Our short interviews with authors are a way for us to help get the word out about great literary works dedicated to the state of Nevada in some sense, and also to try to shine more light on the authors who are writing them. This week we turn to Claire Vaye Watkins, a fascinating and talented writer of Nevada. Her bio says it better than I can: Claire Vaye Watkins is a Nevadan and a Presidential Fellow at the Ohio State University. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Granta, Ploughshares, One Story, The Paris Review and elsewhere. Her collection of short stories, Battleborn, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Take a moment to read her interview below and keep your eyes out for this powerful author in the future. If you look closely, you’ll see that as a bonus, there is an eleventh question in this edition of Ten Questions With…
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Where do you come from in Nevada? What’s your background?
I was born in Bishop, California. My parents lived in Tecopa, California, which is a tiny place of about 80 people on the southern edge of Death Valley. My father died of cancer when I was six, and soon after my mom remarried and moved our family to Pahrump. I went to school there, mostly. When I graduated I spent about a year in Los Angeles, working retail and drifting, then I went to UNR. After UNR I left the West for the first time to attend the MFA program at Ohio State University in Columbus.
In other interviews, you have described it as coming from a fairly libertarian place. What do you mean by that? How do you think that has impacted you as a writer? How has being from Nevada in general impacted you as a writer?
I just meant that politically Pahrump leans toward Libertarianism. People there are generally mistrustful of the government, and are especially inclined to adopt conspiracy theories. You have Art Bell, the Test Site, Area 51, chemtrails, and so on. Growing up hearing conspiracy theories sort of trained me, I think, to think of the world has having stories beneath the stories. They made me curious and skeptical. I’m still inclined to believe in conspiracies. Another way growing up in Pahrump has influenced my work is that I heard a lot of disturbing rumors when I lived there, many of which stayed with me and made their way into my stories. Like most kids who grow up poor or working class, I was exposed certain dark elements of human nature that come along with poverty—abuse, addiction, violence, neglect. I encountered those most often through gossip, which are the best kind of stories. For much of my life my mother and stepfather were in recovery, so I also grew up in the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, a league of terrific bullshitters who never shy away from grit in their stories.
Tell us about your forthcoming short story collection.
The stories in the book, Battleborn, all take place more or less in Nevada and they’re all about Nevadans ain some way or another. Whenever I began a new story I almost always started with the setting. I’d choose a place in the state I hadn’t written about yet—Virginia City, the Blackrock, Tahoe—and then I’d spend a lot of time thinking about the people who live there, what they saw when they woke up, what might be on their minds, what kind of trouble they might get themselves into.
How do you portray Nevada in it?
You know, a reader could probably answer that question better than I can. But I will say that my ambition was to portray the place without nostalgia or grotesquery. I didn’t want to write the literary equivalent of sweeping shots of Monument Valley and I didn’t want to lean on simple tropes of the Wild West: the rugged landscape, the harsh wilderness, blah blah blah. In the end I suspect my affection for the place won out if only because I was terribly homesick while writing the book.
What does it mean that you have combined the states motto into a single word for the title, Battleborn?
I make up my own compound words quite a bit. I think it gives the two words a slightly different meaning. One example, from a story called “The Archivist,” is riverwet, which is the particular kind of wet you get from being in a river, in this case the Truckee. The title became one word when one of my best friends, a brilliant poet, asked me what I was calling my thesis and I told her and she said, “Yeah, I like that,” and wrote it out as one word. I said, “No, it’s two words.” She said, “Really? Because I hear it as one.” I thought about that for a while and decided that “battleborn” is a more permanent, more intrinsic characteristic than “battle born,” which simply describes the conditions of one’s birth. I think bringing the two words together highlights the tension between destruction and creation, which is one of the organizing metaphors of the book. Plus it looks cool.
Chris Coake, your former instructor, is not a Nevadan, but has perhaps done more than others in recent memory for the literature of the state through teaching and cultivating the new crop of writers. How would you describe his influence and, perhaps, his legacy?
I think you’re absolutely right. Chris has done so much for me, for my work as well as for my career. He’s really become the cornerstone of the literary scene in Northern Nevada, and he continues to nurture writers and readers therein. Of all the things he’s done for me personally, I think the most important was that he took me seriously. Even when I was just starting out and my stories were half-baked nightmares, he treated my manuscripts—all his students’ manuscripts—with an incredible dignity. I only learned later how rare that is, how many established writers treat young writers disdainfully, simply because they’re young or “emerging.” Double that for women writers. But Chris was never dismissive or patronizing, never snarky. He’s the reason I started to think of myself as a writer, that I started to think that writing was something I might actually do. There’s a whole crop of his proteges at Ohio State—Curtis Vickers, Gabriel Urza, Dillon Dunlop—and they’re all wildly talented. I think he’ll be a big name in Nevada writing for a long time coming.
Tell us about the program you are in at OSU. What does it mean to be a Presidential Fellow?
The Presidential Fellowship is a university-wide award given to about 20 or so graduate students a year, most of them PhD candidates, who are “making a significant contribution to their field” or some such language. The creative writing program nominated me for it and my editors and teachers—including Chris Coake—wrote me letters of support. Basically what it does is give me an extra year of funding without any teaching or coursework obligations, which means I get to spend my days writing and reading. It’s especially meaningful award for me because Chris had one when he was here. Before the fellowship I spent three years in the MFA program at Ohio State, which was such a tremendous experience for me. I’ve heard people say that my writing “doesn’t seem like MFA writing,” which they mean as a compliment to me and a dig at MFA programs, right? I don’t know how to respond to that except to say that my writing is MFA writing, that I write the way I write in part because my MFA taught me how, and if someone likes my writing but thinks that all MFA writing is bloodless or competent, they should probably interrogate their thesis a bit further.
How do people in Ohio respond when you tell them about where you are from?
By now they just sort of roll their eyes, because I’ve spent the last three years nattering about it nonstop. Strangers will say, Jeez, you’re far from home. To which I usually just burst into tears.
Who else is out there representing Nevada in today’s literary world that you admire?
When I was an undergraduate I saw Willy Vlautin read at UNR and even tagged along with him to dinner afterward. I was pretty starstruck by him and the short piece he’d read but he was very kind and encouraging, and didn’t treat me like the pipsqueak that I was, which meant a lot to me. His novel, The Motel Life was the first time I’d read about the Nevada I knew. Before that I thought Nevada writing was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is a fine book but not what I was interested in writing. I don’t have the temperament for hallucinogenics.
Do you think we’ll ever have a booming literary or cultural scene in this state?
Absolutely, but I think it will always look a little different from typical “scenes,” and frankly, I’m glad for that. I think Nevada’s cultural landscape will always have an element of locality, a kind of cowboy poetry ethos. Take a place like Sundance Books, the least pretentious bookstore you’ll ever enter. I love that. Of course, I’d like to see more institutional support for the arts, especially in Southern Nevada. I’d also like to see the art-making efforts in the cities reach the rural areas. I’d also like to see us get over the habit of comparing ourselves to our hip neighbors. Big, progressive, artistic cities like Seattle and San Francisco have certainly influenced Reno’s scene in many good ways (the Reno Bike Project comes to mind) but Reno is never going to out Portland Portland. A lively arts scene is more than condos downtown and eco-boutiques. No cultural scene should be evaluated in terms of real estate or by the presence of generic fads. (Enough with the vegan cupcakes.) What is so incredible and essential about an authentic cultural scene is it rejects a value system based on consumption and productivity and instead celebrates creation, critical thought, aesthetics and expression. That can’t be mass marketed.
Do you have a favorite portrayal of our state in literature?
I have a great fondness for the way Forty-Niners (and Forty-Eighters and Fiftyers) wrote about Nevada in their letters. I also really love Nevada as seen by John McPhee, Ed Abbey, Mark Twain and Joan Didion.