STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Claire Vaye Watkins grew up in the Mojave Desert. And as she describes it, that experience was good training to grow up as a novelist.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: My mom ran a very small natural history museum on the southern edge of Death Valley, and so I spent summers identifying mineral specimens and dusting off the mammoth bones and telling stories that my mom would just make up for a particular artifact, or - she wasn't, you know, academically trained at all. She was just a really good b.s.-er.
INSKEEP: So visitors to this museum received an account of the area's natural history that was interesting, just not necessarily true. Watkins says the landscape encouraged imagination. And for a new novel, the 31-year-old came to write about the desert, the expanding desert. "Gold Fame Citrus" is named for three things that drew people to California. In her novel, people are being driven back out. Southern California is stricken by drought, running out of water, becoming ever more parched until sand dunes bury towns. The American frontier that long ago moved west recedes back east. This novel offers a view of the future that plays off today's actual news about droughts and climate change. While writing, Watkins sometimes returned for another look at Death Valley.
WATKINS: I can, I think, walk out into some sand dunes and walk back, although I get a little bit spooked in the process.
INSKEEP: Spooked, what's spooky about it?
WATKINS: Well, the desert is a really powerful unsubtle landscape. Sand dunes are especially, I think, a little bit creepy because they're always moving. It's almost like the forest in the fairytale that sort of closes up behind you as you walk in. You might look back over your shoulder to try to get your bearings, and the horizon is completely different.
INSKEEP: In your novel, you describe this immense, growing sand dune, and you're reaching for metaphors here. It was a tumor, a steamroller, a plow, a hungry beast, a self-spawning corpulence, a bloated blob gobbling land. You go on and on.
WATKINS: (Laughter) On and on and on.
INSKEEP: I'm impressed, and I wonder if I could get you to read where you describe what happens as this dune has grown larger and larger, eating up entire towns.
WATKINS: OK, sure. (Reading) Civilization retreated. The frontier reasserted itself. Their staff and charges evacuated, local sheriff's offices disbanded de facto. Sinkholes gulped the interstate, rendering highway patrol moot. State troopers seated jurisdiction to the Department of the Interior, whose last vestige of authority is a fee booth at the northwest entrance to Death Valley National Park, a shack with a busted mechanical arm flopping out front, a bulletin board tacked with maps, bleached, blank and disintegrating.
INSKEEP: There is that horrible sense of everything going wrong and going back the other way. And you're writing there...
WATKINS: Well, yet...
INSKEEP: Go on.
WATKINS: I just wanted to say that I didn't think it was that horrible. I think there's some poetic justice in the idea of nature reasserting itself. I like the idea of letting it wreak its revenge on people. But I guess now that I say that out loud, that is a little dark.
INSKEEP: You're rooting for nature.
WATKINS: Yeah, I tend to. I'm not a religious person, but I think the desert is pretty much the closest I get to believing in God.
INSKEEP: The desert is something you can believe in.
WATKINS: Yeah, and it's also something that I find sustaining, embracing and fertile. I really have always been miffed by the idea of the desert as a place that's barren or empty. It's a strange feeling when you live in the desert your whole life to be told it's empty. You just look around, and you're like, what about all of us?
INSKEEP: What was it like to be writing this novel when there were ever more urgent news stories about a drought in California?
WATKINS: Well, when I started it, I had these ideas that I thought were just impossible. And again and again, I would find that it had actually happened. So, oh, it would be a very powerful image if Lake Mead was drained like a sink, if we installed a drain at the bottom of it, and it just sort of swirled down like a bathtub. And lo and behold, that project - it's called a straw at the bottom of Lake Mead. A few days ago, people from Las Vegas had their first drinks of water from that straw. So I had to realize that I was writing a much more realistic book than I thought I was.
INSKEEP: Should we come away from your experience in life and your experience in writing this and think about this country a different way and think about the landscape that we live on a different way?
WATKINS: I think that the American West is probably due for a reality check. And I say that being absolutely in love with the Southwest, but I don't know of a region in America that is still buying into their own mythology so unquestioningly. We're still under the impression that we deserve to be there in whatever numbers we want, guzzling up whatever resources because it's our manifest destiny. That's an un-interrogated idea that's run its course.
INSKEEP: Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of the new novel, "Gold Fame Citrus." Thanks very much.
WATKINS: Thank you.
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