Books In Conversation
Really Any Desert Creature: CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS with Allison Field Bell
Claire Vaye Watkins was born in Bishop, California in 1984. She was raised in the Mojave Desert, in Tecopa, California and across the state line in Pahrump, Nevada. A graduate of the University of Nevada Reno, Claire earned her MFA from the Ohio State University. She is the author of Gold Fame Citrus and Battleborn, and was one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.” A Guggenheim Fellow, she has been a professor at Bucknell University and Princeton, and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. She is also the co-director, with Derek Palacio, of the Mojave School, a free creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada.
I first had the privilege of meeting Claire Vaye Watkins on the coast of California at a Tomales Bay Writing by Writers workshop. I had read her story collection, Battleborn, her novel, Gold Fame Citrus, and her essay, “On Pandering.” I was equal parts intimidated, inspired, and envious of her ability to write sentences that knocked you on your ass, her nuanced and skillful prowess with nonfiction, her utterly ambitious narrative talent. I was in my last year of graduate school, and trying, feebly, to give shape to my own collection of stories. At Tomales, Claire was not my workshop leader but she took the time to answer all my half-formed, nervous questions about her books, about organizing a collection, about being a writer, and being a female writer. She even gifted me a good luck lip gloss, a memento I kept by my side through every subsequent draft of my story collection.
In the spring of 2017, on a visit to New Mexico State University, Claire generously agreed to answer more of my questions. The following is an excerpt from our phone conversation on April 27, 2017.
Allison Field Bell (Rail): In both your collection and your novel, you seem more than willing to push against traditional confines of form—I’ve heard you call this being “aesthetically promiscuous.” I really like that idea, and I’m interested to hear you talk more about how and why you make those narrative decisions—if they’re more subtle subconscious shifts or if they are actual decisions?
Claire Vaye Watkins: Well, yeah, probably a little bit of both. It’s never really been interesting to me to stake out a position about aesthetic or genre or subject matter, and then you know, run your little flag up the pole and it says minimalism or whatever. That seems really boring to me. And maybe it’s because I have a working-class background, and I learned to really “read as a writer” from anthologies. At my college, the professors would put free books out in the hallway at the end of every term, and I would just read those anthologies. And those are, by nature, all over the place. And that seems perfectly natural to me.
My mom’s library was very, well, I guess I would say aesthetically promiscuous. We just had one huge wall of books, no organizing principle as far as I could tell. There was fiction and nonfiction and guidebooks and maps, text books about geology and encyclopedias of the supernatural and things like Our Bodies, Our Selves and Tony Hillerman and pulpy kinds of books. And then there was George Orwell and Jane Austen. So, I just read all of that stuff.
And I rarely say, oh I want to fiddle with this, in terms of genre. Like I’d never say, oh I’ll sit down and write a piece of dystopia. I just see more of an image. In the case of Gold Fame Citrus, it was the big big sand dune—the dune sea. And then I just flesh it out: all right, who’s there, why are they there, what do they see, what do they feel about what they see? So I guess it’s very image driven, very character driven, very language driven.
This concept of genre or other aesthetic features of the work—usually those are assigned by other people after it’s published. This is a dystopia or this is an eco-fabulism—which I love all of that, and I’m really interested by those labels. I tip my hat to the people who come up with them, but that’s not really how I work.
Rail: I’m interested in your characters specifically, because I feel like they’re complex like any good literary character, but I also think that many of them are not what one might call conventionally likable. They’re more human, and I’m wondering about your relationship to characters, how you navigate your way to them emotionally, empathetically?
Watkins: Well, I tend to do a lot of reversals in my thought exercises when I’m thinking about a character. I think of my colleague, Robert Rosenberg, who was one of my early mentors when I started teaching—he called this “the improbable opposite.” When you say—and we do this all the time—well, a mother would never do that. What we’re doing is we’re reaching for the generic, because the writer hasn’t yet made the person specific. When people say a mother would never do this, what they really mean is my mother would never do this, and I’ve supplied my mother because you haven’t made alive this mother here.
So, one of the things that can make characters feel more alive is if they don’t do what you might expect, and you actually pull it off in a believable way. It’s not enough of course just to make them do something absolutely nonsensical, but if you can get them to a surprising place and watch the motions of their mind, however their particular mind works, that can be a deepening and complicating. I also often hybridize people I know.
I don’t know why, I guess partly it’s the way we’re trained as writers, but I always did this when I was kid reading: but I always wanted to know what the bad guy was thinking. Maybe he had a good reason to do a bad thing, and I always thought that was much more interesting.
A big early influence on me was Shakespeare—I used to go to Shakespeare camp as a kid and as a teenager. I hated the plays that were just a misunderstanding, like Romeo and Juliet. That’s what Roger Ebert used to call an “idiot plot,” where if the characters just weren’t idiots, there would be no plot. If your plot is so thin that it rests on whether or not somebody would wake up and take poison or not, that’s not enough for me. So, I like the plots where you see what Iago is thinking and why he’s doing what he’s doing to Othello.
Rail: Are there other specific literary influences you can track?
Watkins: Sure, yeah. I think an early big influence on me was Dickens. I read Great Expectations in high school and after that was writing a lot of weird Dickens imitation stuff which was not the best, not recommended—I don’t think the greatest stylistic choice. But I didn’t know about contemporary literature until I was a little bit older. I didn’t really know that writers were alive. I remember the first time I read a bio that was in present tense was T.C. Boyle’s, and it said “he teaches at the University of Southern California,” and I was like, wait, what? He’s alive?
And then because of T.C. Boyle, I read Aimee Bender. Stylistically, we think of Aimee Bender as making her own genre really, in the shadow of magical realism, and for me, when I read her, I started realizing that writing could just be about girls who were alive. Girls who just kind of wanted to have sex and kind of didn’t want to have sex. I just didn’t know that you could really do that—to say nothing of having an iron for a head. Just that you could have girls walking around and thinking their thoughts and that was enough, and then suddenly Aimee Bender made it enough. That’s when literature really came alive for me, and I started to think, maybe I should do it.
Rail: You also mentioned that you moved out to LA at one point to do screenwriting. Was that around the time that you started reading more fiction?
Watkins: Yeah, I basically have a lost year on my resume. I didn’t know how to pay for college—I got in to college but couldn’t pay for it, so I got dropped before I even started. But in the meantime, I moved out to Los Angeles. And I was thinking I would try to get in-state tuition so I could pay for going to the UC system, which was my dream to become a film maker and be at UCLA or UC Santa Cruz—I don’t know, I had a few different dreams at the time but I didn’t figure it out and then I just had this year.
So I moved out to LA, and worked in retail and tried to teach myself to surf, and mostly I just read books. Everyone in my family is an artist, and you know, they don’t think of reading as art-making, they just think well, of course we read, all of us read all the time. I think in my family, I kind of carved out the space of the writer because nobody else was doing it.
My sister is a photographer, so is my mom. Everybody is uber uber talented, and I always felt like I was just trying to keep up with them and watch them, which of course, that’s the position of the writer: sitting back and watching and taking notes.
Rail: You’ve taught in a variety of capacities now, and I’m wondering about that relationship between your teaching and your writing.
Watkins: It’s customary to compartmentalize yourself as a teacher. I don’t know many professors who would bring their own work into the creative writing classroom, and I found that that taboo about talking about yourself as a writer can be really easily broken. Because, it’s kind of nice, there are moments in your teaching where your anxieties and frustrations align with your students’. My MFA students at Michigan are writing books, and I’m supposed to be writing a book, so, why can’t we talk about it? Why do I have to pretend to be this impartial omniscient truth-sayer of their work when I’m in this shit with my own work, too?
A lot of times, they’ll tell me how frustrated they are and I’ll be like, yep, sounds like writing a novel. Yeah, it’s all going according to plan then. Oh, so you’re lost, confused, angry, and you think you’re wasting your life? Yep, that’s it.
Rail: Is there some kind of advice that you most often find yourself offering your students?
Watkins: Well, I know this might be a little bit strange coming from me, but, I do try to encourage my students to disinvest from external validations of their art, and instead focus on internally validating the art. So, of course, we all create these markers in our minds, because we’re basically wandering in the wilderness alone, and we want to know: is it worth it? Should I keep wandering? So, we start to say well, if I get into an MFA program, then I know I’m good enough. Or, if I get into a top tier MFA program or if I get published in this journal or if I get published in a top tier journal. And what I’ve found is those types of check points are pretty arbitrary and even if you do have a wonderful trajectory, they’ll forsake you. You think that if you can just get on “5 Under 35,” you would have all the confidence and serenity you need, but nope.
It’s a moving target. So the reason you do this thing has to be deeper than awards or accolades. Although those can be really nice and give a much needed pep in your step when you’re in that wilderness.
Rail: I am curious about that publishing element—how you experienced it. How publishing success changed or didn’t change your writing process…
Watkins: It definitely changes it. And I’m very envious of everyone I know who is writing first books. No one expects anything from you yet or wants you to write a certain way. There’s a certain type of freedom in obscurity, and I’m happy to be relatively obscure in the grand scheme of things. But you know, when you publish and people start to read your work, you start to think about whether your next thing is as good as that thing or would that person who loved Battleborn like Gold Fame Citrus or what if you kind of hate Battleborn sometimes, is that okay?
And I’ve just learned to be pretty compassionate with myself about that. It’s not necessary to the work to judge it constantly. Just put your ass in the chair, your nose to the grindstone and tell the story. You’ll get plenty of criticism and feedback or attention down the road if you really write your ass off. I believe that.
When we talk about what people want to publish or what kind of stories they want to see, it’s kind of impossible to say because I think most people just want to be extremely moved and what does that for everybody is as idiosyncratic as their own heart. If you tried to write towards something like the publishing market place, good god, I can’t think of faster way to write a shitty story than thinking about what would get published. But, I admit, I might be a little bit naïve and a little bit of a Pollyanna about that.
Rail: I wanted you to talk a little bit more about the difference between the short story and the novel—the experience of writing the novel versus writing the collection and also just how you feel about them as art forms.
Watkins: Well, I’ve only done both once, but I have experienced the short story as being more challenging. It feels like it can be perfect, and I know a few stories that I think of as perfect. I just feel a kind of feverish perfectionism come over me when I’m writing stories, and I don’t really feel that with a novel. A lot of people describe severe tremendous mental anguish when they’re trying to write a novel and there’s some of that for me for sure, but mostly it’s just kind of fun.
I mean, trying to write a great novel that will last until after we all turn to dust, that’s pretty hard, and I don’t really try to do that. I just try to tell a good story and try to write sentences that make me delighted and try to make images that I find pleasing and so on. I guess I’ve become pretty process-oriented in that way, just finding the words and finding the story is pleasurable to me. And I find I’m a little bit hovering outside my body when it comes time to publish something. I don’t have much attachment to that book anymore by the time it’s released into the world because I’ve already edited it within an inch of its life, you know.
And maybe this isn’t true so much anymore but back when Twitter was newer, people would always say, in this day and age of shortened attention spans and 140 characters, you would think that the short story would be thriving, because that’s a shorter form. And I’m like, yeah, except a short story is basically almost as hard to read as a poem. It’s such a challenging form to get meaning out of, which is not usually true of a Tweet.
A story’s depth and resonance is all done by suggestion and you have to be pretty mentally agile. I know this from experience because I’ve read stories by the masters and thought, well, I don’t get it and then I’ve read them ten years later, and been like holy moly. Whereas if you read Animal Farm and it’s just about a farm, that’s also a pretty good experience. The first time I read it, I was like, oh interesting farm.
Rail: So what are those stories that you think are close to perfect or perfect?
Watkins: I like stories that have a little bit of structural anomaly, they’re asymmetrical. So “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff is one that I always point to. Same thing with “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates. Both of those seem really bold in their structure and they have these gestures towards abstraction or negative space.
I also really like the story version of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” that Junot Diaz published a long time ago. I think a lot of Donald Barthelme stories are pretty perfect because they’re not trying to be perfect, they’re their own thing. What I really like about experimental writers, the best ones—my favorite at least—is that it’s not like, oh I hope you get this lesson that I’m trying to teach you. It’s like, just enjoy the ride, just roll around in the sounds of language and live in an image for a bit and experience dissonance. “The Body Guard,” by Barthelme does that, probably one of my favorites.
Rail: You mentioned language quite a few times, and that’s something that I return to again and again in your work. And I’m wondering what that rolling around in language, and piecing together sentences, looks like for you?
Watkins: Well, I do a lot of reading out loud, you know. I think probably most of us prose writers are failed poets who just sort of fell through the cracks to novel writing. We just don’t really have strong enough opinions to be essayists and we’re not so great with language that we have that poet synesthesia.
I guess I do get a little bit of a click or a little bit of a tingle when I find just the right way to phrase something. When there’s finally a mash up between what’s in my mind and what’s on the page, that feels really good to me. I actually physically get a little bit of a jolt.
Rail: I also wanted to ask about the role of environment in your work.
Watkins: Good, let’s talk about that. That’s one of my favorite topics and I hardly ever get to talk about it for some reason…
Rail: Well first, I wanted to know, if you were a desert animal, what would you be?
Watkins: Oh wow, okay. I’d love to say that I’m like the Bighorn Sheep because they’re so majestic and nimble. But the cool thing about desert animals is that, really any desert creature is fierce and is a survivor. Probably, I would be a tortoise because I like to retreat into my shell a lot, and I admire tortoises because they ruminate for half the year which is what I do at Michigan—move very slowly and don’t see that many people for six months.
Rail: Awesome. So, I feel like both in your novel and in your collection that the environment is pushing from the background to the foreground in a way that it almost feels unjust to call it setting. It becomes its own character almost. I’m curious how you think of place and environment in how you approach narrative and story?
Watkins: Well, so far, and this may change, I’ve never been able to write about someone without knowing where they are. Originally the couple in Gold Fame Citrus were not in Los Angeles at all, they were just in Ohio. And, I was pretty bored with that place, and it didn’t really speak to me. It didn’t suggest itself as a place that’s really exciting, and it showed in the writing because I couldn’t really get into the characters. The place wasn’t rubbing up against them, it was just the background.
Rail: In an interview with Electric Literature, you said, “If I had never left the desert, I never would have started writing about it.” I’m interested in that idea of when you leave a place, there’s something about your imagination that can fill in the gaps you can’t experience directly at the time. I’m hoping that you can expand on that.
Watkins: Well, it has to do, I think, with the distance that it takes. Everybody needs a little amount of distance to make something into art. You need some perspective on your material, you need to be able to figure out why it might be interesting to someone who doesn’t know you and is just holding a piece of ink and papyrus that you’ve made—why should they care? So, moving away and dislocating is a way of getting perspective.
It’s also a way of defamiliarizing the place for me. You know, a lot of what was really poignant and telling about Nevada, I couldn’t really see until I would explain it. I like to bullshit, I like to tell stories, and I would do that with my friends who were from other places and they’d be like, wait, what? Why didn’t you just go to the hospital? And I’d be like, oh, because it’s hundreds of miles away. And then I would realize that what I thought was just like oh that’s what happens when you have to go to the brothels to use the phone when you get your four-wheeler stuck in the mud was actually kind of an interesting story.
You kind of start to see the place through other people’s eyes. Which is useful. I think you want to maintain an honorable approach to your own vision of it as well. A lot of times I read stories where the writer obviously really really cares about it and the experience means a lot to them but it’s just not doing anything to me. So it’s like it dies in their head, it never makes it over into my head or my heart or my bowels, where I want to feel all the stuff that they were feeling. I want to feel that but if you just say, oh my grandma died and it’s sad, that magic puppetry of art is not really going to happen.
Some perspective and defamiliarization is useful, especially if you’re a young person. When I started writing Battleborn, I was twenty-three, so I didn’t have a lot of perspective on anything. My mom had been dead for two months, I’d lived away from my home for two months. But it helped a little bit.
Rail: What was the first story that you wrote for Battleborn?
Watkins: The first story I wrote was “Graceland,” which is at the end. It was the first story that I wrote there that felt successful. It helped me get grief and environmental dread in the same room together and having a conversation, and that kind of cracked something open for me.
Rail: In a 2015 AWP panel, Pam Houston suggested that writers of the West are perhaps defined by “the fact of the environment being larger than the people who live in it.” And I’m wondering if you think of yourself as a writer of the west and if you can talk a little bit about that?
Watkins: Yeah, I can’t speak for other regions really, but I do think that place is an intensely impactful factor for many writers coming out of the American West. It’s a different sensibility. I am most excited by writers who are really sensitive to those distinctions, and also to the interplay that you mentioned—the intensity of environment, that the place is kind of always on your mind. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I could forget about my surroundings. Hopefully you’re attentive, but you could just forget they were there. When you’re in Death Valley, you can’t really forget about it, or else, you’ll die.
So, it’s been a big part of the origin-ness that I was told as a kid. It had as much to do with how my parents met or whatever—yeah, I was told those stories—but what I was told the most was the story about how the landscape we were living in used to be part of an ancient inland ocean. And that’s why the mountains are shaped the way they are and that’s why these fossils are found in this place. That’s why it was difficult for certain people to settle here, and that’s why these indigenous tribes lived this way, and that’s why manifest destiny was so brutal to them. To me, and my cosmology, it all goes back to the place itself, the actual land and sea and air, the color of the hills.
Joan Didion told that great story about Georgia O’Keeffe getting so many rejections from studios. She was sending her work from New Mexico to New York, and they would really criticize her use of color. And then finally, a gallery owner came out to her studio at Ghost Ranch and saw the places she was painting and realized that O’Keeffe’s sense of color was perfect. It’s just that she was painting a completely alien landscape.
Rail: a completely different palate.
Watkins: Exactly. The palate, the intensity, the caliber of the light, the sky. And how close or far away the sky feels to you seems a very important thing to know about your character.
I also think I’m drawn to place in part because it’s a safe space to talk about class, and we don’t really talk very much about class in America and in American fiction. We’re not really great at it in my opinion. But, where you live is largely determined by history and these big sweeping things, but also how much money you have and how much money your parents had and what your race is. Where you can live is tied to all these other social taboos, and I think for a long time, it’s been a secret way to talk about these things.
We talk about Flannery O’Connor or a lot of the southern writers as being really steeped in place, and I think it was for them a type of a backdoor into the taboo politics of race and class and gender. I do think that’s coming to an end though. I think, in general, the time for, just tell a story quote on quote, or don’t be political, that’s a fiction that’s run its course. The types of stories we tell reflect and reveal and influence the types of people we are. So, of course the story is political. If your story isn’t ever ever ever told, don’t you think that that’s a political act of erasure, just as much as a denial in other realms too?
I got the sense when I was a young writer coming of age that it was better to just leave it alone politically. If you were to have said that someone was an activist, that would have been a real slur. But now, I would be honored to be considered an activist. I mean, I don’t think I write work that is polemic, but I do certainly have ideas and positions and of course, those are going to surface in my work.
Rail: I guess thinking about it politically, I am curious about what it means to be a fiction writer now, in America, where truth is really in question. I mean, selfishly, I’m wondering about it too, because it does feel sort of beside the point sometimes.
In the past, you’ve talked about truth that’s available in fiction versus truth that’s available in nonfiction, and, I mean I write fiction, obviously, so I’m invested in this, but I sort of feel like lately I’ve become a little uncomfortable with, well, to steal from Tim O’Brien, the idea of fiction being concerned with emotional truths versus happening truths. Because I do feel like this concept of emotional truth is sort of exactly what Donald Trump has capitalized on.
Watkins: Right, yeah. You’re right, that idea of an emotional truth has been really useful to fiction writers and artists in general for a long time. And it’s one of the many many complicated things that has been kind of watered down and made it into the mainstream so that it can be co-opted for political means—you know, political speeches, the enemy of nuance.
I find myself on the uncomfortable end of the conversation about whether I think there’s a difference between Tim O’Brien using fact in a certain way in a novel about Vietnam or Dave Eggers using it in a novel about The Circle versus Donald Trump or Sean Spicer using information…We do have a different demand for the facts from political leaders and certain teachers, from all these categories of public servants as our society calls them, and justice relies on it.
But the artist isn’t usually one of the people that we demand that kind of truth from. And I do still stand by that, although I can see how it could be interpreted in a very despicable way to mean that you don’t actually have to say how many actual people attended your actual inauguration. But I still think we, or some of us, at least, are sophisticated enough to say, all right, White House press conference this, novel, this. You know?
And I feel like there’s an appropriate outcry when nonfiction writers have just taken those sorts of liberties without disclosing them, but I don’t know. I used to think it was quite simple: if it happened it was nonfiction, if it didn’t, it was fiction. And that if anyone wrote a nonfiction book that had omissions or errors or conflations or distortions in it was just trying to get a bigger advance. And now I have a slightly more considered viewpoint on it, but it’s still, you know, a pickle.
Rail: Right. And so, being clear about “I’m writing fiction” can be important?
Watkins: Well, I mean I write autofiction here and there, and I just had a new story come out where the character’s name is Claire Watkins. It is a different sphere of ethical concerns I have when I write in that mode versus if I write a story that doesn’t have so much explicit resemblance to me. So many people do this. I’m reading Ben Lerner’s novel right now, and he does it in there too, and I think those distinctions are converging in the artistic realm between fiction and nonfiction and into an exciting, I think, really wonderful, joyous formal not-form, rejecting the idea that you have to be either one or the other.
But, yes, when the president does that, it’s not okay. And I don’t know how to square that circle but it just seems like that’s right to me.
Rail: Lastly, would you just talk really briefly about what you’re doing right now?
Watkins: Sure, yeah. I wrote this essay, “On Pandering,” a couple years ago, and the question I get most about it is, what’s next? Okay, you found out you’re writing in a certain way that you weren’t happy with, you were gendering your audience in your mind and it’s maybe affecting your style and so on. And sometimes people are like, I feel that way too or I have a version of that or I have the opposite of that, but what now? What are we supposed to do now?
And so, the book I’m envisioning, which starts with “On Pandering,” includes two long essays that kind of attempt to answer that question: what does it look like to stop pandering? It’s a very personal book. I guess it could be called memoir, essay, essayistic memoir. It’s figuring out what it meant for me to be able to find, well not exactly a truer version of my voice. But it’s a kind of maturing and coming of age that felt really freeing.
I think it’s starting to shape up. The third piece will be an essay about going on the road with my family—my husband and our little two-and-a-half-year-old kid. We’re all going to get into a trailer that we bought, almost impulsively, and we’re going to drive around the west for fourteen weeks. See all the national parks before Trump paves them. And we’re going to spend some time embracing nomadism, going whichever way the wind takes us for a while.