In her debut novel, Claire Vaye Watkins imagines a future American West blighted by drought. A follow-up to 2012’s Nevada-centric short-story collection Battleborn, Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead, $28) is the story of Luz and Ray, two young “Mojavs” making the perilous journey east from an all-but-abandoned Los Angeles. Watkins has written a gorgeous and gripping book, rich with detail and psychological insight.
Raised in Tecopa, California, and Pahrump and a graduate of UNR, Watkins will speak at the Vegas Valley Book Festival on October 17. She discussed her inspirations for the novel and her feelings about our culture’s doomsday fixation.
Can you pinpoint the moment when the idea for Gold Fame Citrus first materialized? Or was it something you developed over time?
I’ve been carrying drought stories with me since I was child. I was born in the Owens Valley in California, which had been the site of Owens Lake before Los Angeles drained it with its aqueduct system. That was in the ‘20s, and it set off the California Water Wars—which was part of the background for Chinatown (1974). People in Owens Valley have been telling that story for a very long time, and I was left wondering as a kid: Could this happen on a much larger scale? What would be the worst-case scenario for the West if it ran out of water? I’ve held on to that thought for years.
I wanted to write a novel after I finished my story collection, Battleborn, but I was intimidated by the idea of having to invent an entire speculative world. I tried writing a more contained work, a domestic novel about a couple—and it was turning out really bad and boring. Meanwhile, I had this secret Word document that was all about drought, dune people and unreal animals; eventually, I just admitted to myself that these were the things I was interested in. I harvested the couple from the novel, resituated them in a mansion in Laurel Canyon after a drought and then I was off to the races.
One of the book’s strengths is how well rendered its world is. Did you do a lot of research?
I needed to create the appearance of expertise, as close as I could get to actual expertise! I studied the language of water management, the bureaucracies and organizations that become involved in addressing drought. I kept what were essentially models for each of the big speculative inventions. For instance, when developing the evacuation procedures I read a lot about the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the propaganda that went along with it and the logistics of forcibly moving people away from their communities. I studied the Dust Bowl, and the way Okies were treated.
For each character, I wanted to create a specific frame—the way they might process what was happening around them. Luz, one of the main characters, is a former model. So I ended up watching a lot of documentaries about modeling. I didn’t really click with that material until I had my picture taken for Vogue to accompany a piece that ran when Battleborn came out. That was a profoundly weird and physically taxing experience. You’re sort of out of your body, and people are talking about you like you’re not there and are moving you around. The work was so much more demanding than I’d imagined!
You teach for the Helen Zell Writer’s Program at the University of Michigan. Do people in the Midwest—and, more generally, the rest of the country—talk about the fate of the West differently than its residents?
I’ve been trying to coin this term: schadenfornia, a mixture of schadenfreude and California—a name for the particular type of pleasure you derive from observing the misfortune of Californians. I’ve noticed a kind of puritanical undertone to some of the coverage of the West’s drought crisis, as though these “decadent” Californians are finally getting what they deserve, that they never should have been there in the first place. This kind of attitude contributed to my understanding of how people might react to the so-called Mojavs in my novel—that they’d have a word, a disparaging shorthand, for people from California and the Southwest. That this would be part of the process by which they’d invent a subclass of people, how it might develop in response to something like a refugee crisis.
I find it funny, too, the way we talk about the “California Drought”—as though drought respects state boundaries. This is an issue for the whole Western U.S.; climate change and sustainable consumption are not region-specific. It might be a way for us to displace our anxieties about the way we live now. We can tell ourselves that Californians are simply getting what they deserve and that we will be fine.
The media seem preoccupied with the ideas of apocalypse and post-apocalypse—films, television shows, video games. Did you consume any of this when writing the novel?
I definitely don’t seek that stuff out. I find a lot of the work in the “post-apocalyptic” genre to be extremely dishonest. I don’t like how often it pretends to be an unflinching look at how bad things could be when it’s actually escapist—it’s the opposite of honest. There is narcissism, too, in fantasies of the apocalypse. The survivors are represented as the pinnacle of our species, and are exaggerated, glorified. The truth is that we’re no different than other species: we’ll most likely die and go to dust like everything else. That’s the really scary thing.
Drew Cohen is co-proprietor of the Writer’s Block, 1020 Fremont St., Suite 100, TheWritersBlock.org.
Nevada Humanities Presents Claire Vaye Watkins
At Vegas Valley Book Festival, 3 p.m. Oct. 17, Historic Fifth Street School, free, 702-229-6469, VegasValleyBookFestival.org.