PictureReality Was More Surreal Than I Could Have Imagined: An Interview with Claire Vaye Watkins

Interview conducted by Kimberly Garza 

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.

KG: The plot is not too far-fetched, especially now—it’s not that crazy of an idea. Do you find that when you’re writing something that seems speculative but not too speculative, it’s more difficult to make it grounded in realism?

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 di