Five Questions for Claire Vaye Watkins

About Battleborn / Über Geister, Cowboys

“If debut collections are meant to announce the arrival of talented new writers, Battleborn is a full-throated bugle call”, wrote New York Times about the first book by Claire Vaye Watkins. In Germany her stunning book will be published this week titled Geister, Cowboys. For my review in Focus ( Nr. 37/12, 10.September 2012) I asked her five questions. Here are her answers:

Wittstock: Your father is Paul Watkins, who was a member of Charles Manson’s “Family.” How did your father’s life influence your writing?

Claire Vaye Watkins: "Geister, Cowboys". Stories. Aus dem Amerikanischen von Dirk van Gunsteren. Ullstein Verlag, 19,99 Euro

Claire Vaye Watkins: My father died when I was six years old. His death is my first memory. My relationship to him has been one of searching, wondering who he was, what kind of man he was. His involvement in the Manson Family was one part of the search process, but only one part. This is not unlike the way you construct a character. And for me, it has been an endless, fruitless search, because I will of course never know my father or know what kind of person he was. Good characters are like this, you are endlessly curious about them but they never fully reveal themselves.

Wittstock: How important is the feeling of being guilty for the characters of your stories?

Claire Vaye Watkins: The first thing I try to do is destabilize my characters. I figure if I can knock them off-kilter they might do something interesting. Guilt is one way to create an imbalanced equation both internally and externally, between characters. Another is to throw them into a new place; parenthood, a broken heart, a road trip with friends you secretly love. This is probably most intense for Joshua and Errol on “The Diggings”: they’re young, they’ve never left their family farm in Ohio, their father dies the same year gold is discovered in California and they light out Westward. They both struggle immensely. Joshua has a really terrible time adjusting to the goldfields. He’s afraid of the mountains, he misses his mother, he’s having to watch his brother descend into madness that he, Joshua, perhaps caused. There’s some element of this destabilization in every story: a young woman gets pregnant by the cokehead who broke her heart, a prospecting hermit finds a teenage girl left for dead in the desert, a family man comes upon debris that reminds him of a horrible incident from his youth. I work toward destabilization because it makes something happen–volatile people make interesting characters. Otherwise, I am not very good at making something happen. And we all have debts.

Wittstock: The landscape – especially the desert – of the american south-west is very important in your stories. Are the people of the south-west different than others?

Claire Vaye Watkins: When I write I start with place. Typically it’s an image that comes first. One image will get stuck in my brain, usually an image of the place. For one story, “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past,” I was thinking about the brothels near my childhood home, which my school bus used to pass every morning. It was the image of this really cutesy building–a Victorian painted pink and baby blue, with flower boxes and dormer windows, curlicue trim, a red light rotating atop the weather vane–sitting at the end of a very long road. I’ll carry an image around with me and it will attract others: the swath of the Milky Way cutting the sky, an albino peacock, a prostitute tanning by the pool ringed by pomegranate trees (they’re rarely subtle images, as you can see). I can see these quite clearly and the visions help me see what the character sees and get to know them that way. Though very often I don’t actually get started on the story until the language level comes to me. Eventually, after living with an image long enough, I’ll hear a few lines in my head–and I roll with those.

Wittstock: How important is the mythology of the Mojave desert for your writing?

Claire Vaye Watkins: In the desert place is mythology, and they’re both essential for my writing process. One of my professors at UNR once said, We are who we are because of where we are. I’ve carried that around with me for a long time. I can’t even begin to understand who a character is until I know where they are. Early on I decided each story would be set in Nevada, and I whittled the stories to more specificity from there. So it became not just Nevada, but a shack on the edge of the Black Rock Playa, or Lake Street in Reno, a tiny ranch in Verdi, a solo camping trip to the ghost town Rhyolite, car camping at Lake Tahoe with your ex-lover, controlling husband, and a newborn baby.

Wittstock: Danny, Julie and Iris in “Virginia City” do “funny, empty things” so they can be the “kind of funny empty people who do them.” They remind me to younger people I met in Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt. Do you think these three represent a special trait of this generation?

Claire Vaye Watkins: I’m certainly not the only person interested in the limits of cynicism, and irony, and hipness. David Foster Wallace’s suicide seems to have made this conversation essential. But those hipsters in “Virginia City” are not so unlike forty-niners playacting the adventures they read about in newspapers and pamphlets, or the kids in the Manson Family living on a movie set, doing things like having orgies at Denis Wilson’s house, to be able to say they’d done them. But of course the digital age has taken self-consciousness to an epic level. Iris and Danny and Jules aren’t just careening around Virginia City so they can say they did, they’re taking take pictures of themselves careening around Virginia City — drinking the the cemetery, drinking in the Silver Queen, drinking in the wedding chapel. They’re constantly documenting their exploits, sculpting and altering their narrative as they live it, almost in real time. Like many of us, everything they do has so many layers of performance that eventually neither they nor we can tell what they’re actually doing, what they’re actually feeling. The story is about the day when this is no longer enough. Is there anything authentic under all this obsession with authenticity?

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