Some writers you meet at book signings, some in the classroom, and some in the communal women’s bathroom of the Larch House at the 2013 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Such was the setting for delightful chats with Jamie Quatro, whose debut story collection, I Want To Show You More (Grove, Mar. 5) has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and Indie Next pick. Jamie was a fellow at the conference, and I was a work-study scholar (a.k.a., waiter, I can explain…). We often bumped into each other when Jamie was preparing to go running. I recall asking for life advice while we were brushing our teeth, and sometimes sheepishly asking “Jamie, is that you?” when she’d say hello, blind as I am without my glasses. To the abundant praise that Jamie’s book has earned, I will add that her stories are thrillingly intimate and alive. I don’t just yearn with her characters, I breathe with them, and that depth of feeling is a gift. Below is an informal chat that we conducted over email this week, shortly after returning from Bread Loaf.
PW: Your book has become a beacon of hope for my writing group. During the years spent writing this collection, which books served as beacons of hope for you?
JQ: It’s tricky to talk about “beacons of hope,” because for many years, I wasn’t thinking about publishing a book. My biggest hope was to place a story in a literary journal. That was it. It wasn’t until I’d signed with my agent, Anna Stein, that I started to believe the stories might come together in a collection. I do look to Alice Munro, who had a family, raised her kids, and published her first collection in her late 30s. She was, and is, a beacon. But it’s Munro’s sentences and the architecture of her stories that inspire, even more than her personal history. Other lifelines: Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson, Mary Robison, David Means. I often prefer to read poetry, and my Ph.D. work was in British Romanticism, so: Wordsworth and Blake, Shelley and Keats. Also, Jack Gilbert, Sharon Olds, Dean Young, and Linda Gregg. At Sewanee and Bread Loaf this summer, I heard astonishing newer voices: Rebecca Hazelton, Emilia Phillips, Tomas Morin, Brian Russell, Ross Gay, Hugh Martin, Katy Didden. Inspirations, all.
PW: In an industry and culture that focuses on youth, what are you bringing to your work that you couldn’t have at 25 or 30?
JQ: I did everything young: started college early, graduated at 20, married two days after I turned 21. Finished an M.A. at 23. By 24, I was working on a Ph.D. at Princeton and was pregnant with the first of our four children. I quit the program, and had all four kids before I turned 30. Those were lovely, difficult years. Writing was an act of desperation, and my stories became a delicious secret—huge amounts of mommy-guilt involved. I’d get these little breaks and think: okay, naptime. Man, I’d better say what needs saying. I was writing on borrowed time, and because of this, I came to the page with an enormous sense of urgency.
PW: We writers often hear that readers don’t buy story collections, yet your book has proven an exception to the rule. What pleasures can a collection offer that a novel cannot?
JQ: I keep hearing this theory about how the Internet has shortened attention spans, hence the resurgence of the story collection’s popularity. I disagree. Story collections are much more difficult to read than novels; you’re starting over with each piece, accessing a new world, characters, and situations. If the digital age has anything to do with the short story’s apparent renaissance, it may be that our lives have become fragmented, and we’re longing for the kind of gut-punch that the story can deliver in a unique way. There’s a musicality involved—stories have the compression and lyricism of poetry.
PW: What has it been like becoming a public figure, reviewed by James Wood in the New Yorker, meeting readers?
JQ: “Public figure.” Ha. Maybe it’s because I live so far from any literary epicenter [in Lookout Mountain, Ga.], but all the wonderful things that have happened with the book feel separate from me. Case in point: the morning I woke up and saw the New Yorker review, there was dog food on the kitchen floor, kids in various states of dress asking for breakfast. That illustration of me was up on the kids’ computer, and I remember glimpsing it through the fog of bacon smoke and thinking: Who is she? Sometimes that other, “public” life breaks in on the daily one—at Bread Loaf, say—and a stranger will come up and say, “I read your book.” I’m still shocked when this happens. Someone not related to me or in my workshop has read my work?
PW: Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
JQ: This is where I’m supposed to say “I get up every day at 5 and write till 7, then again from 9 to noon,” right? Alas, I have no habits, no rituals. I write when I can, wherever I can—carpool line, orthodontist’s office. On an ideal day, I’ll stay home and write till noon, then put the work aside and take a run. Running is where I solve story problems. In the days before I had an I-device, I would sometimes stop and scratch a word into my forearm with a stick to remind myself of an idea. Talk about “written in blood.”
PW: What are you currently reading?
JQ: In addition to the poets mentioned above, I’m reading Corinna Vallianatos’s fantastic collection My Escapee, which won the Grace Paley prize. I heard Corinna read from her novel-in-progress at Bread Loaf, and her prose is stunning. I also love Ramona Ausubel’s collection A Guide To Being Born, and I’m excited about two collections coming out in 2014: Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk and Molly Antopol’s The Unamericans.
PW: What are you working on right now?
JQ: More stories—one of which is threatening to become something that starts with an N.