Novelist Claire Vaye Watkins on world of permanent drought she imagines in American southwest
Watkins grew up in the Mojave desert, an environment that, contrary to popular belief, isn't hostile or evil but is simply indifferent to humans. Her debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, is set in a world of permanent drought
Claire Vaye Watkins was born in California and brought up in the Mojave desert in Nevada. Her debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, uses this territory as the backdrop for a terrifying vision of a world of permanent drought. Watkins is also the author of the award-winning story collection Battleborn.
Where did the idea come from?
The way I went about writing was by looking to the past. I was born in an area of California called the Owens Valley, and the Owens Valley was the site of what were called the California water wars in the 1920s, which was when the city of Los Angeles built their aqueduct systems because they realised they didn’t have enough water to make this major metropolis happen, and this dream of manifest destiny, the paradise, the Eden of America, come true. So they built this aqueduct system and one of the lakes it drained was Owens Lake, near where I was born.
You grew up in the desert, a landscape that comes with a lot of powerful associations …
I do find it revealing, the way that we talk about the desert as empty, or barren, just because it’s not a particular type of ecosystem. It’s often even personified in a very active, malicious way, like it’s vicious or brutal. But really it’s just indifferent. And that’s scarier than anything.
In what way?
It’s not made for us, for people. And in the American west, we’ve spent a lot of energy, and money, and resources, and cultural narrative creating the idea that actually, we are supposed to be here, it’s our divine right to be in this dry climate in whatever numbers we want, and living whichever way we want. And during the course of writing this book, the absurdity of that narrative really was illuminated.
Your central character, Luz, is a young woman who as a baby was a poster child for water conservation. Where did that idea come from?
I’ve always been fascinated whenever I learn about a figurehead, or a person who serves a symbolic role; I can’t help but think about what that looks like for them in the day-to-day of their life and their psyche. This probably has to do with growing up the way I did, in that my father was involved with Charles Manson and his Family [Paul Watkins left the Family before their murders, and he testified against them], but also that he died when I was very young, so I often felt like a symbol as a child. When I would visit my family, I could see that, say, my uncle was looking at me as his niece, Claire, but also as a symbol of his lost brother, that I represented physically a great deal of pain and grief for him.
Your novel is a kind of dystopia – but I know you have some issues with that genre, don’t you?
I hate tidy or one-dimensional stories in books. And that’s the thing I actually really dislike about so much dystopian fiction, it’s just one note. It’s just: it’s dire. We’re plod, plod, plodding along, one foot in front of the other, and the ash is grey – and it’s just the same emotional key struck again and again and again. And I wondered: how come nobody’s ever having sex in the apocalypse? Or telling jokes?
Your essay “On Pandering” received a great deal of coverage; in it, you describe how female writers are dismissed and marginalised. You even diagnose yourself, in your first book, as “writing to impress old white men”. It seemed a very fearless piece.
When I originally wrote it, to give it as a lecture to a couple of hundred new or emerging writers at a conference, I thought my role was simply to describe my very specific brand of self-doubt and show them that a so-called professional writer also struggles with something that they might be struggling with. After I gave the talk, so many people, especially women, came and spoke to me about the specific ways it resonated with them. What I heard over and over again was that it made them feel that they weren’t crazy any more.
You also talked about the well-known problem of women feeling that if they write about topics such as motherhood, family and the home, they won’t be taken seriously. How do you feel about that now, in terms of your writing?
Now, in addition to that voice inside my head that says that’s kind of slight material, I have another voice that will say, well, f*** off. That’s what I’ve got. That’s something, right?