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Claire Vaye Watkins: The Short Form Interview

Regionalism was more on my mind than gender—I didn’t want a book that held up stock conceits about Nevada as being hostile, barren, hard.

Author of story collection, Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and more.

The Interview

You’ve said that stories come to you in images. Two of my favorites were the albino peacock in the final scene of “Past Continuous”, and the small skull of Bottles the cat in “Ghosts, Cowboys.” How far into the writing of the story did they enter the picture?

Both of those images came very early, long before the stories themselves existed. A neighbor of mine, my fifth grade teacher, raised lots of animals, including peacocks, and though she lived a ways away we could hear them crying across the desert. I was once tasked with feeding the peacocks while she was away, a chore I shirked because I was for some reason afraid of them, in a primal way. My aesthetic insists on stitching together dissonant haunting images, sounds, gestures and phrases. In most cases these ghosts have been with me for years, in my notebook or in the part of my brain where I store the scary and the incomprehensible. It was only once I had permission to mend those weirdnesses together, to work in collage and narrative simultaneously—permission which came thanks in part to a teacher at University of Nevada Reno who urged me to read Andrew Hudgins’ poetry—that my stories got much richer and much messier, my own monsters.

You mentioned Pleasure for Sale in previous interviews. Are you an avid documentary-watcher, and did you happen to watch the unexpected albino crocodiles ending to Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams?

I am! How fantastic that you picked up on that. The crocs were my favorite part of the Herzog film, easily. The rest felt overdone and sometimes even unintentionally comic. Maybe it was because I couldn't stop hearing that Werner Herzog Reads Madeline riff. But yeah, I started watching a lot of nature documentaries particularly when I was living in Ohio, where the landscape is... let’s say, subtle. Now, I’m a fiend for them. I’d probably never write were it not for David Attenborough. I read a lot of wilderness writings, too: John McPhee, Barry Lopez, John Muir, E.O. Wilson, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Mary Austin, Timothy Egan, Wallace Stegner, Chris Offutt. They’re my way of replenishing the well.

Reading Melville has given me the permission to be digressive and strange in my own novel, to get freaky and march off in directions I don’t understand, rather than making safer decisions.

You've talked about how you get carried away writing landscapes and their geology, and I was wondering if you finished reading Moby Dick, since it was apparently written as two separate books, one clearly driven by research, which ends up producing some of the best chapters, like “Schools and Schoolmasters” about the ways of a mature male sperm whale.

Yes, I went to Moby Dick because my friends Rajesh Parameswaran and Joseph Scapellato, both excellent writers, told me that about Melville, that one version of Moby Dick had been this entirely conventional whaling tale. The things that annoy many people about that book are the things I find thrilling—the expansiveness, the digressions, the chapters about whale phrenology. These are why Moby Dick has lasted and other whaling adventure tales have not, if you ask me. Reading Melville has given me the permission to be digressive and strange in my own novel, to get freaky and march off in directions I don’t understand, rather than making safer decisions. Moby Dick’s been a talisman for sure.

I wouldn’t want the paperback changed. I’m attached to it. I wouldn’t change it any more than I would change my name.

Authors don’t get much of a say over book covers but I read your comments on yours. Women writers tend to get a different cover treatment, and your US cover is on the feminine side, though it is, of course, a pleasant cover that doesn't necessarily undermine your writing. I guess we see much more of the soft cloud than we do of the hard desert below, the serif typeface is on the curvy side, the dominant color is baby blue, and the glowing stars begin to look like sparkles. On the other hand, the UK cover goes overboard with a “western” theme. Would you be interested in a seeing a different direction for the paperback edition?

I think your read of the cover is fair—it’s probably softer and more feminine than the stories inside, especially with the sparkle. But my response was less intellectualized and more emotional, which interestingly enough is exactly how the designer described the process of creating the image. She even noted that this paradigm is a loaded one, in terms of gender.  I don’t mind the softness, the sparkle or the powder blue because these elements feel surprising to me in that they’re not what most of us think of when we think of the desert. Regionalism was more on my mind than gender—I didn’t want a book that held up stock conceits about Nevada as being hostile, barren, hard, etc. I wanted more depth than that.  But my immediate reptile response had none of that logic it—the cover simply looked like Nevada to me, meaning it felt like home. The sky is my big sky, the plants are my spiny tough plants, the houses look like the houses I grew up in. The U.K. cover is perhaps more in sync with the tone of the book, but I kind of resist that agreement, actually. I didn’t recognize Granta’s image as one pulled from my own life the way I did with the U.S. cover.

Of course, this identification process is not at all divorced from the gender issues in book marketing and cover art you’re talking about. If women are socialized to be softer, more accommodating, pretty, etc., we’ll identify with covers that convey these qualities, which happen to translate as fluff and frivolity to many buying readers. To answer your question: no, I wouldn’t want the paperback changed. I’m attached to it. I wouldn’t change it any more than I would change my name. It’s mine.

Have you read any noteworthy contemporary fiction set in a Nevada desert? I read A Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss not too long ago. A nuclear test site features prominently and there’s a scene where the main character gets lost in the desert.

That sounds excellent. I’m going to track that down. My favorite Nevada writing is in Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion’s first novel, and Sweet Promised Land, by Robert Laxalt. I also really love The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin. My friends Curtis Vickers and Gabriel Urza both write incredible Nevada stories. One of Gabe’s is coming out in the Kenyon Review Online soon.

I have no respect for the bland, safe title posing as some intellectual puzzle. I want a title that sings.

You have some interesting story titles in the collection. Were there any that you struggled with, and how did you get to “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past”?

I’m either getting worse at writing or better at sniffing out my own bullshit. This is doubly true for titles. I used be great with them and now I’m truly terrible. “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past” was suggested to me by a teacher in grad school, and thank God for him. In The Paris Review that story was called “Gold Mine,” which is fine, but I was never that into it purely because that title came on the heels of a suggestion to call the story “Fucking Tourists,” which is so great that I’ll always mourn its loss. Titles are so easy to overdo, and even easier to underdo. I have no respect for the bland, safe title posing as some intellectual puzzle. I want a title that sings.

Tell us a little bit about the stories you've picked out for us.

These are some of the stories without which Battleborn would not be. There are many, many others.

Lee K. Abbott’s “As Fate Would Have It,” Mary Gaitskill’s “The Girl on the Plane” and Christopher Coake’s “We’re in Trouble,” each wonderful stories about stories, each with stories inside them, each I did my best to lovingly and dutifully imitate when writing “Rondine al Nido.”

“At the Zoo” is from Caitlin Horrocks’s collection This is Not Your City. I first read it about three years ago in The Paris Review and wrote to Caitlin immediately saying, “So I wanted to write and tell you how much I loved [‘At the Zoo’]. The writing was tight and beautiful and funny and the final move, when we see the assembled portrait of that family and their secret graces with each other, was incredibly poignant. I started crying about half way through and didn't stop. I don't usually write to writers but I've been finishing up a short story collection myself and, as maybe you've experienced, while I read almost constantly it had been a frighteningly long time since I was so enthralled by a story that I stopped seeing its craftsmanship, since I was truly moved. I was starting to feel frozen, ‘At the Zoo’ thawed me out. Thank you. I really needed that.”

Recommended by Claire Vaye Watkins

We’re in Trouble
Excerpt

We kept climbing and I got the ball from him finally. We'd climbed high enough to get to the edge of a cliff overlooking the river. So—I don't know why, I know I didn't mean any harm by it—I started tossing the ball close to the edge of the cliff. I wasn't trying to do anything—I mean, nothing wrong. I was testing him, you know, to see how fast he was. I was ... proud of him. He'd tear off and get his ball before it got close to the edge, and I guess I thought he knew what we were doing as well as I did.

We read it in We're in Trouble.

The Girl on the Plane
Excerpt

“Were you really an alcoholic when you lived in Thorold?” he asked.

“I still am, I just don’t drink now. But then I did. Yeah.”

He had stepped into a conversation that had looked nice and solid, and his foot had gone through the floor and into the basement. But he couldn’t stop. “I guess I drank too much then too. But it wasn’t a problem. We just had a lot of fun.”

She smiled with tight, terse mystery.

“How come you told me that about yourself? It seems kind of personal.” He attached his gaze to hers as he said this; sometimes women said personal things to you as a way of coming on.

But instead of becoming soft and encouraging, her expression turned proper and institutional, like a kid about to recite. “If I’m going to admit it to other alcoholics in the program, I can admit it in regular life too. It humbles you, sort of.”

What a bunch of shit, he thought.

We read it in Because They Wanted To.

At the Zoo
Excerpt

“Most of the time animals don’t say much worthwhile,” the grandfather explains. “Anteaters just say, ‘Ants! Ants! Ants!’ And owls say, ‘Fly! Hunt! Fly!’ And mice say, ‘I’m small! I’m frightened! Oh no! An owl! I’m fright—slurp.’”

I’m small! I’m frightened! The boy thinks that this is what he feels sometimes, like when other children in daycare take his crayons, when the kids at the dentist threaten to bite. He pictures mice and thinks first, “I’m sorry you’re small and frightened; we are the same.” Then he thinks, “Not the same. I am much bigger than you. I could hurt you. Perhaps you should be frightened.” The boy is startled to hear these thoughts inside of him, this excitement at the capcity for harm. “Ants ants ants ants ants ants ants,” he whispers on the way to the next enclosure, making a long nose with his arm. He waves the anteater snout in front of him. 

“You want to go back to the elephants?” his mother guesses.

The boy is disappointed in her. “Anteater,” he explains.

As Fate Would Have It
Excerpt

She—your dream girl, your angel, nothing whatsoever like your ex-wife—should be close-pored and deep-socketed, her skin like mayonnaise. With a handshake implying, even in costume, that she could brench-press you to the ceiling, she should have beautiful hands—you’ve always liked women with nails too long to be practical in the real world. Without the tee-hee-hee and the annoying trail of dream dust, she should be Tinkerbelle, her outfit the choice of her girlfriend Roxanne, who will turn out to be the tall redhead in the gold lamé swimsuit with the banner reading MISS CONGENIALITY across the bosom. They’re starlets, Roxanne and your true love, Sandi. They’ve been in commercials, industrial videos, even a feature at Paramount—which is good to hear because, as fate would have it, you’re in the business too.

We read it in All Things, All at Once.