The 5-Under-35 author on growing up in the Mojave, busting up the lines between fiction and nonfiction, and braving her way into the dark heart of the West’s discarded stories.
Claire Vaye Watkins at Badwater, in Death Valley, CA. Image courtesy Derek Palacio.
At Manhattan’s mammoth, marbled Cipriani Wall Street, Claire Vaye Watkins is hanging out near the bar, a glass of cheap champagne in hand: The same cheap champagne Lorrie Moore had charmingly dissed a few minutes earlier during the night’s National Book Awards announcement for fiction, which went to Louise Erdrich. Watkins has flown in from Reno, where she is an assistant professor at Bucknell. As a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 finalist, an honor bestowed upon her at a separate gathering in Dumbo the night prior, she is one of the evening’s celebrated guests. Like her 5 Under 35 predecessors Téa Obreht, ZZ Packer and Karen Russell, Watkins’ name is on everyone’s lips. Rumor has it Roxane Gay is a fan. References to Joan Didion abound.
In the gigantic hall, Watkins most closely resembles Erdrich. The two look similarly worthy of their new laurels and equally out of place. Disciplined and disregarding. Grounded and fearless. “Deadpan and elegant,” as Rebecca Keith, NBA program manager put it of Watkins. In other words: Western.
Like Erdrich in the early ’80s, Watkins started off a few years ago publishing short stories that are as much about place as they are about people or plot. Battleborn, Watkins’s debut collection, like Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine, is a daredevil feat of shapeshifting pieces that echo off each other and share a common setting—in Watkins’s case, working-class Nevada. It would be misleading to link Watkins too closely to any one writer or style.
Battleborn is bookended by artfully raw memoir-esque pieces that break all the rules. The effect is a collection that is as boundless as the desert sky. Contained within is an epistolary tale between the living and the dead. A gold rush fratricide. A love story that operates like a series of dioramas.
Four nights after the award ceremony, Watkins was staying at her sister’s place in Albuquerque for Thanksgiving. We spoke for about an hour. At the end of the interview, I asked her if there was anything she’d like to add, anything else on her mind. “Just the hike I’m about to go on with my niece,” she says.
—Melissa Seley for Guernica
Guernica: Your earliest memory of creating something?
Claire Vaye Watkins: My sister and our babysitter’s kids used to play house. I used to record these sessions. I would boss everyone around while we were playing then I would go home and and listen to recordings and edit them down to make them better. I’d take notes about our playing. “So and so needs to be more impressive as the dad or… ” The next day I would take the tapes back to my playmates and give them notes about what we needed to do for the storyline. The conceit of the game was that we were orphans and we’d go on these adventures—boxcar kids, essentially. I was basically controlling everyone, like kids do. I still remember the feeling of how exciting it was to go home and listen to the tape and edit the tape and then tell my friends what I’d come up with to make our stories better.
Guernica: Often in Battleborn, and present in the title, destructive forces have a clear hand in creation. There’s a nuclear bomb blast in the first story, “Ghosts, Cowboys” that becomes a magical moment through the eyes of the girl watching it, for instance. What role does destruction play in your artistic process?
Claire Vaye Watkins: Every writer probably experiences revision as a type of trauma. Or at least, as a tiny self-annihilation, especially if you have to delete a lot. That’s always been difficult for me. I write first drafts really slowly. They take a lot out of me and I’m very protective of them. When I would go back to them, I would struggle making a good story a great story, or a crappy story a good story. I couldn’t do much, revision-wise, until I knew a version was safe so I have hard copies of all my first drafts. I’d put them somewhere and start a new document. The first copy was like a security blanket. I could look at it and think: That’s still there, I can always go back to that. Tellingly, I’ve never gone back to those first drafts. I don’t think I’ve ever even looked at them.
It’s not a coincidence that we talk about character in terms of depth and mining metaphors. We have our hopes and dreams on the surface. Beneath that we have our fears that those hopes are in reaction to and beneath that, the magical thinking that allows us to go on everyday in the face of those significant fears. It’s an excavation process for me.
Guernica: You bridge dualities quite a bit in the stories, and meld nonfiction with fiction throughout. There’s a John McPhee-esque research narrative laced through the plots. Was the landscape always layered in as a historical element?
Claire Vaye Watkins: It was there very early on. When I was an undergraduate, I discovered what you would later call my voice, if such a thing exists. And that had to do with incorporating a ton of research. Research gets me excited. I have to know a lot about the place in all senses: historical, cultural, natural. One of the first stories I wrote when I was an undergraduate was about a town in Indiana. I wrote a lot about the town, which was the soap capital of the United States. I wrote a lot about the soap factory and the atmospheric conditions, both literal and figurative, that shaped this soap town. I can write pages and pages of ethnography or little etchings of place without any people in them. The harder part is: What will happen in this place?
I had a lot of tough workshops in grad school where people were like, “Yeah, no one really needs to know about this but you. Do we really need to know about the geological processes that formed this valley or can’t we just get to the part with the guy finding the pregnant girl?” So, going back to that destructionist-revisionist dichotomy, I definitely came to a “kill your darlings” moment. The crucial part was linking the characters with their natural element and letting them think about it, rather than me doing poor man’s John McPhee.
Guernica: Your characters often end up telling stories to themselves or to others of the implausible. Is that desire to create believability out of near impossibility part of the challenge of fiction for you?
Claire Vaye Watkins: It’s crucial for me to know my character’s wildest fantasies, their hopes and dreams for the future. A refrain from one of my teachers was: You need to know the story the characters are telling themselves, and then beyond that, you have to know the story your characters are telling themselves about the stories they tell themselves. We have all meta-narratives inside us. It’s not a coincidence that we talk about character in terms of depth and mining metaphors. We have our hopes and dreams on the surface. Beneath that we have our fears that those hopes are in reaction to and beneath that, the magical thinking that allows us to go on everyday in the face of those significant fears. It’s an excavation process for me. Once I get down to the bedrock of it, the story is usually done. It surprises me every time it happens.
Starting with the landscape of stories lets me take the long way around to writing about the things that scare me. Like how to be a woman in the West.
Guernica: Speaking of the need to cling to hopes despite what’s going on around you, it’s a weird time for women (not that it ever wasn’t). Fanatical politician men are falling all over themselves to define rape and abortion—there’s an urgency about our particular cultural moment that comes through in Battleborn. Were you conscious of that as your wrote?
Claire Vaye Watkins: At a certain point with every single one of these stories I had to ask myself, “Why are you interested in this?” Starting with the landscape of stories lets me take a long way around to writing about the things that scare me. Like how to be a woman in the West. Or how to be a good sister. Or what do you do with your want to be a mother someday, even though your own mother hurt you really badly? The thing is to be brave and to go towards the thing you don’t understand, the thing you can’t even admit to yourself that you’re writing about and yet manage to write about it honestly and look at it in the eye.
Flannery O’Connor talks a lot about fiction writers looking for a long time at the places where people normally look away. If the stories feel urgent, it’s because I was in a place where I was making sure that I was writing something that scared me, something really close to the bone. Every single one of these stories I feel nervous and scared about reading in public. I wouldn’t want to have too tight a grasp on them. I wouldn’t want them to feel so crafted that I wasn’t afraid to talk about them in front of strangers.
Guernica: Your characters spend a lot of time outwardly brave and inwardly fearful, worrying about the dark legacies they’ve inherited. They’re wise in the sense that they know they can’t evade their past, yet they remain willing to believe in future freedom.
I went to an adviser and said “I’m thinking about becoming a women’s studies major. What is women’s studies?” The adviser told me. I said, “Cool. One question: What is feminism?” The adviser said, “Oh, well, you know, feminism holds the contention that women should be politically, economically, and socially equal with men.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s a thing? That’s pretty much the religion in my house.”
Claire Vaye Watkins: Yes, they realize the futility of trying to shake off toxic legacies, yet they still shimmy and try to shake it. That’s where I’m at right now. I don’t believe we have a much of chance of connecting with each other or of healing each other’s wounds. Yet there’s something vital in trying. When the characters talk about doing their best, that’s as close as it gets to transcendence for them: doing their best in walking forward, even against significant headwinds.
Guernica: Along the lines of doing one’s best in the headwinds—you run a workshop for teens in the desert?
Claire Vaye Watkins: This summer, with luck, will be our first session. It will take place in my hometown, Pahrump, Nevada. It’s modeled off experiences I had as a kid, going to Shakespeare Camp, being exposed to other kids who were nerdy and loved to read, meeting adults who wanted to spend a couple hours talking about iambic pentameter. It’s a little corny but it was a formative experience for me to be exposed to that. The town where I’m from has significant headwinds. It’s underserved, as the euphemism goes. Poor. I thought it would be good for kids there to have a space to escape to and dork out a little bit. We’re partnering with an organization called NyE Communities Coalition. I hope it works out.
Guernica: Growing up in a tiny town, was there a person around you that you attached to as “the artist”?
East Coasters are always talking about how the book is violent and gritty. People in the West never remark about its grittiness. Flannery O’Connor used to say that people from the North will call anyone from the South grotesque but what Southerners call them is real. The grit doesn’t always translate.
Claire Vaye Watkins: Pretty much everyone in my family is an artist, though we didn’t necessarily have the language for that. My mom was a photographer and a writer. She always had notebooks and books around the house, not necessarily short fiction, but she was a learner and a thinker. My aunts and uncles are painters and musicians and sculptors. My sister’s a writer and a photographer. In our household—even though it was working class—creation and creativity held the highest value. In that way, my mom was massively influential for me, though we didn’t walk around saying, “I’m a writer” or “I’m an artist.” It was the same thing with feminism, actually.
Going into college I had this idea that I would be a geologist and a feminist scholar, but I didn’t really know what that was. I read in the course catalog about women’s studies. I went to an adviser and said “I’m thinking about becoming a women’s studies major. What is women’s studies?” The adviser told me. I said, “Cool. One question: What is feminism?” The adviser said, “Oh, well, you know feminism holds the contention that women should be politically, economically and socially equal with men.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s a thing? That’s pretty much the religion in my house.” But I didn’t know there was a word for it. A lot of my college years were about naming concepts that had been held up to me as important since I could remember. My dad was a musician too, so the whole artistic world had always been present for me.
Guernica: Many of Battleborn’s stories are set in Nevada, in the West—Hollywood and the movies are ever-present. Were there films or filmmakers that influenced or inspired the book?
Claire Vaye Watkins: One wonderful series I discovered was a documentary series called Pleasure for Sale that was shot in a brothel near my house in the early 2000s. And then there’s another documentary that I forget the name of that was set in the ’80s in the same exact brothel. For me, who’s interested in drilling down through time, it was incredible to see this same room in two completely different eras, in one they’re on the radio, in the other they’re on the internet. In one people are arriving in little planes, in the other in long stretch Hummers. I admire the visual texture of Wes Anderson films. I wanted to write stories you could see in super-saturated color, like Georgia O’Keeffe.
You know that Joan Didion piece about how when Georgia O’Keeffe took her paintings to the East people thought they were too garish? Finally, a collector ended up coming to the Southwest and was like, “Oh. Those colors are here.” I wanted to write those stories. One phenomenon I’ve been tickled by observing is the way people from different regions respond to the book. East Coasters are always talking about how the book is violent and gritty. People in the West never remark about its grittiness. It reminds me of how Flannery O’Connor used to say that people from the North will call anyone from the South grotesque but what Southerners call them is real. The grit doesn’t always translate.
Guernica: Were there other visual influences?
There’s a narrative about the desert that feeds you the idea that this isn’t a worthwhile place.
Claire Vaye Watkins: I have a real fondness for old, kitschy, technicolor postcards from the Southwest. Usually they’ve got a cowboy leaning on a plastic horse, something like that. I wanted to replicate a bit of that in scenes—the sun-drenched qualities of the West. I could always see the stories. I could hear the language often, but I could definitely always see the image. The image of the whorehouse at the long end of the road, the taillights of the car as it pulled up.
Guernica: There’s a set piece in “The Archivist” in which the main character creates a museum to love in her mind. There’s a compulsive need that these characters have to memorialize the discarded. Whether it’s the guy in “Man-O-War” collecting geodes thrown off fireworks blasts or the curio shelf that the character in “The Archivist” creates from the trash emptied out of her lover’s pockets. What is the link for you between capturing what’s castoff and your experiences growing up?
Claire Vaye Watkins: You can’t really live in a place like Nevada and not feel like that’s your whole life story. I grew up one mountain range over from Las Vegas. You could see the lights. You’d feel marginalized. You have this whole big wide place and there’s a couple miles of the strip that everyone knows about. So you grow up in a place that has been discarded. And not only that, it’s constantly called a wasteland and designated as a worthless place, which has a lot to do with us as a culture justifying treating the land badly or neglecting it—dumping nuclear wastes into it or exploding an atomic bomb.
There’s a narrative about the desert that feeds you the idea that this isn’t a worthwhile place. Luckily I have family who were pretty diligently memorializing it. My mom started a museum in Shoshone, California on the southern edge of Death Valley, a rock shop and a museum. For a long time we had a rattlesnake frozen in our freezer. We spent a lot of time making dioramas of old schoolhouses. We spent a lot of time trying to find the texture of lost places and lost things, and that was obviously a huge influence on me.
Once I lost my mom, after she died, there was a process of wanting to accumulate—to take an image from the book—broken “walls of heartache” all around you. That’s what was happening for me on a macro level, on a political level, on an environmental level and on a very personal level—wanting to preserve your life and your love.
Guernica: The desire to find a way to create a collection of things to hold onto and to hold up—I wondered about your feelings about fiction and nonfiction. Do you consider yourself a fiction writer? Are you annoyed about the fiction-nonfiction split?
Claire Vaye Watkins: I’m not annoyed by it but I’m really bored by conversations about the differences in form. I don’t find that nearly as interesting as John D’Agata does. I think if you lie, it’s fiction. If you don’t, it’s not. I’m puzzled by our fascination with it and wanted to tweak around and fuck with that a bit, formally and theoretically. I don’t find the questions about the ethics of nonfiction interesting, especially when compared with the questions about what fiction does to us. How come we finish a piece and go: “I bet that really happened. Richard Ford, I can tell you really worked at that mine out at Rock Springs.” I’m interested in what the process of creating in ink and papyrus does to us that we mourn for characters after we finish a book. I wanted to write stories that ask the question: “Why is that?” That celebrate that incredibly empathetic, magical thing that happens because it’s a kind of telepathy, somebody you’ll never meet—Richard Ford or Joan Didion or Charles Dickens—making you feel something so hard that it’s like it happened in your guts.
Guernica: In terms of your own sense of fiction and nonfiction—were you disappointed by reading your dad’s memoir? Did it come across to you as honest?
Claire Vaye Watkins: I was and was not disappointed. I was thrilled and comforted to have more information about him, and to have the story told from his perspective, through his voice. But his book is co-written, so any sense of comfort or insight it brought was mediated by not knowing how much of this story was even his. So you see why I struggle to write about him in traditional Aristotelian way.
Guernica: What are you working on now?
Claire Vaye Watkins: A top-secret novel. What can I tell you without being overly superstitious? It’s about the water crisis and conspiracy theories. It’s set in the Mojave Desert, although in a futuristic incarnation. I’m going to write my own blurb for that project right now. Ready? It’s like if Kurt Vonnegut wrote The Road.
Guernica: What have you read as of late that blew your hair back?
Claire Vaye Watkins: I’m reading The Intuitionist. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude for the first time and that’s knocking my socks off. I’m also reading Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. And, all the love to Colson Whitehead and Gabriel García Márquez, but A Heart So White is the best book I’ve read in a long time.
Guernica: Your greatest hope in writing?
Claire Vaye Watkins: I hope my writing will move people, and that that movement might bring them some wisdom and comfort.