Author Claire Vaye Watkins on Her Debut Novel, the Water Crisis, and Poop Jokes

We talked to the celebrated 'Gold Fame Citrus' author about her new book and the connections between so-called 'good' guys and terrible deeds.
November 25, 2015, 3:50pm

Photo by Heike Steinweg/Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Earlier this week, the literary journal Tin House published an essay that writer Claire Vaye Watkins had written called "On Pandering." The essay is essentially a call for all writers, but especially women and marginalized authors, to stop pandering to "the little white man deep inside all of us," the straight white male most critically lauded and canonical literature seems written about and for. Watkins concludes with a call to arms: "Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better." The piece sent literary world into a frenzy, due in no small part to Watkins calling out Stephen Elliott, founder of the Rumpus, a popular books and culture website, for the sexist microaggressions she says he committed against her six years ago.

Since her celebrated 2012 debut, Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins has quickly created a place for herself in American literature, not only as a kind of unofficial laureate of the Southwestern states, but as a deeply meticulous and inventive young prose writer as well. Battleborn remains one of the standout pieces of short-form fiction writing in recent memory and takes its title from her home state of Nevada. Her writing reflects a deep affinity for the desert and an ability to interrogate its aesthetic qualities along with the complex lives of those who inhabit it.

Her second book and debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus (an excerpt from which appeared on Motherboard), follows Luz, a young woman living in a near-future Los Angeles, water-starved and left to wither by rest of the country. Along with her companion, Ray, and a rescued child, she attempts to flee the state. Instead, they end up among a mysterious commune in the desert wastes of what was formerly Southern California. They're led by a charismatic douser (a man who can find water by feeling and instinct) named Levi within the supposedly uninhabitable dune sea. The novel is a fierce interrogation of Californian values of blind hope, uncritical privilege, and innate narcissism. Though the characters are faced with the bleak results of lifetimes of human mismanagement of the environment, Watkins writes them with humor and compassion within a world that is unflinchingly desperate.

I spoke to Claire from her current home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, shortly after the publication of the book in September.

VICE: One of the interesting things about your book was that it seems to keep that kind of sentence-by-sentence attention to detail that a lot of your short stories have. Was that an intentional thing you were trying to replicate with the same process?
Claire Vaye Watkins: Yes and no. Partly I was excited about having a very "plot-y" novel, but also have challenging and exciting language. Sentences that were like little works of art in and of themselves. Maybe this is just my reading, but it seems like usually those elements are divorced. You either have a "plot-y" novel that has great narrative moment and it's easy to read and it's a page-turner. Or you have somebody like Christine Schutt—her language is just unbeatable, but she doesn't give a damn about plot.

When I read, I really like that feeling of being swept away. Just the simple, reptile brain stuff: "What's going to happen?"

I thought the opening line of the book was one of the funniest I've read in a long time. You really do introduce a lot of humorous elements to this novel that's, generally, pretty bleak. Were you trying to reign it in, in a way?
It's hard to say what I was "trying" to do. At any point, I was just trying to not hate what I was writing. If I was going to write so called "post-apocalyptic"—if you're interested, we can talk about why I don't like that term—if I'm going to write a book that's set in this dystopian world, I would just be really bored if all the arrows were pointing in the same direction. If they were just bleakly trudging through the ashes. Anyway, Cormac McCarthy already did that, and I think he did it very finely.

So I like the idea that there would be characters that are living out some kind of dystopic scenario, but were simultaneously kind of bored or they just wanted to have sex or fuck around or they were funny or they got themselves into farcical situations. There's a lot of poop jokes in there. I guess that was all my way of making my own fresh air in a very overcrowded genre.

I can understand not liking that term, "post-apocalyptic." The market is so glutted with works described that way.
I don't even really like to read those. Aside from the books that totally transcend— The Road, 1984, some Margaret Atwood, [although] I probably don't like as much of her work as I probably should, whatever that means. The touchstones for this book were more like Joan Didion and Joy Williams and Christine Schutt and Wallace Stegner. Just pieces of art I like. It definitely was not born out of any specific desire to contribute to this genre, but, you know, our times being what they are, it just seems sort of an involuntary impulse. I've been learning to trust those more and more as I get older. When I find myself writing something I don't want to be writing, it's usually a sign that I'm doing it for a good reason.

I do think that that's something fiction is a lot better at, the human scale. It has this demand that you reckon with the people. – Claire Vaye Watkins

Was it strange how while you were writing and editing and publishing this book, the present started catching up with your vision?
It's another weird sub-genre of that weirdness that once in a while someone will be like, "Oh, it's super cool how your book's going to be so timely." And I'm like, "Yeah, I'll do a reading on a pile of dead migrant farm workers. It'll be awesome." Obviously, I'd prefer not to have a timely dystopian novel.

One thing that is kind of heartening, inasmuch as you can get that feeling these days, when I started working on this four or five years ago, every once in a while someone would ask me that horrible question: "What's your novel about?" And the phrase I would use was, "It's about the water crisis in the Southwest." Most people—and this is when I was living in Ohio or Pennsylvania—would say, "What are you talking about?" And now, there's this instant flash of recognition. Everyone I meet launches into their own thing about how they read this thing about the Sierra snowpack or saw this video about shade balls. Everybody's my publicist, which means that it's at the forefront of everybody's consciousness even more so than it was a few years ago. That has to be good for something, right?

Do you think it follows the idea that fiction can contain a truth that reality can't get at? Knowing about the drought is one thing, but your book really makes you feel the drought since it's taken to such an extreme.
I do think that that's something fiction is a lot better at, the human scale. It has this demand that you reckon with the people. My own interests are very much at the macro level. I write dozens and dozens of pages—I mean, the first thing I wrote in this book was about the sand dune. The feel of the sand, the taste. What color is it in this light, what's the chemical composition, how was it formed. On and on and on. Then some gentle reader of mine says, "You should put some people in this." We demand the human scale. I'm zipping back and forth between those. It's the combination of the whole fiction itself and then my own interests, [which] makes for an interesting coupling. I don't really feel very much when I learn about climate change or drought. I get kind of cross-eyed and numb.

It's hard to stare at the facts and feel.
I guess in a way that's why a topic like this is alluring to a novelist. It illustrates that our imagination has limits. I really think there are things we cannot imagine. One of them is ourselves in the future. Insurance companies have known this for a very long time. We can't think of ourselves 40 years in the future let alone future generations, let alone geologic time. We can understand and grasp the facts, but we don't really feel that with our stupid reptile brains.

It's nauseating to even try. Your descriptions of the Amargosa Dune Sea, the massive sea of sand where most of the novel takes place, is so compelling and precise. Did you do a lot of research to that, or you draw from your childhood, surrounded with the geology of the area?
A little bit of both. I knew just enough natural history to know where I really needed to research. Most of it was pretty analog—checking books out of a library and reading a ton about water. I found that I needed a model for every big conceit in the book. For example, the refugee crisis. I looked back toward the Dust Bowl and how the Oakies were treated during that mass migration of people and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I visited Manzanar, which is the site of an internment camp in the Owens Valley. The Owens Valley itself was ground zero for an earlier water crisis. Owens Lake was the lake that was drained when the Los Angeles aqueduct system was formed. I grew up in the Owens Valley, so I've been going there for a long time. The story of Cadillac Desert and the Owens Valley and Chinatown is mixed in with my own personal mythology. I've been told about it so many times. There were some coals in my time. There's the academic level of the research and an immediacy that comes from upbringing and homesickness.

You also have a tendency to take traditionally masculine traditions and turn them on their head. Luz is attracted to Levi, the douser, even though he's bad for her, but her other love interest, Ray, isn't exactly a knight in shining armor either.
Ray was more driven by masculinity and all its toxic bullshit than even Levi, who's so explicitly destructive. Wanting to be a "good" guy is what makes Ray do every terrible thing he does. I'm kind of interested in characters—maybe you have people like this in your life—that're like a "good" guy or a "decent" guy. I'm married to one of those guys. Everybody is just like, "He's good." Let's just say nobody ever says that about me. I think those people, when they fall, probably fall a lot harder than people like me who are always kind of disappointing on some level anyway. So what makes Ray so volatile is how he thinks he ought to be a hero and he's fucking it up and so he just keeps on fucking it up.

Luz isn't quite a strong-willed character or a damsel in distress either, though she's often in trouble. Never quite gets saved, but doesn't need it either.
The interesting thing about her is that she was born a symbol. She was asked, basically, to be a thing. She was asked to be a static, representational thing. A tool that culture could use as a propaganda tool or whatever. She kind of gets used on both sides of the debate. And then unsurprisingly she becomes a model, which is basically a professional human "thing." That never occurred to me until I had my picture taken for Vogue when Battleborn came out. It was a really tiny picture, and I was really bad at having my photo taken. It was such a crazy, surreal—it wasn't glamorous at all. It was very bizarre to moved around like I was moved around, like a living doll, and talked about like I wasn't even really there. I bet they were a lot nicer to me than they are with usual models. They kept saying, "She's a writer," like they had to keep reminding themselves. I couldn't sit right because I was a writer. So then I started thinking about Luz as an adult and that was the only possible thing she could be. Because modeling wants to keep you young. I read and watched something about models lying about their age because there's an obsession with age. If you're 19, you're basically done.

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Gold Fame Citrus is available in bookstores and online now from Riverhead Books.