Bearing Witness to All That’s Being Lost: The Millions Interviews Claire Vaye Watkins

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Claire Vaye Watkins is a rising voice in the literary world; she launched her career in 2012 with Battleborn, a collection of short stories published by Riverhead that garnered a flood of literary acclaim. The New York Times called the collection, “brutally unsentimental,” and The New Yorker wrote that Watkins is writing in an entirely new genre: “Nevada Gothic.”

In 2015, Watkins published her first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, (Riverhead), a work of stunning speculative fiction—LeGuin meets Orwell—which hit the literary scene with a flurry of accolades and was named the Best Book of the Year by a landslide of major publications. Louise Erdrich praised the book as, “Exhilarating, upsetting, delirious, bold, Gold Fame Citrus is a head rush of a novel and establishes Claire Vaye Watkins as an important new voice in American literature.”

Born in Bishop, Calif., in 1984, Watkins grew up in the Mojave Desert, living first in Tecopa, Calif., and then Pahrump, Nev. But Watkins’s unique upbringing was not only the desert—her father was Paul Watkins, a member of the Charles Manson Family.

Watkins’s latest novel, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, publishes October 5, and I was lucky enough to snag her for a conversation. 

The Millions: It’s a real pleasure to interview you and I appreciate your time! One of the first things I like to ask authors is about their background and childhood, because I think it’s significant in shaping a person. You are a unique person in the literary world and one of the things I’ve found fascinating is the fact that you grew up on the edge of Death Valley. I want to hear your perspective of how growing up in the isolation of that desert environment shaped you as a person and then as a writer because it’s different than a writer who has been raised in an urban situation.

Claire Vaye Watkins: I think it’s probably everything in terms of determining who I am and how I write. I mean, a big part of being in the Mojave Desert was being with my parents who had sort of defected from city life and were kind of retreating from it. There’s this identic overtone, but it’s also sort of hellish because it’s hot and death is all around you and my parents worked in this little museum and rock shop. A big part of their job was giving European tourists advice for how to stay alive. We talked a lot about death because we lived there, and not just because it’s hot, but also because of nuclear testing. Atomic bombs were dropped very close, into the ‘90s. I was in the second grade when they stopped.

Then when that stopped, Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste repository, started construction and there were generations of existential threats from nuclear war and environmental destruction. From that vantage point, that’s how I came to understand climate collapse and drought in the West. And so, there’s definitely been a lot of grief as a part of loving that place. It’s like bearing witness to the things that are done to it and that’s also why my dad died of cancer when he was 40. Part of our family myth was that he basically got cancer either from mining, being down in the talc mines, or from radiation. Either one, those are very specific. It’s from the rocks, the very rocks around you, but it’s also from extraction and living in a sacrifice zone.

TM: Right. So we poison ourselves.

CVW: Exactly. I think as a writer, I’ve become actually quite lighthearted compared to the place I come from. I think I’ve become a real clown in some ways, but it is also a joyous, exuberant, super expressive culture. People are wild and they’re either there because they feel trapped there, and they’ve been trapped there, or they are radically choosing it and it’s not a choice that a lot of people really understand. It’s full of people who don’t care much what others think and don’t buy into many of the myths of mainstream society. That’s quite enlivening for an artist.

TM: I think it would be, as you say, in some ways, you’re sort of on the edge of death and, in another weird way, it’s freeing.

CVW: Oh yeah, that can be very enlivening. I think that’s what, if you move through the fear of it, it can make you feel really alive and that’s why I live here.

TM: I think it is very significant, obviously, and your own childhood and upbringing and as a writer—you can just feel it in your writing.

CVW: Yeah, it’s not that different from what my parents were doing: taking people into the shop and kind of touring them around, making sure that they’re okay. Welcoming them. And that’s really what my grandma was doing when she was a change girl at Caesar’s Palace. It was welcoming the tourists. That’s really the only way any pioneers survived was being welcomed and helped out by each other, so maybe I’m just participating in that long tradition.

TM: That’s a very interesting point of view—I like that. One of the other things I really am interested in is; what authors do you feel like have primarily influenced your writing?

CVW: I came of age reading anthologies, because I wanted to know how to write short stories and I wanted to see how many, many different people would do it. Then when I found somebody I really loved, I would just go and find their books. So that meant that Louise Erdrich, Tony Earley, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, a lot of regionalists. I was really jazzed by Southern [writers]—southerners because they are so unabashedly, for some reason, interested in their homeland—but I recognize that in the American West. Part of the literature of the American West does have a real propaganda origin story. It was used as an instrument of manifest destiny to try to get people out West. It has kind of a nationalistic, can be a bit jingoistic, but when it’s done well, it’s really about, for me, the land itself and how it feels to be in it. Wallace Stegner does that for me, Ed Abbey. Joy Williams and Joan Didion are probably the most important living writers to me.

They helped me kind of bust up the myth of the American West and decide for myself which parts of it were railroad boosterism and which parts are a real, authentic, honest experience of a particular landscape with a long bloody history.

TM: I read, years ago, a book by Richard O’Connor, Iron Wheels and Broken Men, about the opening up of the West with the railroads and all the scams and stuff. It’s pretty amazing.

CVW: Yeah, I read a lot of nonfiction and history about the West, like Sally Zanjani is this historian I really like. She writes a lot about the founding of Nevada or Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. I think the myth of the American West is quite intoxicating, but it’s also alienating. It doesn’t really make sense to tell yourself you’re [in] this Edenic Mediterranean fantasy in Southern California when I live in the Mojave Desert. I’m like, “It’s sort of unlivable right now. It’s 125 degrees, so I don’t think this is America’s Eden and that God wants us to have it. I think you need to find some shade, is what I think. I think we better not do any more industrial scale agriculture out here. It’s like the observation. Writing helps me kind of see the place as it really is. I like reading stuff that does that for me too.

TM: One of the things you were mentioning, your parents and how significant they were in your life, obviously, and another thing I’ve found really interesting is that your parents of course came of age during the late ‘60s and early ;70s and were into the counterculture of that era. And I read that your father, Paul, wrote later in his life that he was, and I’ll quote, “…a fugitive flower child in search of enlightenment and truth.” I was wondering if you could kind of discuss specific influences on your writing from all of that.

CVW: Yeah, well when I reckon with my own family history, I think…there’s a moment in the book where Claire’s gone to Villa Anita with her sister, and she wonders if she’s found a family with a lowercase f or a capital F. I think because of my dad’s involvement with the Manson family, I was allowed to have a really skeptical position toward the family as an institution in general. Maybe I felt that impulse to kind of defend them a bit, defend the counterculture against figures like Charles Manson who are like a boogeyman. He became such a boogeyman. There was this real reactionary turn to make him seem emblematic of everything the counterculture would bring when, in fact, his values are not counter-cultural. He’s a good old-fashioned misogynist, racist, made in the American prison system. He’s very mainstream—that’s what’s so horrific about him. Killing and violence is American. It’s very mainstream.

I sometimes wonder if the casual, everyday misogyny and racism of that scene had been a deal breaker for my dad. He never would’ve gotten into that business, which it feels a bit like an allegory for the American West and the reassess thing. How successful or not the counterculture has been from the year 2020.

TM: Well, people tend to manipulate what they want with all the hidden agendas and, as you say, picking boogeymen to use as an advertisement or something else—against that or for that, or whatever. It’s interesting because as I read your Gold Fame Citrus novel—which I thought was just stunning, a really, really incredible work of fiction—and knowing your dad’s history within the Manson family as I was reading, I had this epiphany that the Colony of Outcasts, which Luz and Ray stumble upon in the desert, is in a way a parody of the Manson commune and the leader of that colony was in effect Charles Manson. I was wondering if you could discuss that.

CVW: Yeah, you’re right. It’s sort of me kind of looking out of the corner of my eye at that, in a way, and I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about my dad. Not just his involvement in the Manson family and how these disillusioned teenagers who’d just recently lost their innocence could be so fooled by a character like Manson. But I wanted to make Levi in that book really persuasive. In fact, I knew that I had to agree with everything Levi says. Everything he says about the desert not being dead and it’s just that we need to treat it better. I am really down with his philosophy in a way that I imagine my dad must have been, and it sounds like, from his writing and other people’s writing, that he had really found a kindred [soul] in art making with Charlie. That it was about making music together and then how heartbreaking to have that relationship morph into one that’s violent and so destructive and really changes the course of your whole life. So, I guess, yeah, you’re right. I was really kind of working out some of my curiosity about what would be alluring about a family but it’s a powerful instinct. We really need our little village, I think.

TM:  Exactly. It’s just a part of the human existence; if you don’t get it one place, you’re going to get it from another.

CVW: Right, and the desire to be loved is so powerful and human, and in a way there’s nothing that’s strange about what we’ll do or endure to be loved. We need it so much.

TM: One of the other things that I loved about Gold Fame Citrus is the incredible landscape, the drifting sand dunes. I know that novel is touted as environmental dystopia or cli-fi, or climate fiction, but the other thing I thought was, in a lot of ways, to me, the surreal backdrop is part of a deeper commentary on the human condition, and I was wondering if you had any comments on that?

CVW: I think I was drawn to what happens when it becomes hard to distinguish the work of man from the work of God. In the American West, there’s a robust and romantic tradition involving the landscape—you find yourself in Yosemite or [reading] these rapturous American romantics, like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Those were really, really important to me, but I am living in a totally different climate than they were, but I still have the same impulses for looking for spiritual wholeness from the landscape.

It’s kind of like what happens when the landscape gets so out of whack, what does it do to your soul? What does it do to your spirit? If there’s a relationship, as there is for me, a relationship between what’s happening outside and what’s happening deep inside me, I think that’s so basic. That’s just what hominids are, but we forget it because we’re sort of cut off from nature in many ways and disembodied, arguably in the attention economy and with the unethical and addictive design of the iPhone. It’s really easier than ever to forget that we are in a place, a specific place, and we need that place to be healthy for us to be healthy.

TM: I think that’s really true.

CVW: In both books, it’s like characters are looking to the natural world to be healed and getting mixed results, I’d say.

TM: I agree with that and I felt like, in a lot of ways, that Gold Fame Citrus is in a way almost a foil to your latest novel, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. Gold Fame Citrus had such a brutal surrealism and then it’s juxtaposed against your second novel, which had this unrelenting realism. I was wondering if you could talk that out.

CVW: I really do believe books are written in response to each other or in reaction to each other. So, it’s almost like all of the things I couldn’t or didn’t do in Gold Fame Citrus, I wanted to do in I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. One of it is, be very in the now on the land, not in the future, not imagining, not letting my nightmares run amok, which can be fun, or it could be healthy in a way, but there’s a limit to it. And then it’s like, okay this Claire is here now. She feels compelled to travel across the American West and bear witness to all that’s being lost there and she’s also in love, and having fun, and having great sex, and finding herself. The flux is tremendous in the book. One sentence will begin very mournful and end with basically a rim shot and a punchline. It’s just sort of fluctuating through different registers, magpieing different people’s voices to tell different types of stories. She always will undercut and be like, “That’s how they like to tell it.” She kind of doesn’t want to believe her own yarns sometimes but can’t help but spin them out. I think you’re absolutely right and it’s also less brutal. This is much more an act of devotion than a eulogy.

TM: I really felt that there was this absolute humanity—in all aspects of who we are. The weakness and strengths and all of that. I really loved it.

CVW: Thank you. Yeah, that’s exactly what I was hoping.

TM:     One of the things that I really enjoyed about it is that you have sort of these different aspects, points of view, in a way. You had these series of old letters from your mother, Martha, to her cousin, Denise, but near the end of the novel, they were burned in an oven, and I was curious: were the letters real? And if so, is the burning a metaphor or did it truly happen?

CVW: You mean real in my plane of existence or real in the novel?

TM: Right, right.

CVW: They’re real in my plane of existence and they did not get burned in my plane.

TM: Oh, good.

CVW: I still have them. I’m looking up at the box right now. But I thought it was important to release those sisters at the end, more so than just imagistically. Those letters in the images system of the novel, you already had them in the novel, and you’ve gone from the cusp of womanhood with Martha all the way back to girlhood and seeing maybe little tiny glimpses into why she became the woman she became and letting her be so complex and infinite, like unknowable. We can just see these little glimpses of her and then I guess in the novel, it’s like they don’t really need the letters anymore. They’re kind of able to let them go because they’re cremated, in a way I think, by their grandmother, in the oven.

TM: I thought that was powerful. I loved seeing these letters and you’re suddenly going back, present, back to a past, and I think that was really, really a beautiful way to bring everything together. It’s like the past and the present.

CVW: My editor, Becky Saletan, she found that structure, the reverse chronology. And when she told me her idea for it, I was like, “Are you crazy? It can’t be done.” I gasped when I realized how well it worked and this effect it had. You need to buy her a drink when the little fabric of society is mended.

TM: One of the things, you’ve sort of brought it up earlier in the interview, but I’ve seen a couple of your past interviews and you’ve expressed a deep love for the desert and concern that when you visit the Mojave, that you find detritus or ruin from past human incursions. I was just wondering, as you see the future unfold, do you feel like there’s hope, or fear, or what are your thoughts about the American Southwest?

CVW: Well, these days I’ve been keeping my eye on industrial solar arrays because we basically just started building these things about a decade ago in the Mojave Desert and they’re still our first draft. The American Southwest is really going to probably be transformed, if we are going to transform our energy economy. The idea right now is to do that with industrial solar arrays. I would much prefer that we do it with community solar on the built environment and not destroy the intact ecosystems of the desert. I just don’t think it will work to replicate the same extractive for-profit structures that got us into this mess, but at the same time, I think we definitely need to stop burning fossil fuels and we need to find different energy sources, but we also need to use things differently and scale our society down to be more sustainable, and I don’t really see that second half as part of the conversation that’s being proposed right now.

That being said, I’m hopeful that we’re talking about it at all. I’m skeptical when it’s, “Meet your new savior, the same energy company that got us into this mess,” for-profits destroying [the land]. I’m watching particularly this little patch in South Pahrump Valley called Yellow Pine and an industrial solar array will scrape up all this land and create potentially toxic dust. And the tax revenue goes over to Las Vegas and the energy itself goes over to Orange County. I see that really exacerbating the types of culture wars that we’re already having between rural and urban places and locally extincting the tortoise in the process. So, I hope that we could have a wider vision. To me, when I’m looking at an industrial solar array, it’s like building infrastructure to make solar extractive and private, rather than what most of us think of when we feel hopeful about solar power, [that] it will be for all of us on top of your own house. And you could put it over strip malls, and universities, and stadiums, and irrigation canals and military bases.

TM: I totally agree. I hate the thought of people tearing up the environment instead of just using the human built structures that are already there, and the energy would be right there for those structures instead of trying to transmit it.

CVW: Exactly. There are a lot of problems with turning the Great Basin into the West Texas oil fields. I don’t want to see that happen and there’s a false binary I see emerging in environmentalists in the urgency to do something about climate change. It’s like green energy or biodiversity. It’s stopping the carbon emissions at the cost of the plants and the water that keep us alive. It’s not a good idea. We won’t be enjoying driving around in our electric cars if we don’t have clean air and clean water. So there needs to be a much deeper, harder, less profitable approach, too, rather than just, as Biden likes to say, “They help turn the public lands into an engine for the new economy,” and it’s like, “That’s troubling.”

TM: I believe that we, as humans, need to share the planet with others. Plants and animals.

CVW: Exactly. We don’t have the right to make a snail habitat into a lithium mine.

TM: All right. Well, I have one more question for you and that’s, what’s next on the horizon for you?

Claire Vaye Watkins:  Who knows? I don’t really know. I actually will probably not know or be able to answer that question until whatever it is, is pretty much done. I’m sort of just working. Right now, I feel sort of the important thing is to pay attention to what’s happening in the Mojave regarding local extinction events and other things, and just be around and listen. And then I’ll be keeping notes like I always do and writing down interesting things people say or interesting ideas I have. I’ve always wanted to write a historical novel and I do find myself reading a bunch of history right now, so maybe something like that could be really fun.

TM: That sounds very interesting. There’s so much stuff, especially in the West, that happened historically and stories that really have been hidden.

CVW: Yeah, and there’s so much great, great history, like historians going and finding these amazing characters that have helped me understand my home in this place and the true [history]. I’ve just been rereading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States because I teach part of it, and you can feel that it’s more honest than the boosterist Teddy Roosevelt versions that wanted us to have this [land]. And nothing was here before we arrived. That’s the feel good.

TM: Well, it’s ludicrous.

CVW: Right. It would be cool to write a novel that sort of explores that in the West in a mid, late 19th century probably. The [stretch of] time of the Overland Passage—the three years between you’re going to die on this trail and become the Donner Party to this road is really built up and it’s over already. It’s interesting.