Claire Vaye Watkins’ award-winning short story collection, Battleborn (2012), explored the West and the often disappointing truths behind its rich mythology. Watkins returns to the West in her luminous debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, although it’s a West that has been drastically altered.
The California of Gold Fame Citrus has been ravaged by unending drought, and only a handful of drifters remain, including disillusioned couple Luz and Ray, who are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned house until they take on the care of a strange, enigmatic toddler and begin to look east toward a more stable life. However, a vast stretch of sand has engulfed the West, and crossing the unmapped terrain is treacherous. When the trio encounters Levi, a prophet-like dowser, and his followers, more strange dangers present themselves in unexpected ways.
I got the chance to sit down with Watkins during the Southern Festival of Books earlier this month, and we talked about the power of setting, the myths of motherhood and more.
This novel is firmly rooted in the West, and you grew up in the Mojave Desert. I was wondering what about the West really inspires your writing.
It’s hard to separate what inspires me from just who I am. I grew up there, and when I moved away from the West, I started to see it through more mythic eyes, to see how other people who never have been there saw it. And I started to think it was a really captivating place, and kind of haunted. I like the way that history seems to gurgle up to the surface a lot of times, wherever you are. It’s a relatively new place, but there are a lot of stories all layered on top of each other. And I think the landscape is beautiful, and I like putting characters who are in trouble in really beautiful places and seeing what that might do to who they are.
"When I moved away from the West, I started to see how people who never have been there saw it. I started to think it was a really captivating place, and kind of haunted."
Obviously this novel is coming out while there’s a major drought in the West, and I was wondering how that affected your writing. Did you keep abreast of the situation or did you try to ignore it and do your own thing?
I was born in the Owens Valley, which is the place where Owens Lake used to be, and Owens Lake was drained by the Los Angeles Aqueduct System in the 1920s. It set off what’s called the California Water Wars which is—have you ever seen the movie Chinatown?
Well, it’s basically about the people in Owens Valley who try to resist—they dynamite the dams or the projects—so it was sort of like a microcosm of what happens in a much bigger scale in this book. So I was born there, and my family knew those stories and told those stories all the time. I mean, for most people in California, especially the dry part of California, drought and water has been on their minds their whole lives. So it was more like I was watching the rest of the country catch up to those people who have always been worried about it. Which was kind of nice, or at least refreshing. When I first started working on the book about five years ago, nobody even knew what I was talking about when I said I was writing about water and the Southwest, and some people would be like, “Oh yeah, it is kind of dry there, isn’t it?” But now, pretty much everybody knows. It’s a major issue.
Do you think at this point you’ll stick to the Western world in your writing, or do you think you’ll move out of the West?
I don’t know yet. I am getting increasingly interested in a less place-driven way of writing. I’ve always started with the setting in any piece of fiction, or at least the piece doesn’t really cohere until I know where it’s set. But I'm reading Lydia Davis’ stories right now, and a lot of them have no setting at all. There’s just a really minimalistic approach to place. And probably because I’ve been writing in that mode now for two books, I'm getting interested in other ways of writing. So not necessarily that I’ll be interested in writing about other regions. I don’t think I could write about any region other than the American West the way that I do, because I don’t know it as well. I don’t feel like it’s a part of me, even though I’ve lived in the Midwest and the Rust Belt.
Luz was a model before the West was abandoned. I was wondering about your thoughts on her beauty in this completely blown out world.
I think what’s interesting about Luz is that she is one of these models who’s really striking looking, but sometimes that can be seen as an ugliness. But sometimes, in the right campaign, with the right makeup and the right advertising, it can be really exotic. So her beauty is particularly exoticized. She would never be mistaken for the girl next door. I think I was drawn to that because it would be almost like she had this secret identity. And there’s some stuff about her race going on there, that they want her for this particular kind of look. Her job is always telling her, “You’re like this.” But she actually feels really, completely different. And then her whole childhood she was this baby Dunn symbol. I like that all of the characters have three or four different identities that they can slip into and out of depending on the situation.
I love the character Luz, and I strongly identified with her, but I was also distraught by her irresponsible—albeit realistic—choices. Did you intend for the reader to really connect with Luz?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I like the idea that you would be allied with someone who would make really bad decisions, but she makes bad decisions for good reasons. I like the muddiness and the complication. I didn’t set out to do this explicitly, but it was important for me to really lodge the reader with a young woman who is a product of our culture and is trying to move around in a culture in which she is objectified. I mean, she is professionally objectified, but there’s threats of sexual violence here and there, and that’s just what it is to be a woman, you know? And it’s funny, because every once and a while I’ll get feedback that someone wishes Luz was more strong or powerful, and I'm like, “Yeah, I bet she wishes that too!” If only we could just make the characters that way. But I don’t think that’s the goal of a novel. Dora the Explorer should be a powerful young woman with agency, right? But that’s not what the novel is doing, it’s not a role-model project. It’s a mirror, it’s not aspirational. One of my teachers used to say that you can only give characters the endings that they deserve.
"Dora the Explorer should be a powerful young woman with agency, right? But that’s not what the novel is doing, it’s not a role-model project. It’s a mirror, it’s not aspirational."
In the same vein, we spend a lot of time with Luz, and we spend a lot of time inspecting her failures as Ray’s lover and as a surrogate mother, but we don’t spend as much time with Ray, who arguably makes just as many mistakes. I was wondering, what if it had been Ray’s book? Was the focus on feminine failure intentional?
It was probably just that I am more familiar with feminine failure. But I did want Ray to also be wrestling with masculine archetypes. He’s a veteran, so the word “hero” is often adhered to him, and he’s uncomfortable with that. Yet, a lot of the mistakes he makes are because he’s trying to be a hero, or he thinks this is what a "manly man" ought to do. What he would like to do, just as a little guy, a little speck on the earth, is not hardly ever the same thing as what man as hero and actor should do. I wanted to show that there’s a difference between being true to yourself and being heroic, and then being this cardboard cutout of masculinity, which is often just that. I mean it’s flimsy and frail and made of trash.
I noticed that the two central male figures in Luz’s life, Ray and Levi, are doling out sedatives, which I thought was interesting. Could you say a little more about that?
They are, aren’t they? I mean, you can certainly imagine the appeal of sedatives, just in our world right here in Nashville! Let alone in this near-apocalyptic hellscape. Maybe it goes back to that idea that they’re trying to be heroic, or they’re trying to help people, and they develop these coping mechanisms. And of course, in situations like the one Luz finds herself in in the colony, drugs are often used to control. I'm interested in drug use as being seen as a way to higher consciousness. Because I think that’s so alluring—I would love for that to be true! If I could just take a drop of acid and then access another dimension of existence. That’d be so cool! But I also kind of doubt it. Then again I haven’t taken acid. But maybe that’s my family.
Their central characters, Ray and Luz and the baby Estrella, are all named after forms of light. I was wondering how you settled on those names?
Luz is from the film Giant with James Dean. It’s kind of like Gone with the Wind but with cowboys? It's just a big epic, and one of the sister characters, her name is Luz. You never really know—I guess it’s because they’re Texans—why it’s pronounced that way. Ray—well, I think I wanted them both to be tight, short, three-letter names. And I had a dear friend who passed away whose middle name was Ray. He liked to go by Ray sometimes when he was up to no good. It was almost like an alter ego for him. I thought about him a lot as I was writing this. Then once I realized, of course, Luz is Spanish for light and Ray, like a ray of light, I thought they would have to be aware of this. I hate it when there’s symbols or some thematic thing going on and the characters are just totally oblivious, you know? I think it’s always a good idea to let your characters be as smart as you are if not smarter.
"I hate it when there’s symbols or some thematic thing going on and the characters are just totally oblivious, you know? I think it’s always a good idea to let your characters be as smart as you are if not smarter."
In society, motherhood is kind of held up on a pedestal and invested with these transformative powers and the ability to make women better people. I'm wondering—is that true? Luz has a lot of failings as a surrogate mother. Are we just doomed to be who we are—there’s no magic transformations out there?
That’s so interesting. You know, I didn’t realize that part of the myth of motherhood is that it can be transformational until I was pregnant, and so many people would describe it to me as this transformation. I read that one of the theories about natural birth is that it’s such a profound experience that it actually wipes away your past traumas.
That’d be neat.
Right? And that’s a cousin to the idea that you can take a pill and reach a higher plane of existence. We’re looking for something and hoping that maybe this experience will give us something. So I think that Luz is hoping that [motherhood] will be a major transformation and an upheaval for her. But of course, as with major transformations, you can’t really predict them. It’s funny. I have felt like motherhood is completely transformative, but in absolutely unpredictable ways. I wrote this book—I think I turned it in a week before I went into labor with my daughter—and sometimes when I'm talking about it or reading from it, I feel like it was written by somebody else, somebody that I don't even know anymore. An old friend or something.
How so? When you’re reading it, what strikes you as odd?
Partly that my worldview has been radically redesigned by being a parent. And the worldview in the book is still my old one that I used to have. Partly, in a lot of this book I was kind of rehearsing. My friend Peter Ho Davies talks about how, a lot of times in our books, people mistakenly think that writers are writing about their experience, but they’re actually maybe more rehearsing for experience. So for me, it was motherhood; I was thinking about what it would be like to have a child. And in some ways, I got a lot right about motherhood. Not for me, but for Luz. But then there are other things that I could never really have imagined till I did it.
And it’s interesting that it’s not Luz’s child.
That’s kind of another interesting layer on it. We treat mothers generally with more delicacy than we do non-mothers. It’s just the way it is; I don’t think it’s a great thing. And suddenly Luz, who’s been treated kind of roughly her whole life—she’s been objectified a lot, she was sexually abused when she was a model—now she’s suddenly treated like a mother. She’s been on the whore side of the Madonna-whore binary. And then just in an instant, she’s on the Madonna side.
This is embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never been farther west than Arkansas. So for a while, I thought the Amargosa Dune Sea was real. It very much melded myth and reality. I was really amazed by your ability to create this landscape, and I was wondering about the process of creating the myth and this dune sea.
There’s a big long chapter about the dune sea in the middle of this book, and that was the first thing I ever wrote. It ended up being about a hundred pages in, but I wrote that first, and I think it was because I needed to do exactly what you’re saying. I needed to figure out what this thing was from all different angles. How does the geology of it work—I mean of course it doesn’t really work, this would take millions of years and this happens in like half a generation. But let’s just suspend our disbelief for a little bit—and the culture of it. I found that if I figured out the mundane details, it made it more real for me. Like, whose jurisdiction is this? What kind of animals do or don’t live there? What happens to the houses?
I loved the fact that the foot of the dune crushes; it doesn’t cover anything up, and that’s what ends up convincing the people to leave. Their homes aren’t covered up, they’re gone.
Right! You know, there’s a wonderful Tony Earley story about a dam keeper called “The Prophet from Jupiter,” and it has this image of this town that’s submerged by the dam. It’s totally spooky. So I wanted to do a terrestrial version of that. But then I realized that the idea of the sand just gently coming—it was too gentle, it was romantic. So instead I thought about glaciers, how they scrape the land and leave these gauges and turn things into rock right away.
I felt that the drive for sex and companionship in this novel was really powerful, as well as being a huge threat and a tool for manipulation. I was wondering why sex is such a driving force and comfort for these characters.
I just like the idea that even though this is a disastrous landscape, that people would still be whole, they would still have their needs. They would still laugh, they would still need to go to the bathroom, they would still have sex. They would still get bored. They would still need something to occupy their time, they might like to play music. That we would just continue to be ourselves. So often when I read dystopian literature, it just seems like all people do is eat. And drink and sleep and eat and drink and sleep and eat. It just doesn’t seem real to me, or wholly imagined. They’re also young people, and they don’t have a whole lot to do.
Battleborn has a lot to do with the West’s history, and in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” there’s elements of your family’s history, as well. I was wondering if your mother and father influenced this novel.
Oh yeah, definitely. My mom’s the one who told me about the California Water Wars in the 20s and 30s and taught me the way the geology of the West works. She ran a museum—a very small little rock shop and museum at the edge of Death Valley, and I basically grew up there. So I learned about rocks, but I also learned about interpreting history. I don’t really know nearly as much about geology or natural history or talc mining or any of the thing I write about. I just learned what a good story feels like. If we’re trying to understand the past, what is the shape of that genre. So absolutely.
Are you looking forward to anything in particular at the festival?
That I get to be with Ben Percy on the panel is so fun. I think we’re going to run our panel more like a survivalist boot camp. Between Ben and I think we can teach everybody a lot about surviving the apocalypse.
(Author photo by Heike Steinweg)