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Claire Vaye Watkins is a writer from the deserts of Nevada whose first collection of stories about the American West, 2012’s Battleborn, won a stream of awards, including the Story Prize. Watkins tells stories of people looking to the past to make sense of their present—-a foreigner who disrupts the routine of a brothel with his whimsy, a woman tormented by a decades-ago misadventure in Las Vegas with a friend, a man who loses his brother to the fever of the 1850s gold rush. Watkins revisits and reinvents her own history in the collection’s first story, making use of her father Paul Watkins’ involvement with Charles Manson and the mayhem of Helter Skelter to demonstrate that looking back often doesn’t deliver satisfactory answers—-that it can be as fraught an endeavor as panning for gold.
This Monday, Feb. 9, Watkins is coming to the Folger Shakespeare Library to read her work along with novelist Ruth Ozeki as part of the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series. Watkins’ first novel, Gold, Fame, Citrus will be published this September by Riverhead Books. Watkins spoke with Arts Desk from her home in Lewisburg, Pa., where she teaches creative writing at Bucknell University, about her abortion story, why families tell the same stories over and over, the New York Times‘ 36 questions that lead to love, and Girls.
Arts Desk: Do watch Girls? How does the experience of the show’s main character, Hannah, at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop compare with your own at Ohio State?
Watkins: Hannah, compared to me, is having a really, really bad time. I had a great time. I think the only thing we have in common is that, you know, sometimes my stuff was not very well received. Sometimes it was well received. But I certainly had some rough workshops where I wished I could pipe up and maybe like Hannah, I used to, I would really want to talk during mine [which you’re not supposed to do]. So what I used to do, and Hannah should maybe do this, is I would have some food in front of me and I would snack—-some almonds or cheese or fruit or whatever, and I would just eat the whole time like a chipmunk. Like, let me eat my feelings for 45 minutes.
On. Feb 9, you’re doing a reading with novelist Ruth Ozeki and discussing “the fine line between real and imagined experience.” Have you read Ozeki’s work? Has it had any effect on your thinking about that fine line?
Not directly. I don’t know her work well enough to really be able to say so. That’s one thing I’m excited about the reading, is getting a bit more of it. But I think we’re on the same branch of the tree, if I had to guess, about her influences and mine. That we’re both interested in writers who are kind of toying with the genre of fiction and nonfiction. It’s funny, because real is—-the project of realism is to make it feel real. But if you break the rules and you use really real things like your own name or sex or things from your real life, then all the sudden it’s this transgressive or at least interesting thing, which I think suggests how entrenched our genres are even in this post-genre age. It seems like recently there’s been a stream of “novels from life”—-I think you can probably put Ozeki’s novel “A Tale for the Time Being” in that category—-these novels in which the narrator or the protagonist shares biographical details with the author and sometimes even her name.
The first story in your collection, “Ghosts, Cowboys” could probably be labeled a “short story from life.” I’m curious to hear about why you chose to fictionalize the events of that story?
I wanted readers to ask the question that’s kind of implicit while we read fiction. We usually say like, “I wonder if this really happened.” You know? Like, “I wonder if the writer really did go to Iowa.” This is going back to Hannah Horvath, something that her class is talking about, like—-how do we discuss a piece when its so obviously from the writer’s life? I kind of think that everything you write should feel as though it was plucked right from your—-not only your real life, but your secret most parts of your real life. I’d love to read a story where it feels like I’m being told a secret or I’m getting some information that I shouldn’t have or that I’m not really allowed to have. This is the gossip’s impulse. A fiction writer and a gossip are not that far away from each other. So I wanted to kind of make that question explicit, I guess, by using the form of nonfiction. The story uses a lot of the conventions of nonfiction and then hopefully, I really love it when readers ask, ‘I feel like some of this happened? How much?’ Of course, you know, we don’t really want you to do the arithmetic—like, “Oh, 73 percent of it happened.” But what they want it is a little bit of a wink or a confirmation, like yeah, you know this is truer than regular fiction. But in my case, at least, it’s a lie, it’s not. It just uses the formal conventions and the language of nonfiction. It’s as fictional as any of the other stories in Battleborn. And the other stories in Battleborn are as true as that one. It’s just that one has overt meta-fictional games that it’s playing.
In “The Last Thing We Need,” the narrator says, “There is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.” I love that line, and I think that a lot of the characters in the book are doing that. How does that sentiment speak to your own relationship to storytelling?
I think I probably have a more forgiving outlook on storytelling than that guy, Thomas. I’m just interested in why we tell the stories we do. Have you ever noticed that in families, you tell the same story over and over again? Even though your whole life has happened your parents or siblings will tell, like, the same five stories. Oh this is the one time we went skiing. And here’s the time she didn’t clean her room right. And then somehow that’s you, those five stories, you know? Families do this, couples do this. They get their narrative and they are foundational and they make us who we are in a way. It’s kind of suffocating. Thomas is saying, I think, if he had this kind of language, this sort of new-age mumbo jumbo available to him, which he doesn’t, he might say, “Why don’t we be honest about what’s in our hearts? What’s truly vexing us. Rather than just trot out these old stories.” Interestingly I think at a certain point in life those stories that used to mean one thing, start to mean another thing, but we still tell them. …Anyway I kind of like the shifty, chimeric nature of our own personal origin myths.
What you’re saying about Thomas saying “Let’s tell the more truthful narrative” also reminded me of the third story—I don’t know how you say it—“Rondine Al Nido”?
I don’t know how to say that either. I don’t speak Italian, but someone told time it’s “Rondine Al Nido,” maybe. So I always ask if there are any Italian speakers in the room before I read that story and if there are, then I go to a different one because I don’t know how to say it.
In that story, two characters exchange stories about the terrible things they’ve done and find themselves falling in love. It totally reminded me of this recent article in the New York Times on the “36 Questions That Lead To Love.”
Oh yeah, someone sent that to me. I haven’t read it yet. I think I’m afraid of it.
Well, I think you would agree with the gist of it, which is that intimacy can be accelerated though narrative. I’m interested in how you explore that idea in your stories.
That’s a very wise observation. I think that might be an element of the book that comes from my subconscious, because I don’t have a particular thesis about storytelling. But it’s true that I have a very almost zero tolerance for small talk and surface-level conversations. I’m just not good at that kind of talk. My husband always makes this joke about when we started dating. He would be talking, saying something, and I would interrupt him and say, “I’m not interested in what you’re saying right now. Like, just try another topic.” And he’d be like, “That’s not allowed. You can’t just say ‘you’re boring me.’” And I’m like, “I’m sorry, but I am, and I can’t take it anymore.” I think it was because he was leading up to those more intimate narratives.
Going back to grad school, my experience of being in the MFA program was one of really intense intimacy, because you’re telling these stories and if you’re doing your job right, then you’re supposed to be telling stories that are hard for you to tell, that are urgent and secret and you have to tell and only you can tell. And when we read them every single week it’s pretty magical, not to sound too corny about it, but I think it’s pretty cool. And then so when you go out into the regular world, people aren’t confessing their deep-most narratives every day. It can make me feel find of alone. So maybe that’s what scares me about those questions. The New Yorker did a little parody of it. That was funny because, of course, that was my first impulse. Not only do I want to do these questions with my husband, but with everyone I know. People at the wine and cheese mixer at the university where I work, and my students and all kinds of inappropriate —inappropriate is pretty much my middle name.
Many of the stories deal with unwanted pregnancies. Recently, Lena Dunham was talking about the responsibility of storytellers to use their work to promote various messages and she said, “There is no overstating how important it is to see honest non-stigmatizing storytelling that shows women tackling issues of reproductive health and choice.” Is that something that you do intentionally in your writing?
The story that explicitly features an abortion, “The Archivist”—-at some point, I realized that there was going to be an abortion in the story. What I wanted to write was an echo of my own experience of having an abortion, which was that it was not the worst thing that ever happened to me, but not easy, either. I think the line [the narrator] uses is “nothing I couldn’t do again,” which seems like a simple line but actually depends very much on who you are and what your vision of the world is like. So when I wrote about it, I felt pretty exposed and very—-people I knew knew I’d had an abortion. It just felt like the piece demanded it, and when you’re in the safety of your little office or the coffee shop and it’s just you and your Microsoft Word document, that’s not really a big deal—-but then at some point, I realized other people were reading the story…It’s kind of like what Harvey Milk used to say about coming out, which is everybody knows someone who’s gone through this, and that’s how people’s minds will change about it. I think that’s what Lena Dunham is getting at with the importance of the narrative, just to say, “I’m not a monster. I’m not a welfare queen or whatever horrible ideas the anti-choice community has about people who get abortions.” I’m college educated; I was in graduate school, but if this wasn’t available to me, my life would have been completely over as I knew it. I was glad to have had the chance to talk about it publicly and I’m glad that it’s out there. But things being as they are, I’m still nervous to talk about it publicly, but hopefully that changes soon.
You’re finishing up your first novel, Gold, Fame, Citrus, now. Talk about what’s happening in the book.
It’s set at the imagined culmination of the water crisis in the Southwest and all of the central valley’s been completed depleted of all its groundwater and basically all the water has pretty much been used up in the southwest. Imagine leaves being dry and the Sierra snowpack being completely depleted. Just sort of near apocalyptic proportions of a weather phenomenon that’s happening right now. Because of this there are these evacuations and they look a lot like the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and that’s the thing I researched when I was thinking about those evacuations. So the country is evacuating the whole southwest and putting them in these camps—-or if they have enough money, they can go wherever they want, but if you don’t, it’s not a good scene for you. But the two main characters are holdouts against those evacuations. The whole book is about what’s going to become of them in the waterless west.
How has the process of writing a novel been different?
The process of novel writing has been much more of a mindfuck. It’s a very psychologically intense process, because there’s no end in sight for years. You’re walking toward and it could just evaporate. You’re working on something for five or 10 years, and it could just be garbage. I’m not much of a believing person, but I would say there’s a lot more faith in the act. You have to keep marching on day after day and you don’t know what you’re doing—-if it’s good, if it’s every going to be published. Whereas with a story… if you quit a story, who cares? Life goes on. It was only a few months. But in some ways, its also easier; the form is more forgiving. It’s longer—-you don’t have to be as disciplined, in a way.
The novel is set in the West, as are the stories in Battleborn. But now you teach at Bucknell, in Pennsylvania. Are you ever going to write a story that’s set in the east?
I don’t know. I don’t really know what kind of a writer I am right now. I don’t know if I’ll always be writing about the West, if that’s kind of my muse, you know. Certainly it is the landscape of the American West that suggests stories to me. It’s the place that I go and then I start thinking in narratives and start filling in the gaps. That doesn’t really happen to me so powerfully, not so vividly [in the East]—-the thing about the landscape and the imagery of the American West is it’s not at all subtle. Which is one reason why I admire writers from the Midwest, particularly, because it’s a more subtle place. Not to make the mistake of calling the Midwest bland or something, but it’s just a different paradigm. Writers who can see the drama and the intensity in that is pretty powerful. I’m a little bit more simple in my head so I usually go to the American West, but I don’t know whether that will be a forever thing, or if I’m more of a person who’s just looking to the past. I’m only 30, so I don’t have that much past, and what I do have is set in the West, because that’s where I grew up. But maybe I’m just a backwards-looking writer, and eventually I’ll look backwards to Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy of the PEN / Faulkner Foundation