The Dizziness Of The Natural Sublime: An Interview With Claire Vaye Watkins, Author Of Gold Fame…


The Sierra Nevada snowpack — a critical source of water for the state of California — is at its lowest point in 500 years. California gets most of its precipitation in winter. Come spring, snow stored in the mountains melts and runs as river, supplying the state with water. So in this, the fourth year of drought, many in the region hope that in winter, the El Niño will bring moisture to replenish the mountain reserves of snow. But even precipitation may not bring relief.

In the meantime, California continues to implement water-saving measures. The detail of regulation is sobering. Homeowners may be fined for applying water to hard surfaces like driveways and sidewalks, and at restaurants, servers may only bring water to those diners who ask for it.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ first novel, Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead Books 2015), imagines an American future in which drought, horrifically severe, grips the west. Most citizens are confined to camps, and those who live free struggle to find water and fresh food. As a massive sand dune encroaches upon the land, Luz and Ray flee with their adopted — abducted? — daughter. They encounter a charismatic cult leader, Levi, who is — thrillingly — not as he appears. In contending with the menace of a natural world gone dry, Luz, Ray, and Levi grapple, too, with the private threats of desire and heartbreak.

Drought interests Watkins, she says, because it is “a collision of geologic time with human time.” The human mind struggles to imagine the scale of earthly machination which brings about environmental change — engaging in this imaginative work, Watkins says, lets her test the limits of what her mind can conjure.

For her short-story collection Battleborn, Watkins has been a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and winner of the Story Prize and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, among other awards. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and a faculty member at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. With her husband, Derek Palacio, she founded and directs the Mojave School, a free writing workshop for rural Nevada teens.

Over the phone, Watkins and I chatted about wilderness and pioneers, what it is like to teach writing at Princeton and at the Mojave School, and how, growing up in the desert, she believed torrential rain was, purely, a metaphor.

Megha Majumdar: The book takes great pleasure in being inventive. Reading it, I felt its joy in the wealth of what you can have if you are inventive. This becomes true both in the form of writing (so you create a catalog of animals living in a dune sea) and in the lives of the characters (so they make shoes for a toddler from tape and corkboard). What were your goals for these layers of inventiveness?

Claire Vaye Watkins: Wow, that’s a great question. As I was approaching the idea of writing a novel, I felt intimidated by the thought that I’d have to commit, with a capital C, to a certain style and certain characters. It was a bummer. I felt like a schoolmarm in my head: No, no! You’re writing a novel now. Playtime is over. I didn’t want playtime to be over.

At first the book was about a young couple who were trying to figure out their feelings for each other. They lived near a park in Ohio. I think the subject matter had to do with my claustrophobia, stylistically speaking.

Once I went into wilder territory, I knew the book would rely on a showy imagination. The speculative aspect made room for me to be more experimental. Then I thought, Why not write a field guide to animals? Why not write a chapter as notes from a psychiatry appointment? Once I gave in to that experiment and play, that’s when the book really got cooking.

MM: The story frequently references Sacajawea and John Muir. Is there a tradition of exploration and wilderness writing in which you see this book participating?

CVW: Your question touches on how the book, while pretending to be about the future, is actually about the past. Its gaze is over the shoulder, particularly as it applies to the identity of people living in the American West.

You know, if I could only write the equivalent of Ken Burns documentaries or Planet Earth shows about the West, I’d be happy. But those research interests of mine don’t exactly jibe with what fiction does best, which is people.

So I’m interested in grand movements of history, but I’m also curious about its mysterious, popular figures like Muir or Sacajawea. In the process of research, you realise that when John Wesley Powell was travelling down the Colorado River, he had one arm. Or, Sacajawea had a newborn baby when she was on the Oregon Trail. I want to capture those human glimmers.

MM: Can you tell me more about how this book is not looking forward so much as looking back?

CVW: Though it is set in a misty future time, the book’s real interest is in the stories that have been told about the American West that have brought us to this period of crisis.

Drought is fascinating to me because it’s a collision of human time with geologic time.

Drought is fascinating to me because it’s a collision of human time with geologic time. We’re saying, There’s always been water here! But geologic time knows: not so. Or we’re saying, This aquifer will sustain us for fifteen years, and geologic time tells us, That’s nothing. I think a reason why I’m preoccupied with those two modes is that we can’t actually think in geologic time. That’s probably why we’re not very good at doing something about global warming — we can’t conceive of that scale. If you think about how nuclear fuel rods will be dangerous for longer than we’ve had language, that’s hard to wrap our heads around. I like that feeling of struggling to imagine something. I like to have my imagination tested, pushed to its limits, and to wallow in that limit.

And I find the failings of imagination interesting. We can see those failings in hindsight. We know now that it was a very bad idea to encourage farmers to grow cotton in the American West. And that all the rainwater in Los Angeles goes right out into the ocean — hello? Horrible idea, in retrospect. But that was impossible to imagine at the time when we were making aqueduct systems or when the Mormons were irrigating the fields. So I like those paradigm shifts of the imagination.

MM: In this grappling with scale, did your work begin by looking at these environmental crises and working downwards, landing them in the characters’ lives? Or are these people you’ve had in mind for a while who you thought would be fully realized in the scenario of drought?

CVW: The motion in my mind looks a little bit like a zig-zag between the macro and the micro. I get very excited by attention to scale — that’s why I love nature documentaries. You see this camel walking along a dune, then you zoom out and realize the shadow is fifty feet long and the dunes are hundreds of miles wide. The shorthand we have for that feeling is, I think, the dizziness of the natural sublime.

I love that feeling, and I want to create that in my readers. Then I also zoom in on the person who is getting all sandy — what would that feel like? What’d it be like to have sex or go to the bathroom, or try to raise a kid, when you’re living by this sand dune?

When I spend a bit of time in that, I’ll come zooming back out, eager to discuss the history of the region, or the formation of a rock which influenced the natural history of a place.

The thing I’m interested in is movement. Wallace Stegner, I think, said that movement is the central motif of the American West. This is not a new characterization. There’ve been robust civilizations in the West for thousands of years before Europeans arrived — being ever on the move, though, what do such shallow roots do to your identity?

MM: Can you tell me about your relationship to wilderness, whether mediated through art or not?

CVW: Now that I’m an adult, living in a small city in Michigan, I have a much more conventional relationship with wilderness. On the weekend, I go on a hike. But when I was growing up — in Pahrump, Nevada — I lived it. I didn’t know there was such a thing as wilderness. I thought that was the world. It was a very particular wilderness, the Mojave desert. I remember thinking that leaves changing color in autumn — turning orange and yellow and red — was figurative. I did not think it actually happened in certain regions of the country. When I read about torrential rain, I thought that was a metaphor.

It was important for me to see the desert through the eyes of people for whom leaves changed colors.

As I got older and moved away, the freshness and mystery of the desert, which had been naturalized for me, got defamiliarized and explained to me by culture. People said, The desert is scary or mystical or mysterious and I thought, I guess it is! If I had never left the desert, I never would have started writing about it. It was important for me to see the desert through the eyes of people for whom leaves changed colors.

I was born in the Owens Valley. Owens Lake was the lake which was drained to fill the Los Angeles aqueduct system. In the movie Chinatown, when the farmers were bombing the aqueducts, that was the Owens Valley. The California Water Wars of the early 20th century were a bedtime story in my family. So later when I read Cadillac Desert, I thought, Oh, that was real! I thought it was a fairy tale or something.

That’s another example of how this book looks to the past. This book is more about the Water Wars in California and the internment of Japanese people than it is about futuristic Mojaves or any of that other silly stuff that I made up.

MM: Many of your readers will be familiar with the water crisis in the West, at least from the news. What were the constraints and possibilities of writing in a space exceeding fact but alarmingly close to it?

CVW: That was one of the more destabilizing parts of writing this book. Believe it or not, when I started writing this book five years ago, on the rare instance when I would summon up the courage to admit that I was writing a book on drought in the American Southwest, most people were puzzled. There was no flash of recognition. No remark that it was topical or timely. They would reply, Yeah, it is kind of hot there.

I would try to invent something… Then I’d come across the fact that a version of this had actually happened, or that there was a plan for it.

I noticed a strange pattern in my research. I would try to invent something — some coping mechanism that our culture might have to deal with drought, or some strategy the government might employ to relocate people. I would go very big — grandiose, high sci-fi, wacky, almost satirical proportions. So I’d think: What if big funnels were put up to the sky to catch rain? What if a piece of glacier in Alaska was broken off, put in a boat and brought down? Then I’d come across the fact that a version of this had actually happened, or that there was a plan for it.

I was being presented with the limits of my imagination every day. Everything crazy and berserk that I could imagine had already happened. There was a piece of legislation that said, Yes, it’d be all right if we took glaciers down from Alaska. I was ping-ponging back and forth between imagination, play, and bureaucratic information.

So the book started out in the aesthetic mode of fantasy or sci-fi, and got tugged into a more realistic vein. There’s nothing more sci-fi than the story of the relocation of the Japanese to internment camps. I can think of few things more bizarre than that we did that to humans.

MM: When did you learn about that? How did it stay with you?

CVW: While I was writing this book, for years I struggled to have a model in my head of what the relocation process looked like for all these people who were living in the southwest. I was calling it a refugee crisis. I read about refugee camps all over the world, and about migration patterns, and nothing resonated with me. I finally gave up on it. I thought, Well, I hope no one notices that that part of the book sucks!

Then, to finish the book, my husband and I went to Lone Pine for a month. We would hike up in the mountains early in the morning, and come back to write in the afternoon, into the evening. One day I got blisters and couldn’t go hiking. So we went to Manzanar, one of the camps where Japanese Americans were confined. It’s now a national park and a museum. I’m a historical site interpretation junkie, you know, and Manzanar was one of the most powerful museum experiences I’ve ever had. In the gift shop, I bought Julie Otsuka’s book, Buddha in the Attic, and that turned on a light for me. I began thinking about how to capture the bizarre, other-worldly aspect of the relocation.

MM: It sounds like you did a massive amount of research. What is one striking thing you’ve read that didn’t find itself reflected in the book?

CVW: I read a lot about how water works in the Middle East, and water rights in the West. There were also a ton of conspiracy theories — this is one of my favorite genres of storytelling. I would love it if the whole book had this feeling of listening to a conspiracy theory, where you’re going back and forth between I believe this and No, that’s crazy! But… the fact that it is crazy is evidence that it is really happening. So conspiracy theory has this wonderful, cyclical quality that I’ve always wanted to replicate.

MM: I think I see that in the creation of the community moving ahead of the dune sea, particularly the character of Levi. Levi is an interesting figure — he finds water and fruit in the drought, enabling a community to stay one step ahead of disaster. In a way, he is a pioneer. In Levi and in the references to Sacajawea, the book shows an interest in pioneer figures. Where does that interest come from?

CVW: I said that one of the book’s secret topics is the past. The other one is faith. Me, I don’t have a disposition that has much room for magical thinking or faith, but I’ve always been envious of believers. I’ve been chasing a feeling of surrender that happens, I imagine, when you find a belief system.

I don’t think Luz has felt that surrender, either. I think she’d be very envious of Levi, who is the absolute personification of intuition and faith. He encourages her to think that she is good at a certain kind of living, and I think that would be very intoxicating.

In my research, I found very little about what Sacajawea thought of Lewis and Clark’s crazy expedition. Well, she didn’t have the choice of thinking about it. She was purchased for the occasion. I imagine her watching them and wanting to feel that fervor of belief.

In John Muir we see this faith. He strikes me as someone who had a voracious capacity for faith in the restorative powers of the natural world. And when I walk in the woods, that’s what I’m looking for. Most of the time, I don’t find it. So I go to my computer and try to create it.

MM: I want to ask you about making the beautiful sentences that fill the book. Here’s one: “Levi walked slowly, his hands clasped together at his navel, the tips of his index fingers pressed together in a steeple.” Tell me about the work of making that image.

CVW: I read a book about dowsing, and I was practicing it in my yard. There are a few different ways in which you can hold your hand while dowsing. So, I had to decide, what would Levi do with his hands? Then I went out in the yard and did that. I went back to the desk and did that. And I recalled the children’s rhyme, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple,” for which you do a similar shape with your hands.

I tried a few other words, like “obelisk,” but when I came across “steeple” via that old rhyme, I thought, There’s the faith, the religious context. So there was the concern with, first, making the reader see what I was seeing, and then, the thematic resonance.

But probably, the very first thing that happened was that I liked the sound of it. There’s a sensory, tactile aspect to it. I do a lot of reading out loud, and when I find the right line, there’s a little zing!

I was at a reading in Oregon about a month ago, and I read a description, from the first chapter, of a coyote carcass drying in the ravine. The phrase I use for it is, “going wicker.” Another writer at the reading said that the phrase made the whole image worth it, and I was so glad.

…you have that flash of recognition, that pleasure, when you read a satisfying sentence.

I remember driving down the highway, being stuck in traffic, and seeing a deer carcass in a stage of decay I’d never seen before. It wasn’t bloody or pulpy, nor was it bones. It was shaggy, almost like wood. I looked at it for a couple minutes. I thought, What is the word for it? It’s like wicker furniture. So, for a while, the line was, “the carcass, which was like a piece of wicker” or something. Eventually, I grew to trust that there is an intuitive quality to this image, so that you can say, this carcass is “going wicker.” And you have that flash of recognition, that pleasure, when you read a satisfying sentence.

MM: Let me switch gears and ask you about teaching writing. You have been teaching full-time for four years, and you are about to start a new job in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. You also — with your husband — founded the Mojave School, a writing workshop for teens in rural Nevada, where you teach every year. How do you find that teaching at these universities, and at the Mojave School, is different?

CVW: It’s good for my teaching to go back to Pahrump. I realise that as a college professor, so much of my pedagogy relies on my students giving a shit about what I think of them, which my Mojave School students do not. They’re sweet, but they do their own thing. They don’t care if I like them. It’s not like, Will you write me a letter of recommendation?

As a professor, my rhetorical stance would be, I have something in my pocket, can you guess what it is? I have a reading for this story, can you guess what it is? And my Mojave School students are like, I don’t care what’s in your pocket. While my Princeton students are like, I want you to think I’m smart, so I’ll engage with this. I’ll play the game.

I had the idea for the Mojave School for a while, but I didn’t do it for a long time, because I felt the politics of it were dicey. I was this educated outsider, and I was going to come back for a week and tell them how to write. It made me equivocate with the parents and teachers. I’d say, Just so you know, I’m not trying to be micro-imperialist. And they would look at me, puzzled, like, I don’t give a shit about that. I have to worry about how I’m going to get a ride tomorrow, so that’s what I’d like you to focus on, rather than the socio-political implications of giving me a ride. So it’s a grounding experience.

MM: When I taught a workshop in rural Uganda I had similar questions, and like you, I realized that the students and other teachers were thinking about whether we had enough pencils, and whether we could get everyone from the surrounding villages to come to the schoolhouse on time. Very practical questions.

CVW: Right, and I think it’s good for someone like me. I make my living in academia, and it’s wonderful to be in that area of pragmatism.

I’ve also been reminded how frank people from this community are. I might say, “This community is underserved.” And they’d say, “What do you mean — poor?”

MM: How do you think writing intervenes in the lives of the young people you teach at the Mojave School?

CVW: I hope it does. I hope it does.

For a long while I had an impression that we only care about certain types of stories — affluent white men stories.

I was fairly far along in my education before I saw any people who looked like me in fiction — people who were from a place like Pahrump, who were poor. For a long while I had an impression that we only care about certain types of stories — affluent white men stories. Kids get those messages that our culture sends, so I hope my students get a corrective from being with us for a week. But really, I do that workshop for me. I want to be in my home again, participating in this community. I don’t want to leave that place behind, in no small part because it’s very artistically fruitful for me. It’s the place where stories come from.

And then — I’m talking to you from the porch of my large home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I have survivor’s guilt from moving from one class into another. So I wanted to do something about the guilt and helplessness I felt about the fact that I was teaching at places where kids like me would never set foot. I’ve taught at Princeton, and other well-regarded workshops for high school students that cost a couple thousand dollars to attend, and I’ve always had this voice in my head that says: People like you aren’t allowed here.

MM: We do hear so much about how it’s discouraging for kids to not see people like them reflected in writing. I grew up in India, where I read American and British books about people nothing like me. The paraphernalia of their lives was so unfamiliar. And it seems to me that there’s something beautiful, too, about confronting difference so early, about having to imagine a world bigger than you. How would you reconcile those two functions in writing?

You’re hitting upon an uncomfortable truth — to be marginalized is probably good for your fiction.

CVW: You’re hitting upon an uncomfortable truth — to be marginalized is probably good for your fiction. So you’re a kid growing up in India, and you’re being asked to inhabit the mind of George Orwell. And that’s good for the artist. That’s our bread and butter — imagining the complex and inscrutable inner lives of other people. But if you’re a young British schoolboy and you’re inhabiting Orwell, you’re not traveling as far. You’re not getting as much practice.

This kind of explains the connection between pain and art, which is that pain makes you vulnerable and forces you to think uncomfortable thoughts, and that’s good for you as an artist. It doesn’t change the fact that it really fucking hurts.

Some of my writer friends say that women are better at writing across gender and ethnicity. While I don’t know if that’s true, I can imagine that it might be, because women who live in a patriarchy are asked every day to think in the perspective of men.

My husband and I were watching the NCAA basketball tournament. (I love college basketball.) So we were watching ESPN and this Old Spice commercial comes on. In it, a woman is a robot who is programmed to say yes to the man. My husband turned to me and he said, “What is it like for you to watch these sporting events and then watch a commercial that is really clearly not for you, that is offensive and hurtful?” And I laughed and said, “That’s all commercials. Even the ones that are meant for me are offensive.”

MM: What imprint has your own MFA experience left in your life?

CVW: In discussing MFAs, abstract ideas are tossed around — community; diversity, ideally; inclusivity. But those ideas have very much not been abstractions for me.

I’ve married a person I met in my MFA. My best friends, I found in my MFA.

You know, I barely got through undergrad. I had no money, and if it had not been for the funding structure of my MFA, I never would have gone to grad school. So the program lets into these rooms people who are otherwise excluded.

These days, wanting to make art can be a dirty secret. It can be shameful. A graduate program legitimizes it. I tell my students, Tell your parents that getting into a top-fifteen MFA program is harder than getting into Harvard Medical School. At Thanksgiving, when they’re wondering what you’re doing with your life, tell them that.

So the money and the academic context carves out a space for making art in our culture.

The idea of MFAs encouraging homogenization in writing is silly. Look back at Best American Short Stories 1965 — it’s not exactly a cornucopia of diverse voices. What are we trying to protect here?

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