Author Claire Vaye Watkins is both object and observer of the Desert Southwest. Her blockbuster short story collection, Battleborn (2012), and critically acclaimed novel, Gold Fame Citrus (2015), are both set in the ever-shifting deserts of Nevada and California, her region of origin.
This past fall, Watkins published a powerful and peculiar new novel titled I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, which has garnered rave reviews in the national press. Being a sort of autobiographical fiction, the main character shares the same name as the author. And the book delves into Watkins’ personal family history, including a large section on her late father Paul Watkins’ connection to the Manson Family.
Now, Watkins is teaching creative writing remotely at UC Irvine and living her best desert life.
After teaching in the Midwest, you’ve returned home to live near Joshua Tree. How does it feel to be back? It’s very intense, because the Mojave Desert is my first landscape. On some deep, primordial level I have been here since I was the egg in my mom, when my grandma was pregnant with my mom. So it feels deeply peaceful, like the skies are the right color and the right height. The plants make sense to me. When I see a little animal or my neighbors, I’m like, “Hello, I know about you.”
Your latest book presents quite the ambivalent opinion about Las Vegas. What are your thoughts about the city? I have a lot of fondness and affection for it. That’s why I allowed this Claire character to be so critical of it and so afraid of it. She thinks of it as like a vortex pulling her back. When I grew up in Southern Nevada, I was being constantly encouraged to leave and really warned in a dire, almost fatalistic way like, “Little girl, don’t go into the forest,” but it was, “You need to get out of here or you’re gonna end up in Las Vegas.”
Do you have any favorite literature about the American West? The writer who illuminated the American West for me was Wallace Stegner, especially his nonfiction. … Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain is a very cool book. … She travels through Death Valley and the Mojave. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. Oh, Sally Denton’s book The Profiteers is about this one Nevada company, but it also really helped me understand the history of the place. Sally Zanjani has a great book about Sarah Winnemucca. … Ben Ehrenreich’s book Desert Notebooks is not easy on Las Vegas, but I think Las Vegas can handle that sort of thing.
How did it feel to be called the “new voice of the American West” by the Los Angeles Times? Like The Big Lebowski, that’s just one man’s opinion. The headline writer wrote that. I mean, I do think of myself that way, as a regional writer and being of a specific place. Obviously … I’m obsessed with the history and geology and natural history of this place.
Using that voice, what should people know about our desert? We continue to see this myth of the desert as a wasteland and a place that is expendable. We’re seeing that with the so-called “green gold rush” in arid lands, specifically, lithium mining and industrial solar arrays. … I’m worried it will be a long continuation of the profit motive that gave us 1,000 nuclear bombs being dropped on the desert, Yucca Mountain and really destructive mining. … These are the places that we go to find ourselves. It nourishes your soul—even if you never go into the wilderness—to know it’s there. It’s a really important part of being fully human. So, industrialization of the wilds is soul rot to me.
If people want to know more about the threat to public wilderness from industrial solar and mining, they should check out Basin and Range Watch, Protect Thacker Pass and People of Red Mountain.
Your latest novel is autobiographical. What’s real and what’s fiction? The cool thing about books is that they seem real. [This is] a novel that pretends to be a memoir. Like, why didn’t you just make it a memoir? Well, ’cause none of it really happened. But, of course, some of it did.
How is Claire the author different from Claire the book character? [She’s] only a part of me, like an id … what the Jungians would call a shadow. It’s the bad, the naughty, scary, secret part of you. She’s also as much me as any other character I’ve ever written. If I’m writing a story about an old guy panning for gold in the Gold Rush, he’s as much Claire as Claire is Claire.
What is your daily creative routine? I wake up, have coffee and I write in a notebook by hand. I don’t look at [screens] until at least noon, if I can help it. … Usually, I walk up into the mountains for two hours, sit up there, read, drink a beer and watch the sun. The pandemic made me too hard on myself, like, if you don’t write X number of words today, it’s trouble. …Instead, how about, I didn’t jump off a building today. That seems like a great accomplishment. I kept living and breathing and fed myself good food. So I just tried to let go of any type of internalized, capitalistic logic about artmaking.
What advice would you give to somebody who is interested in writing as a hobby? The Nevada landscape itself is one huge writing prompt. Pay extra close attention to what you see and notice when you get curious. For me, it’s that weird little shack way out there by itself.
Do you have travel tips for the Mojave Desert and Las Vegas? Shoshone [California] is a great place to land if you’re new to exploring the hinterlands because it’s this cute little village that’s enclosed and has a lovely swimming pool. I like walking around in the Tecopa area, the Amargosa Canyon Trail off China Ranch, which is of course a legendary destination. You can see the Amargosa River coming to the surface. It’s an incredibly beautiful place. [In Las Vegas], the Writer’s Block, of course. I really like … the mountains, Red Rock. I really like Springs Preserve; my grandma lived right near Springs Preserve before it was Springs Preserve.
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