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Q&A: Jamie Quatro speaks in-depth about ‘Fire Sermon,’ faith and fascination

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Jamie Quatro in conversation with Garth Greenwell

Prairie Lights — Monday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m.

Jamie Quatro will be in conversation with Garth Greenwell at Prairie Lights on Feb. 5. — photo by McKenna Quatro

Prairie Lights will host author Jamie Quatro on Monday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. for a presentation of her novel in conversation with novelist Garth Greenwell. Quatro has quickly developed a reputation for being an author of penetrating acumen and lyrical grace, willing to pursue and expand the odd and uncomfortable questions that haunt humans in the 21st century as echoes from America’s Christian past. Her narrators are frequently women, unhappily married and, rather than simply act on impulse, instead muse upon the question of what to do and how to live.

Quatro’s latest work, Fire Sermon, develops the seeds of her short story collection in a fruitful and inspiring way. Brilliantly structured, the novel allows readers to experience the question of love in ways that it is often encountered, but rarely told — through the intersecting slices of a restless heart and mind musing about potential futures and precarious pasts. Because it grapples with the question of a woman’s autonomy and agency, the book’s appearance during the ever-expanding shadow of #metoo makes it a particularly timely read. At the same time, the questions Quatro fearlessly faces in the novel will also make it timeless.

Your new novel moves away from your collection of short stories, which trembled on the border between an objectively determinable reality and a subjective reality constituted by emotional content, sacrificing the magical realism for a more esoteric form of longing. What led you to this sort of change?

I’m not sure why this material came to me in the way it did. I think I was just beginning to scratch the surface of my material with the six or so infidelity stories in the collection. The characters never touched; their “infidelity” was long-distance; the wife confessed before anything physical happened; she told her husband the truth; the stories were tiny glimpses into specific temporal moments in a character’s lifespan.

But what if I blew it open, temporally, structurally and thematically? What would I discover if I allowed my characters to be more flawed? To consummate physically? To lie to their partners and to themselves? How would those decisions resonate backwards and forwards throughout the scope of a lifetime and beyond?

This is all hindsight. During the drafting I’m not thinking, “What am I attempting to do with this material?” I’m just flinging paint onto a canvas.

The short stories, written from a similar narrative perspective, read at times like a novel that withdrew into itself and only showed fragments of stories. Fire Sermon, in allowing itself as a novel, allows you access to more reflections on temporality — something that you play with to excellent effect in your choice of chronological patternings. What did you discover about the relation between time, love and guilt in the more in depth reflections allowed by Fire Sermon?

I’ve always been fascinated by St. Augustine’s reflections on the nature of time. We speak of time as if we know what it is, as if it has some kind of objective reality, when in fact the past exists only in our present-tense memory of it; the future exists only in our present-tense imagination of it; the present only exists because it is, at every second, slipping into the past. Past and future, in other words, only exist inside our heads. And the one thing that does exist — the present — depends entirely on its slippage into the past.

And there’s something about erotic love — especially in the sexually ecstatic– that unlocks that kind of Augustinian now. A glimmering, widening sense of the eternal located in the present. You talk to your lover for what feels like twenty minutes, lift your head and realize six hours have passed. You arrange to meet your lover at noon and the last fifteen minutes before she arrives feel like six hours. But in her presence … each second is illuminated. You’re fully awake, fully present. The night in Chicago when James and Maggie consummate after years of build-up — it becomes a temporal vortex around which the rest of the novel swirls.

Fire Sermon does an excellent job of creating a sexual passion that recedes, allowing the emotional landscape of passion to become articulated as language rather than lost in the description of embodied consummation. To that end, it kindles a kind of erotic movement far deeper than most kinds of literature that bear that name. Do you think that the narrator’s language successfully points a way toward non-corporeal satisfaction?

I think you’re getting at the relation between intense, incantatory lyricism and the sexual? I suppose language provides a way toward non-corporeal satisfaction in the same way music does. I think poetry comes closest to escaping the confines of its form to become pure sound — like improvisational jazz, which feels to me like sound that’s desperately trying to escape itself to speak. To quote one of my favorite writers, Barry Hannah, describing Quadberry’s saxophone solo in the story “Testimony of Pilot”: “When he played, I heard the sweetness, I heard the horn which finally brought human talk into the realm of music.”

Jamie Quatro’s first novel, ‘Fire Sermon,’ was released on Jan. 9.

Is that part of the importance of the piano as a recurring point in the book — something that stands in for the kind of temporality and passion that Maggie and James are exploring? What about the particular piece that Maggie plays and records spoke to you as representative of pure sound?

I suppose the piano is an attempt to communicate with James in another way. They’ve already connected through other means — poetry, emailing, discussing books — and then she sends him a recording of herself playing Bach. I like the conversational aspect of Bach’s music.

What, precisely, is communicated in the form of conversation?

The contrapuntal form — two independent melodic lines intertwining, a conversation between the left and right hands — creates a middle line, a through line. Maggie posits the idea that she and James together are creating a kind of third thing. Maybe that third thing is God, maybe it’s love itself, maybe it doesn’t exist. I don’t like to read symbol into my own work. Sharon Olds has a great line about this, in a poem called “You Kindly.” After ecstatic sex, the wife looks at the husband’s face, “at its absence of unkindness,/its giving that absence off as a matter/I cannot name, I was seeing not you/but something that lives between us, that can live/only between us.”

In your opinion, is Fire Sermon a comedy or a tragedy? Does Maggie end up with everything, or nothing? Or is the point of the novel, in truth, to make the space between success and failure so infinitely small as to be indistinguishable?

Maggie hasn’t ended up anywhere. We leave her, in time and space, in the hotel room in Naples. Temporally she’s in the middle of her timeline, where she thinks about getting on a plane to California every day. After that, the verb tense is future: “There will be grandchildren,” etc. So we see Maggie’s intention to live out the rest of her life with Thomas — he becomes the old man in her imagined future, not the “magnificent old man” she imagined James would become at the novel’s opening — but we don’t follow her beyond that hotel room in Florida.

I had missed the verb tense — I was rather gripped by the book. In many ways, however, the question still stands. Is the choice to stay with Thomas one of Kierkegaardian Faith? Or one of infinite resignation? Even if she’s only left in the space of an intention, what does the intention itself intend, relative to Maggie’s character?

It could be either one, faith or resignation. It could be neither. Meaning belongs to the reader, not the writer. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to answer, because I don’t want to determine meaning for anyone.

Moby Dick is mentioned throughout Fire Sermon and serves to identify the sort of literary-intellectual ancestor of longing — a passion for a God that is not, perhaps — that your book locates within intimate relationships. Melville seems like a map. As an author, do you feel like you successfully condensed the ocean? Is Maggie meant to be more of an Ahab, chasing after desire with a passionate longing, or an Ishmael who reflects on the unfolding tragedy and escapes, alive?

When James asks Maggie about the point of Moby Dick — do we all “have a white whale to chase?” Or will the chase itself “turn us into monsters unless we give it up?” — Maggie says, “Both, I guess.” I think that answer fits here.

In the wake of #metoo, your book does a lot to explore the problematic question of consent and the troubling motivations for what consent could even mean. In some ways, Fire Sermon is an absolutely timely reflection on the problem of female autonomy and consent. These sections work well to justify what I would assume are common, if not almost universal, problems of what remains silent within marriages and enable well-meaning spouses to eliminate desire within monogamy. Assuming most of the book was written prior to last fall, how has the unfolding events of #metoo feminism made you rethink what you have written?

It’s a thrilling moment to have Fire Sermon entering the #metoo conversation. Women are speaking out bravely against sexual harassment in the workplace and the ways that male gatekeepers have abused their power. But what about sexual coercion and abuse within marriage? Especially in the context of religious marriage, with “rules” related to traditional gender roles and extramarital sex — prohibitions that might make it difficult, or even dangerous, for women in these environments to speak up? I’m excited that Maggie’s predicament might serve as a platform for discussion.

The God of Fire Sermon is a fierce God, but it is one that seems, like the narrator, to withhold delight and to provide, at most, the teasing promise of the sort of joy that Aquinas termed love’s coming to rest. Nobody in Fire Sermon comes to rest and, to that extent, it is a book that is filled with joyless love. Few authors explore this space, especially in a way that so courageously evokes the backdrop of American Christianity and its problems. Do you think that your future writing might follow Wiman, whom you cite in the acknowledgements, and depict a return to a Christian god that still allows love? Or do you plan to continue diving deeper and deeper into the space of guilt and longing?

I’m through with guilt and longing. Ha. The next book will be all about the love.

To re-ask, then, about your past work: why do you think it was so important to explore this space of joyless love, where nobody can come to rest?

I think the story “Relatives of God” in my first book has a coming-to-rest kind of joy. In Fire Sermon, maybe the joy isn’t there yet, but the narrator can see it on the horizon. Or maybe the ending is utterly compassionate, and that compassion is a kind of joy. Or maybe the ending is full of despair and hopelessness. It depends on the reader. I wish I could offer you more in the way of interpretation, but truly, I don’t understand or fully know — or even want to know — what my work is trying to “say,” even years later.

Can you explore that a bit more? Your insistence on this space — the space of longing without acting — is uniquely focused.

Maggie does act on her longing in Fire Sermon — even though it’s just one night in Chicago. But she chooses to make the trip, to meet James, to act on her desire.

Overall, though, who knows why there is longing and restlessness in my work? I may want to explore options on the page that I haven’t explored in life. Maybe there’s a resistance to something in my own life that leads to restlessness on the page. I don’t want to probe it too deeply, or try to get into my own psychology. Composition is listening, not trying to communicate some a priori point. A pulse or rhythm becomes a sentence on the page. That sentence leads to another one. Meaning evolves through that sound-based process.

Well, and also, I’m a Gemini. Maybe that explains everything.

Maggie talks about the birth of sexual desire in terms of childhood friends in ways that are so gentle and in contrast to the sense of obligation and pain that consumes her marriage. The critiques of monogamy and marriage hardly seem redeemed by the sense of a god that demands a pain-filled longing, even though I cannot recall an author better able to evoke the paradoxical bliss — at least beyond the female mystics. Like most of the book, like the flawed but beautiful narrator, like the men she loves, the way out seems inadequate to the problem. Are you hopeful that readers will pursue the path that the narrator follows, toward an indistinguishable faith/despair? Do you wish for them to follow the wiser voice that questions in italics and that the narrator ignores? As you reflect on the book, what sort of joy or hope or love or faith becomes possible for 21st century humans that are held, in bondage, to traditions of a patriarchal god and monogamous visions of fidelity?

Oh, God — I hope readers don’t follow any path, especially one “toward an indistinguishable faith/despair.” I wonder if other readers will see that as the landing point. I don’t have any goals for my readers, or any wish they will “choose” one path over another.

At best I hope readers will find something moving in the pages. Maybe some questions to carry with them, after they finish. That’s the best I can do, as an artist — to invoke Rilke, to replace the wrong answers with the right questions and seek to love the questions themselves.

Can you speak a bit more to the possibilities or the questions that you were hoping to awaken within readers, then?

I didn’t come to the work with a set of questions I hoped to awaken in readers. Again, this is the reader’s territory. And the questions will be different for different readers.

In the novel, Maggie moves from talking to God, to James, to Self. What progression are you spelling out?

When Maggie finally asks the italicized interlocutor, “Who are you?” and the voice replies, “I am the voice of one behind you saying, This is the way, walk in it” — that’s a quote from the Old Testament. Isaiah 30:21. So I’m not entirely certain she is talking to herself, at least at that point.

What new possibility in terms of religion or love, what third thing, do you sense awakening in the novel?

An unnamed voice asks, at the end of the novel: “Can I sing about what’s waiting on the far side of fidelity? The wide door-swing, the unfurling sky?” Maybe Maggie is choosing to believe that joy will come via self-sacrifice. Or maybe she’s lying to herself. Either way, she’s in the space of not-knowing, which feels right to me.


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