Jamie Quatro, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
Jamie Quatro’s brilliant debut story collection is titled I Want To Show You More, and it does just that—shows us more than we knew about desire and faith and infidelity and forbearing. Set around Lookout Mountain on the border of Georgia and Tennessee, these fifteen stories are at once deeply rooted in place and universal in their portrayal of our most intimate concerns.
In this email interview, Quatro talks about everything from musket balls in the back yard to decoding a kid’s phone message to the question she’d like to ask Barry Hannah:
At the risk of annoying you, let’s start with the Southern question. Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? A chronicler of “the new South?” How do you even define that?
That is the question, isn’t it? If you define “Southern writer” as one with deep ancestral roots in the south, or at least one born and raised here, then I don’t qualify. I’m from the West, born in California, raised in Arizona. But if you loosen those terms, if a “Southern writer” is one who deals in some fashion with topics that have historically defined Southern literature—religion, the grotesque/gothic, racial tension, the Civil War—then I do think the term begins to apply. Eudora Welty’s parents weren’t from the South, and it seemed to give her a certain detachment from her own Southern landscape that served her work. I think that when you move to a particular region from elsewhere, you have a kind of clear-eyed vision about what makes that region distinctive. For example, Lookout Mountain natives take it as a matter of course that children unearth Civil War canteens and belt buckles and musket balls when they dig in the backyard. I’m still awed by this. I think about what’s buried here every time I’m out running, passing the Civil War plaques and monuments, the canons in front yards. There’s a visceral presence to history here; we live in palimpsest, the record of struggle and defeat literally inches beneath our feet. In our rapidly homogenizing America—what I think of as the Walmartization of our country—perhaps those of us who are transplants can help preserve regional distinctiveness in unique and important ways.
A central concern of this collection is subverted desire, both sexual and spiritual. In these stories, sexuality and divinity are at once entwined and at odds with each other. Can you speak to that?
I’m often flummoxed by religious strictures on sexual behavior on the one hand and the rampant scriptural use of sexual image and metaphor on the other. It seems there’s something inherently erotic about the way we’re supposed to think about God (bridegroom; unless you consume me, you have no part in me) and the way he thinks about us (the return of Christ as “consummation,” the church as his Bride, etcetera). Many would say the two are mutually exclusive—that sexual love (Eros) is tied to flesh, love for God (Charity) to spirit—but I’m convinced they’re very closely aligned. Of course this alignment has been distorted and subverted in a myriad of ways, and I find this endlessly fascinating and worthy of exploration.
You’re pitch perfect on the everyday details of motherhood. Long ago, I was infuriated by my college edition of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, in which the bio note for Tillie Olsen stated that she had been silenced for decades because she’d had to raise children. To me it seemed that the raising of children had given her a kind of clear-sightedness and profundity that pervaded everything she wrote. I see the same thing in your writing. But ‘fess up—do you ever steal lines from your kids? Gestures? Is it hard to write kids without modeling them on your own?
You know, after I read your question, I went back and looked through my stories with characters who are children. And with the exception of a single line (hint: jellyfish/jar), I made up all the dialogue. That said: Yes, I’m stealing. But it’s more the sound of their speech—the syntax, the slang—and the psychology of a child at a given age (how would a four-year-old respond to a dead body versus a twelve-year-old) that I’m drawing from. It helps to have four; I have access to a large range of interests and ages. A good friend of mine who writes YA novels, Dayna Lorentz, will often call and say, “I need current slang. Put one of your kids on.”
The collection is cohesive without feeling like it wanted to be a novel. Did you know when you started that you were composing a collection?
When I started I didn’t even know I was writing something that would ever make it into print! I wasn’t thinking about a book at all until most of the stories were finished. My biggest hope, all along, was to get a story published somewhere. The first acceptance came from Robert Fogarty at The Antioch Review in 2009. He’s one of the few who still makes phone calls to accept stories. My son, who was eight at the time, took the call and wrote down the message. I’ve kept the little piece of paper he wrote on. It says: “Robet. Antick.” And then a phone number. There’s a freedom to being in that place, working one story to the next, not thinking too much about the larger scope. I hope I can retain some of that freedom, working on the next project.
Which was the hardest story to write, and why?
This one’s easy: “Demolition.” It took a full year, working almost daily. I started writing it at MacDowell in 2009 and finished the first draft a year later, at Yaddo. I sat at the desk in the Ted Hughes studio (connected to my bedroom, which he and Plath shared; imagine trying to sleep at night!) and wrestled. It grew to over 15,000 words, unwieldy, maddening. After a week I decided to give up on it. I threw the draft pages into the physical trash, dragged the virtual pages into the digital trash. Then I went for a run into Saratoga Springs, and—this is somewhat mystical—passed two churches with gorgeous stained glass windows. One had been converted into condos; the other was vacant and scheduled for demolition. I literally sprinted back to my studio. I knew I had to finish. Eventually, my agent helped me pare the story down to a manageable length. I did go back and get the long version out of the trash. I think of it as my Director’s Cut.
If you could have coffee with any writer, living or dead, who would it be?
Living: Alice Munro. Dead: Barry Hannah. The first thing I’d ask him: So where are you hiding the gun?
Photo by Kristen Brock
Jamie Quatro's debut collection is I Want to Show You More. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Tin House, McSweeney's, Oxford American, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. A finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the winner of the 2011 American Short Fiction Story Contest, she is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and was the Georges and Anne Borchardt Scholar at the 2011 Sewanee Writers' Conference. She holds graduate degrees from the College of William and Mary and Bennington College, and lives with her husband and children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.