Chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013, and New York Times Editors’ Choice, Jamie Quatro’s debut collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More, was received with overwhelmingly positive critical reception. The fiction writer, poet, and essayist will release her first novel, Fire Sermon, in early 2018 and a new collection of stories later that year. The Porch is proud to host her for a reading and workshop this spring. In advance, Quatro was kind enough to answer a few questions about sex, spirituality, and setting. —Hannah Fowler, Porch Spring 2017 intern
How does place inform your writing, and to what degree do you feel connected to region as a writer?
When my last book came out, I was often asked, Do you consider yourself a southern writer? We’ve lived in the South for twelve years now, and have raised four children here, but my answer is still: yes and no. If you define a “southern writer” as one with deep ancestral roots in the south, I don’t qualify. I was born in California and raised in Arizona. But 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’m a southern writer, no question.
When writing I Want to Show You More, did you set out to explore the intersections of faith and sexuality, or was that something that happened more or less organically?
I didn’t set out to explore anything! I didn’t even know I was writing a book. I knew something needed to be said, though I didn’t know what it was, or how I would say it. I just re-read the Paris Review interview with T.S. Eliot, and I love what he says about authorial intention: “One wants to get something off one’s chest. One doesn’t know quite what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one’s got it off.” It wasn’t until I had this little body of stories that I was able to sit back and realize there might be some thematic links, including the intersection of the sacred and sexual.
How does your writing process differ when working on a novel versus writing short fiction? Specifically, how do you know when an idea for a story will expand into a novel or when it will fit best into a shorter piece?
I don’t know how to talk about “process,” or if it’s a useful thing to discuss. Stories, novels, essays – they all emerge sentence by sentence. Everything happens on the page. The “process” of writing feels, to me, as much like listening as it does composing. When someone asks, How do I become a writer, what is the process? I usually say: read. Immerse yourself in great sentences, in poetry. Start with Shakespeare. That said: somehow, running is part of my process. I often work out narrative problems during that open-brain/endorphin hit of a long run. Playing the piano opens up that same space. Prayer, too, plays a part — the paying-attention kind of prayer. And human interaction, away from the writing desk, is essential to me. The longer I do this work, the more I realize how important the work/life balance is, not just to my mental health, but to the health of my art.
How do I know if something is a novel? I started writing a story about a backwoods prophet and got to 60 pages and realized I wasn’t even close to the middle, and I was going to need a lot more real estate. And then this new novel hijacked the first. I wrote it in secret while I was under contract for the prophet novel. I was cheating on the contracted novel. I told no one. It felt dangerous and rebellious and I had no idea that it would become a sell-able book, or even anything I could show anyone. When I was 100 pages into cheating, I decided to “confess" to my agent and editor, and see what they thought about the material. They both said to keep up the affair.
What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel Fire Sermon?
It’s about—what else?—God and sex and marriage and infidelity. A physical affair this time. (I suppose it makes sense, given that the writing of it was a torrid adulterous fling.) I can tell you it’s quite short—you can read it in one or two sittings—and it’s partially set in Nashville.
What will you be teaching at the Sewanee School of Letters this summer, and what works might you assign to your students? How do you go about that selection process?
Initially I was going to teach a literature course, Faith and Fiction: Religious Themes in the Short Story. But things shifted around with faculty appointments, so I’ll be facilitating a traditional fiction workshop instead. It won’t be as text-heavy, obviously. I’ll likely have two or three books on the syllabus: a short story anthology (I like the Paris Review anthology, Object Lessons) and one or two short novels. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets for sure, and maybe Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Since I’ve just written a short novel myself, I’m excited to talk about the possibilities and limitations of the form.