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A conversation with Jamie Quatro

2013 03 01 Ballou Quatro

Jamie Quatro’s debut story collection, I Want To Show You More, will be published this March by Grove Press. Her stories are uncensored, sometimes eccentric explorations of life—its darkness and brilliance—written in a voice that David Means describes as “bright, sharp, startling, utterly distinctive, passionate, and secretive." Quatro writes from Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where she lives with her husband, Scott, and their children. Her story “Wavefunction Collapse” appears in the Spring 2013 issue of the Oxford American. 

How do you spend your days?

A good day would be a simple one, and would include: early morning wake-up, coffee, two to three hours of writing (fiction, new words), hot yoga class or a run with the dog, time reading aloud to at least one of my children, dinner with all six of us around the table, fire in the fireplace in winter, after-dinner walk with Scott in spring/summer, time to practice the piano, a great book before bed. 

A not-so-good day: no writing, no exercise, and very little family time. Those days are more frequent than I'd like.

A bad day would be the same as a not-so-good day, plus: no coffee. The horror. This happened once, during an ice storm. When the roads ice over, we're trapped up here on Lookout Mountain. Thank goodness a neighbor with a generator brewed pots of it and carried them house to house, filling mugs on doorsteps. Southern hospitality on speed. 

I read an "Art of the Sentence" piece you wrote for Tin House a couple of years ago, in which you analyzed one of Denis Johnson's sentences. I was stunned by the sentence, too, and especially by its musicality, which you commented on. You mention classical music in your stories, and the piano seems especially present, but you've also written about the underappreciated yet sometimes genius alt-country band The Hilltops. How does music inform your writing and vice versa? 

I think an acutely musical sensibility should be beneath every story that makes it into print. The words and sentences alone, black marks on the white page, stimulate the eye and intellect; the sound beneath the marks—the pulse or cadence bubbling and surfacing up through the words, expanding outward—that's what gets to the level of the heart, cracks open the soul. The best lyrical prose does this: a particular quality of sound, operating through the language, makes me feel the elemental things—desire, grief, joy. I remember playing Debussy's Claire de Lune for my piano teacher when I was about fifteen. I played it without making a single mistake, and when I finished I expected praise. The teacher said: "Well done. I didn't hear a mistake. I didn't hear a note of music, either." I think about stories this way. A piece can have grammatically correct sentences and a clean narrative arc and interesting characters, but if the language itself lacks a musical quality, in the end it isn't literature. It's false, somehow. Conversely, you can have a wild, idiomatic grammatical sense and no narrative arc, but if there's music—if, as Allan Gurganus says of Barry Hannah, there's "not a mark that hasn't first been sung aloud at three a.m. beside some river at a hunting camp"—the story can still be deeply, profoundly true.

This is why the short story appeals to me, why I keep finding myself working in the medium. The compression of the form lends itself—almost demands—a kind of lyricism. Of course by lyricism I mean anything from the staccato phrases of, say, Carver and Hemingway to the more legato, sustained sentences of Woolf and Faulkner. The best writers are linguistic musicians. Among contemporary storywriters, I think of Christine Schutt, Amy Hempel, Alice Munro, Denis Johnson (as you point out). David Means has one of the most musically driven voices of anyone working in the form today; I read certain Means stories over and over the way I listen to certain songs. In fact, his story "Counterparts" in The Secret Goldfish was the inspiration behind "Wavefunction Collapse."

You have to have more than an ear, of course. The inner eye has to be working as well, informing what the ear decides to play, how it should be played. And what's best left un-played. I mean making dynamic use of white space; as Faulkner said, the “thunder and the music of the prose take place in silence.” Last night we went to a piano trio at the Hunter Art Museum. They played Dvorak's E minor "Dumky" suite. Before they began, the violinist, Philip Setzer, talked about how Dvorak's later pieces use fewer notes, but are in fact much more difficult to play. He pointed to the paintings all around us and said, "Think of it this way: Dvorak leaves large portions of his canvas white." I think we sometimes forget, in our frenetically paced lives, how the locus of emotion is in the white space, the silence. Saul Bellow said, "I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything." He said that in 1966.

You’ve lived in the West and the South; you traded academia for the writing life; you’re a mother and a wife, but you’re also an artist; and your current home is on the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Do these physical categories, and your migration between them, influence how you write and what you write about? Do you see yourself as writing within a literary tradition, or are you creating something new, or does it matter?

Living on a literal state line, I’ve become hyperaware of how border towns are places of both confluence and division. Lookout Mountain is one town—unless you live here, it’s hard to know, walking around, which state you’re in at any given moment—so there’s a good deal of merger: we share the Commons Park, the Lookout Mountain Recreation League, the annual baseball parade. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the ways in which we’re divided: if you live on the Tennessee side, you don’t have to pay state income tax, but you do have to keep your dog on a leash. The Georgia dogs run free. You can raise chickens on the Tennessee side but not on the Georgia side, unless you have five-plus acres. There’s an elementary school for the kids on the Georgia side, one for the kids on the Tennessee side; the children living across the street from you might go to a different elementary school. Both sides claim their school is superior. On it goes. It’s rich territory, and I do explore this geographic division in my fiction.

And I think the coexistence of opposites that you find along borders—the constant interplay of merger and division—characterizes many of the more intangible aspects of my life. Am I a mother who writes, or a writer who mothers? The answer changes day to day, and is, at its root, a matter of self-perception. The academic/creative divide is also an important one for me. Because of my graduate studies in literature, I find myself thinking critically about texts even as I’m inspired by them, creatively. I think fiction writers should be willing to engage critically with other texts, and write about them, with some kind of grasp of literary history. I’m flummoxed when I talk to writers who’ve read all their contemporaries but have never read Milton or Wordsworth or Dickens.

As for my participation in a particular literary tradition, that certainly isn’t for me to say! I hope I’ve gotten some truths onto the page in this first book; I hope I can keep doing it. That’s the best I can hope for.

What’s the most difficult part about writing a short story, for you?

Sitting down to face the page each day, I think of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, looking at her canvas, brush in hand, struggling “to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.” That’s what writing a story feels like. The minute I take pen in hand, so to speak, I become sensible, all over again, of my own inadequacy to capture the vision, the perfect gleaming entity that will only ever exist in my head. This is why the act of writing is, for me, very much an act of faith: a stepping into something despite massive fear and doubt and certain failure. That sounds a bit dramatic, but there it is.

And even after a story is accepted for publication, I’ll keep revising until a kindly editor sends proofs with a note: You can correct typos, but NO SUBSTANTIVE CHANGES. They really do have to sort of all-caps shout at me, or I will continue to change things. Substantively.

There’s a sense of catharsis in your stories, which together remind me of something the poet George Garrett used to say: writing is literature if it carries “news of the spirit.” Many of your characters strike me as profoundly vulnerable, and emotional. Thus they’re open to grace and the possibility of transformation, but they’re also susceptible to outside judgment. Do you have any trepidation about releasing them to the world, in a collection?

Perhaps no more trepidation than any writer with a first book coming out. I suppose you do worry about your work being misread or misunderstood—by critics, by friends and family. Flannery O’Connor said that, on the one hand, she was conscious of writing for a secular audience who thought her Catholic belief in the Incarnation foolish and antiquated; on the other, she knew the majority of her Catholic audience thought her stories obscene. A priest, writing for a Kansas City newspaper, called them “technically excellent, spiritually empty.” In effect, she was misunderstood by both sides. If I have any trepidation, it might be along those lines. Then again, I’m not sure the kind of folks who would find my work obscene will be perusing the literary fiction shelves.

What’s next for you?

I’m interested in writing more criticism, with an eye toward the intersection of theology and literature. And I’ve got another collection in the works, a linked series of stories about characters waiting for the “rapture.” I use quotes because the word rapture is never used in the English translation of the New Testament. I’m fascinated by the ways in which eschatological understanding—what people believe or don’t believe about the end of the world—informs social responsibility. A character who is a Reformed amillennialist—who believes humans are here to tend and help renew and restore the planet to its original, “unfallen” state in anticipation of the second coming and consummation—will have very different views on issues like climate change and environmental stewardship than, say, a premillennial dispensationalist, who thinks the planet’s ultimate destiny is annihilation by fire. I mean, if you really believe that, why bother recycling?

What are you reading currently?

On my nightstand: George Saunders’s Tenth of December, which I just finished (and loved); Woolf’s The Waves, which I’ve never read (and which so far makes the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury read like a Dick & Jane primer); Sharon Olds’s new poetry collection Stag’s Leap (breaking my heart); and a volume of The Paris Review Interviews. Listen to this, from García Márquez: “On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.” Four or five lines! Something to remember on my not-so-good days.

Jullianne Ballou

Jullianne Ballou lives and works in Austin, Texas.