“Let Me Tell You Something”: A Conversation with Jamie Quatro


At Work

Jamie Quatro. Photograph by Stephen Alvarez.


Last June, the Review published Jamie Quatro’s “Little House”—what appears at first glance to be a quiet, traditional story about childhood and family life. Gentle in tone and careful in construction, it leaves the reader discomfited to realize that the narrator has left the thing that drove her to tell it—the real story—almost entirely unsaid. The story is part of a triptych by Quatro, the second part of which, “Yogurt Days,” was published in The New Yorker; in that story, the same narrator remembers her evangelical mother taking her along as she attempted to save the spirit of a man suffering from a mysterious (to the narrator) illness. The third story, “Two Men, Mary,” published in our most recent Winter issue, completes the triptych, and is itself structured in three parts. Anna recalls herself first at sixteen, working in a frozen yogurt shop, and her first sexual encounters with older men; then, decades later, as a published writer on a plane to a literary conference, who has a rendezvous with the man sitting next to her; and finally, in the present, where she turns to a very different kind of surrender. We exchanged emails about the uses of autobiography in fiction, how these stories came about, and what we are to make of their singular narrator, Anna.


Which of the stories in this series came first? Were they published in the order you wrote them?

“Two Men, Mary” came first. When I was drafting, I had no idea the story would end up as part of a triptych. “Little House” was the second story I drafted, but chronologically, it comes first, so it’s great that it was the first piece published of the three.

In “Little House,” Anna—who narrates all three stories—is looking back on her early childhood and interrogating her relationship with her father and her younger sister, who has accused the father of sexual abuse. After finishing the first two, I realized that I would need to write a third piece foregrounding Anna’s relationship with her mother. That story, ”Yogurt Days,” also wrestles with themes of faith and sexuality. You know, I keep thinking I’m going to write something new, something I’ve never written before. And I keep coming back to God and sex.

How do you decide what is fair game and what isn’t—whether to transform autobiographical details, or keep them as they happened?

This material is really close to the bone for me. I grew up in Tucson. My first job was at a TCBY. I have a sister I haven’t seen or heard from in twenty years. I avoided writing about her for a long time because I was afraid it would make the schism worse. It was only in the past several years that I realized, We’re at the worst, we’ve been there a long time. I decided I had nothing to lose.

We’re used to the idea of an unreliable narrator, but this narrator seems to have a different syndrome. Do you have a name for her type?

When I was drafting, I thought of the narrator as simply “retrospective”—the word unreliable didn’t occur to me. But you’re right, she has some serious blind spots. I like your word, syndrome. Suggesting something systemic (maybe even insidious?) infecting the narrative approach. Like an illness or physical condition that cannot be helped. What about “the blinkered retrospective”? Though I wonder if all retrospective narrators are blinkered, to a degree.

“Two Men, Mary,” is, quite virtuosically, itself a triptych within the larger one. What drew you to the idea of visiting this character at these points in her life?

Well, “Two Men, Mary” wasn’t a triptych at first. Originally, the story opened with Anna and her poet friend having lunch and talking about praying the rosary. Anna went home, got out her deceased mother-in-law’s rosary, and found herself talking to her mother-in-law, Carol. And what she told her about were the things that happened with Mark and Roberto. Then the story ended with the Mary/Carol thread, revealing the suicide and closing with adult Anna and her husband returning to the yogurt shop in Tucson. It was a very different story. A soupy admixture of disjointed material, the story very clearly announcing its intentions—I’m going to confess something to Mary/Carol. Now, here’s the confession.

I sent that early draft to a few trusted writer friends, among them Lauren Groff, who said something like, “I don’t like to be told explicitly what a story is about, I enjoy making the leap myself—what if you open with the men, then do the more surprising thing and pivot away from the male and into the realm of the female?” Lauren’s a genius at structure. No one else I know has her intuitive eye and architectural grasp of shape. The decision to gather up all the fragmented Mary/Carol material and cast it as its own section is what allowed me to revise the story as a triptych.

But why these discrete moments, with Mark and Roberto? I didn’t know why when I was drafting. It was just what came. I felt some intuitive connection and went with it. But now I can see that in both the Mark and Roberto episodes, Anna is navigating the line between desire and repulsion. Mark and his friend Doug are objects of Anna’s desire, and both end up repulsing her and robbing her of her sexual agency—especially Mark, who physically penetrates her. Roberto, too, penetrates Anna without warning and without obtaining consent—and had Anna reacted differently, that too would have been an assault. But now Anna has agency. She makes a conscious decision to allow and enjoy Roberto’s advances, and to invite him to her hotel room. In a way, she’s reclaiming the agency she lost as a fifteen-year-old, though it’s a tainted reclamation. She’s cheating on her husband, after all.

I’m curious, then, about the narrator’s desire in the third episode to “surrender to Mary,” to “a feminine divine.” How do you think about that turn in her?

I think this is why the pivot to the feminine, as Lauren suggested, was the right move structurally. In the first two episodes, Anna surrenders to men—to Mark by force, to Roberto by choice. To her father, in “Little House,” and to a male conception of God via her church in “Yogurt Days.” Now, entering her fifties, she turns away from the masculine. But the surrender to a feminine divine—the desire to do so—seems to be more than a turning away from a patriarchal understanding of God. It seems also to be a turning away from the sexual past, the assault, abuse, temptation, infidelity. And in making the turn, she finds her one true source of regret—the way she failed her mother-in-law, Carol.

Roberto’s refrain of “Let me tell you something” is so memorable, and captures a certain kind of man so well. It’s the writer’s credo, in a way, too.  

Roberto is doing a little bit of posturing when he uses the phrase—Pay attention, what I’m about to say is of the utmost importance. Of course, the irony is that because he prefaces nearly everything with “Let me tell you something,” the phrase loses its potency. It’s just throat-clearing.

But you’re right—divested of context, “Let me tell you something” reads as the story-writer’s credo. I can’t remember where I heard this—it might have been something that Amy Hempel, my thesis advisor at Bennington, said—“The invisible first sentence of every great short story is, Oh my God, sit down, you’re never going to believe what I’m about to tell you.” I’ve actually written that sentence at the top of my finished drafts, to see if the energy in my opening is there. I’ve also used it as a writing prompt with my students. Often I’ll read a perfectly competent story draft but still come away thinking, Why are you telling me this? What is so important that I should drop everything and spend the next half hour listening to you?

Your relationship to religion and religiosity seems to me one of the most fascinating and consistent through lines in your work, and it also takes many forms. I’m interested in how that connects or doesn’t to your own relationship with religion, past or present.

When I was studying with David Gates, he kept saying, “Jamie, you need to let your characters do things on the page that you would never do. Let them fail, let them suffer.”

I took David’s advice and started letting my characters do messy, “sinful” things, like cheat on their husbands in airport hotels and leave their Presbyterian congregations to join nature-worship cults with sexual initiation rites. Many of my characters abandon their Christian faith entirely, or actively preach heresy—especially in my forthcoming novel, in which the Devil puts on a play re-visioning the Gospel narrative with himself as the rightful Christ figure.

Flaubert said (I’m paraphrasing), Keep a clean and orderly life so you can be violent and messy on the page. I believe in that advice. I’ve wrestled with my faith, of course—in fact, I would say wrestling is the mark of a viable religious practice—but I’ve never abandoned it. I somehow avoided the growing-up-in-church trauma that so many others experienced. Our Bishop recently put it this way: “There’s no cut so painful as a stained glass cut.” I have certainly left the legalism of right-wing American “evangelicalism” (I’ve spoken elsewhere about how that lovely old word has become tainted, mostly by the right-wing MAGA crowd), and, as of last year, am a confirmed Episcopalian. I love the Book of Common Prayer. I come to worship and feel like I’m eating organic whole foods after years of processed meals.

But when I was growing up in the church, I could see that most of the “rules” had nothing to do with Jesus. My parents were loving, and not as conservative as other parents. I was allowed to wear a bikini and have a boyfriend and go to dances. I was also an early and avid reader of the Bible, and of C. S. Lewis. I suppose it was reading that saved me from conflating legalism with the Church en masse.

What does a set of discrete stories do for you that’s different than, say, chapters? Have you thought about putting these characters into a novel?

I have not considered putting these characters into a novel. I’ve written two novels and the form terrifies me. Other forms come with ready-made boundaries—stanzas and meter, read-in-one-sitting length, or, for nonfiction, adherence to the (remembered) truth. The novel is anarchy. No blueprints, no parameters. You have to build a house but you know nothing about the square footage or the height or how many bedrooms. Maybe you have a vague sense that it will be a ranch-style bungalow. You take up your meager little hammer and hacksaw and figure out how to build the fucking house. Actually, it’s harder than that—you have to let the not-yet-built house teach you how it wants to be built. How does it teach you? Music. You listen to the sounds of what you’re doing—your hammering and sawing—for clues as to what this thing is supposed to look like.

And then, after a month or a year of work, you realize the whole thing is toppling. You’ve built one side up too far, or you haven’t laid the foundation properly, or you’ve put in way too many windows. Sometimes you can rework a wing, but probably you’ll have to knock the whole thing down and start over. Maddening.


Andrew Martin is the author of the novel Early Work and the story collection Cool for America.