Interview by Jeremy Tow
Jamie Quatro’s debut collection, I Want To Show You More (Grove) is a New York Times Notable Book, NPR Best Book of 2013 and New York Times Editors’ Choice. Quatro’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. Her stories are also anthologized in the O.Henry Prize Stories 2013 and in the 2015 Norton Anthology Mix. She is an active runner, a mother, a former classical pianist and conflicted social media user.
Jeremy Tow: I read your Ploughshares article on why you have not joined Twitter and I think we can all relate to how distracting social networking can be, especially for us writers. What advice would you give aspiring authors who run into the constant distractions of Facebook, Twitter and other websites?
Jaime Quatro: I actually wrote a second post for Ploughshares addressing that very question: “How Do You Get Past the Sirens?” I talk about Odysseus and Jason, their different methods of surviving the allure of the siren-song /Internet. Odysseus used directives: Stop up your ears with beeswax, boys. Strap me to the mast, let me hear their voices. Don’t untie me, no matter how much I beg. For me—because of my compulsive/addictive nature— Odysseus methods are necessary evils. I turn off my wireless router when I’m working at home; I write in my car (smart phone at home, or at least silenced and buried in my bag) or someplace with no wireless, if such places exist anymore; I write longhand, away from my computer; I ask my husband to change my social network passwords; I install software like Freedom or Anti-social.
The Jason method, though, is the preferable one. You’ll remember Chiron tells Jason he won’t make it past the Sirens without the help of the musician Orpheus, so Jason takes Orpheus along. When Orpheus hears the first faint sounds of the Sirens, he begins to play his lyre. He literally drowns out the inferior song with an aesthetically superior one. For me, the Jason method is simplest and best: I read a (bound) book, listen to the music of the Great Ones: Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Wordsworth, Dickens, Tolstoy, Faulkner. Immersing myself in such literature helps me avoid the paltry, counter-productive (let’s be honest: destructive) call of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, etc.
For the record, I’m still not on Twitter. And I’m still tempted, often, to join.
Growing up as a classical pianist, did any habits of practice and dedication transition from music to your writing craft?
Here’s where I wish I could say: Just as I used to practice daily for 3-4 hours, I now write daily for 3-4 hours. But the piano discipline hasn’t translated to my writing life. I tend to write in intense bursts. When I’ve got something going I’ll get lost in it for days. Toward the end I’ll push to finish, going to a cafe and working 12 hours, overdosing on coffee. Then I’ll take a break from writing for awhile—or I’ll switch to writing in a different genre, work on a critical piece or an essay—until I’m ready to start the next thing.
There is a habit I’ve retained from my classical training, an unhelpful one: the need to perfect as I go. As soon as I start typing on the computer, I get stuck at the sentence level, line-editing. This is detrimental to the free-flowing creative process. When I draft, I have to allow for mess, just throw paint at the canvas and see what emerges. This is why I draft longhand. But as a pianist, when you come to a new piece—a Beethoven sonata, Bach Invention—the last thing in the world you should do is learn it all the way through—sloppily—and perfect it later. The horror. Any classically trained pianist knows that you approach a piece at the micro level, paying close attention to phrasing and technique, before you bring it up to speed. Only after you’ve practiced a piece with precision— only when you’ve perfected it at the technical level—do you “let go” and allow yourself to bend some rules, to insert passion, feeling. Sweetness and light in piano performance don’t come without heavy, slow, pedantic practice: scales and arpeggios, Hanon and Czerny. In college, my piano instructor made me practice Chopin with a metronome because I was exaggerating the ritardandos, playing with too much rubato. You can’t play rubato— “rob” the note values in the name of expression—until you’ve honored the precision of the timing. Learn the rules before you break them.
Anyhow, it’s the precise opposite from the writing process, where you feel first, you’re messy first, you perfect later. Spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. It’s a debilitating disconnect, one I’ve had to overcome.
What kind of music are you currently listening to? Who are your favorite classical composers?
The classical composers I listen to are different from the composers I like to play. I can’t get enough of listening to Bach, but I find playing him such a challenge technically that I shy away from it. The intricacy of fingering and precision of phrasing is just incredibly demanding. Learning a new Bach piece feels like doing math. I’ve been working on an Allemande from the French Suites for two years and I’d still be embarrassed to play it for anyone. But to listen to someone like Gould play Bach? That I can do for hours. Bach is creatively propelling. Other favorite composers: Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev. For practice on the piano: Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy.
Beyond classical, I listen to everything but country and metal. (Though every summer, usually when it’s just starting to get hot, I have a fling with country music that wears off in about a week. It’s the South. It happens to the best of us.) I’ve got Spotify and, you know—the variety is endless. I’ll browse by mood: Favorite Coffeehouse playlist for mornings, Young, Wild and Free playlist for running. Or Kanye and Beyonce for running. My girls are Taylor Swift fans, 1989 is in our Cloud, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve grown a bit addicted to some of those songs.
As a runner: do you find yourself coming up with new ideas for stories, or re-working old ones, while running? How does your running schedule correlate to your writing schedule?
What I do when I run is more akin to editing than to inventing. If I’ve spent the morning writing and go out for a run when I finish, I’ll find myself retracing narrative steps, solving story problems. But I have to let go first, mentally, before this can happen. If I say to myself: I’m going to take a run and figure out what to do with this scene, it won’t work. I have to lose myself in the physical—the breath, pain in my legs, fresh air and passing scenery—in order to enter and access the creative space. It’s a delicate dance. Like telling yourself not to look directly at something because you want to see it more clearly.
I am fascinated by your short story “Sinkhole” in which a young man experiences an exorcism and loss-of-virginity at church camp. In another interview you said “there’s something inherently erotic about the way we’re supposed to think about God and the way he thinks about us.” How did you arrive to these themes of sexuality and religion for this particular story? Have you ever witnessed an exorcism?
I have never witnessed an exorcism. When I started writing “Sinkhole,” I wasn’t sure how exorcisms were done, or even if they’re done anymore. I knew I wanted to write a combination sex/exorcism scene (and why I wanted to do that I’ll never know. I don’t want to probe too deeply into the “where do story ideas come from” question. The interplay of the conscious and subconscious; the external world of image and object and the internal imagination of the writer; the way the universe seems to adapt itself to you, the artist, when you’re working on something, becoming almost complicit in the effort—throwing perfect bits of dialogue and image into your path, like gifts from the Divine…) Anyhow, exorcism. Why did I want to go there? It seems the bizarre terrain of biblical narrative—all that casting-out-of-demons in the gospels—and horror film. Then I started researching the Catholic rite, and realized with despair that I wouldn’t be able to write my scene, because—duh— only a priest can do an exorcism and priests can’t have sex. But a “faith healing?” Well, maybe I could do that.
As for the themes in the story: that’s not something I think about, when I’m drafting. In fact I’d say it’s inimical to the creative process to try to work in “themes” as you draft. They will— must— emerge organically. Trying to force themes into your stories is like trying to force someone to love you. It won’t work, anything you get out of the effort will be false. The seams will be visible to anyone who looks. My children are in middle and high school, and will come to me and say “Here is the theme our teacher gave us, what should my thesis statement be?” I struggle with that approach to teaching writing (though I understand the reasons for it, especially in the early grades). I always want to say: just start writing. Put your head down and go. See what emerges. Don’t make an outline and try to figure it all out in advance. You know the famous E.M. Forster quote: How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
How did you feel after publishing your first collection of stories, I Want To Show You More? When do you know that a story is done with revision and is indeed finished?
I felt an enormous amount of satisfaction when the book came out. Whatever else happened, I’d accomplished something I’d long wanted to do. I felt pleased and grateful when reviews were positive. But the deep joy, related to this work—that penetrating, widening sense of contentment—that comes only in the act of writing itself. No publication, no review, no glowing letter of praise can match the abiding pleasure of sitting down, in utter loneliness, and dreaming music onto the blank page.
How do I know when a story is done? I don’t. When I’m sick of it—when I’ve done everything I can think to do, when the story begins to sound like a song I’ve listened to so many times I hate it — I’ll send it to a few trusted readers with an apologetic note: I know this is complete shit, belongs in the rubbish bin, but would you mind giving it a look, just to confirm my suspicions, I owe you one, etc. I don’t know why I get myself into that place, but I almost always do. And I actually never stop revising, not even after a story is published. I’m still revising my collection. On book tour, every time I gave a public reading I’d tweak a word here, cut a sentence there. I think now, finally, a year after the paperback came out, I’ve got every word exactly the way I want it.
In our graduate fiction workshop we discussed the various “shapes” of stories. Do you think about a story’s shape, or length, before you begin to write it? Do you know you will be writing a short story when you start one, or does the story find its own shape on the page?
The answer to this varies, story to story, book to book. If I were a poet, I imagine my answer would be something like this: Certain poems demand the rigor of form, they come to the poet and ask to be sestinas or sonnets; others arrive and must be allowed to emerge in free verse. I think prose works the same way. Some stories begin with a single sentence. That’s all you have. But the music of that initial sentence carries you into a second sentence, and from there— with the music beginning to dictate its own sound and rhythm—you’re able to hear a third sentence. The shape emerges from those nascent sounds. Other stories—I’m thinking of one I have coming out in the Oxford American this fall, called “Kyrie, With Endnotes”— come with a kind of shape already in place. “Kyrie” takes the structure of a liturgical musical form, the Kyrie Eleison, with its repetition of “Lord, have mercy” and ternary structure.
Of course, you have to be prepared to accept the fact that your shape, formally, may turn out to be only scaffolding. You may write an entire novel using the structure of the Book of Psalms only to discover you have to dismantle that structure in the rewrite. But the scaffolding was what you needed to stand on, the support system that got you to the rewrite. It wasn’t wasted energy.
Jeremy Tow is a MA student at Texas Tech University studying creative writing– fiction. His work has been published through Texas Tech University.