Claire Vaye Watkins was born in California and raised in the Mojave Desert. Her debut story collection, Battleborn, was published in 2012 and earned her the Story Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and a spot on the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” among other awards. Her stories and essays have appeared in such places as Granta, Tin House, The Paris Review, One Story, and Best of the Southwest.
Watkins’ second book and first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, centers on a speculative future for her native American West: a time when fierce drought has eliminated all water in the region, transforming Southern California into a blistered wasteland and its citizens into “Mojavs” sent to internment camps and prevented from leaving the desert. Hidden from the turmoil, a young Mojav couple and a mysterious child head east on a dangerous road, seeking another kind of life. Gold Fame Citrus was released in September to much acclaim: Vanity Fair says it “burns with a dizzying, scorching genius”; Louise Erdrich calls it “exhilarating, upsetting, delirious, bold.”
A graduate of the University of Nevada Reno and the Ohio State University, Watkins teaches at the University of Michigan and is co-director of The Mojave School, a free creative writing workshop for teens in rural Nevada. She spoke with American Literary Review staffer Kimberly Garza about envisioning the near future, finding “mushrooms” in novels, and not defending the West.
Kimberly Garza: You’ve been pretty busy, with Gold Fame Citrus coming out this fall. Can you talk a little about the novel? It’s been described by critics as “science fiction,” but would you call it that?
Claire Vaye Watkins: Yeah, sure. I’m more interested in readers determining their own labels, but it is definitely engaging in a speculative endeavor, an imagined one—the culmination of the water crisis in the Southwest and the drought in California. But that’s really just the window dressing for the book. It’s actually pretty conventional: a love story, a story about belief and the environment and the natural world and all the stuff that I’ve been doing for a few years.
CVW: I think that the subject matter demanded a more realistic approach. For example, as I was working on the book early on, I thought of it as being really out there, completely speculative, high-fantasy, almost. Like it might as well have been set on Mars. And then I tried to think up what was, in my mind, crazy stuff that could happen if the West ran out of water. Just insane, off the wall, almost satirically proportioned stuff. So I would think, like, “OK, what if they installed a drain at the bottom of Lake Mead—the whole reservoir that gives Las Vegas and much of the Southwest their water? Then what if they just drained that thing?” And then I would look into it and realize that that project is well underway. In fact, [in September] they removed the cap from that drain—they call it a straw—so that straw is now pulling water to reach people in Las Vegas.
CVW: [Laughs.] Yeah. And that happened again and again and again and again. Everything crazy that I tried to imagine, I’d look into it and find that it already happened during the Dust Bowl or something. Basically, reality was more surreal than I could have imagined. So I found that I had to treat it more seriously at some point.
KG: I’m going to ask that question, so be prepared. Having gone from a collection to a novel—what do you think of that process? Is it any different? Was one more natural than the other?
CVW: It was really completely different. For one, the novel doesn’t offer many psychological boosts along the way. With a story collection, you can finish a story. You can feel pretty good that that’s an intact thing. It’s kind of like in “Mario Bros.” when Mario gets a mushroom and he gets big and [imitates the videogame growth sound effect]. You’re like, “Ahaha! I’m big!” And that propels you into the next story. With a novel, there are no mushrooms at all. [Laughs.] You’re just little the whole time, and just trying not to get hit by a fireball.
But at some point I realized, about a year in, that the novel was a much more accepting genre. That it had more welcoming arms—that it could tolerate digressions, and backtracking, and stylistic shenanigans much more readily than my short stories. My short stories tend to be kind of rigid: There’s one thing that you’re up to, and you have to do that and get out of there. With a novel, there was much more at play, I felt.
KG: You mentioned stylistic shenanigans. In Battleborn, you do play around with forms and voices, like in “Rondine al Nido,” which is sort of a possessive, distant “our girl” voice, and “The Last Thing We Need,” the epistolary story. And in the chapter from your book [excerpted as “Wasteland, Wasteland, Wasteland” by The Kenyon Review] it’s first-person plural: “We came across the mole man.” Do you gain anything from playing around with voice or form? Do you have one you’re comfortable with and then you’re pushing yourself to do others?
CVW: I think it has something to do with having promiscuous sensibilities and reading very widely. I’m not a writer who thinks there’s one supreme aesthetic, or one style that I should run up my flagpole and advocate for. I actually get quite bored when I feel like I have to stick with a certain type of writing. That was probably my biggest fear when I approached the novel—I just don’t want to be stuck in one mode for too long. And then I guess I was just like, “OK, well, then don’t.” One chapter might be first-person plural, from the point of view of this town; another one might be written as an interview with the suspect of a crime. There’s one chapter in the book that’s called a primer on “Neo-Fauna of the [Amargosa] Dune Sea”—and it’s like an amateur naturalist guide to cataloging all the new creatures that have come to being. It kind of speaks to what I was saying about play: Once I realized I should be having fun, and not worrying so much about finding the one true voice—that it could be a cacophony of voices—I was much happier as a writer.
KG: I was wondering if that [first-person plural] chapter was indicative of what everything in the book was, or if that was playing around with it.
CVW: It’s actually very funny: There’s a little bit of trickiness in excerpting this book because so many sections are completely different from each other. It’s roughly arranged chronologically, follows the same plot and the same characters, so in some ways it’s really straightforward. But stylistically, you could read one excerpt and then buy the book and be like, “This is not what I thought it would be!” That’s true of pretty much any part that I excerpted—I feel like a little bit of a bait-and-switch is going on. So I hope you still like it even though probably none of it is like the thing you read.
KG: But I think that’s what’s interesting about it. Of course, some people may have issues with it, but that’s what I at least enjoy about collections—that I can change from one subject to another, one perspective to another. I love the idea of seeing that in a novel.
CVW: Particularly when you’re dealing with subject matter like drought and destruction and destroyed dreams—stuff that’s hard to read. I wanted to make room for experimentation and humor and sensuality and all these other dimensions of the human experiment that you don’t necessarily get in a book except maybe The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s one book that is really, really great at doing what it’s doing, but there’s not much dimension in what it’s doing. Though I haven’t read it in years, so maybe it’s got more dimension than I remember.
KG: From what I remember, it’s got that first-person perspective, then it sticks with that. You’re limited to what she [the main character, Offred] is describing, what she transcribes in her tapes.
KG: Switching gears here. You’re hailed as a Western writer. Of course that’s where you’re from, that’s where you often choose to write about—and in this book as well, you’re speculating on a future for the West. What do you think about being associated with a region? Can it be an anchor in some ways, or is it a comfort to you? I’m from Texas, so I can sympathize.
CVW: I think I’m pretty vigilant not to adopt the regional biases of our writer culture at large. So if I were to bristle at being called a Western writer, it would ignore the fact that all America is a land of regionalists. Melville was a regional writer; Hawthorne was a regional writer. We just treat certain regions differently than other regions.
I decided not to get in the business of defending the West, instead just writing good work and writing good work about it, and letting that speak for itself. But I think I’m certainly writing from a position of privilege. A lot of important writers have gone before me and defended the West, right? Everyone from Wallace Stegner and Thomas McGuane and Antonya Nelson to Pam Houston.
KG: One thing you talk about in Battleborn, and to some extent in Gold Fame Citrus, links place and people specifically to history: of a place, of a person. Do you find it tricky to work with that? Do you feel burdened by history, or a certain responsibility to it? Even in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” you kind of play with your own personal history and your family’s history.
CVW: It’s a natural part of my approach to work. When I start to think of a story I have to get a lot of backstory—and I’m talking like the natural history, and the history of European settlements of the area, but also the geologic formation of the valley. I have to read through a lot before I have real people interacting. But I suppose one reason why I’m looking backwards—this book Gold Fame Citrus is allegedly about the future, but it’s actually about the past. Its gaze is forwards, not backwards. I think that’s because I’ve come to believe that no region of the U.S. really buys its own bullshit as much as the American West. Even the South is tortured about it. It’s conflicted about its legacy; there’s a debate. But the American West is just like, “Yup—this is an exceptionally special place, and I am a rugged individualist.” We still buy the idea of manifest destiny, more or less. I’ve heard major figures, important writers from the American West talk about the West as beginning in 1850 and I’m just like, “Hello, dude, have you ever been out walking in the Sierras and found an arrowhead? Remember that? Three thousand years of important indigenous whole civilizations? Anybody remember that?” So, I think it could stand a little bit of the investigation. [Laughs.]
KG: Do you find that you have writing habits? I’m hesitant to ask about “process,” but do you have any rituals you do when you’re sitting down to write—if you do sit down to write?
CVW: You know, the one thing that’s consistent for me is that I have to downplay the method. I just got done writing before I called you, and I tell myself, “I’m just dicking around. I’m just playing. Genius does not have to happen here.” I just opened up my computer, and my kitchen table is covered with my kid’s stuff and work and a book about baby food and I’m just like, “No big deal.” If I get too grandiose in my mind I just—I choke, basically. I can’t remember who it was, I’m ashamed to say, but some writer described it as that she just had to tell herself, “Go play with your toys.” I really like that kind of thing. I used to have to hype it up, be like, “This is gonna be great! You can do it!” Like the Jay-Z approach to art-making. Now I’m like a little hunched yeoman: “Nope, I’m just plowing, hoeing my row, nothing to see here.”
KG: No pressure.
KG: That’s great. It takes the pressure off, and you’re actually doing it—which a lot of us tend to think is the hardest part of writing, just getting to it and cranking out words. That’s the most mundane part and yet the most important part.
Can you tell me about The Mojave School, which you co-direct? What is it, specifically?
CVW: It’s a weeklong workshop for teenagers in my hometown, Pahrump, Nevada. I started it partly because I had always really admired literary outreach and writers who made a conscious decision to be part of the community. But I also notice that, like, the rich communities—well, let’s just put it this way: There’s never gonna be an 826Pahrump. And for a few years I kind of bemoaned this fact to my husband [Derek Palacio], who’s also a writer. I just said, “Kids like me, the place where I’m from, nobody really says to you This place matters and your stories are important.” And he said to me, “Yes, somebody should do something about that. Somebody who knows how to teach creative writing.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know, somebody should!” And then after a couple of years I realized, “Oh—it’s me you’re talking about.”
I love doing it. I think what finally got me to do it was that I became a professor. And I realized right away that I needed some—fresh air in my life, in general, rather than being in this bubble of the academy of the whole time. I needed to move out. And you know, I need to get back to the desert and replenish the well. That’s the place where my stories come from. I don’t live there anymore, I don’t have any family in Pahrump anymore, and I guess I didn’t want to become detached from that place.
KG: So it’s as much a place, a haven, for you as it is for the students.
CVW: Oh yeah. Completely selfish. It’s like I’m there to make myself happier. And to read their amazing stories—they tell great stories, they have really interesting lives, and they feel things very intensely. I kind of need to be reminded what it’s like to be a teenager and to feel things so intensely. Remember that? [Laughs.] It’s also a breath of fresh air for a college professor because—I’m not sure if you’re teaching right now.
KG: I am.
CVW: So you know. When I go to The Mojave School, what is revealed to me is that so much of what college professors do depends on this given: that your students give a shit what you think about them. A lot of what they do, they do to please us, or to get a letter of recommendation.
KG: Or to get good grades.
CVW: Exactly. And I’m not convinced that is a really good thing for us as professors. You can kind of warp your sense of your own importance—which I happen to think is very little importance, for everybody. So my students at The Mojave School don’t really care what I think of them. They just want to have fun, and they’re not really worried about me. They’re just absolutely without pretension.
KG: So what’s next for you? Are you working on anything in particular now that you’ve published the novel? When you’re playing with your toys, what are you playing with?
CVW: I don’t think I can tell you yet. It’s too fragile.
KG: Are you constantly writing, at this point? Do you try to write each day?
CVW: No, not at all. I mean, I try! I think about writing all the time. But I had a baby, which is kind of like a hard drive wipe for the brain. I just think right now, I’m in the phase of “replenishing the well”—by reading a lot, and living, and getting adjusted to my new life.
Kimberly Garza has earned degrees in English, Spanish, and creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. Her fiction has been published in Bayou and the Avalon Literary Review; her nonfiction has been published in such magazines as Spirit, Vacations, Travel 50 and Beyond, and elsewhere. She lives in Denton, Texas, where she is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of North Texas and co-assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review.