If you find yourself using “Las Vegas,” as shorthand for “Nevada,” then the masterful fiction in Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn will be both familiar and exotic … and educational. In her debut collection (Riverhead, $26), the Pahrump-raised author writes about a Nevada where Las Vegas is the place that’s “over the hump.”
The 10 stories of life in (and around) rural Nevada vary widely—from an epistolary tale of roadside loneliness to a historical mining misadventure to a foreign tourist finding shelter in a brothel to contemporary drunken escapades. In the piercing opener, the 28-year-old even addresses her father’s involvement in the Manson family. But the thread that unites the book is the immersive feeling of the Mojave Desert (Watkins has lived in several parts). Her delicate and insightful depiction of that unique world—one that is similar but not quite the same as our own—has captured the attention of the mainstream media (such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Vogue and The Guardian) since the book’s Aug. 2 release. Such instant-renown is beyond rare for debut writers of short-story collections, a marketing double whammy. But the Bucknell University creative writing professor’s book is one of the rare things that deserves its hype.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while writing your book?
A lot of the challenges were probably psychological—feeling insecure, or feeling nothing would be good, or feeling that they would be Old West clichés, or that it would be really nostalgic. I was really concerned about that, because I wrote the book when I left Nevada for the first time and I was really, really homesick. I knew that I had this great affection and this great longing for the place, but I still wanted to write stories that were fair and seemed real. I didn’t want it to be the literary equivalent of a sweeping shot of Monument Valley or some John Ford situation.
How did you overcome your fears?
Sometimes I’m not convinced I did. All of the characters are living in Nevada, at least in part, and I wasn’t. So in a strange way, I was really jealous of them. I would have to ask myself if I was being honest about their situation or if I was romanticizing it. … If I could say “Las Vegas is wonderful” or “Las Vegas is grotesque,” then I wouldn’t be able to write about it well. It’s both of those, and a million other things all at once. I think a good, really rich story will gesture toward that complication.
Do you have any favorite books that are written about Las Vegas … sorry, Nevada? Whenever I say Las Vegas, I mean Nevada.
That’s an interesting phenomenon that some of us might bristle a little bit at. But I forgive you; I understand.
Let me try again: Do you have any favorite Nevada books?
When I was at the University of Nevada, Reno, two Nevada writers came and visited. One was H. Lee Barnes and one was Willy Vlautin. Willy read some of his first novel, The Motel Life, and that cracked my world open. It made me realize that Nevada was OK to write about, that it was a place, too. That you didn’t have to write about Manhattan or the Deep South to write fiction. Even though I had really loved all the stuff I’d been reading in college, I never saw my experience reflected back to me. [But] this is a writer who knows places that are supposedly nowhere. Rural Nevadans get told all the time, “Your experience is not only uninteresting, it actually doesn’t happen.” There’s this annihilative language that happens, which is like, “This is a wasteland; this is a nowhere place; there’s nobody there.” And if you’re sitting in Tonopah, or Gerlach, you’re like, “Well, what? Wait a second!” When Willy came in, it gave me permission in my own heart to start thinking about the places I was from as a rich literary landscape.
As you live in other cities, will you write about them, too?
I’ll go toward the subject matter that interests me. … I don’t want to write something that I feel like I understand inside and out. If I’m ever saying to myself, “I’ve got a handle on this, I know what to do” then that will be a red flag. … I’m still really interested in the desert, and people who live in the desert, so for now, it’s still where I get all my artistic direction.
What’s your next writing project?
I’m rather superstitious about saying very much about it, but I am working on a novel. It’s a sci-fi novel about the water crisis in the Southwest. But I just started the project and I’ve never written a novel before, so it could be a failure.
What are people’s biggest misconceptions about you?
Sometimes people think that my father’s involvement in the Manson family is a more important story to me than it actually is. I find it rather dull, actually. I probably feel the same way about the Manson family as you feel about whatever your parents were doing when they were 18 years old. It’s a pretty anecdote, [but] it’s not revealing.
Here’s one misconception I had: I was really impressed by your skill in writing about sex, and I kept looking to the photo on the book flap and thinking, “But she looks like such a nice girl!”
[Laughs.] I don’t want to say anything that my stepdad can’t read. But, nice girls get theirs too, right?
In July, you had a photo shoot and write-up in Vogue. When Wild author Cheryl Strayed got a similar photo shoot, she said the process offended her feminist sensibilities. What was your experience: feminist nightmare or dream makeover?
When my publicist said, “Vogue wants to take a photo of you and do a piece,” I was like, “That’s great!” Then I was like “That’s terrible!” Because all of my body-image issues started working overtime. For about an hour I was on what I call “The Vogue Diet” where my boyfriend would be like, “Let’s go get a beer,” and I would go, “Vogue! Vogue!” and do the Madonna thing. Then I told my publicist about that, kind of joking, and she was like, “Oh, don’t worry, honey! You’re so beautiful; you’re so wonderful. Also, they’re gonna Photoshop the shit out of you.” [Laughs.] And I know that this makes me a bad feminist, but I was like, “Fuck yeah! I love that! Because now I can drink all the beer I want!”
There’s so much loss and heartache in your stories. Does writing help you process your emotions?
For me, writing isn’t a therapeutic or a cathartic process. It feels great. But there’s so much doubt and dread in the process of writing. In fact, I’ve gone to many therapists. Every once in a while, one would suggest, “Maybe you should keep a journal.” And I’m just like, “My life is a fucking journal.” I don’t want to keep a journal. That’s like going to work. That’s like telling a stockbroker, “Maybe you should keep a portfolio of your feelings and analyze those numbers like you do at the office.” It’s too much of a professional endeavor to be really therapeutic. Then again, it’s something I feel comfortable doing, and I’m really unhappy if I’m not writing.
The Killers have a new album that’s also called Battle Born. Will they get a strongly worded e-mail?
It’s funny because non-Nevadans are like, “What’s ‘Battleborn’?” Then everyone in Nevada is like, “Oh yeah, ‘Battle Born,’ like that tattoo shop down the street or my friend’s T-shirt company.” Everything is called “Battle Born” in Nevada. I don’t feel proprietary about it at all. But I would like to say here in print that if Brandon Flowers wants to have a mock relationship for publicity purposes, we could be spotted together somewhere or something. I am available.
You’re at the beginning of your career. What are your big aspirations or dreams?
I may be a little bit too superstitious to answer that. Don’t you think that would be kind of like inviting a hex if I spoke it aloud, and to a journalist no less? I will say that if I could just keep writing and paying my bills and seeing my family, I would be a pretty happy camper.
Are you actually superstitious?
I’m a pretty superstitious person. I mean, I grew up in Pahrump, which is like our folklore [and] conspiracy theories [capital]. On the one hand, I don’t actually believe conspiracy theories, if I was pressed. But I love the feeling of letting myself slip into them. I love how your mind kind of swoons and you’re like, “Oh my God, I see the world in a whole different way” because of like chemtrails or something. It’s a really transformative storytelling experience. It’s not unique to Nevada, but it’s a pretty Nevadan form of storytelling—the conspiracy theory.
How do you balance teaching, writing and regular life?
I’m not a person who thinks writing is more important than my loved ones. I’m not going to be tortured by my art. I don’t subscribe to the idea that art-making has to consume you and you have to neglect everything else. I’d rather be a good aunt, a good girlfriend and a good daughter than a great writer.