Like real women, fictional women are often seen as wish-fulfillment. The “strength” that we look for in a female protagonist is often there for sentimental purposes, and rarely resembles the iron, irradiated accountability that matters in real life, a type of strength that’s like the desert—unsparing and mercurial. Blessedly, this is the milieu of Claire Vaye Watkins, born in Death Valley, daughter of Charles Manson’s chief lieutenant. Her heart-stopping 2012 collection Battleborn opens with a character named Razor Blade Baby, the product of a Family orgy, born when Manson sliced her out. Another story, “Man-O-War,” features a hermit scavenger picking up unused fireworks on the 5th of July and finding, instead, a pregnant teenager, bruised and half dead of heatstroke; what pair could possibly be more feeble, you think at the beginning, and then by the end, you wonder who could ever be so strong.
Watkins’s debut novel Gold Fame Citrus has a knockout of a premise, Annie Proulx meets Joan Didion meets Mad Max. It opens on two squatters in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in drought-dead Laurel Canyon: there’s loving, PTSD-spiked ex-army Ray, and diffident, unpredictable ex-model Luz, who was born into the difficult position of being Gerber baby for a conservationist movement that thoroughly failed. Luz was what the West was worth saving for, and the West is now fucked: dead and extraterrestrial, all its productive citizens federally evacuated, now covered in a shifting white nightmare of a superdune sea. Only the strong could survive this, but then you remember—everyone “strong” has already left. And, as Ray says, “California people are quitters.”
In Watkins’s work, California people are also burnouts, idealists, maniacs, opportunists, hedonists, mystics, and thieves. Luz is all of these, but quietly. “She could not be said to have honored anything in her life to this point,” she thinks, while “waiting for the crack-up that never came.” But it comes, several times over, though she doesn’t realize it. Even at the end, in an astonishing dissolve, as she’s “taking her rightful position in that long line of runners and flakes,” Luz’s greatest moment of weakness hits a register of omnipotence. Gold Fame Citrus is resistant, seductive, and will linger with you. Watkins and I talked on the phone last week.
Gawker: One of the things I loved most about this book is that it seemed so anti-ideological.
Claire Vaye Watkins: I went in that direction as a way to fend off what I don’t really like about environmental literature, or whatever you want to call it—books that are interested in the natural world, what we do to the land and water. It seems like it’s really easy for those books to slip right into a kind of lecture. Even with writers who I really admire, like Ed Abbey—there’s no secret to what he thinks we should do about Telluride.
And that works for him. But I don’t have that approach. I don’t think I have any kind of answers to these questions—or any answers to these questions. So a position of swagger or preachiness, even a sort of nail-biting position, didn’t appeal to me. I wanted the characters to be allowed to be fatigued with these questions. We already are, and we haven’t even lived it, as they have.
But for a time I was trying to understand what those characters would think if they were reading an op-ed in the Times about water, for example. And then, when I was actually going on and on about some op-ed about water, my husband said something, a line that I eventually stole and put in the book: “You’ve heard that dissertation.” I was like, “That’s it.”
Op-eds just don’t apply in the book’s world. The characters aren’t hopeless, but they’re essentially doomed—and were already, in ways unrelated to the drought. At one point Luz thinks about how her “finest lover and best friend was a murderer and always would be.” She herself chose not to evacuate. She’s fatalistic in an instinctive, unshowy way. I loved that.
It’s handy to put a young woman protagonist in this hopeless landscape. My experience of being in my early twenties was pretty bleak for no good reason, or I guess some good reasons—but maybe it’s just a developmental stage that you have to go through, a time when you feel like you don’t have a lot to look forward to. And I think a lot of young women feel this way. Joan Didion has been praised and criticized for this type of portrayal of femininity in young women, but for me it rings very true.
Every once in awhile, I hear some feedback that people would like this female protagonist to be more “active,” with the scare quotes. I’ve thought a lot about that response, and I mostly envy it. A character like Luz is trapped by her circumstances, by her own self, and by the confluence of the two. And when somebody says she should take more control, I just think—how great to be able to say that. How nice that you’ve never felt powerless, or experienced those restrictions.
Right. I always find it a funny reader reaction, in general, when people are like, “I wish this person would act the way I want them to act.” That doesn’t apply to real life, much less fiction.
I guess, though, it’s hard to read a woman character who is having done to her what our culture does to women. You’re like, “I don’t want this to happen to you.” I had that reaction while I was writing.
But that’s the exact thing that makes it ring true.
I did like the idea that Luz might get so frustrated with being so stuck, so used—she’s an object from so many different dimensions—that when she acts out, when she truly gets fed up, she’ll do something totally bonkers. Something that will be deliciously satisfying to watch. For example: take a child!
Outside of the child, and outside of survival instinct, what did you see as motivating Luz? A lot of normal motivators—status, ideology, vanity, comfort, at least as we know them—are removed as possibilities.
One thing that I think Luz has got going on is a deep and intense envy of people who are able to think differently from her—to think in a way that’s more optimistic. She’s very, very envious of people who can believe in something, a cause or a change. She’s incapable of this, and it makes her sad and envious, and frustrated in herself.
At one point she describes herself as having a meager imagination, and I identify with that a lot. I would like to have a more generous worldview that accommodates everything from God to magical snakes, but I just don’t.
How much did you imagine her before the drought? Did you, with most of your characters—and were they similar, before and after?
In most cases, it was pretty important for me to be able to envision them before the process. I think, when I realized the scale of the drought, and that Luz would’ve been growing up as things were declining, it got really interesting to me. The idea that she wouldn’t know how to swim, for example. That when her generation played outside, they played in dirt. Gilroy garlic and California sweet oranges are a myth to them, the way John Muir and Lewis and Clark are a myth to us. They carry these ideas around with them, but they’re essentially myths.
In terms of how their former lives affected them: especially with the women, I wanted to give them a new sense of power. Like you said, it’s sort of freeing to embrace this situation: say what you will about the end of the world, but you can do your own thing. That character Rita, she used to be a musician’s assistant. He was this punk rock drummer, and she’d just have to wipe his dog’s ass. Now she can be the badass if she wants to. The idea that the assistant class would be free—it’s very alluring.
Right—the drought in some ways is a restart, a political shock treatment. I wondered if you felt like the book’s setting got you out somewhat from under the burden of representation, which during my MFA struck me as fair but horrible and paralyzing. It seemed like you could write a different kind of stratification—the Mojavs are the underclass, the only class, and an inverse of today’s image of California. Their world is not raceless, but it’s differently raced in such a different context.
There’s something very enticing about that idea! And I think a lot of characters do think of it in exactly that way: the world’s been scraped clean, we can rebuild again, utopia/dystopia, whatever you want.
But I actually think that so much of what the characters do is recognizable for the stratification that we have today. Luz and Ray are essentially middle-class and raised white, or Luz can kind of pass for white, or at least she has money—and the way they look at the Mojavs when they go into the city is pretty much the way that the people in the town I’m from get looked at, i.e. they’re poor, they’re not allowed to have the same choices that other people do about health care or raising the kids. Luz and Ray, when they go and buy fruit, for example, are afraid of the black guy who’s selling them blueberries the way a suburban kid would be afraid of the guy dealing them weed in the “inner city.”
I get that, and you’re right; maybe in finding it familiar, I didn’t even notice it. But the divisions still felt new to me. I mean, who’s in power in this world?
Well, I think the way I fancy is it is that the powerful people are just the ghosts of themselves. Like the starlet, whose mansion they’re living in—she got out and took her best clothes with her. I like the idea that class systems in these dire conditions would get even more polarized than they are, which is pretty difficult to imagine. The polarity would get even more desperate, to the point where the rich are even more insulated.
So we actually never even see any of the people who are making the decisions about the evacuation, the people who are running the prisons, the people who are already evacuated. and because of the drought, a power system that would normally be invisible is illuminated. Some people get to leave; some people are welcomed in the East. Others are not.
Where would you fall in this situation, did you imagine? And what would it do to your personality? Speaking of polarity—it seems like the apocalypse would make a person both much weaker and much stronger.
You know, I’m already a privileged person who fled. I think a lot of my interest in class comes from having been basically a class leapfrog: from growing up really, really, really poor, and kind of working our way up into working class, and then being slingshotted down to poor when my mom got really sick and really struggled with addiction. And now, I’m a professor at the University of Michigan. I’ve taught at Princeton, and my job was to drink wine with John McPhee and Joyce Carol Oates. So I’m a class tourist.
And as far as how I would fare, it would not be be well. I have the disposition of the wife in The Road who puts the obsidian to her wrists right away.
I consider myself pretty tenacious, but in that situation I’d 100 percent lock myself into a closet and die.
Exactly. But, speaking of The Road, there’s the whole kid thing.
I was just going to ask you about that! It’s almost like Luz outsources her survival instinct to the kid.
I was talking to Jenny Offill recently about this, when we were both teaching at Tin House. She has a daughter, like I do; hers is about 10, and mine is one. She said something like, “Yeah, at a certain point you realize that suicide has suddenly gotten a lot more complicated.” I mean, with a kid, it’s just not really an option!
But then again—and this is the wonderful, intense darkness that I love about her and her work—Jenny was like, “But if something happens to your kid, then suicide away.” And here, I think, she was talking specifically about having one kid, which is a complicated thing. It’s why I wanted to bring in Ig. Suddenly your loyalties are split; suddenly, surviving in a catastrophic situation is no longer all about yourself.
Luz loves Ig so desperately, and it’s a recognizable, maternal, animal love. But attachment is strange in this book. Love is almost entirely predicated on need—which it probably is in this world too, but not openly.
Now that you say that, I think you may be onto something. But actually, while writing, I thought about love in a really, really conventional way. I was interested in something that’s true for almost every couple I know, once you get to know them, even if it takes a while to figure it out. In every couple, you’ll find that one of them is the good one and one of them is the fuckup.
Sure. I’m the fuckup.
Me too! I think that dynamic is pretty conventional in relationships. And then of course you’re like, listen—the good one is never as good as you think, and the fuckup is never such a fuckup as you think.
But so I wondered. In my case, being a fuckup means not being able to open my mail in a timely manner. What if instead of not being able to open my mail, that meant I didn’t fill up our water jug in the one hour we were allowed to fill our water jug? What if you just sort of dicked around in maps all day instead of going and getting gasoline? I wanted to let disaster exacerbate the types of troubles and the joys and the perils of love as we know it.
There’s an experimental, incantatory quality to your form here that seems dialed up from Battleborn. You’ve got the lists of fake TV shows, taxonomies of animals, sections that are all subjunctive. I’m curious about what it was like to loosen your style somewhat, and if the discipline required to do it is different.
In a way, this was an extension of what I was doing in Battleborn, because in stories, it’s okay for you to have different voices and different forms. I love to try things out, to play and experiment when I write, and it’s important for me to let the subject matter insist on its aesthetic. But when I started this novel, I had the impression that this experimentation wasn’t allowed—that you had to pick one way of writing and stick with it, which doesn’t work for me.
So I think the first year of writing Gold Fame Citrus was an unhappy one. Maybe I have commitment issues, but as soon as I’ve figured something out, I become completely uninterested in it, and I want to move on to something I don’t know how to do. I have also always been a promiscuous or omnivorous reader, and I wasn’t about to have a specific reading regimen that only included third-person limited lyrical pieces with lots of nature imagery in them. I wanted to just read in my same old crazy way, and then I’d find something and try to do what Borges was doing, and see if it works.
Eventually, it was a real pleasure to give myself permission to be like, “Well, maybe this is a weird book.” It’s a very libertine aesthetic, I’d say.
It’s still quite organized, though.
Yeah, it’s nothing like 2666, for example. I try not to unnecessarily test the reader’s patience. I try to say, “Come along!”
You describe the dune field, in this book, as a place that moves through you rather than you through it. Is that how you felt about where you grew up?
The way I related to Nevada changed dramatically when I left for the first time, which was two months after my mom died. There was a dramatic severing from the place. I was leaving for graduate school, with no parents, suddenly, no family who lived there. So although homesickness is only a little fraction of what was going on, that’s when I started grieving for the place. I couldn’t quite get my head around the other loss that was going on, so I felt like I really missed that dirt, that soil.
What kind of mood did writing this book put you in?
Aside from all the expected doubt and fear that the thing you’re working on is a failure, I think that I was worried about what we talked about at the beginning—if the tone was preachy, and all that. I didn’t want to write a book that told people that they should turn off the faucet when they’re brushing their teeth.
At this point, it’s not up to me whether this book failed or didn’t, but in writing it, I was acutely aware of the ways that the book was close to failing. It felt like walking through a minefield. Over here is the line of sentimentality; over there is the line of hyper-romanticizing nature in a corny, transcendentalist way; over there is smugness.
Those were dark writing days. And then there were others that were really fun, where I was like, “Let’s just make up a bunch of animals.” I gave myself a lot of exercises, like trying to write the span of 100 years in 10 pages. I always thought I’d throw those away, but I almost never did. I reworked them and reworked them, of course, but I felt like this was an accommodating form, which was nice, because I didn’t let myself work on anything else. This is the only thing I wrote for four years.
I love your book’s title, but even more, the effect when you read it in the book. The phrase is seeded, and then when you hear it for a second time, the effect is startlingly good. I think I gasped. I’m wondering how it felt to write that title—if you knew.
I think I came along that phrase in research of reading about California. I came across a scholar who had listed the main ideas—the main exports of California, or something like that. And I think I edited it immediately. I thought, “No, it should be gold, fame, citrus.” Even though chronologically it should be gold, citrus, fame.
It was my secret title for a long time, but I changed it. I don’t know why. I was intimidated by it—I don’t know what, exactly. It seemed like it had to be a secret. I sent it out with another title, and then eventually we came back to this one, as if it was destiny.