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