“You don’t have to do much to be transgressive, and that’s a problem.”
An Interview with Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins spent her earliest years in Tecopa, California, a place in the Mojave Desert that has fewer than two hundred residents. Her parents owned a rock shop, which was one of the town’s only destinations. “Tecopa had a general store, a post office and a school… and that’s about it,” she told The New York Times in 2012. Twice each month, Watkins accompanied her mother to the grocery store—a forty mile trip, unless the pair drove eighty miles to Las Vegas instead.
“It’s pretty remote driving,” says Watkins. “There’s no interstate, just that iconic two-lane asphalt road through the desert.”
The stories in Battleborn, Watkins’ first book, are filled with cars—a Ford pick-up with a bed full of forgotten fireworks, a Dodge Neon that two high-school girls take to a rough night in Las Vegas, photos of a 1966 Chevy Chevelle left after a car accident. In “Virginia City,” a young woman named Iris drives two friends to a former Nevada boomtown, where they drink Bloody Marys, and explore a church hidden in the back of a casino. “There are plenty of good reasons to find yourself in Virginia City, but there’s only one reason,” writes Watkins. “We came to time-travel.”
Watkins does the same. The ten stories in Battleborn are populated with seekers, men and women that scrutinize their pasts to better set their present courses. Some misinterpret their markers or maps. “This happens every summer,” one story begins. “A tourist hikes into the desert outside Las Vegas without enough water and gets lost.” Some of her wanderers are lost—not forever, perhaps not for long, but briefly and consequentially. Battleborn honors the complexities of emotional terrain alongside the physical and historical, and Watkins diligently follows her characters along the courses they choose.
Battleborn received multiple prizes upon publication, among them the Story Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Watkins is an assistant professor at Bucknell University and, at present, a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton University. She traveled to Missoula in October to read at the Montana Festival of the Books, during which this interview took place.
Over breakfast, Watkins spoke about the creation of Battleborn, her relationship with the American West, and the politics of transgression. However, we began our conversation along the two-lane asphalt road in Nevada, where country music on the car radio helped shape Watkins’ early notions of narrative.
I. “When I was a teenager, my friendship hubs were the people who had cars.”
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: I love really baldly narrative music. When I drive I listen to country music pretty much exclusively. It’s not that it’s good, but that it tells a story.
I just listen to the radio, so I listen to the really bad ones. I like those old Garth Brooks songs that tell a story—the rodeo guy who gets hurt and gets back out there. Toby Keith—he has that whole racist phase of his career, so he’ll tell little anecdotes and then go back to his thesis about why he’s born in the USA. I think that it’s interesting to watch the shape of the idea, even though it’s a stupid idea and bad music.
I’ve been listening to country music since I was a kid because of the narrative and the language. The Mountain Goats came later when I got sophisticated. But at first it was Garth Brooks and Snoop Dogg, because it was doing the same thing… Snoop Dogg was telling a story. Here’s a day in my life, I’m going to buy my drugs, I meet this girl, and she’s giving me trouble.
THE BELIEVER: How important were cars during your adolescence? Did you want a Chevelle?
CVW: I did want a Chevelle. Girls weren’t supposed to want Chevelles when I was growing up. You wanted a boy who had a Chevelle—which I did have, by the way. Muscle cars seem from another time now, but I think that’s one thing class and geography do—it’s a form of time-traveling.
When I was a teenager, my friendship hubs were the people who had cars. All we did was watch boys work on their cars or watch boys play in their bands. That was my main pastime when I was a young girl—watching boys do things.
BLVR: Did you grow up in cities that had more conservative, limited expectations of men and women?
CVW: Probably not much more than anywhere else. The boys were being taught, this is how to be men. You drink beer, work on cars, fight, curse, have sex. Girls were being taught, here’s how to be a certain type of woman. You can have sex, but not too soon, and once you do have it, you have to be good at it. Also, you have to dress pretty. I always say the men grew up to be construction workers, and the women grew up to be cocktail waitress. But my instinct is that kind of socialization happens everywhere, that kind of gendering.
My mom was very contrary to that kind of thing. She ran our household, was the primary breadwinner, made all the decisions. She was also the badass—the super-fierce, frank, honest person. I don’t know how she made the decision to be the way she was. But she was never demure or cute. She wasn’t a cocktail waitress. She ran her own business, made things, went out into the wilderness. She was self-reliant, and so that was much more of an option for me… She was just a total pioneer.
II. “There’s only two types of stories in Battleborn: ‘Young woman rides bicycle, deals with mother issues,’ and ‘Old man finds something in the desert.’”
BLVR: How did you assemble Battleborn?
CVW: The first story I wrote that made it to Battleborn was “Graceland,” the last story—also the first story I had published. After “Graceland,” I got a little bit self-conscious about writing like a girl. I had this idea that, to be taken seriously, I had to show some range—which meant, to me, writing about men, maybe old men, this rugged landscape. Time to take on the cowboy, perhaps.
So then I did a few of those types of stories, like “Man-O-War.” That story took years and years, but I started drafting it then.
I always say there’s only two types of stories in Battleborn: “Young woman rides bicycle, deals with mother issues,” and “Old man finds something in the desert.” I wrote a few “Old man finds something in the desert” stories. Then my sister had a baby, and I started thinking more about motherhood, and my mom, and started writing more ‘young woman rides bicycle, deals with mother issues’ stories.”
The last one I wrote was “The Diggings.” By that time, I was wondering whether I could write a novel. I turned the book into my thesis committee without “The Diggings.” Lee K. Abbott said, this is a pretty good book, Claire, but what’s your problem with men? I thought, you’ll have to be more specific, Lee. He said, all the men in your book are either old and decrepit or they’re getting totally hosed. There are no virile young men, no cowboys.
Haven’t we had enough cowboys? I thought more about it and knew the collection needed one more story, and maybe I should take on this iconic, masculine narrative of the overland expedition and the Gold Rush. I’d always been a bit obsessed with it anyways, so it was a good excuse to do research.
I also wanted to try and write a “bone-headed” story—this happens, this happens, this happens, the end. Not tricky with tenses or structure, just an adventure story.
BLVR: You ultimately included “The Diggings.” Did you include it because you felt the collection was incomplete without it?
CVW: Someone—Erin McGraw, I think—said it’s one story away from being a complete book. I didn’t follow up, but I got the sense it meant more than page numbers. I felt that, too.
By that point, I had these stories set in California and Nevada. I had a clear picture of what I was interested in, thematically. And then I thought, Is that all you want to say? Isn’t there an opportunity to take it to another dimension, deepen some stuff, complicate a few things?
III. “Maybe I was more attached to the Nevada stories so I made them work.”
BLVR: How did you learn to make Nevada work for you as a setting?
CVW: It didn’t occur to me that Nevada was interesting until my workshop started reading my stories. I would forget to say things. When we were workshopping “Man-O-War,” I remember someone saying, why doesn’t he take her to the hospital? I thought, Oh, I forgot to mention that the hospital was hundreds of miles away… I had to learn to see Nevada through other people’s eyes.
BLVR: Were there other stories you considered for Battleborn that didn’t make the cut?
CVW: None of them were Nevada stories. I lived in Los Angeles for a year when I was eighteen, trying to figure out how to pay for college. I wrote some L.A. stories that were not good at all. In one of them, the climax was a husband lying underneath a trampoline, watching his wife have sex with her new lover on top of the trampoline. It was horrible.
Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it wasn’t—maybe I was more attached to the Nevada stories so I made them work. Certainly, plenty of them were as bad, but I never felt compelled to go back to the California stories. I worked on “Man-O-War” for four years. I don’t know why. I felt like I wanted to make it work.
BLVR: Four years is a long time to be engaged in a project. Why do you think you spend so much time on “Man-O-War”?
CVW: I try to be a pretty chill, calm person and let things go. But really, in my core, I’m pretty Type A. I’m not a perfectionist in anything except writing.
I paint watercolors, which I suck at. I love it, and I don’t care that I suck. I don’t try to get better or take classes. I show people my sucky watercolors. They say, neat, a shark with a Christmas hat on, and I say, exactly. But with writing, I can’t get OK with sucking. I wanted to make “Man-O-War” work. It feels bad to have an ugly sentence, an ugly story. I can’t ignore it.
IV. “You don’t have to do much to be transgressive, and that’s a problem.”
BLVR: You wrote a piece for The New York Times about class disparities in higher education. Several of the women in your stories come from poor, rural backgrounds. Yet they don’t necessarily receive the sort of attention you call for in the Times piece. Why is that?
CVW: It’s hard to be a feminist and depict women having a hard time, getting fucked over. “Rondine Al Nido” is a good example of that. I very rarely read that story because I feel uncomfortable saying that stuff aloud, in a way. I had a sense early on from teachers and peers that your loyalty has to be to telling a good story, and sometimes you’ll have to depict shit you’re really uncomfortable with politically. I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about violence against woman. But if I was to make Lena very happy at the end of that, I don’t think that would be honest.
BLVR: To what degree does feminism inform decisions like this?
CVW: To me, feminism is about expanding the sphere. There’s a place, culturally, where women are allowed to be, and its very narrow. I’d like it to be a chasm. So it’s OK to be a sex worker, a mom, to work, to not, to be a Republican. Just more options available to women.
All I did [in “Rondine Al Nido”] was try to write a woman who feels honest. Some people will say it’s transgressive in terms of representing femininity. And I think, yes, it is, and that’s sad, because I wasn’t even trying.
Do you watch Girls? I just started watching it. It feels so transgressive, provocative, edgy, precisely because the girls are being themselves. They’re just being naked in an actual body, or being a little bit gross, or being a little bit lost—all things that woman actually are but are not allowed to be. I think that Lena Dunham is on to that fact, that you don’t have to do much to be transgressive, and that’s a problem. It’s actually pretty easy to do—you just have to be honest.
BLVR: In a New Yorker interview, you said that fictionalizing yourself in “Ghosts, Cowboys” [a story informed by Watkins’ father, Paul, and his relationship with the Manson Family] helped you to make your father’s story more impactful. Can you elaborate on your decision to fictionalize yourself?
CVW: I think of myself as a fiction writer, and I secretly think that fiction can do much more than non-fiction will ever be able to do, on a humane level. But I’m also interested in this really happened, what [the phrase] based on true events does to our brain. And I like the convention of confession in memoir, and wanted to play around with it. It gives the illusion of confession, but it’s not—it’s a lie. I don’t feel that way about my dad’s involvement in the Manson family, and those things didn’t happen to me.
I wanted people to feel that they were being told a secret they shouldn’t know—about me, Claire. But, at the same time, they should distrust that.
Junot Diaz was a big influence in that. Have you read the short story version of Oscar Wao? Junior doesn’t come into it until very late in the story, and then you start to ask, what’s in it for you? Who are you? Why are you telling it?
V. “I didn’t want to participate in the postcard kitsch of the American West”
BLVR: Do you have a writing process?
CVW: I have a composition book that I write in all the time. I write in longhand, a lot. When I’m ready, I’ll start typing that stuff up to see what it’s about. I usually write an outline, at some point early on. Then, it’s a triangulation between writing long-hand, being weird, and riffing to see where it takes me. When that runs out, I’ll type it up, and go back to the outline. It’s interplay between those methods.
I write a slow draft doing that stuff. I read out loud a lot, so I’ll read it aloud, start to pay attention to language and the way things are said.
I might play up thematic stuff later. I never write thinking, I’m going to write a story about what it’s like being an under-educated woman in rural America. I’m not wired that way. I think about people and where they are—where they are is first. Then I think about who they are, and what kind of trouble they might get into. Later, usually when someone points it out to me, I’ll play up thematic stuff, add some things so that you might read it more than once.
BLVR: What is your relationship with Battleborn one year on?
CVW: It’s very much an evolving thing. When the book first came out, I thought the stories were horrible. I went so far as to ask my colleague, how does one return a book advance?
I hated them for a long time because I was afraid that they were nostalgic, sentimental. I didn’t want to participate in the postcard kitsch of the American West, and I thought I was for sure. The more time I spent in New York, the more I was convinced that I was. Every time someone said the stories were really gritty, I thought, Oh my God.
But that went away. I would get boosts here and there from a good review, for instance. A really well-done book review is an elegant argument. If it was a good book review, I’d be soothed by the elegance of the case for Battleborn. I wouldn’t be elated, but my anxiety would’ve been stoppered for a little bit. I’d think, All right, I won’t burn them all just yet.
I think it’s a good book for a first book, and a young person, and I’m happy. I don’t know much beyond that.
BLVR: What are you working on now?
CVW: I’m working on a novel these days. I’m too superstitious to say much more than that.
Brendan Fitzgerald wrote the Press Pause column at The Morning News, worked as the communications manager for the Columbia Journalism Review, and spent six years as an editor at C-VILLE, an alternative newsweekly in Charlottesville, Virginia. His reporting has been cited by multiple news sources including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and highlighted by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He lives in Missoula, Montana, where he is currently working on a memoir.