Four years ago, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, a book of short stories that delved into the harshness of the American West, was a critical success. Battleborn was noted for its fearlessness, its unflinching portraits of individualism and striving, for Wakins’s relentless look at the lives of prostitutes, scavengers, and members of the Manson family. She followed Battleborn up with her debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus in 2015.
Gold Fame Citrus, a captivating and weird and wonderful book, is a portrait of a perfectly realistic dystopia: California is dried up with no water in sight, most of the West has collapsed and become a barren wasteland, consuming malls and homes and those things that once symbolized our supposed mastery of nature. Only a few people have refused to evacuate out of California, among them Luz and Ray, a young couple who squat in the abandoned home of an unnamed starlet. Though Luz and Ray are surrounded by the material signifiers of wealth—Hermes scarves and designer dresses—in the context of drought, these objects have lost their status, reduced to absurdly surreal artifacts of folly. It’s here that Luz, the former poster child for the government’s failed conservation propaganda, and Ray, a former soldier suffering from PTSD, find a baby; a quasi-abandoned little girl who can only muster up the toddler language of “Ig” when asked about her name.
As children inevitably do, Ig changes Luz and Ray’s course. No longer content to live among the starlet’s abandoned haute couture, the new parents set off to escape to the East Coast. Along the way, there’s a violent cult and a landscape that’s deadly and yet alluring. It’s a hypnotic novel that moves seamlessly from people to landscape always finding that existential place where the two connect.
A year later, Watkins penned the viral essay “On Pandering” which appeared after Gold Fame Citrus was published. In that essay, Watkins explored what she called the “white supremacist patriarchy,” those voices that determine what good writing is and what literary writing is about. She wrote:
I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!
Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.
She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.
I spoke to Watkins at the Miami Book Fair about Gold Fame Citrus and writing after “On Pandering.” Our conversation, which ranged from motherhood to vulnerability, to the notion of genre, has been edited and condensed.
I reread “On Pandering” the other night and was struck by how relevant it still is a year after publication, particularly in our current political climate. You wrote about writing books for the literary establishment, essentially for men. Who do you write for now after having that realization? Are you still hearing the voices of the great literary men that you wrote about?
I’m still hearing those voices but not only those voices. I’m able to hush them a little bit and listen to something that’s a little bit more like myself. I try to keep it very local and very personal. I’ve stopped trying to make this gesture out, in “On Pandering,” I call it “beseeching.” I’m more focused on trying to make myself happy with my sentences and my ideas and try to think interesting thoughts.
That’s not to say that isn’t part of how I was writing before. But I didn’t really have the other facet where I could say, “that’s kind of interesting. Go with that.”
Did you do that by reading more or was it just consciously deconstructing those pressures?
I think a lot of it is reading more and realizing that some of the rhetorical gestures or stylistic affectations that I thought were neat have been way overdone. They’re not as fresh or original as I thought they were, so it kind of gave me permission to be weird.
A lot of it has to do with letting go of the idea of genre a little bit. These days, I’m writing these things that I call pieces. It’s not that I don’t know if they’re fiction or non-fiction, it’s just that I don’t care, it’s not important to me. When I sit down and write them, I don’t worry about which category of the National Book Award that it could be considered for. That’s definitely that I would have thought when I was writing Battleborn.
I have a big cushion of privilege and I’m comfortable enough to experiment and get weird and trust the reader to make up her mind for herself about audience or genre. But also, whether I’m pandering or not pandering. I’m writing stuff that’s “more me,” and I hope it will attract the right readers and repel the wrong readers.
You brought up the idea of genre and playing with that. Your second book, Gold Fame Citrus, really does play with genre. There’s a nod to science fiction, but it’s deconstructed. I don’t want to use the word domestic, but it’s a relationship-based approach to science fiction, instead of an approach that’s really focused on building concrete universes. Do you think of the book as science fiction or is it a book about dystopia/destruction?
I don’t really think about the book as science fiction at all, partly because I don’t read that much science fiction apart from the literary versions like Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro. So I wasn’t equipped or inspired to write science fiction.
I do read a lot of science. I spend a lot of time thinking about science and the environment and the natural world and I also read a lot of fiction. You’re right that it’s a literary novel about marriage and about having a child, about faith and believing in each other, in the context of this near apocalyptic, sci-fi, cli-fi, eco-dystopia.
For a long time, it was two books. It was one about the marriage and the other was all place, it was all sand dunes and Los Angeles, it was all description. There were no people in that book for a year or so. Meanwhile, I was writing this really boring, middle-brow, Updike-wannabe book that was like, “Isn’t it hard to be young and in love?” Neither of them were interesting projects until I put them together.
What if you were trying to have a domestic moment in life and trying to focus on love and tenderness and caring for a baby in the context of this crazy disaster?
Motherhood is a major theme in the book. I was thinking about “On Pandering,” where you write that motherhood changed your approach to fiction. You have a really nice line in the essay about wanting to flinch. “I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open,” you write. You also indicate that this is in part because you became a mother.
How do you flinch when you’re writing? In my experience at least, motherhood makes you vulnerable in really unexpected ways, how does that lead into the desolate, dystopic landscape?
I wrote “On Pandering” after Gold Fame Citrus was already published. The order of the phases goes from the books to “On Pandering.” I was pregnant for nine months of writing the novel. I copyedited it after my daughter was born and I felt like I was working on someone else’s book posthumously—like that person had died. I kept thinking, “I wonder what she would have wanted?” I couldn’t tell, I had no access to my former brain or aesthetic.
I used to value this unflinching style where the more emotionally intense something is, the cooler your language got around it, or you would never pull back a curtain on a sex scene, you would have to show everything. I was taught that writing about sex is power and I took that to mean that you have to prove that you are powerful. Because I’m a woman, I felt like I couldn’t pull the curtain back in a stylish way.
You can see that in Battleborn and in Gold Fame Citrus a lot. There’s a long, brutal group sex scene in Gold Fame Citrus that was actually three times as long in the original draft. I think that was something I had to prove—the idea that just because I have a “fragile female body,” doesn’t mean I’m afraid to write about it. I’m not naive to the brutality that happens to women’s bodies. Now, I find myself writing a lot more about happy moments and joy and the confusing thing about tenderness or loving someone, like your child who loves you automatically, but doesn’t know you very well. I think about that poem “Good Bones,” that Maggie Smith had go viral a few months ago about keeping things from your children...
Stylistically, so far, it looks like a major shift in subject matter. Also, I’ve started to pay attention to a kind of writing I’ve been doing for a very long time which are these tiny notebooks that I carry around everywhere. A long time ago, a therapist gave me an assignment, to write down things that make you happy so that, when you’re sad, you can go back and look at them. I started calling it “Reasons Not to Kill Yourself” [laughter], I’ve been doing this for years and years, but I never really thought of this as writing, I thought of it as therapy. Of course, I’ve been encouraged and trained by a male-dominated literary world to really separate therapy and art; like “What a feminine faux pas...”
Yeah, it’s like the road to writing chick lit...
Totally! Now, I’m like “fuck it,” maybe I’m going down that road, maybe I’m not. I sent some of these little pieces to my friend Elisa Albert who wrote After Birth and I asked her, “Are these anything? Is this art or is this a bored housewife’s therapeutic scribblings?” And she said, “I don’t really see why these are mutually exclusive ideas.”
This has been one of these debates that I’ve seen in the last few years, this question of, “Can you be an artist and a mother?” They’re always written by well-intentioned women who are trying to work out what feels like a false dichotomy, that art is unsettling and motherhood is not. But it really feels like the problem is that, for mothers at least, we’re told that a huge part of our lives can’t be art, those feelings can’t be pilfered to make art.
Yes, totally. In “On Pandering,” I talk about my friend Annie McGreevy and, at the time, I was saying to her things like, “I need to go shoot an elephant.” She responded, “You’re making a person with your body, that’s better than shooting a fucking elephant.” You’re making a person with your body, you’re trying to make your marriage work, you’re trying to keep another person alive, you’re trying to be decent in spite of your nature, that’s pretty fucking epic. But it hasn’t been considered epic for a long time. I think that’s a bummer.
I get sent really well-intentioned books by women that are like multi-generational epics trying to be The Art of Fielding — or, trying to be a big, important book and really suffering artistically for that. My heart goes out to these writers because they don’t have to write like that. Or maybe you do, I don’t know. It was certainly a successful strategy for me.
But I do see a lot of newly mothered women who are writing in a much more fragmented, impressionistic, lyrical, language-driven way. For me, when I’m breastfeeding, I can’t think of a 300-page narrative arc and, also, I don’t see the world like that anymore. When I’m waking up every 90 minutes, the world becomes a really fragmented, dream-like, lyrical place, so that aesthetic doesn’t really apply. If I were going to try to write a book like that now, it would be a lie.
I see these list of women artists/writers who have never had children, as though there’s some kind of profound point to be made there. But as you point out in “On Pandering,” it’s somebody else’s narrative about what art is and where women fit into art.
It’s also this all or nothing thing. It’s an extreme binary—I did it bit earlier myself—between men’s writing or women’s writing; between narrative-driven epic novels and smaller, more fragmented, domestic pieces. Or when I evaluate my own work, I still ask, “Is this art or is this a mom blog?” It would be wonderful if our kids came up in a world where mom blogs were art if they were fucking good enough—if that was the only criteria they had.
That’s why I brought up ditching genre. I don’t think genre has been good or particularly helpful to women. I’ve been reading Tilly Olsen’s book Silences and she talks a lot of about how so many art monster women that we look up to didn’t have children, or someone like Susan Sontag ditching her kid and going to Paris and living her life. I’m so envious of her sometimes but I also don’t want to be the person who ditches my kid.
For a woman, or at least for me, it would be a real moral sacrifice. I meet so many dude writers who brag about how long they’ve been on book tour or on the road and I always ask, “What does your family think about that?” Half the time, they’re like, “I never asked,” as though it never occurred to them to wonder.
I did want to talk about motherhood in Gold Fame Citrus. Motherhood is really associated with loss in the book. At one point Luz refers to herself and Ray as orphans, even though they aren’t in a traditional sense. She and Ray adopt this baby, Ig, who has essentially been abandoned and Dallas has a stillborn baby. Even in the ending as well, there’s this huge devastating loss.
I’m glad you teased that out. I think what’s going on there is maybe a counter-narrative to the idea that stories about motherhood are fluff. I read so many books by male novelists who just don’t seem to realize that they’re going to die one day. One of the things that motherhood does to you, it definitely makes you realize that you’re going to die and that everyone you love is going to die. It becomes a very severe sensibility.
In Gold Fame Citrus, I was playing out a lot of my fear scenarios. I wasn’t a mother but I was thinking very much about coming one and, for part of writing the book, I was pregnant. I was kind of working out worst case scenarios. And, for me, my mother committed suicide, so motherhood and death are all tangled up. Beyond that, your body undergoes this harrowing, life-threatening thing to even have a baby. I had a really rough birth, I had a C-section and I felt like I had been brutalized by the process. And yet, I loved this little blob more than anything ever before. So, death and life are always together right at the surface.
In the novel, Luz has such a willingness to suspend disbelief. You have a really nice line in the book that she “needed to believe the lies in order to put one foot in front of the other,” that she needed to believe that the baby was going to live. Even though this is a fictional dystopia, that sentence—or that feeling—felt very realistic.
There are a few moments in the book where I think, “That holds up,” especially now that I’m a mother and can imagine what Luz was dealing with although in a much chiller atmosphere. You have to practice this kind of magical thinking or else how could you get through the day?
One of the other interesting things about Luz is that she is in this difficult situation. She’s stuck in California, there’s no water, stuck in the surreal starlet’s abandoned house, but she is who she is, her coping mechanisms to survive remain the same, she never changes. Maybe it’s me but I felt like that was very honest.
I’m going to use that. I get a lot of feedback from people wondering why Luz doesn’t pull herself up by her bootstraps or become empowered and strike out on her own. So many readers have said to me, “I would have like if this did X empowering thing,” and I always say, “Damn, me too. I would have loved that!” But given where Luz has been, it’s hard enough for us here at Miami Dade College [where the interview was taking place] to act in an empowering way, we’re not yelling out “I feel fine in my body!” Let alone if, like Luz, you grew up as an object and propaganda symbol and your dad is selling you out. Then she becomes a model, which is a living symbol, a kind of robot. There’s not much available to Luz, she doesn’t have as much freedom as those readers would like.
It’s not that I think she deserves it, I’m just not writing a brochure about how great womanhood is.
Landscape is a theme that is present in both of your books. You seem to have this sense that the place can very much determine the self. I find that idea really interesting, that birth certificates can have this significance that we don’t consciously think about.
It’s not exactly the birth certificate itself but they’re the beginning of origin myths and storytelling. In the American West, your story starts with you, when you’re born. With other regions or cultures, it might start with your grandparents or your great-grandparents. There’s a reason that there’s no Midnight’s Children version of a California story, people are newer—people of European descent—it’s a more migratory population.
You’re not living in a place where your grandparents lived or where your great-grandparents are buried on a hill nearby and you know what it means to be “a Watkins.” I have no idea what it means to be a Watkins, I just felt like I could make it up as I went along. That’s really cool and freeing and it’s responsible for a lot of the New Age phenomena or quirky individualism or oddballs—but you’re also on your own.
The place — a long time ago, one of my teacher’s said, “We are who we are because of where we are,” and I think that’s been true for me. The more I learn about the place I came from, the Mojave Desert, the more I think, “Of course I see things this way!” My dad was in the Manson Family and my grandmother worked at Caesar’s Palace for her whole life. What other person could I be?