later, they found their way into my story. The project that obsesses my character Margaret is inspired by Heather’s piece—though, of course, unlike Heather, Margaret never figures out how to execute her idea, partially because she doesn’t, until the end, understand what the myth means to her. I like thinking about the chain of influence here: my short story draws on Heather’s installation, which draws Bishop’s poem, which draws on this ancient myth.
Perhaps part of what makes the myth of Canute so compelling is how slippery it is, how Canute’s gesture—planting his throne in the waves—can be interpreted as either megalomania or as a wise demonstration to his courtiers about the limits of human power. For all the inevitability in the story—of course Canute won’t succeed in ordering the waves back—there’s so much tension: between the domestic and the natural world, between power and yielding, between the scale of a single human life and that of the planet.
Incidentally, Heather Green’s wonderful piece, “Circle of Tides: An Act Against Erasure” can be seen here.
The collection offers shifting perspectives on class, on marriage, and on faith. Did you structure the book with these contrasts in mind?
I didn’t consciously structure the book based on these themes, but because I’m fascinated by them, they definitely come up frequently in my work. In arranging the stories, I was more conscious of the tone of each story, the period of time in which each was set, and the traits of the point of view characters. When I began envisioning my collection, I saw it as a fractured portrait of a place, so I wanted to explore the perspectives of men and women of different ages and inhabiting different time periods. I really enjoy the freedom and challenge of inhabiting the perspectives of people who aren’t me.
I’m thinking specifically of “The Guesthouse” here, but several of the stories’ endings close on a memorable or harrowing image. How do you know when you’ve reached the right end point for a particular story?
I never quite know! A friend of mine has a pet snake, and she told me a terrible story about putting a live mouse in his terrarium when he wasn’t hungry enough to catch it. The mouse, however, was hungry, and started nibbling on the snake. The snake just lay there in a pile in the corner, letting himself get eaten. This story horrified me, and I kept thinking about this strange predator/prey inversion.
Endings are the trickiest part of the process for me, and often revision means tossing out whole endings. Or, as in the case of “The Guesthouse,” I’ll have the final image and the challenge is to work how what needs to happen for the story to arrive at that image. It took me many drafts to figure out what that ending would mean for Jeff. In one of the drafts I deleted that final image completely in favor of a much quieter (and duller) ending, but ultimately I was attached to that agonized snake.
The painter who Frances encounters in the title story is an ambiguous figure, and it seems like his story at the point that he encounters her could well be a separate work unto itself. How much of his backstory did you chart out beforehand?
The painter definitely remains mysterious to me. I don’t think he’s telling Frances the truth about what he does—at least not entirely. I suspect that in heading to the Fiestas, he, like Frances, is seeking to lose himself in the anonymity of the city, if only for a few days. On the bus journey south, he and Frances collude in creating new identities—his as an artist, hers as a pert and adventurous young woman. He’s aware of this game they’re playing of trying on new selves—probably more aware than Frances is—and he takes a mean, bullying pleasure in spoiling her reinvention. My guess is that Frances’s first assessment of him is essentially correct—that he’s a ranch hand in his city best, with his savings in a paper bag—and that he is reacting to her disdain.
This collection makes New Mexico feel incredibly close. Are there other areas where you’re planning to set future stories, or do you feel like this region acts as a kind of muse for you?
I have no doubt that at some point I’ll write books set in places other than New Mexico. I’ve moved around a lot in my life—Salt Lake City, Australia, Pahrump, Nevada, Tucson, Cape Breton Island, to name a few places—and these moves have provided me with lots of varied material. But for now my ideas still seem pretty linked to Northern New Mexico. For whatever reason, the landscape and the tensions there and my longing for it still really fuel my fiction.
Image: Maggie Shipstead