"Carving the Story Very Close to the Bone": An Interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade

Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas, which was a New York Times Notable Book and received a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation and the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the 2013 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. Beginning in 2016, she will be an assistant professor at Princeton University.

Her story, "Flight," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Kirstin Valdez Quade talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about siblings, humor, and chickens.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Flight”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

This story had its seed in a detail a friend told me about frozen chickens being used to test plane engines. The image delighted me; I loved the absurdity of a naked, pocky, raw chicken having any place in the high stakes world of aviation engineering,

I also couldn’t help thinking about the horror of live birds being sucked into engines—and the more appalling horror of a bird possibly taking the plane down. I’m sitting on a plane as I write this, so actually I might just stop right there.

Your sense of humor shines through in this story, from the central image of frozen birds chucked into a plane engine to the mother’s statements such as “There’s physics involved.” How do you balance levity with serious subjects like family tensions and alcoholism? What’s the importance of humor in a story like this?

In my experience, humor and pathos go hand in hand. Even in the darkest periods of our lives—maybe especially in those dark periods—there are moments of absurdity and humor. In this story, the mother’s hope is misplaced, and absurd, maybe, but it’s also an expression of her love for her son, which I have to admire.

My favorite writers are very funny about incredibly painful material: Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, and George Saunders come to mind. Flannery O’Connor keeps you laughing until the moment everything turns and your heart snaps in two.

Despite its richness of detail and insight into the characters’ histories, the entire story contains fewer than 500 words. How do you achieve this economy of language? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to write with such brevity?

I tend to write long stories, to delve into backstory and follow digressions, so this piece was a challenge for me. I always intended the story to be a short-short, and from the beginning I treated it as an exercise in compression. My initial draft was maybe a couple hundred words longer. I enjoyed the process of carving the story very close to the bone, of cutting out any language that was limp or extraneous.

In the final paragraph, the narrator is approaching her/his brother, and the story ends before they make contact. How did you decide that the story should end in this moment on the cusp of an event? Why does the reader never get to see the narrator interact with the brother whom s/he says so much about?

If the story were longer, I would certainly be interested in seeing how these adult siblings interact. I imagine their relationship is strained by judgments and resentments and jealousies—and that there’s a lot of love between them, too. I imagine these tensions lie just under the surface and that they have to constantly navigate them as they speak to each other.

This particular story, however, isn’t about their relationship, not really. Rather, the story is about how the sister thinks and speaks about her brother, who is, on some level, lost to her. She judges him, yes, but she misses him, too, which is why she imagines him so closely. Imagining him a year down the road in his coveralls, sticking with his classes, getting his license—it’s an expression of hope that he’ll get his life together.

It occurs to me now that the title doesn’t just refer to the flight of the chickens and planes, or of her brother’s aspirations, but also to the speaker’s own flight of imagination.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m at work on a novel, which also deals with tensions between siblings. I’m superstitious about talking about work in progress, but it centers on a family in New Mexico

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I just finished Tessa Hadley’s The Past. It’s a gorgeous book—Hadley is so incredibly observant of her characters. Her prose is sharp, patient, and darkly funny. As I read, I kept experiencing that exhilarating cocktail of envy and admiration. I want to write like that.