Kirstin Valdez Quade on Literary Community and Intergenerational Narratives
Jane Ciabattari Talks With the Author of The Five Wounds
The Five Wounds is Kirstin Valdez Quade’s first novel, following her first story collection, Night at the Fiesta, which won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard award for best first book. I met her for the first time when she came to the NBCC awards ceremony, and since then have seen her at various literary gatherings, from AWP, where we bumped into each other at a reception, to the Writers Community, where we were at a faculty gathering dipping our feet in the Truckee River, to a café across the street from Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, where we ran into each other waiting for a program she was about to appear on. John Freeman, who was a moderator, joined us when he arrived, and we had a quick coffee.
These are the literary moments that were common before COVID, when writers were free to roam the universe. As we connected recently via email, I asked how her teaching at Princeton was going, was she on Zoom? Was she writing more? Less? Her answer was a surprise: “I am really lucky to be on leave this academic year and have divided the time between my living room in Princeton and writing residencies. I am currently at the James Merrill House, surrounded by his books and sitting at the table where he and his partner conjured spirits with their Ouija board. The writing has been up and down—it’s been a tumultuous year—but the spirits are great company!”
Jane Ciabattari: When did you decide you wanted to become a writer? How have literary communities nurtured your work?
Kirstin Valdez Quade: I was always a big reader, and I think I announced early on that I wanted to be a writer. Which does not mean that I actually wrote! I still have childhood journals with just a couple pages filled in. Then, as now, writing felt scary, and I would get discouraged if my handwriting was crooked. Now when I get a new journal, I open it randomly and scribble on one page, so it’s ruined and I am free to write whatever I want.
Being a part of literary communities—starting in my first college creative writing class—has been beyond sustaining. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have wonderful, supportive writers around me, friends whose work I adore and judgements I trust.
JC: How did your winning the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, 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 being a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award for your collection Night at the Fiestas affect your writing life?
KVQ: These were really lovely affirmations, and the faith in my work continues to mean a great deal to me. It doesn’t always save me from despair when the writing isn’t going well, but remembering that smart, thoughtful people believed in my work can help.
JC: The short story “The Five Wounds,” first published in The New Yorker in 2009, was a standout in Night at the Fiestas. You’ve adapted it to become the first chapter of The Five Wounds, and built it into a multigenerational novel. Can you describe the inspiration and process through which you did that?
KVQ: After the story was published, my editor asked if I’d considered extending it into a novel, and I dismissed the idea. It felt complete and finished to me, and I was engaged with other stories. A couple years later, however, as I surveyed some story drafts that weren’t really going anywhere, I realized that they all dealt with the same basic family dynamics: a codependent mother and her adult son and his estranged daughter. It occurred to me that there was something about these characters that still compelled me. I had that summer off from teaching and decided that I would give a novel a shot. As I spent more time with Amadeo, Angel, and Yolanda, I found that I was only more curious about them, and also about their family history and their communities.
I initially had trouble seeing the story as something mutable—after so many revisions it had taken on a quality of permanence that got in the way of this new story I was exploring. It was such a relief when I finally did break it apart and allowed some elements of the story to fall away, leaving room for other tensions to emerge.
JC: Did you draw in part on your family roots in Northern New Mexico to write about multiple generations of the Padilla family?
KVD: My own family, like the Padillas, has a long history in New Mexico, and my own sense of family has been very multigenerational. My great-grandmother used to care for me while my mother worked, and I’ve always been close to my grandparents and great-aunt. I’ve always had a real sense that I can almost, but not quite, touch the past. My great-grandmother was born in 1898, fourteen years before New Mexico was a state. It’s still astonishing that I was so close to someone who’d inhabited such a different world. The elders in my family have been more or less tolerant of my many, many questions, but there have always been gaps in their stories—things they don’t remember, things they withhold, things they don’t understand—that I can only fill imaginatively.
JC: You open the novel in the days leading up to the annual Easter ritual in which the lay Catholic sect of Penitentes reenact the crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla’s grand-tio Tive, the Hermano Mayor, has chosen him to be Jesus. Amadeo is “not a man with ambition;” he also struggles with a drinking problem. The year he faces will challenge him in unexpected ways. How did you build the scenes around this Good Friday ceremony in the fictional village of Las Penas? What are the five wounds of your title?
KVQ: The five wounds of the title refer to the wounds that Christ suffered on the cross: the nail holes in each of his hands and feet, and the stab in his side. The title also gestures to the wounds that the characters suffer and inflict, and the wounds of history that exert pressure on them.
As a child, I was an enthusiastic mass attendee, and I remain attached to Catholic ritual: the liturgy, the processions, the reenactments. I’m really interested in public demonstrations of faith. They can be such beautiful affirmations of community and community values. But I know from my own experience—playing the Virgin Mary carrying a heavy plaster baby Jesus up the aisle toward the manger, say, or processing a banner through the streets of Santa Fe with my grandmother and her Altar Society friends—that an element of performance can slip in. I remember being a kid, peering out modestly from under my veil and thinking, “I am the star!” Amadeo believes that his role of Jesus will transform him, and he throws himself into it—but he gets swept away by his performance and loses track of the point of the story.
JC: Amadeo’s daughter Angel, who lives in nearby Española, is pregnant and living in a group setting at Smart Starts!, a teen parenting and high school equivalency program. How did you research details of this program?
KVQ: My mother is a therapist and has lead groups for teen parents. I remember being a teenager and reading the curriculum binder for her teen fathers group, and how struck I was by the enormous responsibilities being carried by kids my age. Later, when I worked as a grant-writer at the United Way of Tucson for a consortium of nonprofits working to improve early childhood education, I did a site visit to a teen parent program. I was so impressed by the maturity and youth of these mothers, and by how seriously they were taking their learning. It was then that the character of Angel began to take shape. Later, as Smart Starts! became a bigger part of The Five Wounds, I researched curriculums more deliberately and visited other programs for teen mothers, both for research and also as an invited visiting writer.
JC: Amadeo lives with his mother Yolanda, who supports him, and who also takes in Angel when she is bounced from the Smart Starts! program. In the course of the year you write about, Yolanda is in the final months of her life, suffering from brain cancer, and Angel becomes her closest caretaker. What was your approach in weaving together this family’s tight-knit connections and their conflicts?
KVQ: Each character is, to an extent, two characters: the person they are in the family dynamic and the person they are outside the home. Every action—every barbed comment made at the Easter dinner, for example—affects everyone else in the family. Yet the characters each also deal with a private drama that they withhold from their family members. These private dramas, while unspoken, also shift the balance in the home. As I wrote, I tried to follow the ripples of each choice the characters made.The five wounds of the title refer to the wounds that Christ suffered on the cross: the nail holes in each of his hands and feet, and the stab in his side.
JC: While teaching at Taos Writers’ Conference one year, I visited Chimayo with a friend who lived nearby; he told me about the epidemic of heroin use in Northern New Mexico. Angel’s friend Lizette turns to chiva, or heroin, as do many others in multiple generations in this community. How difficult is it to write about characters with addictions?
KVQ: In the last several years, there’s finally been more attention paid to the many communities in our country that have been harmed by opioids and by the pharmaceutical companies that have encouraged and been enriched by that deep suffering. But there still aren’t nearly enough resources to help communities recover. Angela Garcia’s The Pastoral Clinicis a really moving study of heroin addiction in the region.
I did find writing about addiction difficult. Addiction is so hard to witness and to be close to—it must be brutal to suffer from it—and it casts a long shadow through families. At points, especially when I was immersed in Amadeo’s perspective, I found writing from within that illness claustrophobic.
JC: You write extended scenes of a birth and of a death in The Five Wounds. Which was more daunting?
KVQ: Both required imagination, since I have neither given birth nor died—yet! I would say that writing the death scene was more emotionally daunting because I drew on the deaths of people I love. But writing the death scene was also a sad pleasure, because I got to give this character I had come to love the death that I wanted for her.
JC: What are you working on now?
KVQ: I am back to working on stories and working my way around the edges of a larger project. It still feels too fragile to talk about!
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade is available now via W. W. Norton & Company.