Write toward the pain.
Kirstin Valdez Quade was a graduate student in the creative writing program when Professor Ehud Havazelet offered that advice. Today Quade, MFA ’09 (creative writing), is an award-winning novelist and creative writing professor at Princeton University who is, she says, “profoundly grateful” for the program and Havazelet, who died in 2015.
Writing toward the pain, Quade says, doesn’t mean wallowing in misery or writing only bleak stories; rather, it means having the courage to explore characters’ suffering as well as their joys. She delivers with her 2021 debut novel, The Five Wounds, which follows the convergences—sometimes fractious, sometimes funny—of five generations of a New Mexico family and centers on an alcoholic, deadbeat father seeking redemption and his high-spirited teenage daughter who arrives on his doorstep eight months pregnant. The novel is shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2021 First Novel Prize and the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.
The novel grew from a short story that was the first Quade workshopped with peers and faculty members in the competitive MFA program, which admits only two percent of applicants.
Havazelet was “absolutely critical” to the story’s development and Quade’s own, she says. Large-hearted but exacting, he demanded that each and every word she wrote contribute to the whole. He pushed her to ensure that her characters reckoned with their fears and failures—their humanity. She finished the short story after graduation and within two years had been persuaded by her editor to extend it into a novel.
“Ehud really shaped how I think about story and my responsibilities as a writer toward my characters,” Quade says. “It’s advice I pass on to my own students and think about every time I write: what am I avoiding writing about here because it feels difficult? Am I allowing them to be fully human?”
—By Matt Cooper, Oregon Quarterly
—Photo By Holly Andres