Jamie Quatro On Her Story, “Sinkhole”

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Cover O Henry Prize Stories 2013

Jamie Quatro’s story, “Sinkhole” first appeared in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. It will also be included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, available September 2013. 

“Sinkhole” opens with these lines:

When the camp director introduces God, he reminds us the man is just an actor.

“His real name is Frank Collins,” the director says. “He lives in Knoxville and has a wife and three grown-up children.” He looks down at the little kids on the benches up front. “I want to make sure you know this, so you don’t get scared.”

God a.k.a. Frank Collins comes out from behind a screen set up at the front of the open-air gym. He’s wearing a dark navy sheriff’s costume. He’s short and muscular with a thick gray beard and buzz cut. He asks the little kids to get off the bench—they scramble onto the wood floor—then drags the bench forward and stands on it. He pulls a sheriff’s hat from behind his back, molds the brim, and sets the hat on his head. From where I’m sitting, fourth row, I can see the tips of his white sneakers sticking out from beneath his pant legs.

“The name’s God,” the sheriff says.

Here, Jamie Quatro describes her process:

“Sinkhole” is the only story I’ve ever written that came to me as a grand-scale, amorphous idea: to write a combination loss-of-virginity/exorcism scene in which neither person realized what was happening to the other. That was all I had. No image or character, not even a fragment of dialogue. It was baffling, because for me the creative process usually works in reverse: a small object or sensory moment—a torn sweater sleeve, the sound of snow tires on ice—will present itself, and will feel lit up with a kind of numinous quality; imbued, somehow, with the potential to extend beyond itself. I’ll begin to sketch the image, having only a vague sense of where I’m headed, but trusting—willing myself to trust—that something True will show up along the way. I’ll draft and re-draft until the story surfaces. It’s an inductive, alchemical process, moving outward from the material to the immaterial—meaning distilled from image, spirit from matter.

Yet here was this implausible notion, daring me to give it flesh. Individually, the scenes felt like insurmountable challenges. Sex scenes—good sex scenes—are just plain difficult to write (see Steve Almond’s 12-step program here; Maud Newton, Walter Kirn and others on good sex scenes here). And exorcism in a short story? Other than Chris Adrian, I couldn’t think of anyone who’d done it well. (Come to think of it, did Chris Adrian actually write one?) But to combine them? I knew I couldn’t pull it off. Under what circumstances could such a thing happen?

At the time I was mulling this over, I was also finishing my MFA thesis at Bennington, seven stories that would eventually become part of my first collection. While in residence, Sheila Kohler gave a brilliant lecture on finding your subject matter (in the broad sense). At the time I didn’t know what my subject matter was. Now that the book is finished, I can look back and see that what keeps surfacing is the intersection of faith and sexuality in Judeo-Christian orthodoxy.

Growing up, I was flummoxed by the church’s strictures on sexual behavior on the one hand and the rampant scriptural use of sexual image and metaphor on the other. It seems there’s something inherently erotic about the way we’re supposed to think about God (bridegroom) and the way he thinks about us (the return of Christ as Consummation, the church as his Bride, etc). Many (most?) Christians might say the two are mutually exclusive—that sexual love is tied to flesh, love for God to spirit—but I’m convinced they’re very closely aligned.

Then—and this will often happen, if I’m awake to it—a real-life event gave me what I needed. A church in our little mountaintop town hosted a two-night outreach event on the playground of the elementary school, just a few blocks from our house. The entire community was invited. Free ice cream, live music, dogs welcome! They set up a tent and brought in an actor who presented six versions of God, three per night, with Q&A sessions following. I wrote the opening scene in “Sinkhole” after taking notes at the first night’s event, and realized that this God-actor was somehow involved in the sex/exorcism story, and that my characters would be Protestants.

I wrote the last scene next, re-visioning the exorcism as a faith-healing. The rest of the story revealed itself from there. Still, it took me almost two years to finish. At one point I had the main character running with a .380 Colt Mustang duct-taped to his torso. Thank God for an early reader who said, Er, lose the gun and you might have something here.