STONINGTON — Kirstin Valdez Quade wasn’t planning to write a novel but a few characters from her short stories wouldn’t let her go.
One of her short stories, “The Five Wounds,” was published in the New Yorker in 2009 and was included in her collection of short stories, “Night at the Fiestas,” in 2014.
“My editor emailed me and asked if I’d ever considered turning [the story] into a novel and my immediate thought was absolutely not and I think I wrote something back saying thank you so much for the idea but no, I’m working on short stories,” she said.
About a year later she happened to look at drafts of a few different stories that were in progress and realized the same constellation of characters with similar family dynamics were appearing in various forms.
“I thought, whoa, maybe I’m actually working on a novel — clearly these characters have not let go of me and clearly I’m still really interested and invested,” she said. “At that point, I thought, well, I’ll give it a try. I had the summer off from teaching and I decided that I’d just write that summer to see what I could do with it.”
By the end of the summer, she was even more interested in the characters and had a “sense of the horizon” of her novel, “The Five Wounds,” which is due out on April 6.
“People are so mysterious and characters are too. I’m really interested in sort of digging into that, into why they behave the way they behave and why they have the defenses they have,” she said.
Quade writes her stories by spending time with a character and does not know where the story will go when she begins.
“Maybe I’ll have a glimmer of an idea, maybe I’ll have a final scene, or I’ll have a sense of a basic emotional arc, but for the most part I have no idea what’s going to happen in the story,” she said.
Characters may lead her down paths that later don’t work with the overall story, she said.
“I have to cut those scenes and then follow another path. Often I’ll get to what I think is the end of the story and I’ll realize that actually the second half of the story isn’t the correct ending and so I have to cut that away and go back and see where the characters are actually leading me,” she said.
Hers is an organic style of writing rather than a linear one.
“I have only once had the story mapped out in my mind before I started and that was in graduate school. It was a dream and I woke up from it and I wrote it out, and it wasn’t a very good story,” she said. “It wasn’t fun to write because I already knew what was going to happen.”
Quade joined the faculty of creative writing at Princeton University in 2016. She teaches a range of courses, from introductory to advanced, as well as thesis students. She earned her BA from Stanford University and her MFA from University of Oregon.
“When I’m teaching beginning writers, I really start at the beginning, literally. On the first day we look at the openings of stories and talk about how the opening paragraphs of stories set our expectations for the story. We look at what information that opening paragraph gives us and we talk about what we think the mystery might be, what amount of time that we think the story will cover and and who these characters are, what do we know about them,” she said.
She also asks her students to keep a notebook and to write down “something interesting” every single day.
“That gets them in the practice of both observing and also taking their observations seriously and translating them onto the page,” she said.
The mysterious qualities of people and their defenses are what prompted Quade to start writing.
“I’m most interested in my characters’ interior lives and how and how that shapes their interactions with the people around them,” she said.
She said she is ready to leave her characters after she has seen them “make their way through a significant change in their lives and in their senses of self.”
Her advice to young writers, especially during the pandemic, is first of all, read. Secondly, observe and write about the world as it is, not as it was or might be in the future.
“I think there’s the sense that we’re missing out on life, that life is passing. What I would say to young writers is that this is the experience. Look closely at what your life is now and what this experience is — this is material.”
Quade will read from her novel, “The Five Wounds” on March 14 at 5 p.m. from James Merrill House — check the events page for a link.