Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Q&A with Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of the new novel Gold Fame Citrus. She also has written the story collection Battleborn, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Granta and The Paris Review. She teaches at the University of Michigan, and is the co-director of the Mojave School, a creative writing program in rural Nevada for teenagers.

Q: How did you come up with the world you portray in Gold Fame Citrus, and how did current-day drought problems play into your writing?

A: I built the world piecemeal; different elements had their roots in historical moments. Once I figured out that I wanted to write about drought, I read a lot about the Dust Bowl, and the environmental contributing factors for that, and the displacement of those people. It got me reading about migration, and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.

It firmed up my ideas about what would happen to the people in the West [in the novel]. I found myself reaching back. Somebody pointed out that the book pretends to be about the future, but it’s much more so about the past.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Luz and Ray?

A: With Luz, in my research as I was reading about the California water wars of the early 20th century, in the book Cadillac Desert—it’s one of my favorite books…I reread it as I was writing the book—there is a figure in there, a baby who was adopted by the water authority as a propaganda tool: If we don’t make the aqueduct system, what will become of this baby?

I thought, What happened to the baby when she was a young adult, and [saw she was] made into a propaganda symbol? I identified with her. My dad died when I was very young, and I pretty quickly realized that [my sister and I] were human beings [but] also symbols of the friend, the brother they had lost. We looked like him. I was trying to make sense of how that made me feel.

Ray is an amalgam of friends, particularly a friend who passed away when I was in graduate school…there was room for [his type of] joy and exhilaration in a drought-stricken wasteland.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: I didn’t know it for a very long time, but at a certain point, I had traveled to Owens Valley in California, ground zero for the California water wars. I was a little stuck when I went there, and my husband and I rented a cabin. I would hike in the morning and then write. It came to me there. I started writing more explicitly about the landscape and the Sierras…it clicked for me.

Q: Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?

A: I find short stories a lot better for my emotional well-being. You can hold the whole thing in your head at one time. At some point it clicks and then it’s pretty much done.

A novel is too big to hold in your head at one time. It took me five years to write this novel. I had none of the boosts you get from finishing something. The analogy I’m using is to Super Mario Brothers, when Mario eats the mushroom and can jump very high. Writing a novel, there are no mushrooms.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: Cadillac Desert is very important to me. John McPhee’s writing…The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams…Play It As It Lays and Run River. There’s a lot of Joan Didion in the book. In a way, it’s a loving tribute to Joan Didion. Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing. I’m happily reading and being, letting the well replenish.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would add that I expect the book to be wrongly categorized as post-apocalyptic, and I want to go on record as describing it as pre-apocalyptic!...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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