A Promiscuous Sensibility

By Natalie VillacortaNovember 14, 2015

A Promiscuous Sensibility
IN CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS’S first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, she imagines the culmination of the current water crisis in the American Southwest. Swimming pools are concrete basins, trees crumple like papier-mâché sculptures, and a Dune Sea is swelling, burying whole towns with tsunamis of sand. Most of the area’s residents, disparaged as Mojavs by the rest of the nation, are forced to evacuate. But one couple, an ex-surfer named Ray and a former model who can’t swim named Luz, decides to stick it out. Early on in the book, they meet a toddler who they believe is being mistreated by her people. They call her “Ig” and decide to take her home. But nothing in the drought lasts long — including their domestic bliss. They thirst for a home where there’s moss, mist, and glasses of ice water. They head east and are soon pulled by the tide of the Dune Sea. Its sands are ever-shifting; what’s a mirage and whats reality, what’s man-made and what’s natural, what’s magic and what’s science, become difficult to distinguish.

Watkins grew up in Reno, Nevada, and now lives near the University of Michigan, where she teaches writing. I spoke to her by phone.


NATALIE VILLACORTA: California is currently in its fourth year of a record-breaking drought, and in January Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Drought, imposing strict conservation measures. When you started writing this book did you imagine that conditions would get so dire so quickly? How did you decide to undertake this subject and get interested in human impacts on the environment?

CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: When I first started it — almost five years ago now — nobody really knew what I was talking about. If I ever got brave enough to say, “I’m working on a book about water in the West,” most people — I was living in Ohio and Pennsylvania — they were like, “Uh, neat.” That has completely changed. Not only now is there a flash of recognition whenever I mention it, but people have their own stories or some bizarre thing that they read about, some statistic about the fear of snowpack being depleted. I’ve actually grown a lot more hopeful about these issues during the course of writing the book because I think the drought is on the forefront of our minds, which it has to be to start doing anything about it.

So, were you worried about water conservation in the Southwest from having grown up there?

No. I wasn’t so much looking forward into the future, but I did start looking into the past, particularly into the California Water Wars in the ’20s and ’30s. I was born in the Owens Valley and spent a lot of time there and in Death Valley and people there do tell the story — at least my people told the story — of Owens Lake being drained to fill the Los Angeles aqueduct and the impact that’s had. So it was kind of part of my mom’s repertoire of bedtime stories, including Cadillac Desert. I guess I’d always been a little bit haunted and intrigued by that image: a whole lake being sucked away. I wanted to write it on a much larger scale to sort of face my fears about it. I think growing up in the Southwest, you spend a lot of time thinking about water but even more time trying not to think about it. At least that was my experience. And then I also felt like, my first book was allegedly about the West, but it didn’t address some really important issues that I think have a lot to do with being a Westerner — water is one of them, and movement, and spirituality.

Since growing up in the Southwest, you have moved east, first to Ohio to earn your MFA at Ohio State and then to Pennsylvania to teach at Bucknell. You could say that you "evac"-ed like some of the characters in the book. Did you feel any betrayal in that move? And have you run into negative perceptions of the West that you describe in the book, with people from the East dropping into the West to take its stories, and once those have dried up, they abandon the place? Has that made you want to defend the West?

I have noticed something that I call Schadenfreunia — the special kind of pleasure that you get at the misfortune of Californians. There’s almost a Puritan undertone to the way we talk about the water crisis. It’s almost as if California is our Italy and it’s like, “Those hedonists are finally getting what they deserve!” Or “So much for your paradise, we’ve all been suffering in the East with our horrible weather and our uptight dispositions.” Maybe I’m hypersensitive to it because I am an outsider. But I think the melancholy of being a writer is that you’re at your best when you’re an outsider. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about whether I really belong in the West. Am I a bona fide Westerner? What do I make of the fact that I’ve lived in the Eastern time zone for almost 10 years? But I think that’s why I write about the West, because I am an outsider. It’s from the periphery that we look in. But that always means that you have a fraught, conflicted relationship. You see this over and over again with writers — the thing that they’re best at writing about is the thing that they’re alienated from.

So you mean now you’re an outsider to the West, not that you’re an outsider in the East?

Well, both actually. I don’t really belong anywhere. I’m sort of a man without a country at this point. There are a lot of moments here and there when it’s revealed that I have a very Western sensibility; or sometimes when I’m in the West, I don’t really fit in in my hometown anymore. And a lot of this has to do with class, but geography does a lot too. I always say that I don’t think there’s any region that buys its own bullshit more than the American West. Even the South is tortured about its legacy and its identity. The West is not even tortured. We still are pretty much toeing the line of Manifest Destiny. Western Exceptionalism. This idea that California is an Eden that we were all destined to be in. It still goes relatively uninterrogated, so that was something that I wanted to take a look at.

I just read an article about the growing number of people who believe that the drought is a government conspiracy. That the lack of rainfall is due to heavy metals that have been injected into the sky in an attempt to slow global warming. The conspiracy theory reminds me of an idea that you raise in the book, that "it had become increasingly difficult to distinguish the acts of God from the endeavors of men." Why do you think this blurring is happening?

White people’s presence in the American West is founded on the idea that they can play God. The plow that broke the plain. Well, the plain is ancient and it will break all of us eventually. It will be here long after we’ve all turned to dust. But the really important part of the myth that we can play God are these rugged individuals who do it, like Mulholland. But it’s actually these huge government agencies, the Marine Corps of Engineers building tremendous dams. What I’m interested in is the confluence, now when we are confronted with the fact that we’ve been playing God or nature for a long time.

When you think about geologic time versus the time that people of European descent have been in the West, it’s a really interesting clash of two very different ways of thinking about the world. One is anthropocentric and egocentric and hubristic and the other one is geologic time, which is indifferent. But what happens in the West is the two are crashing into each other. We’re depleting snowmelt aquifers that have taken millions, billions of years to fill, and we’ve done it in a few generations, and so it’s really hard to get your head around that stuff. It reveals the failure of our imaginations, or we don’t have the part of our brains we would need to grasp man-made climate change. That’s all of us being a god together, a masochistic and self-harming god.

Gold Fame Citrus is very different in subject, style, and structure, I would argue, from your award-winning debut collection of short stories, Battleborn. This book felt much more political, containing criticism not just of human impact on the environment, but of nuclear weapons and the disposal of their waste. Was that a goal when you started writing, to have some message in the text?

No, not at all. I wanted my characters to have deeply felt, entrenched political views. Particularly because they’re all under siege and some of them really need people to believe in them. There were not many evangelical types in my first book. I happen to think fiction’s a really lousy place to do convincing. I think the reader smells that, and we don’t like it. I didn’t want to write a piece that’s didactic or preachy in any way. I also don’t want to pretend to have any answers to these questions. That’s why I probably ended up being a fiction writer rather than a politician.

I felt myself wooed by some of the character Levi’s ideas about coming up with a way to neutralize nuclear waste rather than dump it. So I didn’t know how to reconcile the flaws in his character with his ideas — did his character make his ideas bad too?

I’m glad you felt that way because I was trying to capture some of the pleasure in belief. I really don’t have a believer’s disposition. I don’t have a faithful personality. But every once in a while I do come across some pattern of thought that I find really magnetic and I just sort of succumb to it. And the conspiracy theory is one of those. I think that it’s the most exciting genre of storytelling because it’s almost religious. It transforms the world as you know it, and the more you resist it, your resistance is evidence that you should believe. You can say, “That’s crazy that the government is spraying metals into the air,” but because it’s so crazy, that’s why they would do it. My mom was a real conspiracy theorist. She was part of a group of people who believe in chemtrails. If you’ve ever looked up at the sky and there’s an airplane going by and they leave a little trail. It happens more in the West for some reason, I’ve noticed. That’s called a contrail, a trail of condensation. Whereas a chemtrail disperses differently and it’s actually a spraying of some type of chemical over the population — so many think it’s an experiment and that’s why there are cancer clusters. My mom spent a lot of her time going out and photographing the sky. So there were some times when we were not allowed to play outside because they were “spraying” that day. Even as a kid, I knew that this was not true. But I simultaneously believed it was true. And there was something alluring in it, and I wonder if that’s kind of what it’s like to believe in God.

The novel is comprised of three "Books," and within those books there are sections told from different points of view, and each is a different type of text, such as a primer on the new species of animals that live in the Dune Sea, a speech, or a survey. How did you decide to include those texts and what was your process like?

I just have a promiscuous sensibility; I don’t have an aesthetic flag that I’m running up the pole. There’s no one way to tell a story that I think is supreme. I try to let the subject insist on its own form. It’s a way of keeping myself interested in my own work. I didn’t do anything for four years except write this book and that can be a little bit claustrophobic. It was a way of reminding myself that there should be an element of play and experimentation going on. If I found myself just listing animals and making up their attributes and adaptations, that was okay for that day. At a certain point I realized how expansive the form of the novel is and how welcoming it is and I just flung myself into that. I have an anything-goes approach. That’s really the only thing that got me through it.

The beginning of the second book is written in the first person plural, a "we" and "us" voice that’s a broader lens on the story of Luz and Ray. The writing is really beautiful in describing the landscape, your invented Dune Sea, the Amargosa. What was your process in writing that section?

That was the first part that I wrote. That was me getting my bearings. We start in outer space and we’re looking at this thing. What is it? Oh, it’s the Grand Canyon. Actually, it’s so much bigger than the Grand Canyon. So it was me getting the lay of the land, which is something I do for pretty much everything I write, though it doesn’t always make it onto the page. This probably comes from growing up in a little natural history museum that my mom ran on the edge of Death Valley. I just have to know all about the geology and the ecology and the industries of the place, and what the soil feels like, and what it would taste like if you licked a little bit of the sand. So I wanted to give this drone’s-eye view.

At points reading the book, I felt thirsty or like my head was heavy and delirious with the heat.

Well, I’m sorry to make you feel uncomfortable, but I’m glad I wasn’t alone in that feeling. I remember for all the years I was writing this book, every time I would turn on a faucet, I would be like oh, thank God. I would be so grateful even though I’m living in Pennsylvania and yeah, the water is going to turn on. But I still feel like I need to wash my hands really quickly or turn the water off when I brush my teeth.

The book features a lot of anaphora — with certain phrases repeated at the beginning of a succession of sentences. For example: "She would not remember" and "If she went" are repeated for whole paragraphs or pages. It reminded me of the Latin poetry I used to translate in high school. Were you reading something that inspired this? How did it happen?

I’m such an omnivorous reader that it’s sometimes hard to remember where I got a particular approach or rhythm. In any given chapter, I allowed myself to really indulge in a project or in an experiment. So I thought it would be cool to have a chapter that was all in the conditional. “If this happened …” “If this happened …” And then at the end of the chapter you would realize that it’s already all happened. I think it goes back to letting each project insist on its own aesthetic. I became a much happier writer when I stopped worrying so much about continuity and whether something belonged. Well, this is like a kitchen sink book. If I’m interested in it and it works, then it belongs.

The names in this book are bizarre and sometimes I found myself confused about whom the narrator was referring to. Luz, for example, is known as "Baby Dunn" at certain points throughout the story, referring to her identity as a poster child for conservation and its enemies. This is confusing because she herself adopts a child, who is often referred to as "the baby." Was this blurring intentional?

Very much so. I wanted Ig to be a changeling baby, but Luz also loves to be changing too. There’s a section in the beginning that talks about all the different selves that she has. Her as a child being used as a propaganda symbol, her as a model using her mother’s maiden name, also a reference to Señora Cortez. Even just the idea that her name is Luz (Looz), but her dad says “L-uh-z.” So she has two selves right away; she’s bifurcated. I like that she would project some of that onto Ig and Ig would project that onto her. I wanted to capture the way that particularly for women we have to be chameleons. Who we are depends on where we are. What’s the makeup of this room and what do I need to be here? A model’s job is to be a human object. It’s her job to adapt, which I think is a familiar endeavor for most women. Code-switching to better accommodate the conditions that we’re in.

When we last spoke, your first child, Esme, had recently been born. So I wanted to ask about motherhood in the novel. Luz says when she meets Ig that for the first time in her life she was "acutely engorged with purpose." She insists on labeling Ig as a baby, even though she is nearly two. I’m interested in this idea that motherhood can displace other ambitions in its provision of purpose. Is that something you’re interested in, that you wanted to explore in the book, as a mother yourself?

Not quite. The way the timing of this book worked out was that I submitted it a couple weeks before I gave birth. So Ig is a product of that time. My friend Peter talks about how we sometimes practice life in our novels before we do it. So I think that she’s me exorcising some of my fears about motherhood. I very much didn’t want to be a mother who treated her child as an accessory or a way to get purpose. I could identify with that impulse but I was really afraid of it. My daughter being born is a real line in the sand for me emotionally. I feel like the person who wrote Gold Fame Citrus, and particularly the person who wrote Ig, is a completely different person and I don’t even know her anymore. It was very strange. I got edits back when Esme was about a month old, and I was just like, “Who is this person? Who did this?” It was almost as though they had mistakenly sent me the wrong book back. I just had a new brain and a new outlook. It’s more of like this artifact of where I was in my life than a more straightforward expression of my feelings about motherhood.

That’s fascinating to me.

It’s fascinating to me too. I feel like two different people — I feel like a different person now that I have a child and I also don’t really know this person really well. The other person I got to know for 30 years and now I’ve only known this person for a year. I can’t really figure out what kind of a writer she is. I’m in a little micro-identity crisis … at this point it could be anything, including not a writer at all.


Natalie Villacorta is a writer who lives in the Washington, DC area.

LARB Contributor

Natalie Villacorta is a writer who lives in the Washington, DC area.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!