TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Yesterday, our guest Claire Vaye Watkins won two cash prizes for her debut collection of short stories, "Battleborn" - The American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, for a young writer of considerable literary talent; and the Story Prize, an annual award devoted to short story collections.
The Story Prize citation described Watkins as a fierce and original new writer; and praised her for taking, quote, "an unflinching look at the apocalyptic dimensions of our culture's boom-or-bust obsession," unquote. Watkins isn't yet 30, but her stories about life in Nevada are informed by an eventful life and a sense of the region's rich historical legacy. She was born on the edge of Death Valley, and raised in a small town outside Las Vegas.
The characters in her stories include the prostitutes and gay manager of a desert brothel; an aging rock collector who lives in a trailer near a dry lake bed, small-town teenage girls out for adventure in Las Vegas; and two brothers risking everything to strike gold in the 1840s. In one story, Watkins deals with an unsettling part of her family lore. Her late father was once part of the Charles Manson family.
Claire Vaye Watkins is an assistant professor of creative writing at Bucknell University in Louisburg, Pennsylvania. She recorded this interview last week with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Claire Vaye Watkins, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the book. These stories are so rooted in place - in Nevada, in the desert and its cities. Tell us about where you grew up; first, on the edge of Death Valley, right?
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Right, yeah, actually, and I wouldn't be a good Nevadan if I didn't insist that you don't say "Nevahda."
WATKINS: It's really the only thing we care about, as it's a shibboleth we have, as a people.
WATKINS: But yes, I was born in Bishop, California, which is about as close to Death Valley as you can get and still have a hospital for having - being born. My parents were living in Tecopa, California, which is on the southeastern edge of Death Valley. And then my dad died when I was 6; and when my mom remarried, we moved across the state line to a little town in the desert called Pahrump, Nevada. And I spent most of my childhood there. It's about an hour away from Las Vegas. They have a mountain range between them.
DAVIES: I wanted to talk about the story "The Diggings," which is about two brothers who set out to find gold in the West - I guess in 1849 - from Cincinnati. And it just - it's a great tale. And I wonder if you could - there's - if you could read a bit from page 184 here; kind of describing the times, and what these folks were facing.
WATKINS: Sure, yeah, this one is fun to read. (Reading) In California, gold was what God was in the rest of the country - everything, everywhere. My brother, Errol(ph), told of a man on a stool beside him, who bought a round with a pinch of dust. He told of a child doddling in a gulley who found a queerly colored rock and took it to his mother, who boiled it with lye in her tea kettle for a day, to be sure of its composition.
(Reading) He told of a drunkard pike who'd found a lake whose shores sparkled with the stuff but could not, once sober, retrieve the memory of where it was. There were men drowning in color, men who could not walk into the woods to empty their bladders without shouting, eureka! And there were those who had nothing. There were those who worked like slaves every single day; those who had attended expensive lectures on geology and chemistry back home; those who had absorbed every metallurgy manual on the passage westward, put to memory every map of those sinister foothills, scrutinized every speck of filth the territory offered and in the end, were rewarded without so much as a glinting in their pans.
(Reading) And there was a third category of miner, too, more wretched and volatile than the others - the luckless believer. Here was a 49er, ever poised on the cusp of the having class, his strike a breath away in his mind. Belief was a dangerous sickness at the diggings. It made a man greedy, violent and insane. This fever burned hotter within my brother than in any other prospector among the placers. I know because I lit him.
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Claire Vaye Watkins, reading from her story "The Diggings"; which is in her collection of stories, "Battleborn." So that guy and his brother set out to find gold and end up in Nevada - right? - and things don't exactly go well. Where did the story come from? You did a lot of research here, didn't you?
WATKINS: Oh sure, yeah, yeah, tons. It's actually the last story I wrote for the book. And one of my teachers in grad school - who had read the draft - he said, why don't you put some robust, young men in this book? Why don't you give me some cowboys? And at first I thought oh, I think we've all had just enough cowboys. But then I thought maybe he was right, that there was kind of a blind spot in my writing.
So I tried to think of really robust figures of the American West. And I thought about the Overland Trail, and what incredible fortitude that must have required. And then I also thought of the Gold Rush. And it occurred to me that you can't really write a book about the West without the Gold Rush because without the Gold Rush, you wouldn't have had the Silver Rush. And without the Silver Rush, we would probably just still have a Nevada-shaped hole in our country because Nevada would be of no interest to anyone, likely. Maybe we would start blowing up nuclear weapons in it, eventually, but it would have taken a lot longer.
So it started there, and just kind of exploded with research. I just became really obsessed with all the details of the era - the food. One of the characters is kind of a foodie, you would have called him in another age. But he's stuck at the diggings, eating - you know, gruel and rancid pork; and he's just like, dreaming of going to San Francisco and getting a cream puff, you know. (LAUGHTER) So it was a lot of fun to write.
DAVIES: And of course, they end up not striking it rich. And the brother who you describe in the reading, kind of goes crazy. It kind of struck me, you know, so much of what you write about is a West today that is connected to the West of the past; and that this sort of mad rush for gold is, in some ways, not unlike the gambling fever that people get in Las Vegas and other places in Nevada; where you can forget who you are, come out and strike it rich. But so often - and I think in a lot of the stories in this book - people really are not just rooted in history but kind of defined by their past and somehow, kind of unable to overcome it.
WATKINS: Yeah, I think that you're totally right. In a way, we haven't really gotten over the Gold Rush, you know - which was a lie, even when it was happening. And that kind of instability of history, is something that's always really fascinated me. A lot of the characters are - you know, kind of - I think internalizing this - like, John Wayne masculinity, this mythic rugged individual, and really suffering for it.
DAVIES: So what kind of things did you and your sister do, as a kid? I mean, were you playing out in desert a lot?
WATKINS: Yeah, that's pretty much all we did. In Tecopa, we lived in this sort of compound-type of place that my dad had built up, a little bit, himself. The family legend is that he was squatting in an abandoned house, and then kind of built it and made it his own, and rigged up some water and made it his little homestead out there. So yeah, we spent a lot of time traipsing around naked through the desert, and wandering, and playing with our dogs, and finding creatures and rocks. My parents were rock hounds, and taught us a lot about rocks and the desert and the natural world, and it was really - sort of our playground.
DAVIES: And were you in the habit of telling stories, or listening to stories from your parents?
WATKINS: Yeah, absolutely. My mom, especially, was a terrific B.S.-er. She told tons of stories, especially because where we lived was so remote. We had to drive for - when I was really young, before Southern Nevada kind of exploded in population, we had to drive for like - maybe like two and a half hours to go to the grocery store, really. You know, we had to drive from Tecopa to Las Vegas and back, to get groceries or hardware; really, anything you needed.
And so my mom would - often, she would talk on the entire trip, and what she would tell us was stories about what we were seeing. She was sort of an amateur geologist and natural historian. And she would tell us all about how a certain mountain range was formed, or how everything that we were seeing was once under the ocean and this sort of - you know, ancient sea.
So there were her stories. And then there were also - both of my mom and my dad, and then later, my stepdad, they were in recovery; they were recovering alcoholics. And so AA was a big part of our lives. And on these trips, we would either be talking to each other and telling stories, or listening to these tapes, these AA tapes; you know, the speaker tapes where people tell their stories about how they hit rock bottom. and how they got sober. and sort of what they've learned. And you can imagine, those are pretty gritty stories. So that was definitely kind of the storytelling context - was, the car was an important place for us.
DAVIES: You know, there's a story in your book about a couple of high school girls who drive to Las Vegas, thinking they want some sexual adventure. And one of them is the - kind of the one whose point of view the story takes, is clearly familiar with the scene. She knows kind of how to navigate through these labyrinthine - kind of - casino floors, to get where she wants to go.
And it struck me, it must have been interesting to be a teenager because you're out there in the desert, and you're close to the natural world; and yet you're so close to this place where other people go to be anonymous and hedonistic. And I wondered what that was like as you became a teenager, to kind of have that so close by.
WATKINS: Well, it certainly wasn't the kind of juxtaposition that was lost on me, I don't think, as a teenager. I mean, from my town in Pahrump, you can look - if you looked east at night, you'd look; you'd see a dark mountain range and then the glow of the city of Las Vegas behind it. You could see the lights of the city every single night. And eventually, as my friends and I started getting our driver's license, we would zip over there against our parents' wishes and unbeknownst to them; and we would sort of traipse up and down the Strip, and try to get into as much trouble as we thought we were comfortable getting into. (LAUGHTER)
I remember the feeling of - just like, elation that it was a dangerous thing; you know, thinking we could meet someone - my girlfriends and I; we could go to a hotel room. And I was really elated by that kind of danger. It might have something to do with this little factoid that my stepdad, who - my stepdad was a construction worker. He built those big, gigantic casinos, especially the parking structures. That was sort of his specialty. But anyway, he told me once that casinos in Las Vegas, they're not built like regular buildings. They're built in order to be demolished themselves, you know. And that's in the mix when I remember that time of going to the Strip and looking for trouble; this feeling of how powerful destroying things could be.
DAVIES: The West, reinvention.
WATKINS: Mm-hmm. Right. My parents - my mom was born in Las Vegas. And in Las Vegas, that means we're a pretty old family for Nevadans, you know. But it never felt like this is my parents' city. It was like, this is my city, partially - probably because my parents were always talking about how different it was. My grandma was a change girl at Caesar's Palace, basically her whole life; and her Las Vegas looked nothing like my mother's Las Vegas. And mine, it was very much my own. So it's sort of you're absolutely untethered by any convention of legacy, I guess, or history of no obligation to anyone, in that kind of context - or so it seems when you're 17, you know.
DAVIES: There's a story called "Man-O-War" in here. It's set in a really remote - I guess it's a dried lake bed in the desert. And an old guy, 67-year-old divorced character named Harris(ph), lives out here with his dog, Milo(ph). And I wanted you to read this little piece of a description here, on page 134. This is a guy who split up from his wife many, many years ago; but she had sort of pestered him, while they were together, about his smoking. And if you could just read this little bit of the description of him.
WATKINS: Sure. (Reading) Somewhere in their bickering, Harris decided to cut back, to exercise a grown man's discipline. But what was once discipline had, over the years, become mindless routine. Four smokes a day; morning, after lunch, midafternoon and sundown. His cigarettes helped mark the passage of time, especially on days that seemed all sun and sky, when he scolded poor Milo just to hear the sound of his own voice. The dependable dwindling of his cigarette supply reassured him that he hadn't been left out here; that eventually, he would have to ride into town, and things would still be there, that the world hadn't stopped whirling.
DAVIES: You know, I just love this little insight into this 67-year-old guy's life and mentality. And when I read that paragraph, I said, how does 28-year-old Claire Watkins get into that guy's head?
WATKINS: My parents were smokers. I guess it's - gosh, you know, it's so simple, isn't it? Just go back to your folks. (LAUGHTER) But my parents were big smokers, and I remember being a little - I was sort of repulsed by it. I was like, you know, my generation had been - we'd been debriefed about smoking and its horrors, and all.
But I still remember being - sort of transfixed by the routine of their smoking and, you know, the accoutrements. My stepdad has a special pocket - he only buys a certain type of shirt that has a special kind of pocket for his cigarettes. And I guess I got - kind of just got thinking about why the ritual of it might be such a comfort, especially because there is kind of this sense if you are way, way out in the desert, that the world might have - you know, people always say that they feel like I might be the last person on Earth, but you do - it's a cliche, you know, but you do actually feel that, quite acutely, if you haven't seen people in a long time.
I went to college in Reno, but my family lives down in Southern Nevada. So I'd have to drive across the state every once in a while. And inevitably, on that drive, you start to get like, a really warped proportion of scale - like, about humanity and loneliness. And then you drive through a little town and a gas station, and everything gets shuffled back into place again. But it's kind of a wild feeling. I guess I was trying to get at that.
DAVIES: This guy Harris, he's a rock collector, a former foreman in a mine. But he lives out in this trailer - and it's a truly, truly remote place - and encounters a teenage girl who is pregnant, and kind of brings her in because she would have probably died of dehydration had she remained down on the lake bed. But their lives are really, in many respects, defined by - I guess their isolation. Did you know people like this; that lived out in areas that are just so remote?
WATKINS: Not exactly, but there are houses like Harris' throughout Nevada. If you make that drive across the state, you go for so long without seeing, you know, so-called civilization, and then you would just see one trailer out there. And I cannot help but ask myself, like, who is out there? You know, who is that person? What did they do? And then, you know, crucially, what might disrupt them?
And there are sort of these mythic landscapes; like, mythic architecture in the state; these very, very - houses - sometimes, there are these little brick houses, which are even more interesting because that type of architecture is not common at all in the area. So I've always been a little bit obsessed and curious about them. I mean, there's a lot of architectural - kind of triggers, I think.
The brothels are another one of those. You know, I grew up just down the road from a couple brothels, and one of them was a stick-built - what we called stick-built, rather than a trailer - a stick-built house that looked like a Victorian mansion, you know. And it was painted pink, and it had the dormer windows and ornate trim. And as a girl, I was just obsessed with this brothel because I'd never seen a house like that. You know, the only Victorian house I'd ever seen was my dollhouse.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Claire Vaye Watkins. She won two prestigious cash prizes yesterday for her debut collection of stories, "Battleborn" - the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, for a young writer of considerable literary talent; and the Story Prize, an annual award devoted to short story collections. Her stories are set in Nevada - the stories in "Battleborn." Watkins grew up near Vegas.
DAVIES: I want to talk a little about your father. And it presents a dilemma for me because in a way, your father - folks who know about, you know, was - Paul Watkins was part of the Charles Manson family. Not a part of the murders, thank goodness. In fact, he testified against Charles Manson at his trial. But it sort of presents a dilemma for me. It seems like, kind of satisfying a kind of lurid curiosity, to bring it up. On the other hand, it seems a part of your experience that you wouldn't not want to talk about. He died, as you said, when you were 6 years old. When do you remember becoming aware of that part of his life - the Manson experience?
WATKINS: I remember it really, really clearly. My sister and I came home from school - I have a younger sister; she's a year and a half younger than me - and she was upset, and I remember asking her what was wrong. And she said, some kid had been teasing her. And I said, what did he say? And she said, he said that our dad was a murderer. And I think I said, well, we'll ask Mom about this. (LAUGHTER) And when our mom got home from work, we did ask her. And she didn't sugarcoat things. She said yes, he was in the Manson family. And no, he wasn't a murderer. I have to go make dinner. If you guys want to learn more about this, here. And she gave us "Helter Skelter." I didn't really know what to do with "Helter Skelter," but my sister, who's very smart, she looked him up in the index.
DAVIES: That's the book by Vincent Bugliosi - the prosecutor, right? - about the Manson case, right? Yeah.
WATKINS: Right. Yeah. Probably - I think maybe the most famous book about the - although there are, of course, tons of them. My father wrote one himself, actually. So we - yeah, we looked him up in the index, and read about him. And basically, all we wanted to know was, you know, did he or did he not kill people? And we were satisfied that he didn't, and we moved on. I think I was probably - maybe 10 or so, at the time. And I really didn't think much more about it until I was in college; and I read his book, his memoir, which is called "My Life with Charles Manson." And I read that, and that was a much more impactful experience for me. That was probably the first time that it really had a profound - profound may be a bit - putting too much spin on it, but it was a significant experience for me.
DAVIES: I mean, he certainly had pulled his life together. I've actually - on YouTube, you could see the interview that he did on "The Larry King Show," where Maureen Reagan is actually the substitute host. But he's a perfectly, you know - you know, clear-eyed and clear-minded guy talking about experience that he regards as having been, you know, caught in a cult when he was really young and foolish. And when he was living with your family - I mean, he was like, a respected businessman, right?
WATKINS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean really, his story isn't that much unlike most people's. He made a lot of big mistakes when he was a young person, and then kind of became different as he got older. But his happened to be, you know, caught on CNN, or in books like "Helter Skelter."
DAVIES: So when you read his memoir, what - how did you react to that crazy time, and that crazy stuff he was a part of?
WATKINS: This might sound a little bit strange to say, Dave, but I actually took a great amount of comfort from reading his book. I have kind of come to think of his involvement in the Manson family as being something of a blessing for me - in so much as my world view's like, accommodating to that idea - because I read his book and in it, you know, it's a tell-all memoir. So it has all of the kind of - like you said - lurid material that that genre demands. But so I'm like, 19 or 20 years old, and I'm reading about my dad having group sex. So there's a lot of like, pretty graphic stuff - drugs and sex, and so on.
And for me, having, you know, not really known my dad at all - he died when I was so young that I'd never really had access to an entire dimension of him. I'd never really had had access to his flaws or his mistakes. You know, no one really says to a kid: Your dad was a decent man, but he did some shady stuff. He lured young girls to the Manson family, where they were tremendously exploited. You know, no one - that wasn't a narrative that was available to me from like, my family members - and rightfully so. You know, I don't expect - I don't resent them that.
But the book, and the Manson materials, gave me this whole other dimension to him, you know, and it made him more real than he'd ever been. I mean, I basically spent my whole life asking myself what kind of a person my father was. And that book - which is not a trustworthy source at all but still, it made me - my picture of him wholer than it had ever been.
DAVIES: And it was a blessing in that way, that you feel like you got to know this person that you wouldn't otherwise have known - your dad.
WATKINS: Yes. Yeah. And I feel like it was really so important for me to see him making mistakes, and to read about things - really bad decisions that he made because, you know, when I encountered this, I'm 20 years old and in college, and living in Reno; and I'm making some pretty bad decisions myself, you know? And I have this recording that my dad made for - I guess someone had written him a letter - or a tape, actually; they made him a tape and talked to him about the Manson family, and he wrote back to them. And I bought this online from someone who is a, you know, fan of Charles Manson.
Anyway, I bought this recording that my dad made, and not really expecting much from it; just kind of curious. And he - in it, he - he actually, it's so bizarre to say, but he actually gives me some really good advice in there. I remember one thing he said to this person - whose name was Nick - he said, there's nothing wrong with not knowing who you are. And for a young person - at this point, both of my parents were dead. And I was living really far from home and feeling lost a lot of the time, lost and homesick. And that did - I do still carry that with me. There's nothing wrong with not knowing who you are.
DAVIES: And you got that on the Internet from somebody who is a Manson devotee.
WATKINS: Right. Yeah. It's MansonFamilyJams.com, or something.
WATKINS: Can you believe it?
WATKINS: Yeah. It's certainly not where I - that's - it's so funny because that search is such a frail, faulty one. Looking for your dad in "Helter Skelter" - or even his own memoir is, you know, quote, co-written. I don't even know how much of that is him. But I won't reject any solace that they give me still.
DAVIES: You're now teaching in Central, Pennsylvania. If you think about having your own family, would you want to raise them back out West, in Nevada?
WATKINS: I have such tremendous affection for the West that I would want anyone I love to experience it, and to see it, and to spend as much time there as possible. I think I would definitely want that experience for my family. But it's also not entirely a romantic thing to grow up - I mean, I don't want to romanticize the experiences of people who are living in rural communities or poor communities, which Pahrump is, or the desert. Our dominant cultural narrative totally devalues all three of those things - rural, poor and desert.
So there was a sense, when I was there, that you're often told that where you are is not valuable or important. You know - like, just think about the way we talk about the desert as a wasteland, or the middle of nowhere; or it's barren. That's a really bizarre phenomenon when you've spent your whole life in a place, and then the culture tells you it actually doesn't even exist; and if it does exist, it's worthless. That's a bit of a heady place to be, I think. And that's kind of partly what I was looking for, with this book - was getting a portrait of the place that I'd never - that had never before been presented to me.
DAVIES: Well, Claire Vaye Watkins, it's - I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
WATKINS: Thank you. It's been such a pleasure.
GROSS: Claire Vaye Watkins spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her book, "Battleborn," won two cash prizes yesterday, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and the Story Prize. You can read an excerpt of "Battleborn" on our website, FRESH AIR.npr.org.
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