Haunting stories from the Nevada desert
Until she moved to Columbus, Ohio, to pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing, Claire Vaye Watkins couldn’t imagine writing a story set in her home state of Nevada. Her early stories of young lovers and parents tended to be set in exotic locales like Hawaii, where, according to family mythology, her relatives ran a “mango-cum-pot farm.”
“It hadn’t occurred to me that Nevada or the desert was interesting to anyone,” she says by phone from Columbus.
Watkins, who is 28, now has what she calls a “big-girl job” teaching writing at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, but at the time of our conversation she’s back in Ohio for the graduation ceremonies of her beloved, writer Derek Palacio. “When I came to Ohio it was the first time that I had ever met people who weren’t from Nevada or California. It seems quaint to say the move changed my worldview. But it did. My friends from New Jersey would say, what a weird place Nevada is; did you ride your horses to school? So it occurred to me that it was interesting to people.”
Thus was born Watkins’ powerful debut collection of short stories, Battleborn (the book’s title derives from Nevada’s nickname, “the battle born state,” because it became a state during the Civil War).
“Early on I was often crippled about being able to write about anything, . . . Eventually I decided to choose place as my form,” she says. “By the end of the collection, I was actually looking at a map and thinking, where haven’t I written about? I couldn’t really start a story without understanding where it was set—because I can’t really start to think about who these characters are and what kind of trouble are they going to get into if I don’t even know what they see when they get up in the morning.”
"I think my relationship to my dad and his involvement in the Manson family has always been a storytelling relationship."
And Watkins’ characters do get into all kinds of trouble. In the electrifying story “Rondine Al Nido,” for example, a 30-year-old woman trades stories with a new lover about shameful things they’ve done in the past and remembers herself at 16 traveling from a small Nevada town to Las Vegas with a naïve friend, looking for danger, and pushing her friend toward self-destruction among a group of frat boys.
“Some people have said my [stories] are gritty, but I don’t think of it like that at all. I just want to be true to real experience. So thinking about a teenager in rural Nevada who lives over the mountain range from Las Vegas like the girls in ‘Rondine Al Nido,’ well, we used to take those trips all the time, tell our parents we were staying at someone’s house and then go into Vegas to see if we could get into some trouble. I didn’t want to whitewash it by saying this was just a story of hijinks, like getting change out of the fountains and buying hamburgers with it. We were after danger and destruction there.”
Many of the characters in Battleborn teeter at the edge of physical or psychological catastrophe. But in the best of these 10 stories, Watkins’ prose possesses the bright clarity of desert sunlight—she has been compared to Joan Didion—with the result that even her most lacerating tales can be oddly exhilarating.
The first and best story in the collection is “Ghosts, Cowboys,” a haunting exploration of the troubling mythologies surrounding her father, Paul Watkins, an early and important member of the Charles Manson family.
“I don’t know much about my dad. He had Hodgkins disease and died when I was six,” Watkins says. “So it’s hard to know if I actually remember anything about him. Stories become memories, you know? And in our family the stories that you tell about dead people are pretty flat, so that person becomes a very one-dimensional character. I mean the stories I get from my family about my dad are: He was a good man and he loved you very much. That’s not really enough. I have been so very, very curious about him my entire life.”
Watkins says she discovered that her father had been a member of the Manson family when she was 10. “I learned because a kid had been teasing my sister at school about it. We came home and asked my mom. And she said, yeah, he was in the Manson family but he didn’t kill anyone, and she gave us Helter Skelter. We looked him up in the index and read about him. We were happy that he hadn’t killed anyone and we just kind of went on with our lives,” she says.
“I think my relationship to my dad and to his involvement in the Manson family has always been a storytelling relationship. I have been asked in the past if I’m interested in writing a memoir about it. But that doesn’t really interest me. On the other hand, it is interesting to think about him in terms of the American West and my own family mythology. I think that’s why fiction is the place that I worked it out, or tried to. I think that felt right because art is about trying to understand yourself and who we are.”
Watkins says one of her earliest introductions to storytelling culture came through Alcoholics Anonymous. Her mother and stepfather “were in recovery and were very involved in the 12-step club. I spent much of my childhood in the car. When we lived in Tecopa, California [a town of 100 inhabitants in the Mojave Desert on the southern edge of Death Valley], there was no grocery store or hardware store there. So once or twice a month, usually on the first or the 15th, we would drive either into Pahrump, Nevada, where there was a grocery store which was quite expensive, or we’d drive into Las Vegas. And we would listen to AA tapes in the car on those long drives,” she recalls.
“AA is a culture where the story, your story, is really important. But it’s not just any story, it’s your rock-bottom story, your worst story. I think that sometimes gets simplified into: It was bad and now it’s good. So we used to listen to these speaker tapes that were really thrilling to me for probably like the first 90 percent, and then the last 10 percent came—you know I was a kid—and I remember asking my mom: can I listen to something else?”
As a teenager, Watkins planned to become a filmmaker rather than a writer. By the time she entered the University of Nevada, Reno as an undergraduate, her ambition was “to be a geologist and a feminist critic. But that didn’t work out.” Besides, she’d run into Christopher Coake, a teacher she refers to as “my guy, my mentor and my friend.” He and a handful of writers whose writing stayed with her—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Amy Bender, Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion, Mary Gaitskill—made a writing career imaginable.
In Battleborn, the first step of that career, Watkins undertakes some astonishing fictional explorations of the mythologies that have shaped her—from family stories to the lore of the American West.
The stand-out novella-length “The Diggins,” for example, is a harrowing Gold Rush-era story of two brothers who come West from Ohio to make their fortunes in the goldfields. In it Watkins deftly mimics the syntax of 19th-century 49ers’ letters while at the same time exploring the violent, despairing human stories at the root of our national myths of Manifest Destiny and rugged individualism.
Much closer to home is “The Archivist,” a story in which the central character imagines a museum of lost love curated from the detritus left in her exes’ jeans pockets. “The moment when the character says the mother wing of the museum would probably be empty?” says Watkins, whose mother died of a prescription-drug overdose the month before she graduated from college. “My own mother wing would probably be a not-very curated place, very messy and very chaotic. I think I’ll probably be sorting that stuff out for the rest of my life.”