The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Claire Vaye Watkins


If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week, we spoke with Claire Vaye Watkins, whose breathtaking debut story collection Battleborn hits shelves this week. Her stories, which carry the weight and devastation of entire novels, each take place in a different location in Watkins’ home state of Nevada. Her characters range across two centuries, from gold miners to movie producers to Studio Art undergrads, each uniquely drawn to the desolate, Nevada landscape. Two of those characters are based on figures that haunt Watkins’ own family history: the ’60s cult leader Charles Manson, and one of his followers, the author’s father, Paul Watkins. Watkins joined us to talk about her family history, the hipster phenomenon, and why so many of America’s gothic fiction writers tend to be women.

What do you love or hate about contemporary American fiction?

I definitely love a lot more than I hate, but then again hating things is a lot more interesting, isn’t it? For one, I don’t think Americans do a good job talking about class. Class hardly gets acknowledged, and when it does, too often it’s poor people who are poor but happy, because golly, life sure is simple when you’re poor. Or you have fiction about these this rancid grotesques that reads very much like rubbernecking. That’s one reason I ended up writing this book, because I wasn’t seeing my world in fiction. I read about rural people, but they never felt like my people. The world is a place of grit and grace and about a thousand things in between, and I wanted to write a book with all of that in it.

The narrator of your story “Ghost, Cowboys” is named Claire Watkins. She tells her story by weaving Reno’s history, classic Hollywood westerns, the Manson murders, and her own personal history. Your own father is Paul Watkins, who was a member of Charles Manson’s “family.” How did your family history influence the writing of that story?

My family history is a tricky thing for me. I don’t know exactly how I feel about it most of the time. One reason why that story seemed like a good way to get at that material is because it’s about the shakiness of history, both on a micro and macro level, and how fraught and wobbly it is when you try to look for meaning in the past. My dad died when I was six years old, so I never really knew him. But what I’ve learned about him, I’ve learned from a few family stories and the Manson Family. My own origins became very mythic for me, not unlike myths of how a city was founded, or how nuclear testing in Nevada created cancer clusters, or all the other myths in “Ghost, Cowboys.” The character Claire looks at all of the stories around her and asks, How did the west get settled, and what exactly did my dad do at Spahn’s Ranch?

There’s an image in the story where Claire wants to walk into the river with silver on her back, which is about the idea of weighing yourself down with all this information and history, while still feeling empty and insufficient, slight, and untethered. Wallace Stegner said that movement was the central motif of the west, and I feel that. I feel at times so untethered that I might float away.

In “Virginia City,” you write about a group of jaded hipsters who run around drunk in cemeteries, doing “funny, empty things” so they can be the “kind of funny empty people who do them.” Does this represents the cultural moment we’re in now? At what point is this no longer enough?

I think I’m certainly not the only person interested in the limits of cynicism, and irony, and hipness — this crushing self-consciousness. Weirdly, David Foster Wallace’s suicide has made this kind of thinking popular. Anyway, 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. Is there anything authentic under all this obsession with authenticity? This cultural moment makes me go cross-eyed sometimes.

When I read your collection, I kept thinking you were writing outside of subjects normally delegated to women (i.e. domesticity, the family), but your stories never felt like they were written by a man. It’s the same feeling I get from reading Didion, Munro, Gaitskill, or even O’Connor, all of whom write gruesomely, but never at the cost of their femininity. How does a woman’s perspective uniquely get at this material?

All the women I love — in my life and in my books — are very, very funny. And they have this very specific, very complex sense of humor, a real loving wickedness. And the thing about the women writers I love — Didion, O’Connor, Joy Williams, Aimee Bender, Louise Erdrich — is not simply that they can be arch one moment and tender the next. It’s that they can be arch and tender simultaneously. They’re shape-shifters. They can be mean and silly and joyful and desperate, all in a single line, like this one from Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer,” which I have on my mind because I taught it today: “This is the limit of my limits, here it is. You don’t ever know for sure where it is and then you bump up against it and bam, you’re there.” I wanted to write stories like that, shape-shifting stories about people at the limit of their limits.

It’s funny to get this question. I’ve gotten many similar to it recently, so much so that I went back and thumbed through the collection to see if that was true, that I’m writing outside of subjects normally delegated to women. I don’t think I am, actually — I write about sisters and mothers and daughters a lot, about having children and what it means to be a wife, about love, marriage, sex, grief. It’s a strange compliment, a little like being told you throw like a boy. So I wonder why the book is often described that way? What I come up with is that our idea of what constitutes ‘women’s writing’ is so narrow that it’s rather easy to write outside of it. It’s not that I set out to be transgressive — though that would not be unlike me. It was only that I had no interest in writing polite, well-behaved stories. (And I should say here that men write plenty of these.) I have no patience for pleasantries, in my life or in my fiction, and I’ve not yet been accused of good manners.

What was the last good book you read?

I’ve been making my way through Moby Dick for about six months now, and much of it is just excellent, and thrilling for someone working on her first novel to read, because it’s such a stone soup. Yesterday on the trip home from Italy I read The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, which was funny and mournful and right in my wheelhouse. He had me crying over Ohio farmland. Before that I read Run River , Joan Didion’s first novel. That one’s still with me.

Illustration by Geoff Mak