One of last year’s best-reviewed books was something of a surprise—a strange, sexy, religious surprise. The debut short-story collection of a forty-something mother of four who lives just outside Chattanooga, Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More seemingly came out of nowhere to take the literary world by storm. The New Yorker’s James Woods loved it. The New York Times’ Dwight Garner loved it. Even USA Today loved it.
But Quatro has taken it all in stride. Over coffee at the Rock City Starbucks, she confesses that sometimes it seems like it’s happening to someone else—she’s too busy with the day-to-day life of her family to let the adulation go to her head.
The stories are just out in paperback—with the same cover Garner so memorably hated—so if you can’t make it to Monday’s reading, you have no excuse for not getting a copy.
When you went back to school, you got a low-residency MFA at Bennington, so you were mostly writing at home. Do you think that affected your writing in a positive way, in that you didn’t come out of it sounding like everyone else—a frequent criticism of MFA programs?
I think it worked to my benefit on a number of levels. On one level, you’re not having to read everyone else’s stuff all semester. Other than the 10-day residency, you’re not reading other people’s workshop stories—you’re only reading what you selected to read on your reading list and writing your own stuff. That’s wonderful, because I think sometimes, hearing everybody else’s voices—I’m so suggestible, and people’s voices can get into my head. I think with a residential program, you’re putting your life on hold, and when you graduate, it’s suddenly like, “How do I mesh what I’ve been doing for the past two years with an actual life?” Whereas, with a low-residency, you learn in those two years how to write and live and work altogether. For me, it was perfect, especially with four kids at home.
So how do you find time to write with four kids at home?
Get up early and have a very supportive husband. He’s a professor, so he has a flexible schedule and summers off. So if I didn’t get done what I needed to get done in the morning, he could come home at noon and I could take the afternoon off to go work. We have a little chicken coop in our backyard—a failed chicken coop, it’s a funny little story I wrote up for the Oxford American. We went through this whole thing with the city, and it turned out the ordinance was that, unless five acres, you couldn’t have chickens on your property, so I had this almost-built chicken coop and nothing to do with it, so we turned it into a writing studio. So, yeah, I just find bits and pieces of time.
A number of people have said that 2013 was the year of the short story, with George Saunders getting so much attention for his collection and Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize and then you coming out of nowhere—well, not out of the Iowa MFA program or Brooklyn—and then ending up on James Wood’s and Dwight Garner’s best book list.
Crazy. Crazy. It’s been a heady year, yeah.
So do you think the short story is finally getting the recognition it deserves, or is this just a fluke?
I don’t know if it’s a fluke, or if these things just kind of go in waves. I’ve heard a lot of theories about how the short story is experiencing a renaissance because the Internet has shortened attention spans, and so people are like, “Well, I can’t read a novel, but I can read a short story.” And I totally disagree with that theory. I think short-story collections are much more difficult to read than novels, because you’re accessing a new world and a new set of characters in every story, whereas with a novel you can kind of set it down and pick it up and keep going. So I don’t know about any connection between the digital age and the short story’s apparent renaissance, other than, perhaps, with all our social media, we’re always connected, but our individual lives are so fractured and fragmented—we’re so much less in the moment, because we’ve got our devices always pulling us out of it—and so maybe we’re longing for that kind of quick gut punch that a story can deliver that takes longer to get to with a novel. I think a short story really does deliver that in a way a novel can’t. And poetry does, but not a lot of people, to my dismay, read poetry.
A lot of your stories are very, very short stories. Does that have something to do with your love of poetry—trying to condense everything into just a couple of pages?
It does. Most of the very short stories in the book started out as poems. And I would look at them and think, you know, really, these are more sentences than stanzas, so let me expand them and see what happens. So I definitely would love to get shorter. When people are like, “When’s the novel?”—and I’m not saying I’m not going to do a novel, I’m working on something that’s threatening to become a novel—but when people are like, “When are you going to do it?” I’m always like, “I’d really like to write more poetry.” So we’ll see where that all heads.
What has it been like for you to have your first book come out and to have it reviewed everywhere, and reviewed so favorably? Especially because so many first books—especially short-story collections—are ignored.
The funny thing is, it seems very disconnected from me, because I live here. I have four kids, and my daughter’s applying to college, and that’s like 90 percent of my [non-writing] life—running and yoga and my kids and the home. So it feels like it’s happening to somebody else most of the time. Like that’s separate from me, and, oh, isn’t that great for her. Every now and then, those worlds will collide, but for the most part, people in daily life will have no idea. You can just forget about it. I think if I lived in Brooklyn or New York and had those circles—there aren’t a lot of writers I know here—it would probably feel more real.
I’m curious—your husband teaches at Covenant College, which is a Presbyterian school. Did he get any kind of critical pushback about your stories about adultery, some of which are kind of sexually explicit?
No! In fact, it’s been the opposite. They have been 100 percent supportive. They’ve got it the library. He’s gotten tons of e-mails from colleagues saying, “Congratulations! That’s fantastic.” I think Covenant has more of a reputation of being conservative than it deserves. They totally get that it’s fiction. And even if it wasn’t—the Bible’s full of graphic sex. Like, full of it! And any Christian who objects to it, I’m like, just go read Song of Solomon. Just read Genesis, for starters. Read about David and Bathsheba.
So what’s the reaction from other readers been like? Lookout Mountain’s so gossipy—are people like, “Oh, I didn’t know you had an affair, Jamie”?
It’s funny—it hasn’t been so much local people, but every now and then I’ll be doing a reading or on a panel somewhere, and someone will say, “How does your husband feel about those stories?” or something like that. And I’m like, “He loves them?” So they actually never have sex, this couple. So it’s funny how people are like, “It’s so graphic, it’s so shocking.” Because the only actual sex that happens in the book is primarily married, other than the strange orgy in that church story. But when [my husband] was reading them, he was like, “Oh, you need to make it even sexier. Why don’t you let them actually meet, and have this?” And I had actually written a bunch of stories where they went through with it, and they had their meeting, but I just decided in the end, the almost was a lot more erotic than the fulfillment. The build-up, to me, is always where the eroticism is, not the consummation.
Interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.