Claire Vaye Watkins is a young-blood literary heavyweight. At 28 she published her first book, a brothel-filled, canyon-ridden, Nevada-based collection of short stories entitled Battleborn. The collection’s stunning characters and desert landscape caused wide applause and helped Watkins beat out some familiar faces, including Junot Díaz and Dan Chaon, for The Story Prize in 2012.
The daughter of Paul Watkins, former Charles Manson “family” member, and a born-and-raised Nevadan, Watkins’s fiction is riddled with grit and the raw, get-em-while-they’re-down spirit that still permeates the no-rules attitude of the American Southwest. Almost exactly three years after the publication of Battleborn, this September, Riverhead Books is set to release Watkins’s debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, a science fiction thriller set in a drought-devastated, evacuated California. The conceit? The Sierra snowpack has been depleted, California’s underground aquifers have been drained, and the Central Valley has ceased all produce production. Citizens have been removed and put in camps, while “holdouts,” or people who refuse to leave the arid landscape, live off looting and squatting in abandoned homes. There are water diviners and bandits and sinkholes, but most of all there is the ghost of the reality that the catastrophe being described in this fantasy may very well be something Californians could face.
On March 12th, 2015, Watkins visited Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN to give a reading. Before the event we met and discussed her new novel, its exciting departure into unreal territory, and the very strange, eerie experience of her writing seemingly unreal, catastrophic events into the book that later became true.
Interviewer: In the most recent Spring issue of Tin House (Issue # 63) there was an excerpt from your forthcoming novel titled “The Call.” Part of the narrative of the excerpt was told in the form of a questionnaire. Was the questionnaire something that came out of the narrative that you were able to shape the story around? Or was it a tool that you were simply attracted to?
Claire Vaye Watkins: I was attracted to the questionnaire as a form because I have a friend—my oldest, dearest friend growing up, who is a nanotechnologist and a mechanical engineer at a very, very elite level—and he has occasionally gotten these jobs where he has to get security clearance and he has to provide personal references. I am often one of his references because we have known each other for 25 years.
Oh! So you have taken all these questionnaires before?
Yes, exactly. Sometimes they are on the phone and sometimes they are written. Something that was actually on one of the forms was, “To your knowledge, does the applicant listed above exist?”
Yeah, so I have actually had to answer questions like the ones present in “The Call.” Whenever I have had to fill out these questionnaires, I would just think to myself, “This is so bizarre.” The mixture of the surreal and the bureaucratic language on these questionnaires is amazing. Just the idea of having to check “yes” or “no” for existence was exciting to me. I told my nanotechnologist friend about how much I liked the questionnaires and he was like, “Please. I am begging you. Just fill out the forms in a normal way. Don’t be a novelist about my security clearance.”
Are there any other forms or questionnaires in Gold Fame Citrus?
There is one more form in the novel. It is a field guide one of the male characters has written about the animals that live around this bizarre sand dune. The conceit is that he has made these sketches and written a primer about these animals. So that is in there too.
Gold Fame Citrus departs from reality in a way Battleborn does not. What led you to this new territory? Why did you want to explore the unreal? Or, perhaps a better question, how did you come to this unreal place?
I don’t think I ever decided that the novel was going to be unreal. I wanted to write a book about the drought and the water crisis in the Southwest, but I didn’t feel like I had the expertise to write a book of realism. In a way, I started in realism. I read about the way the government distributes the water rights on the Colorado River and why certain states get what they get and the history of it. All of the information was completely overwhelming. I couldn’t understand any of it. A very smart friend of mine was like, you aren’t supposed to understand it. The water rights documents are unclear for a reason. If regular people were able to understand it they would do something about it. Of course, she was right. I knew I couldn’t write a book of realism about the drought because the reality was, and has been, so far obscured. So, instead I have exaggerated and caricatured what I do know. That’s when I decided that this book would just be a fantasy—that this novel was going to be science fiction. I decided I would invent everything. I came at this imagined world by trying to conceive of the worst-case scenario for water in the American West. Then I tracked down and talked to several scientists who work at the university where I work, and I asked them, “What is the worst-case scenario for water in the American Southwest?” The scientists were always hesitant and would counter, “Well, describe this book you are working on.” And I would tell them the conceit and say this is my imagined worst-case scenario: the Sierra snowpack is gone, all the ground water has been tapped, the Colorado River is dry, agriculture has completely collapsed, and you can’t get fresh fruits or vegetables anywhere in California. And then these experts would always reply, “That’s not the worst case scenario. It could be so much worse. Let me tell you about the worst case scenario.” And then they would launch into what was realism for them, but complete surrealism for me. A very strange thing about writing this book is that, as I did research and was writing, I would write about specific disasters I had imagined happening, and then in the news, weeks later, the events would actually take place. For instance, I imagined, in my book, that the scientists would have to put a bathtub drain at the bottom of Lake Mead, and then that really happened! So this very disturbing thing occurred where I thought I was writing a book of science fiction, but reality kept inserting itself in this very weird, very strange way.
In Ursula Le Guin’s National Book Award acceptance speech she used the phrase “so-called realists.” Does that phrase resonate with you?
I think the word realism hides our individual subjectivities of reality. If you say some people are writing about the “real world” as it “really is” and some people, usually brown people or women, are writing magical realism, the only thing that serves to do is discredit those who are writing in a so-called unreal mode. People say that all the time about Louise Erdrich novels, that they are magical realism, and she is always like, no, this isn’t magical, this is what is real to me. And the same thing with Gabriel García Márquez. When people told him he was writing in a space outside of reality, he was like, this is reality. These are my grandmother’s stories. This is what is real to me. There is a distinct power dynamic surrounding who gets to say what’s real.
I would like to think the realism debate is a tired conversation, but it somehow keeps resurfacing…
Ugh. I think you are right. The debate is terribly tired. I mean, I think most people center the conversation around consequence. Can something that takes place in an unreal space have consequence in reality? Obviously it can. People often pretend not to understand what a story is doing just because the story is doing it in another way. They are just like, I can’t! We are on another planet! There are porcupines at the university and I can’t really… and you’re like, yes you can, the human heart has a great capacity! You can feel for porcupines in a university as much as you can feel for people getting divorced in Connecticut. Don’t underestimate the human experience that way!
I have read stories whose emotional resonance I think can only be accessed because they take place in a setting that is outside our own reality. I think that there can be something about entering another world where you become far more open to an emotional reaction. Have you ever felt that with a piece of fiction?
I have. I think you may be onto something. Caitlin Horrocks has a story called “At the Zoo,” which was in The Paris Review. There is some time travel in it, and somehow the time travel allows the emotional core of the story to be very stark. Somehow the time travel in the story plays out the emotional stakes in an explicit way, a way that I don’t think could have been gotten at any other way. I totally agree with you.
Besides Link, Erdrich, García Márquez and Le Guin, which you have mentioned before, what writers of the unreal, or writers that have been traditionally categorized as writing within unreal spaces, do you really love?
Joy William’s book The Quick and the Dead is not written in our world. To me, the world of that book was very alien. If that book was a movie, it would be shot through a red filter. The characters are exaggerated and grotesque. In that way, Flannery O’Connor also wrote in unreal spaces. Her characters are sometimes harbingers, and they often explicate their themes in a way I really like but nobody actually does. Perhaps the best-loved example is George Saunders? Saunders has such a terrific range. He has a fantastic eye for the everyday bizarre, which I love.
You have said in interviews before that you love music, especially country music and rap music, for its narrative capabilities.
What I meant when I said that is that I really like to be in contact with language-driven art when I am working or driving. I have a real hunger for language. I usually listen to NPR in my car, but if I can’t get it then the next thing I want to listen to is sports radio or Christian crazy-time fundamentalist Bible study radio. And that is also why I like country music and rap music, because it is very language driven and very narrative. A country song works kind of like Law & Order. You know exactly how it is going to go, and it feels good to know how it is going to go. Rap can be like that, too. Jay-Z, for instance, is a very conservative formalist. Every one of his songs contains the bootstraps narrative. And there are these certain forms that he uses. I just really like rolling around in language that way.
Are there other places besides music where you like finding language?
Yes, children’s books. Kids’ books tend to be much more language driven. Toni Morrison wrote a kids’ book. It is amazing. The plot line is essentially that these feral children get put in this box because they don’t behave and they aren’t good kids. I haven’t quite parsed the allegory going on there, but the language is really rich and fun, and it’s fun to say, and I love it.