Rachel Mercer speaks with author Claire Vaye Watkins about her first collection of short stories, Battleborn, and about home, homesickness, and moving on.
Pink Horse. Photo courtesy of Claire Vaye Watkins.
Battleborn is Claire Vaye Watkins’s first collection of short stories. The author grew up in Nevada, and this particular setting infuses her work. While in each story a different set of characters grapples with a different set of problems—situated either in this millennium or way back in 1800s—the telling is consistently awash in the bright light, open spaces, and howling winds of the west. Location, minutely described, inherently felt, is the unifying force in Battleborn, similar to the way films about the Wild West begin with a panorama of a desert landscape. However, the book is no old Spaghetti. Watkins’s stories are undeniably modern: they portray everyday people in everyday situations, which are often bleak and uncertain.
In “Rondine al Nido,” two teenage girls visit Las Vegas for a night, finding themselves partying in a hotel room of a casino with three strange boys they’ve just met, and watching as the lines between right and wrong, fun and fatal, become blurred. In “Ghosts, Cowboys,” Watkins explores her family history, which includes her father’s involvement in the Charles Manson Family at Spahn Ranch in California during the late ’60s. “The Diggings,” set during the California Gold Rush, tells of the unraveling of the minds of two brothers as they search desperately for “color” in the unyielding waters of the river. “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” explores the inner world of a brothel in the Nevada desert—the people who live, work, and visit there, and the cracks and seams that run within each of them. Throughout the book, Watkins exposes and explores many paradoxes, quandaries that ground her characters and make them real.
I got in touch with Watkins and established our common southwestern roots before the interview began. Reading Battleborn called up in me the exact feeling of standing in the sun with a dry wind whipping my face, looking across the sagebrush at a dark blue storm building majestically on the horizon. This natural element serves as a backdrop for Watkins’s work, standing in contrast to the seedy towns—all strip malls and fast food chains, gimmicky tourist shops selling turquoise and silver, and power plants cutting the skyline—that populate much of the southwest. What moved me about the book was the way it captured both beauty and horror and how the juxtaposition of these realms spurs Watkins’s characters toward beautiful and horrific acts.
Rachel Mercer You incorporate a lot of history into your stories, especially “Ghosts, Cowboys” and “The Diggings.” I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you go about researching—or if you knew all that information before—and how you integrate it into your fiction.
Claire Vaye Watkins Yeah, I knew everything. I’m omniscient, which is really helpful. (laughter) I always do a lot of research for every story, and in “The Diggings” and “Ghosts, Cowboys,” it’s probably more obvious—in “The Diggings” especially, because it’s historical. And “Ghosts, Cowboys” kind of foregrounds its constructedness so you can see that part of the accumulation of information is in fact what the character is interested in, thematically.
I usually end up writing a story because I’m kind of obsessed about some topic or other. I’m obsessed with brothels and rocks and motherhood and babies and undutiful daughters and all the kind of obsessions that keep recurring through [the book]. But then I also get really into a specific historical moment. Like 1849, the Gold Rush. So, I usually read rather obsessively about something for a long time before I even start to write a story and then when I am writing it, I draw on that. I usually return to that because I want to figure out the rhythm of the way people talk—and not just in 1849. I wonder, how might a prostitute living out in the Mohave Desert talk, or how might this old farmer in Verdi talk—what would his letters be like? So it helps me really get into peoples’ heads.
RM So, with your characters, do you completely make them up or are they based on people you know? Where do you find them?
CVW Well, I started every story in Battleborn with the setting, actually. In terms of process, I started with the setting. I can never really get a handle on who characters are unless I can understand where they are, what they look at in the morning, what the weather is like, what the air feels like. And maybe, since you’ve come a long way, you’ll recognize that phenomenon. I think it really changes who you are and where your mind is to wake up in Taos, NM versus to wake up in NYC. The extremity of that example is even a little bit hokey, but I think that’s something that seems very true to the way we are as people: we are who we are because of where we are.
So, I would start with the place and then I would often write pages and pages and pages of description of the place, really big descriptions too—geologically, how is this valley formed? What are the rocks made up of, and why do certain plants grow there? And so on. Sometimes that was true, based on research and knowledge I have, and a lot of times it was just made up. But eventually I would get to the people there, and by the time I got to them, I could have some sense of the trouble they would get into.
I think probably any character in Battleborn that’s a success is successful because they have this kind of nugget of someone I know. I found that for them to feel real to me I had to add a dash of people I know. I have to ask myself, why are you even interested in this person? And then I think, well maybe it’s because they remind me of the way I treated my sister like shit when we were kids, or it’s interesting because I wonder if my friend is in love with my other friend—something like that—
RM —Drawing on experiences you’ve had and piecing them together.
CVW I doubt that people who are being drawn into the stories would even recognize themselves. Sometimes I don’t even recognize them by the time it’s all over. “The Archivist” is probably more—at least superficially—it’s more obviously based on someone I know. I let that person read the story, after I’d been working on it for maybe four months. I let him read it because we were going to be in a workshop together anyway and I was like, you might as well, I don’t want you to be blindsided by this. He got really angry at me. We are great, great friends now, but I think he felt kind of betrayed or exposed. I was just stupidly bewildered by his response, which was a normal, very understandable response—someone has written about you and you feel like, what right do you have to put me in a public venue like this? But by that time, I didn’t even think about it. I kept saying, “It’s not even you, it’s not even you! It’s Ezra, it’s Ezra.” And he was like, “Obviously, I’m Ezra.” But by that time, very honestly, Ezra had kind of warped and metastasized and absorbed my friend and so he wasn’t in there anymore. Although, of course, that was little consolation to my friend.
RM Does that process just take place the more and more you write a character? If you start with that nugget of somebody you know, how does the character take on a life of their own?
CVW Well, it was actually the reverse for me. I didn’t start with this nugget of a person I knew; I would always start by thinking, I want to write somebody totally made up. I thought that writers who drew on their personal experiences were somehow lesser formed or immature; or I thought it was something a young writer did, and I was embarrassed and kind of ashamed that that was something I did. So I would always be like, no, I’m going to write someone who’s unlike anybody I know, totally new, twist them away and away and away from my life as much as I could. But eventually, I would get to a point, sometimes consciously, but sometimes subconsciously, where [the character] just didn’t feel real to me unless I asked myself, why are you interested in this person? And the answer to that question was inevitably, because, well, I was interested in my stepfather, or I was interested in something in my experience, in my life.
I eventually had to make peace with my writing process and stop being ashamed and stop thinking that I was … you know what it was? It was that I was afraid I was writing like a girl.
RM I was reading an interview of yours from somewhere else, and the interviewer said something about how your writing felt more like a “man’s kind of writing” because it’s so, I think the implication was that it was so distanced from you, that it feels like it’s really taken on a life of its own and it’s really well-researched, and it’s not all emotional and introspective. I’m really interested in that issue of “female” versus “male” writing, and if there is such a thing.
CVW Once you ask yourself what that means, it really becomes obvious that male writing versus female writing has almost nothing to do with the actual writing itself; it has everything to do with your basic run-of-the-mill sexist bullshit that happens everywhere. Which is really sad because I always thought of writing and art as a sacred space, you know? It’s like realizing that a university is run a lot like a corporation.
But I think I was internalizing a lot of that stuff early on because I was like, don’t write “girly” stories about women who are like you and their feelings. But I wrote some good stories that are like that, I think. And the stories that are supposedly more masculine in the book, I wrote the same way. It’s more just the cultural baggage that people bring to [the work] that makes them think it’s “masculine,” whatever that means.
RM Could you talk about the decisions you make in regard to time and chronology and the way your stories move forward? A lot of them reminded me of Alice Munro and how she’ll kind of nest a certain narrative thread within another narrative thread that’s taking place at a different time altogether. In “Rondine al Nido” the character is in the present, but she’s talking about this thing that happened in the past, and I’m wondering, out of all the possible ways that a story could move forward or how time could operate, how do you make those decisions?
CVW A couple things happen when I start to think about what you might categorize as craft choices. Battleborn is something I wrote during graduate school and so it was my education. And I felt interested in and obligated to learn, so I always wanted to try something new. I would also get really really bored. It’s a paradox because you think, if I could just master this, or, I wish I were good at this. But then the second I would get something under my belt—like, okay, I can do images of … mountains or whatever—as soon as I could do that, I wasn’t interested in it anymore, you know? So I would just get frankly bored pretty easily.
So I would give myself a little experiment. I would be like, what haven’t I done yet? And as the book went on and on, that became harder. At one point I was like, well I haven’t yet written a future tense story. My teacher, L. K. Abbott, has this really great story that’s written in the future tense, and he’s really just showing off on the page, you know, he’s a real badass. And I was like, I want to give that a try. And my other teacher, Christopher Coake, has a story that is a story within a story, and it’s basically two lovers in bed and one of them tells a story of something horrible he did. It’s in a collection called We’re in Trouble, and that’s one of my favorite stories of all time. So I wanted to try something like that. Also Mary Gaitskill’s story, “The Girl in the Plain,” a much-anthologized story. “Rondine al Nido” definitely owes a lot to that. I kind of thought of it as telling that story from a different, from another perspective, or maybe enacting the fact that that story happens all the time. It happened there, it happened in Las Vegas in 2001, etc. etc. That’s the reason for the experiments with time: I wanted to see if I could do it.
RM And it seems that something similar to giving yourself these little challenges is the way that you use physical artifacts in some of the stories. In “The Last Thing We Need,” it’s an epistolary, basically, and then in “The Archivist,” there are these little placards [describing art pieces the narrator imagines herself making]. I was fascinated by the use of physical objects to tell a story.
CVW That’s kind of a mode that runs throughout the collection, but it wasn’t one that I was as conscious of as I was of, okay, pick a new place, or pick a point of view, or pick a character that you haven’t worked with before. But I’m glad to hear you say it. With “The Last Thing We Need,” what I set out to do was basically one of the experiments. I decided I wanted to write an epistolary story and then I decided I wanted to write a mystery. So you get this sort of cache of evidence in the beginning, all the clues, and then it kind of unravels. But it turns out I don’t really have the chops to write a story like that, so it turned into something different. I like what it is. I just really wanted to write a traditional mystery story where you’re like, aha! This is what happened to Duane Moser. But damn Duane Moser just never revealed himself to me.
RM It almost seems like the angle you take on a story is completely arbitrary, and it’s like you just make a choice and go with it. And that is a really hard thing to reconcile because it just takes so much time to allow it to unfold and also to make commitments to taking a particular angle that you might not be an expert at and you most likely aren’t. You have to learn as you go.
CVW Right, every time you make a choice, you close other options off, just like in life. But I think you’re totally right. It could be kind of freeing. I think I’m going to tell my students that. “Honestly, in many ways it doesn’t matter what choice you make.” Although, in many ways, that would be pretty much antithetical to what I teach them every day. But you’re right! You can say, alright make it an epistolary story or not; make it first person or make it third; make it about an old man, make it about a young girl. But ultimately, if you can do it well, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just committing that’s important.
RM It’s kind of Zen in that way. Everything matters and nothing matters.
CVW Totally! Yeah, I think I’ll start a new school of craft, which is like the Buddhists. Have no attachments to your stories. Easy to say with a story, though, and then a novel is a whole other fucking thing.
RM Right, and you’re working on a novel, is that right? How is that going?
CVW Oh, it’s awful. It’s going awfully. I’ve told friends in the past that if something’s scary or shitty, that’s a good sign because most good things started out as scary and shitty. But I’m starting to think that that was bullshit, what I was telling them, because it doesn’t feel fun or good. But it never really feels good for me. I always kind of dread writing. Sometimes I even get a stomachache before my writing time. Just winding myself up about it.
RM Do you try to write every day?
CVW I do try. I sure do try to write every day. I think about writing every day. I have a normal time in the morning that I write if I can, and I often do, but it’s often, you know, a turd sandwich.
RM I have another set of questions that has to do with home, the concept of home. And it probably comes up because the settings of your stories resonated so much with me and also the fact that you’re from Nevada, and you’re writing about Nevada, which is such a stereotyped and mythologized place. With the west and the southwest there’s the cowboys and Indians thing, and with Nevada there’s the casinos and anarchy thing. How do you write about the place you’re from?
CVW It didn’t really occur to me to write about Nevada until I left Nevada. Which, now that I’ve lived a little bit, I’ve realized is a pretty common experience: to feel moreNevadan when you leave Nevada. But at the time it was pretty shocking to me, pretty surprising, how homesick I was. I graduated from the University of Nevada in Reno, and I went to Ohio State for grad school, in Columbus, OH. And I always feel a little bit hokey saying it was a culture shock but it really was a culture shock. I mean, I had never really left the west, pretty much at all. I had hardly even left Nevada at all. And also my mom had just died that same year. She died like three months before I moved to Ohio, so there was all this trauma going on, all this grief, and just pretty much the most epic bout of homesickness you can imagine. So I think one of the ways I started to work it out was just to write about the places that I really missed. And then I just kept going, and I think I thought the homesickness would go away … I don’t know what I thought. What a silly idea, now that I say it out loud, that I could write grief away.
RM I saw Joyce Carol Oates speak in June and something she said was, “I’m a really lonely, homesick person.” It wasn’t that homesickness was just a phase. It was that it characterized her being and she was like, “Writing is the only thing I can do to alleviate that for the time being.”
CVW That’s exactly … I’m exactly like Joyce Carol Oates! (laughter) No, but I have realized that, for example, I’m homesick even when I’m at my home, whatever that is. I have to live with that feeling, and I have a really good life, and I’m generally a very happy person, but I have to work to get that way, definitely. So I think that comes out in the stories, that always wanting. Feeling like you need something—it’s like being homesick for a home that doesn’t exist anymore.
RM Right, because even when you’re there, it’s not what you thought it would be.
CVW And in a more literal way. Right when I left Nevada my mom died and then my family moved from this small town where we lived to Las Vegas—my stepdad and my sister—so nobody from my family lived where we lived before so I didn’t really have any [reason to go back]. I mean, I’ve been back and I go back a lot and I’m trying to start this nonprofit, [The Mojave School], there in fact, maybe so I’ll have a reason to go back a lot because I felt like I had a whole part of me amputated.
RM Well, that brings me to the question: Why do people have to leave home, and what does that have to do with being an artist?
RM It’s kind of a broad, meditative question, not necessarily meant to be answered.
CVW It’s a great question. I wish all the time that we had a society that was set up differently. Why can’t we all live in the pueblo, where we’ve lived for thousands of years? But you’re right, there is something about leaving … maybe it’s the distance or maybe it’s the homesickness. I never would have written Battleborn if I’d never left Nevada. Sometimes I think that’s really great, but it’s actually quite a small consolation to me. If there was some sort of deal I could make, like, you have to giveBattleborn back but you can stay, and here’s some little cabin at Lake Tahoe.
RM And you would give it back?
CVW Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m not really that attached to Battleborn. I miss my family, and I miss my desert. I have a fondness for Battleborn, and making good art is really really really important to me. It’s kind of the closest thing I have to religion—that, and hiking—but it’s not more important to me than my family or my home or actual, real people. It’s just ink and papyrus, you know?
RM Sometimes I wish I could shut my thinking faculties down. I would exchange something for that, so that I could move through the world not missing home and not thinking about where I’m going to go in the world and where my place is going to be. But and I think those questions are the genesis of something else productive. It’s just so painful on the way.
CVW I agree. I think it’s Wallace Stegner who says that movement is the central motif of the West. And I don’t know about your people, but my people haven’t really been in Nevada for very long. I mean, my mom was born and raised there but that’s unusual for someone in Las Vegas. And most people in the west haven’t really been there that long. Old families are like three generations or something. Our roots just aren’t that deep. And anyway in America now, to be successful you’re supposed to betray your home and your family and just forget about them. We’re all a bunch of Gatsby’s running around and then we wonder why we feel so empty sometimes. But then again, I can be quite nostalgic about that kind of thing. Do I really have a home to go back to? No, not anymore. It’s just a trailer in the Mohave Desert; it doesn’t give me what I need.
RM It’s that nostalgia for the present moment.
CVW Yes, just like Joyce Carol Oates.
RM Southwest fiction: it’s kind of a small grouping, but if there was a canon of southwestern literature, who would you place in it and what would you say designates them as writers? I’m being sort of a Southwestist.
CVW My beau and I have this ongoing joke where I say, “I know I always talk about the west as though it’s the best place that ever existed and the best place that ever will exist, but that’s just because it is.” And he says, “Here comes your western exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, coming through our apartment.”
In terms of Southwest literature, I don’t actually read very widely or deeply in that canon. I have read a little more Nevada writing—Robert Laxalt, Willy Vlautin. But for a long time I didn’t think there were any books about Nevada, which is just my ignorance. One of the things I thought about with Battleborn—I was reading a lot of anthologized fiction and I loved it, but something that was nagging on me was, none of these people look like my people. This doesn’t look like Pahrump, Nevada. And I thought—eventually, once I had the distance—well, maybe I’ll try to do that.
I realize I’m not answering your question, but I guess it’s because I don’t know much about it. Who do you think I should read?
RM I don’t even know either. Names that have come up have been Antonya Nelson, Edward Abbey.
CVW I love Ed Abbey. Pam Huston’s work I like a lot. And Richard Ford. Nevada’s tricky because it’s the southwest but it’s also the mountain west and the Great Basin. Northern Nevadans would not say they’re southwesterners, which is weird.
But when you think about southwest, people like Joy Harjo and N. Scott Momaday, Native American writers, come to mind. Not that they’re all from the southwest, but that’s just kind of what gets represented. It’s basically the equivalent of the Kokopelli or the turquoise and orange prints on things. There’s this kind of tokenism going on. I like some of that writing and then some of it seems a little mystical. I mean, I’m pretty mystical myself but some of it is just too much, too new-agey. That’s fine if that’s what people want to write, but I wonder why that’s the thing that represents the southwest in the wider literary conversation.
RM Taos is totally inundated in that kind of new-age thinking, and having grown up in it, it’s really hard to even begin to talk about the place without sounding like I’m playing into all the stereotypes, which ties into the question about how a person writes about their home and how you address those kinds of issues without slipping into them? You achieved that, though, in “Wish You Were Here,” with that newlywed couple that’s going through this eating fad and trying to “find” themselves. There are so many people doing that, but [in the story], there was just enough distance; you wrote about it without being stuck in it.
CVW You really have to not swallow the bullshit that you’re told about your place. The popular story, the myth, is almost always a flat, uninteresting thing. I acknowledge that there are casinos [in Nevada], but what’s happening inside them on a personal level? With this group [from “Rondine al Nido”]—two girls, three guys, in a casino—what’s going to happen? I’m not pretending there isn’t a lot of lovely turquoise in Taos, but what else is there?
Sometimes the book gets categorized as a rejection of the myth of the American West, but I don’t think it’s that. It’s probably more that I’m interested in [that myth], and I want to explore it and deepen it. How is the idea of Manifest Destiny or the legacy of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site—how does that manifest itself in an individual, almost on the cellular level, but of course mostly in the heart? What does being fed all that mythology do to a person? A subset of my family is really new-agey. And I’m like, oh this is bullshit, I’m just an apathetic atheist, I don’t really care. But every once in a while, I’ll say something like, “There are very bad vibes in here right now. I’m getting some very bad vibes.” So, you internalize these stories and you have to ask yourself, What are the stories my characters know about themselves?
Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins’s first collection of short stories, was released in August 2012 by Riverhead Books.
Claire Vaye Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the Nevada desert. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, The Hopkins Review,Hobart, One Story, Ploughshares, and Las Vegas Weekly. She is an assistant professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Rachel Mercer is a fiction writer from Taos, New Mexico. She now lives in Brooklyn and writes for BOMBlog.