This is an article from the spring 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
2015 felt like the year of the drought.
There was the story about human-made Lake Mead, already shrinking, and the series of “straws” inserted into it to provide drinking water for the citizens of nearby Las Vegas. There was the one about the city of Los Angeles covering its reservoirs with millions of four-inch black plastic balls to prevent evaporation. And then there were the reports that there was “no snow whatsoever” at 6,800 feet in the Sierra Mountains, in light of which California Governor Jerry Brown issued mandatory water restrictions to reduce consumption by a staggering 25 percent.
We’re all talking about the dangers of the West’s water woes now, but when Claire Vaye Watkins, an assistant professor of creative writing in LSA’s English department, started work on her novel Gold Fame Citrus five years ago, almost no one was. The novel takes place in a near future where drought and rising global temperatures have utterly transformed the American Southwest. Without water, many of the area’s inhabitants have evacuated to relocation camps farther east, but some have refused to leave, remaining behind out of a desire to profit from the region’s new lawlessness or because something about the place reflects who they are. Some just can’t—or won’t—let go.
Both Watkins’s novel and her award-winning short story collection, Battleborn, confront the intersection of larger-than-life forces—politics, climate change, geology—and the lives of everyday people. Watkins herself was a child of the West, growing up in Pahrump, Nevada, separated from the lights of Las Vegas by the Spring Mountains. LSA spoke to the author about her new novel, the limits of the creative imagination, and her experience teaching in LSA’s Zell Writers’ Program.
LSA: You write about the intersection of geological time and human time, and you have spoken in interviews about how human beings aren’t all that good at imagining geological time. What is it about the scale of geological time that we’re incapable of understanding? What do you think keeps us from being better at it?
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: I often think of a computer program I heard about, developed by the insurance industry after research on the brain showed that we think of our future selves the same way we think of other people—as distinct and apart from ourselves. The program, if I remember correctly, “introduced” the participant to her future self at retirement age, and the future self then explained to the younger, present self how important it is to save for retirement. To me, this is a startling illustration of how difficult it is for us to empathize with ourselves across even a little bit of time.
Considering that, it’s sadly unsurprising that we so struggle to act in a way that is considerate of future generations, ecosystems, or other species. It seems we’re not good with abstract empathy, except, most interestingly, when it comes to art. So a novel about drought seemed a good place to experiment with the collision of abstract conundrums that are tough to grasp with emotional immediacy, such as the draining of aquifers, and immediate, corporeal concerns that the reader would feel as she read, like thirst.
LSA: You’ve spoken about a danger, or a worry, that writing about drought in the American West could have come across as too didactic. What is it that worried you, and how do you deal with that concern?
CVW: It seemed dishonest to write Gold Fame Citrus from a didactic position in part because I had no answers to the questions I was asking—if I did, the project wouldn’t have been interesting to me. Of course, I certainly have thoughts about the way the mythology of the American West enables a type of entitlement that encourages the careless and obscene use of natural resources in that fragile region, but my artistic approach isn’t especially compatible with explicating those ideas. That’s not to dismiss that mode, as many writers I admire announce and explore their ideas explicitly in their fiction, among them Margaret Atwood, Edward Abbey, and Kurt Vonnegut. It just isn’t the way I work.
And, too, I think I was wary of the novel being pigeonholed at all, whether it be as eco-lit, cli-fi (short for climate fiction, a genre I learned existed only after someone informed me that I’d clearly intended to write it), or post-apocalyptic, because for me so much of a book’s electricity comes from its chimeric qualities.
LSA: Do you see your books Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus as overlapping in any way other than geographically?
CVW: I’ve come to consider Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus sister books. My hope is that when read together, they offer more intricate and deeper ideas about the mythology of the American West, though each addresses the subject on its own. They also use time similarly in that while most of the stories in Battleborn are contemporary, and Gold Fame Citrus is set in an imagined future, both books look to the past.
LSA: What is it like teaching in the Zell Writers’ Program?
CVW: It’s tremendous! I’m grateful every day for the high caliber of the MFA students, for the richness and intentionality of their work as it allows us to extend our conversations beyond mechanics (although those are important) and into more challenging and exuberant terrain of meaning, theme, aesthetic, audience, and purpose. I think that’s the place all teaching writers want to get to, and I’m there every day. Beyond the classroom, it’s obvious that the program’s faculty and alumni have spent decades as stalwarts for this community, insisting on its inclusivity, artistry, and rigor. It’s among the liveliest and most robust creative fellowships I’ve ever been a part of.
LSA: What are you working on now?
CVW: Oh, I’m far too superstitious to say.