A Woman Abandons Her Family to Revisit Her Past in the Mojave Desert
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of "I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness," on the cultural expectations that come along with motherhood
Look at the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and you’ll find statements like “I have looked forward with enjoyment to things” followed by four multiple-choice options: “As much as I ever did,” “Rather less than I used to,” “Definitely less than I used to,” or “Hardly at all.”
When the narrator, Claire, of Claire Vaye Watkins’ newest novel I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness takes the quiz after giving birth to her first child, she and her husband ruminate on how reductive the questionnaire is. Where is there an option for more enjoyment than ever? Why is there no room for participants to express complicated feelings? Theo, the narrator’s husband, suggests she should write a short-answer response. And so, she breaks the form of the survey open.
This leaving-behind of multiple choice answers and prescribed narratives does not only apply to the narrator Claire’s response to the postpartum questionnaire. Instead, it’s a fitting way to describe the novel. Claire Vaye Watkins uses transcriptions of her deceased mother’s letters, excerpts from her deceased father’s memoir and voice recordings, and a fictionalized account of narrator Claire leaving her daughter and husband behind for a romp out West. There, her alter-ego Claire confronts parts of the past that continue to haunt her: the ghosts of her parents, her past, and what the land once was.
Over the phone, Claire Vaye Watkins and I spoke about the cultural expectations that come along with motherhood, surreal landscapes, the power—and limitations—of witnessing, and what it means to feel joyful even while tortoises are being bulldozed in the desert.
Jacqueline Alnes: I’ve read many books where male narrators abandon their responsibilities and pursue pleasure, it is rarer to find a novel where a woman permits herself to do the same. What was it like imagining these sort of transgressive possibilities?
Claire Vaye Watkins: It was extremely freeing, a real libertine exercise, and completely pleasure-driven—eventually. Once I figured out that the narrator is me and she is not me, and I was not going to punish her or drown her, then things started getting really interesting.
I started having really great conversations with other women writers. I remember talking to Jill McCorkle at Bennington about how she had, decades before, written a little piece for the Times about an alternate ending for The Awakening. I found that and I realized that’s what this book is. It’s using the refusal as a form. I think it’s interesting to write a character like Edna today, without the powers or limits that held her.
JA: That opening toward freedom seems to come from motherhood itself. Claire writes:
“Motherhood had cracked me in half. My self as a mother and my self as not were two different people, distinct.”
This book, to me, was in part about the expectations placed on women to be good mothers or desire to mother, as well as what it looks like to resist that. Even thinking about the postpartum quiz that opens the book, I started to think, maybe this is a normal reaction to giving birth? Like who’s to say what’s “normal” in this completely body-opening, life-changing experience?
CVW: Yes. The questionnaire is the first thing I wrote and it’s based on a form I was given when I was a few weeks postpartum. I know enough about the history of mental illness in my family to know that I should expect to be met by depression at major life changes. But I noted in the postpartum questionnaire that there’s no option “Better than ever!” or “I am more alive now than ever,” or “No big deal, I just split my body in two and part of it is breathing and eating food that I’m making with my breasts!” It’s insane. There isn’t room in our cultural context for it to be profound and transformative in a very real way.
I was thinking about Joy Williams, The Changeling, which got panned early on because it’s about pregnancy and birth and magic. Karen Russell wrote an introduction when Tin House re-published it, and she shared a story about how, after giving birth, she was having visions. I was like oh yeah, definitely. Russell’s introduction and Williams’ book gave me permission to name things really plainly rather than relying on language like what’s in the postpartum depression questionnaire.
JA: I loved the way you capture the postpartum experience through surreal elements that started to feel real, like the teeth in the vagina. I read them and started thinking, well maybe they are real. And I liked doubting myself, as it made me think about why I care whether things are “real” or not.
CVW: I love that you experienced it that way. I’m obsessed with the surreal, and what’s real, and what counts as real. It helps that I read a lot of Louise Erdrich really early, and think about what she has said about being described as a surrealist or a magical realist when she’s actually just depicting her version of reality.
Surreal things happen all the time. You can grow a cyst that has hair and teeth while you’re pregnant, which is bonkers, and we don’t pay much attention to it. We only mapped the clitoris a couple years ago. All of those rationalists, they cut open bodies, and they never found the clitoris. There were theaters where people watched bodies get opened, and everyone was like, “This is science.” But no women are allowed in the Royal Society. They don’t get to say, “When I do this, this feels tremendous.” We don’t get to develop bodily knowledge because our bodily realities are denied, or ignored at best.
JA: I read an interview between you and Megan Culhane Galbraith where you describe her work as “genre-fluid.” While reading I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, I thought a lot about genre and the truths we might be able to access by imagining slightly alternate realities. How would you describe your novel in terms of genre, and what did this form allow you to access that you might not have otherwise?
CVW: I think of it as using the truth as a form. I was thinking about stuff I read as a young reader, like Kurt Vonnegut. The first line of Slaughterhouse Five is “All this really happened.” It’s the oldest trick in the book, saying things like this book washed ashore or I found this book in a bottle. It was fun to explicitly invite that confusion, in a playful way.
That line you brought up about motherhood splitting Claire open into two people, I hope, indicates that there are multiple selves and that Claire keeps multiplying. That corresponds with different formal decisions. This is a long way of saying that the form and the function have an important relationship to each other. The story of a self in a culture of avatar-ing yourself all the time and confessing publicly all the time to no real audience, it’s an interesting wrinkle. I think the internet means that we are all much more interested in autofiction.
JA: You mention that you felt like you co-wrote the book with your parents because of the time you spent with their materials. The novel features letters written by your mother, Martha Claire Watkins, from the 1970s, and you include excerpts and references to your father’s memoir, which he wrote about his time with the Manson Family. What did that process look like for you, and were there parts of them you were able to access through reimagining their lives in fiction?
CVW: It was a long, long process and it was different for each of them. For my dad, it was a lifelong process. He died when I was six. I have hardly any memories of him, but I have a lot of material culture that features him. I came of age with the internet, so I had a lot of weird, amateur websites and different spooky recordings I would download and I read Helter Skelter way too young. I could sense that it was an inadequate portrayal of him, like it was the shadow of the thing I wanted. I have been polishing that wound my whole life. I wanted for my dad to get to live beyond 40. I’m 37 now, and I think that’s very chilling. Zooming out on his life in the book allowed me to see that his death was because of what was in the rocks, and environmental injustice, and the fact that we have dropped over a thousand nuclear bombs over our own country. Talk about surreal.
My mom’s was a shorter thing. Just like in the book, someone did mail me her letters. It happened to coincide with a residency I had in Marfa. I was just going to try to read them and build a character from her voice, but I started writing down choice lines and realized it was every line. I started dictating them. I would wake up really early and sit in this beautiful office and do the talk-to-type speech reader a couple times and then I would write it, too. It might have been boring except these were my dead mother’s letters. She died when I was 22, so I have a lot more life to be complicated about than I do with my dad. The letters helped remind me that she was once a girl and I was once a girl. I was an egg in my grandma’s ovary when she was working at Caesar’s Palace and watching the nuclear bombs. Bless her.
JA: In terms of paying attention, we have to talk about the descriptions of landscape in your novel. I just read a profile of Alexandra Kleeman where she’s talking about how nothing can really be more surreal than California. There’s nothing you could write that’s wilder than reality. How did you approach writing about the landscape, the ecological horrors, the beauty out West?
CVW: Kleeman is totally right. Our stories are from the land. These conditions that are changing right now have never changed before in the history of our storytelling. Like when we say we have new weather, that’s really a new everything. If you believe in renewal and rebirth and then the desert stops getting rain, what does that do to your philosophical approach to healing? If you’ve been trained to honor the landscape with your attention, you notice when a landscape is not well. Right now, I’m looking out from my bedroom. I have five acres of creosote and then much more beyond. The creosote forest is my first landscape and I just can feel that it’s not healthy. The bushes are shrunken and brown. The Royal Society confirms; instead of dying off like trees, they shrink. They make themselves small. There’s something really sad in it. New weather needs a new way of writing about place.
I’ve read a lot of placeless fiction. One way to cope with the collapse of the ecosystem is just to not see it and look at your phone instead or to say that a story happens anywhere. But that’s impossible. It’s crazy how much so-called “realism” doesn’t have a landscape, a weather. Instead of being ahistorical, a story becomes alocational. It makes it so you don’t have to think about the history of place or what is currently happening.
JA: Do you feel like paying attention and writing notes down is an act of resistance to what’s happening in our climate?
CVW: I think most of us have something we can do—writing is one of mine. But writing doesn’t feel adequate enough. I spent the morning working on an op-ed and that feels a lot more like actively resisting than literary fiction. The process of witnessing is medicinal, but I don’t know if it costs Exxon any money for me to write a beautiful sentence. Direct action is important too.
JA: The environment shapes the lives of everyone in the book, in both terrible and joyful ways. There are references to pollution from corporations, unusable water, and ecocide. There are also moments of tenderness: Claire bathing her body in the springs, or Martha tending to her gardens. How do you conceive of the relationship between people and the earth?
CVW: The sadder and more grief-stricken I feel, the more triumphant I think it is when you love someone or love yourself. The moments you mentioned are perfect examples, but also all of the masturbating and the sex, that’s all happening while tortoises are being bulldozed down the road. That’s not a metaphor. There is a big population problem so wide swathes of desert are just getting bulldozed and monocrops of my favorite crops—that puts me in a pickle—are getting put in, along with pesticides. The water table is dropping. It’s not a subtle landscape. The reason my stuff is so cranked up is because it feels to me like the land is sort of screaming.
You know that thing Joan Didion wrote about Georgia O’Keefe? About how gallerists in New York would look at O’Keefe’s landscapes and say that she didn’t have a good grasp of color until someone finally came out to Ghost Ranch and said, “Oh you do know color. It’s just that we do not know color.” A lot of the writers I like are doing the language equivalent of that.
JA: And it brings us back to motherhood: who have historically been the people giving language to the experience of birth? Who has had the power to name and diagnose and categorize experience? It hasn’t been women.
CVW: It was literally illegal to talk to each other about birth and people were literally burned for it. What replaces it today is the market—babycenter.com advice or books or blogs or memes, rather than a human woman-to-woman ancient wisdom passed down. It’s not unlike loving stolen land. It’s a complicated legacy and it’s difficult to sit with it, but when you do, everything makes more sense. I feel less insane when I’m watching the bulldozers somehow. And then, of course, I always have the dream of putting sugar in the gas tank.
I originally just started writing this book for myself, like diaries, and then I expanded who I envisioned who would read it to my two siblings. I thought maybe I’d answer the question: What happened to us?