She left Princeton when she found out that she and her husband were expecting the first of their four children. Since then, she has earned her MFA in Fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, published fiction in numerous journals, published the story collection I Want to Show You More to wide acclaim, and most recently had a story chosen for the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.
In this interview, Quatro discusses her revision process, her approach to writing backstory, and the moment in her story “The Anointing” that took her by surprise.
(To read “The Anointing” and an exercise based on its use of detail, click here.)
One difficulty in writing about religious experience is translating the immediacy and intimacy of the experience to readers who do not share the character’s beliefs. You solve this problem in a single sentence. You write, “Anointings were eleventh-hour efforts—what you asked for after you’d asked for everything else.” In the story, Diane knows that the anointing is a long shot, and yet she’s desperate for a positive signs, any change for the good. It’s almost as if the story is saying to the reader, “Look, this anointing probably isn’t going to work, but it sure would be great it it did.” The religious element is understood through universal human feelings of hope, desire, love, and desperation. I’m curious if this sentence was always present in the story. Did you worry in early drafts that readers would not be sympathetic to Diane?
Funny you should ask about that line — it was indeed a late addition to the piece. In fact, I rewrote the entire opening, right up to that line, almost five years after I finished the story. Originally I’d written “last-ditch efforts,” but when my editor and I began working together, she wondered if we might come up with a less cliche, more immediate phrase. “Eleventh-hour” felt like something Diane herself would think, as the term is used, of course, in the gospel of Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. And no, I didn’t worry about readers being unsympathetic. I don’t think about readers, or publication in general, when I’m drafting. For personal reasons, this story stayed in the proverbial drawer for a long time. I didn’t think I’d ever publish it. It was the last piece accepted by a magazine before the book went to press. Cathy Chung — Guernica’s brilliant fiction editor — bought it.
The first part of the story is spent with backstory—how a successful marriage and life got the point that a last-ditch effort was made to rescue it from ruin. The rest of the story is spent, essentially, in scene–in the moments prior to and following the anointing. One of the cliches of workshop is that writers should avoid clumps of backstory–always integrate it into the fabric of the scene, students are told. And yet you do precisely the opposite, and it works beautifully. The backstory held me to the page as much as the in-scene portions. What was your approach to the backstory?
It’s difficult to talk about “approach” to backstory — as I mentioned, I don’t think about such things when I draft. I think each story comes to an artist with its own structure, its own cadence and music, and that the artist’s first responsibility is to listen. For me, drafting is very much like listening to a piece of music or watching a film. You simply let the work rush on and do what it wants to do, take the shape it wants to take. That might involve “clumps” of backstory, as you say; or it might involve interspersing the backstory throughout the piece; or it might involve using no backstory at all. To be honest, I’ve never heard the workshop rule you mention above. I’m always skeptical of rules. An upfront “tell” at the opening of a story — here’s what’s happened in the past to get us where we are — can be used to great effect. Look at some of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners: “A Little Cloud” begins with “Eight years before he had seen his friend off at the North Wall and wished him godspeed.” Or “Araby,” which begins with the backstory of the priest’s death: “The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing room.” Even if you end up cutting the backstory, it can be a useful exercise, to spell out precisely what has happened in the past before entering the first scene.
The story begins with the characters at the edge of a precipice–perhaps Mitch will kill himself, perhaps Diane no longer believes in God—and immediately offers a solution to both of these problems: the anointing. As a result, I expected a conclusion that resolved one or both of those problems. Mitch would be saved or become worse. Diane would be strengthened in her faith, or she’d give it up completely. But neither really happens. The situation remains mostly the same. The primary change is that Diane despairs, whereas at the beginning she was hopeful. I’ll admit that I was taken aback by the ending. But as I thought about it, the ending seemed truthful in a way that a neat ending wouldn’t have. In life, there are very few dramatic shifts. Was this ending always present? Did you consider ending the story differently?
Yes, this has always been the story’s ending. In a way, that hand pressing on Diane’s head is an anointing of a very different kind, a more radical and truthful version of the oiled thumbprint on the woman’s forehead at the beginning of the piece. To me a it’s a redemptive moment: Diane has been deceiving Ellie about Mitch’s true condition, even as she’s been deceived by Ellie and Mitch. Neither of those deceptions will be possible from this point forward. The only path open to any of them will be one of honesty. What took me by surprise, as I drafted, wasn’t the ending, but the moment Diane discovers that her daughter has been hiding the pills in her little purse. That was a devastating realization. I didn’t want it to be true, but there it was.
What are you working on now? Many short story writers are also working on a novel. Is that the case for you as well? Quite a few of the stories in your collection are very short, a few pages or so, and they’re so masterfully written that I wonder if a novel is even something you’re interested in.
Ah, the novel question. You know, I love the story form, and I’m at work on a second collection right now, but I will say this: one of the pieces I thought was a short story is threatening to become something bigger. For now I’m pitching it to myself as a novella. Time will tell. I do write poetry and essays, and lately have been doing some longer book reviews. I also just wrote a film treatment. So who knows? Maybe a play is next.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.