“Interrogating the Myth of the American West”: An Interview With Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Vaye Watkins (c) Heike Steinweg

The desert is alive. In Claire Vaye Watkins’s debut novel Gold Fame Citrus, decades of drought in California have drained the life from the Southwest, leaving the lovers Luz and Ray—a former model and a veteran of the “forever war”—to fend for themselves as foragers and squatters in an actress’s abandoned mansion outside Los Angeles. But new life stirs due south in the form of a shifting dune sea, engulfing whole towns, creating its own weather, and drawing thirsty adventurers fleeing the ecological catastrophe with the rumors of prophetic dowsers and civilization reborn. If, like me, you thought Watkins’s 2012 story collection Battleborn was one of the most powerful works of American fiction in recent memory, reading Gold Fame Citrus slakes a years-long thirst. Watkins—who is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the Mojave School—writes primarily about the American West, a place, she told me, defined less by geography and more by history and myth. I reached her by phone in Ann Arbor.

Like Battleborn, Gold Fame Citrus is set in the West. Many of the stories in Battleborn came out of your MFA training. Where did the idea for Gold Fame Citrus come from?

Originally it started as two different books. I had one idea for a book that would be about water and the West. I had this image of a gigantic sand dune, and the sand dune would be the main character. Obviously that’s crazy. I should try to write something that’s easier, whatever that means. I had this other project going about a young couple trying to decide if they should have a kid or not, which I was kind of in the process of doing myself at the time. I imagined that novel as being more contained and stylistically consistent, something along the lines of Disgrace—a relatively small cast, and isolated events. It was probably inevitable that I would get really bored with that project and I just kept going back to my secret sand dune document. Eventually I smashed them together. I took the couple that had been living in suburban Ohio and once I got them inside this abandoned movie star’s mansion, we were off to the races.

The problem is that I was approaching the second project with a very condescending attitude toward suburban Ohio. I wasn’t genuinely interested or curious about the place really—not the way I was about the sand dune. (laughs) I think it’s a good sign, by the way, that I wrote a book that I feel absolutely ridiculous talking about. I hope that that bodes well. It’s hard to imagine someone asking an incredibly smart question about ecopoetics and Manifest Destiny and I say, “Well, when I got very stoned and watched Planet Earth, I thought a lot about sand.” You know? (laughs)

(laughs) The novel you wound up with is set in the near future, which I think is interesting because most of the stories in Battleborn are set in the past—either the recent past or the historical past.

I wanted to keep going with the project of Battleborn in that I felt like I left out a lot of very bizarre, nearly mystical places in the Mojave Desert that I was really interested in: the Owens Valley or Death Valley or Los Angeles. I wanted to write about those places and transport readers there, but I also wanted to do a great deal of invention and wanted to be free to totally transfigure the landscape, and create, and just give in to this thing that my imagination had already been doing since I was a kid, which is imagining the West without its water. Most people who live in the American West occupy some part of their mind with trying to ignore the water situation where they live. Cognitive dissonance is an important part of it, especially in being a white person in the West, because you’re not supposed to be there. You just aren’t. And there are moments when the landscape painfully reminds you of that. I remember getting trapped with my friends on Lake Mead when I was a teenager and our boat broke down, and we were stuck all the way out in the middle of Lake Mead, and Lake Mead is not supposed to be there. People are not supposed to invent lakes! I felt that to a very frightening scale when I was there. So I guess I finally realized that I had to give in and go to the scary places which necessitated setting it in a speculative realm.

Did setting Gold Fame Citrus in the future make it more of a political book?

Both books are really interested in interrogating the myth of the American West. That’s really the only political cause I’m that interested in. I very much didn’t want to write a book that sounded pedantic or preachey, or ringing the alarm bells or wagging fingers. I don’t like to read novels that are trying to teach me a lesson. Sometimes it’s surprising to me to be reminded that the book could be read as being about climate change, for example, because I think of it as being more about mysticism and belief and agnosticism and being lost, or motherhood, and all of these other things—and oh yeah! there’s also a giant sand dune and California’s going up in flames. I was interested all of that pre-apocalyptic thinking that’s so popular now—there’s no shortage of dystopian novels out there—but I wanted to write about characters who were themselves bored with that narrative. There’s a line where Luz and Ray are talking about whether they’ll evacuate [out of California] or not and one of them says, “You’ve heard that dissertation.” It’s not even interesting to them even though they are sitting in front of a defunct desalinization plant. They are fatigued by these ideas as I think many people are right now. The novel is an eco-dystopia that is against eco-dystopian books.

What then do you think about the label “post-apocalyptic,” a label that’s been applied to your novel? How would you feel if someone recommended your book to a friend as a post-apocalyptic novel?

The issue that I have with “post-apocalyptic” is that it connotes a kind of egocentricity. Even though we pretend it’s very disturbing—it’s hard to think about the apocalypse!—we do it so much. Kathryn Schulz wrote a really good piece about earthquakes in the New Yorker recently where she pointed out that many of our blockbuster movies imagine the end of the world. It can’t be that disturbing if Hollywood is doing it. I don’t believe we’re disturbed by apocalyptic thinking; I think we’re comforted by it because it makes us feel important. We think, If I survived to the end of humanity—we call it the end of the world of course, but the world doesn’t really give a shit whether we’re here or not—if I survived to the end of humanity I would be the pinnacle of our species and I would be important and, yeah, it would be tough, and I’d have to drink my pee or whatever, but I would still be special. And in fact, we’re not special. You and I will just die and go to dust and be forgotten just like everybody else and the world will keep turning. The apocalyptic thinking is really just kind of an egomania or a narcissism that makes us feel more comfortable than our true insignificance. That’s what I would just tell that nice person recommending my book, like, You are dust. [laughs]

That Kathryn Schulz piece seriously touched a nerve. My memory of that piece back in July is that people freaked out.

What do you mean freaked out? It was news to them that there were earthquakes? Or that it was in the Northwest, and we tend to localize our apocalypse in California these days?

That, and the scale of the destruction.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people when I try to go shill this book, where people will say, I’m so afraid of what you said—or imagining this tidal wave going through the Oregon coast or whatever—that makes me very afraid. Maybe either I am dead inside or I actually don’t think that that’s true in the case of climate change. Earthquakes and tsunamis are kind of a different thing but in the case of climate change people say, I’m so afraid! I say, Are you really? I recognize it and I trust scientists that say bad things are going to come (I’m not a denier at all), but emotionally I can’t really access the fear. I think why climate change is interesting to novelist is that it illuminates an imaginative failing or an empathetic failure we might have as a species: “I can’t really think that way.” When you say you’re afraid of climate change, it’s probably not the same thing as saying, I’m afraid of being raped when I walk home at night. My heart doesn’t race when I think of climate change. In the book, that’s also closely linked to other types of belief. If you’re not really capable of thinking in geologic time—and I’m not really capable of believing God either—what do you do with that?

That’s an important question given that you teach at a university, where there’s a lot of thinking right now about ecocriticism and the Anthropocene. It’s striking to me that conventional thinking about the Anthropocene and dystopian fiction has a hard time talking about individual people and relationships and societies. And your novel seems to be doing a lot of that work. Was that a goal of yours?

It’s kind of the byproduct of this tension that’s always been involved in my writing process, which is zooming back and forth between the micro and macro. If I had my way, I would probably just write about—I really did have a sand dune for a long time as the only character in the book. I would write tens of pages just about the geologic formation of a valley and what the air feels like there and on and on, and then finally my readers early on would say, Why don’t you put some people in here? I’m really interested in thinking about macro geologic time, but then what I really like as a reader is the messiness of a relationship, just two people trying to figure it out. The only rule I had for myself in writing the book is, All right you can go off and invent a dozen or so new species that are living in this sand dune and have fun and play with Latin names or whatever, but then you have to get back to the stuff of how do you go to the bathroom when you live in a sand dune, or what if you fall in love with someone you’re not supposed to and he happens to have all the water. Getting back to the stuff of people—I think that’s what makes art feel urgent and immediate and exciting to read.

Historically in the dystopian novel, there’s usually a lot of exposition centered on the catastrophic event and the new social order, a lot of proper nouns. But when we first meet Luz and Ray, a lot of what we hear about is how the ecological catastrophe affects their everyday lives.

It helps that I wrote the big macro stuff—that’s now in the middle of the book—first, so I got the lay of the land. I wanted to know what the sand would taste like, or what a map would look like if you flew a drone over the dune sea. I spent a lot of time doing conventional world-building. But once I got that down, I realized that I didn’t need it for a very a long time. And for this I credit Cormac McCarthy, because I think the lasting aesthetic impact of The Road is how he reveals how little needs to be said. So he’s absolutely going against all the conventions of dystopia where you spend energy talking about what happened, and he just says, There was a boom and then we filled up the bath tub, and that’s it. So in this way, like everybody else who’s writing dystopia right now I owe Cormac McCarthy a beer.

Though I really love The Road, this book is also a departure from that aesthetic. The Road uses mythic language, but in a mythless world. Everybody is just their own traveling band with no history. What’s the name of the road? That’s a ridiculous question to ask in that novel. But in Gold Fame Citrus, everybody still has their history. Luz is carrying around John Muir and Sacajawea and everybody’s looking back to Manifest Destiny to figure out, How did we get to the point where we don’t have any garlic growing in Gilroy anymore?

I wanted to ask you about those books. Luz carries around biographies of Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, Francis Newlands, William Mulholland, John Wesley Powell—all of whom were part of America’s nineteenth-century western expansion. Why those people in particular?

The West for me is a haunted place. There are these mythic ghosts everywhere you go. I don’t know of a region that buys its own bullshit more so than the American West does. I went last night to a reading by a major figure in literature of the American West, who described the “settling of the American West” as starting in 1849—and I’m like, Uh, buddy when you’re doing all your walks out in nature did you ever find an arrowhead? Apparently it’s still okay for major figures to pretend that indigenous cultures didn’t exist. The way we talk about the California drought has like all the baggage of rugged individualism and Western exceptionalism all over it. For the biographies, I think those figures are interesting. Luz should probably have a biography of Joan Didion with her, too, but that wasn’t out yet.

She could have read Where I Was From.

Yeah, though, I like the idea that those aren’t her books and that she just came upon them in the movie star’s library. I think of the starlet as being David Yelland as a size 0 movie star—what if David Yelland were Cate Blanchett, what would their library look like? Luz is supposed to be the symbol of the West, but her boyfriend who’s from Indiana is more interested in what it means to be a Westerner.

He’s certainly more preoccupied with survival, but maybe that’s because of his military background, which is something he doesn’t talk about. The two make a pact where Luz asks Ray to promise not to talk about water, and Ray asks Luz to promise not to ask about the “forever war.”

It was a promise that they had to make to me, too. I don’t want to spend 300 pages wagging my finger at agriculture. Cadillac Desert was published in the 80s, and it’s a perfect book. That book and Wallace Stegner should be required reading for everybody West of the 100th meridian. I am better suited to playing around with language and image, but I also want to stand on the backs of those intellectual giants.

And you announce that clearly in the first story of Battleborn, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” which puts forth a range of different historical and autobiographical starting places for how to talk about the West.

That story also spends a lot of time saying what it’s not going to be. Maybe that’s an aesthetic insecurity I have. This isn’t going to be a think piece. I find self-described philosophical works very tiresome.

I feel like the way that registers in Gold Fame Citrus is that there’s a lot of bodily detail. We get a real sense of not only what it’s like to live in this place, but also what it’s like to live in the bodies of these characters, especially Luz. The novel has a lot of smells in particular, which are sometimes more potent than sight. When you were writing the novel, did you smell this world as much as you saw it?

Now that I don’t live in the West anymore, I find it very hard to describe the desert to the people who are close to me, both in a conversational sense and in my books. I feel like I’m always failing at really transporting them to that place. The desert is the closest thing I have to God and I’m always proselytizing on its behalf, but failing, I think. Every once in a while someone will come up to me and say, I read your book and it made me never want to go to Vegas, and I think, Oh man that is so not what I was after! But maybe the focus on the sensory is my attempt to kind of transport you with me. I would just like to take you by the hand and walk through the Owens Valley or the Eastern Sierra and we wouldn’t say anything or read anything at all, and you would just know a part of me. But I can’t really do that. So maybe I have this sensory obsession.

Do you feel like there are other writers writing that way? Do you feel like you’re doing something pretty different from other writers?

I feel no burden of newness or novelty at all. It’s more like I’m just a magpie noticing what John Muir did with spirituality and nature, and then seeing what Joan Didion did with the Santa Anas, or, you know, looking at what Planet Earth does with sand. I’m just going around and collecting things. I’ve always been a very promiscuous reader and I don’t have a particular aesthetic or genre flag I’m flying up my pole. I’m also very impressionable and have a malleable brain. Whatever I’m reading I start to imitate, to try to do what they’re doing. It used to give me a great deal of anxiety when I was younger because I was obsessed about whether my voice was original or not. Then I just gave up trying to be original and instead enjoyed the act of being so in love with everything around me.

I’m also a very gullible person. I believe conspiracy theories. Whenever a conspiracy theory is told to me, I’m like, Yes! That is true. I love that feeling. It’s the closest thing I have to religious faith—being an unabashed fan and being a believer in stories. So I’m not that preoccupied with being original, but of course it would be super cool if someone else thought that.

I want to ask you about the role of autobiography in your writing. When Battleborn was published, in nearly everything that was written about that book, there was a lot said about your father Paul Watkins—who was involved in the Manson family and later testified against Charles Manson. You later wrote a piece for the Bucknell alumni magazine that seemed to say two things: that autobiography is the foundation of fiction, and that fiction lets us escape autobiography. I’m curious when Battleborn was published whether you were expecting that level of interest in that part of your life, and whether you were trying to get away from that in this novel.

The discussion of the Manson family in regard to Battleborn has less to do with the role of autobiography in fiction writing than with the role of biography in book publicizing, and I didn’t have a lot of control over that (and I wouldn’t want to have a lot of control over that anyway). People tend to assume I’m more interested in the Manson family than I actually am, maybe because it’s a part of the public record and they have access to it, and we’re always trying to figure it out. As much of a distraction as it is, on some level on good days I can think of it as a kind of compliment, because what they’re actually maybe saying is, I read your fiction and it felt so real that it must be true, or it felt like you were confessing something to me, or you were telling me a secret. In a way, it’s a bummer to have to tell them, I wasn’t telling you a secret. That was art. I made that thing. I made you feel that way with ink and papyrus—but thank you!

I’m still asking similar questions. I really like to ask unanswerable questions in fiction, and I think that’s what it’s the best at. I don’t think there’s any medium that’s any better at asking unanswerable questions than fiction. So I’m interested in the Manson Family insofar as it asks an answerable question, which is, Why would that happen? About every five years or so a new book comes out and it always purports to have answered the question: here’s why it happened. And you spend a few minutes in those pages and you realize that, no, you haven’t answered those questions; it’s impossible. That’s why instead I think a postmodern pastiche short story that is metafictional [like “Ghosts, Cowboys”] should ask the question instead of some crappy true crime book.

You mentioned earlier that when you were starting the novel, you were thinking about having children. There’s a baby in Gold Fame Citrus named Ig, and in the novel, Ig is treated very roughly by the world around her. There are several moments when Luz and Ray think she is in danger of being sexually abused, and she’s abducted twice. I was wondering what it was like to write a character like that while you were caring for a newborn or when you were pregnant, or thinking about having children.

The timing of it worked so that I submitted this book to Riverhead about a week before I went into labor. At that point, I had started making Ig five years before I ever got pregnant. It’s probably a good thing that I did because I probably wouldn’t have been able to create her today. I wouldn’t be able to be so hard on a small person.

She partly comes from this weird experience I had at a music festival in Columbus, Ohio, where I was, let’s say, psychologically impaired, or enhanced, depending on your outlook. I found a little kid who was lost for half an hour. This toddler just came up to me, and then someone else came up and said, “Oh, you found her, thank you,” and then they left. And then I started to wonder, What if that wasn’t her person? And the baby, or the toddler—I use those words interchangeably partly because this experience I had, that I try to replicate in the first few chapters with Ig—she seemed like both to me, like a child and a little baby and a toddler and everything in between. She was kind of a shapeshifter. At one point she said to me, “Help me please.” She meant, I’m lost. But what if she meant something else? My dread rollercoaster was set into action, and I just had to ride it out and see what happened, that all went into those early chapters. Now that I am a mother—my daughter is one year old—those early chapters, those are written by someone else completely. I don’t even know her anymore.

So, I had my baby, and about a month later I was sent my first round of edits. Opening up the book to the first chapter, I thought, Who is this person? And why is she so afraid? It’s a very weird experience. I’m thinking I probably won’t read much from those first sections when I’m on the road. They’re just hard for me.

So if there’s part of the creator in the character, is the part of you that’s in Luz a different person than you are now?

It’s a cool time capsule effect. Some of the stuff from myself that I put into her is still there, like the way that she’s so envious of people who are believers, people who have faith in God or visions or dowsing or omens—she wants to be that kind of person, and I do, too. And, like I said, the closest thing I have to God is sand. And then there are parts of her that were once mine, and they’re not anymore, like a lot of the stuff about her body and being looked at a lot. There’s one part where she describes her job as being professional window dressing, or furniture—she’s basically living furniture. Even the word “model” is a weird word, like a model car. That’s a thing, an object. A lot of women, especially very young women, are told it’s their job to be a thing.

In one of the passages where Luz is talking about her job as a model, it seems as though she was sexually assaulted by one of the modeling executives when she was fourteen years old. In your fiction in general, sexual assault or sexual danger isn’t the central plot element, but it’s an important part of the environment and a character’s life.

Though there’s not a plot line about her being sexually assaulted, Luz’s vagina is a liability. And I think that’s the case for every woman alive, our culture being what it is—to different extents, depending on a variety of circumstances. One time I was walking down the street with one of my friends in Reno and we were walking through this seedy neighborhood and on the corner there was a liquor store we were walking to. As we were walking down the block, there was this crazy commotion and these guys ran out of the liquor store and we realized that it was being robbed. So we adjusted our plan! We were walking back, and I said, “I’m glad that you were with me” to my friend Ryan, who’s a man, and he said something like, “The feeling is not mutual.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Honestly I feel safer walking in this neighborhood by myself than with a woman. You’re like a danger magnet.” And I said, “Yeah, imagine being the magnet!”

And Luz has a similar experience when she goes to buy blueberries in a nighttime subterranean bazaar. You write, “This was, she realized, probably not a good place to be a woman.”

Yeah. When you’re in those places, you’re reminded what the line really should be—like, This was worse than most places to be a woman!

And do you think that—this is a delicate question—do you think this is related in any way to your father, who was described in Helter Skelter as “Manson’s chief procurer of young girls”?

That’s a big part of the story of myself and where I come from. One way I could imagine it being expressed is that I spent a lot of time as a younger person thinking of my dad and his story, and it was only probably when I was in my early twenties that I thought about the women who he recruited, or who he had relationships with, or who wound up being convinced to kill other people, or sexually exploited. Or just the women whose job it was to cook and clean all day long for Charles Manson. In a way, it’s this commonplace experience of femininity set in a lurid historical moment. It took me a long time to even think about them and their stories. It’s disappointing.

It’s disappointing that those common experiences of femininity involve both cooking and cleaning, and sexual exploitation?

There’s a spectrum of subjugation that goes on. People like Rebecca Solnit have said this better than I am saying it now—some people call it a matrix of domination—but it’s not compartmentalized. I have an essay coming out in Tin House where I talk about how we like to think there’s a clear, bold line between something like calling a female writer a female writer rather than a writer, and rape. Like those are two separate things. I think it’s not a clear distinction. They’re all related to each other. You can rape someone because you don’t think of them as actually being as human as you, and the reason you might call a woman writer a lady writer or whatever is because you don’t think they’re as much of a writer as a male writer.

And I wanted to put that exact question to you. You’ve often been put on lists like, Ten Women Writers You Should Read this Fall, and you’ve been singled out both for your youth and your gender. Do you think there’s a relationship between the sexual threats faced by women in your novels and the way you’ve been treated in our culture?

Well, my opinion is yes. And I want to approach the question with the acknowledgement that I’m coming from a place of tremendous privilege. I’m not a victim of sexual assault. I’m not a woman of color—I don’t experience that added dimension of threat and menace. But every once in a while I have the experience of being reminded that sometimes I’m not seen as being as human as my male counterparts. Novelists are really interested in what’s going on inside a person’s mind, particularly when a person does something inexplicable or unanswerable. I just read Missoula by Jon Krakauer, and one of the case studies in that book is a young man who rapes his childhood best friend while she’s asleep. And I just don’t really understand that, until I remember that he is trained by our society to not think of her as human as he is. There are all of these gradients of humanity. This is playing out in the Syrian refugee crisis on one level. But we also respond to female characters in terms of, Are they likable or not? I’ve overheard male professional giants saying—are you familiar with the acronym SWWDI?

I haven’t heard of it.

It means, “Some Woman Will Do It.”

[sigh of despair]

As in, We’ve got to put together this committee or write this thing, SWWDI. I’m often the only woman in a room at a meeting or at a reading, or I’m one of two on a list, so every once in a while I get to be a fly on the wall of masculinity. Most of my friends are men and most of them are male writers, and even them—I always try to eavesdrop on them as much as I can, and I’m often shocked at what I hear. I don’t think they’re outliers or bad dudes. Those are just glimpses of the patriarchy in action. It’s hard to see, and sometimes makes me feel so bummed and belittled, but it’s better to see it than not.

So then what do you feel about your own humanity when someone calls you a “woman writer” instead of a “writer”?

It depends on how aware I am. I live in the patriarchy too, and it’s the water I swim in, too, so there are a lot of times when I don’t even see it. A few months ago I read a review of Wild in The New Yorker, and it said, “In photographs, Cheryl Strayed looks like a big-bodied woman, but Reese Witherspoon stands barely more than five feet.” And all of a sudden, I float outside my body, and I think, I’m reading a piece of criticism in The New Yorker, our most well-respected venue for criticism, of a piece of supposed art, and we’re talking about these women’s bodies. What the fuck does Cheryl Strayed’s dress size have to do with what you thought of this film? But sometimes that stuff happens and I don’t even see it, or I do it myself. Only when I’m using my training to be conscientious and read closely and think about the coding or subtext of something do I think, Whoa, back the truck up! That shit is fucked up! And it’s one thing for me to hear someone say something in private. It’s another for it to be published in the pages of The New Yorker. If you need a quick definition of institutionalized sexism, there you go.

And it goes from there to talking about women presidential candidates’ level of attractiveness in the same breath as their qualifications to be president.

At this point, I have all these moments where I just wish we could scream, “It’s 2015!” every time something like that happens. Red alert, it’s 2015, you just described a woman’s appearance in a national debate for the presidency. Get out the hook.

I also wanted to say that with these issues, like degrees of humanity, I think you always have to turn it back on yourself. One thing that’s always hard about seeing something like institutional sexism is that I always ask myself, Am I doing this in some way? And particularly as a white person, How is whiteness invisible and oppressive? Am I complicit in a structure of domination that I’m not aware of? Once you see it, there’s a big moral buy-in, and that’s what I think makes most people try to deny that it exists. Progressives are still enticed by a tidy morality.

Did that thinking have anything to do with the fact that Luz is a mixed-race character?

Luz is a mixed-race character because my husband [writer Derek Palacio] is a mixed-race character, and having talked to him and seeing the way he moves through the world, I was interested in combining that with what I know about being a woman. There’s so much of me in Luz, I needed to let her be her own person, so it was important at a certain point not to share so much. That was one of the many ways I wanted to give her her own identity. A big part of being mixed race isn’t available to me, so it’s almost like she has secret parts of herself that I don’t know about.

When you were talking about being a scavenger earlier, it put me in mind of the formal variety in your writing. In Gold Fame Citrus, you have an amateur illustrated work of naturalism, dialogue transcripts, a security clearance questionnaire, notes from a psychiatrist. In Battleborn, there were seeds of that—certainly in “The Last Thing We Need,” which is told in letters. Was there something about the blown apart nature of the novel’s world that made you want to scavenge more?

I always want to let the writing lead the way. The chapter has a right to decide what it wants to be. It’s my way of keeping myself interested and exploring all of those promiscuous reading habits I talked about before. I wrote this novel for five years and it was the only thing I did, so it makes sense to me that it would be really pliable. I was reading a lot of Borges and a lot of Bolaño; they do narrative momentum a lot differently than most American writers, and I wanted to imitate that a little bit. That expressed itself in a chapter about the Mormon Exodus. What if I could get a hundred years of the Mormon Church into ten pages? It’s my way of keeping myself interested and the reader interested, too.

I’ve been getting very into documents lately. I just wrote a story in the form of a post-partum depression questionnaire. It’s coming out in an anthology in the UK called Sex and Death. I said to the editors, Lucky for you, I just had a baby, and a baby is the exact point of overlap between sex and death.

I wanted to end by asking you about your acknowledgements pages. At the end of Battleborn, you have a long acknowledgements section—

Yes, 143 people, places, and institutions. 143 of them.

You counted!

Oh, I didn’t count them. Somebody sent me a letter because they were so outraged by them. I have it on my office door.

They were outraged! Why were they outraged?

I have a PDF of this. I’ll share it with you. He was outraged by two things. One, my stories were completely inscrutable. The other one was that I thanked so many people for them.


And he also returned the book.

He sent it back?

Yeah, he sent it back.

Wait, he returned the book to you?

Yeah, with his letter. It was part of his hate mail, a hardcover first edition. There’s a line in his letter where he says he “turned the pages only once.” I won’t be needing this again!

Did he write anything in the book?

You know, I didn’t check. I should have looked for marginalia, huh? (laughs) But you wanted to ask about acknowledgements.

The acknowledgements in Battleborn is a long document, and you acknowledge a lot of debts to a lot of great people. In Gold Fame Citrus, it’s much shorter and talks about specific works you read as sources, a few supporting institutions, and where the novel’s aesthetics came from. I’m sure part of that is the sign of the differences between a collection that came out of stories written in graduate school, and between a novel written on contract. But I was wondering if that sense of there being many hands behind Battleborn versus Gold Fame Citrus being a product primarily of your vision and just a few influences, if that makes you feel differently toward your novel as a piece of writing. Does that make sense?

It does. That’s a very sensitive question. The thing that those two acknowledgements pages demonstrate is that being at a position where you’re publishing books with a press like Riverhead is a tremendously privileged one, and someone like me with a background I have doesn’t get there alone. I think a lot about the people I know who won’t write any books because they aren’t given the gift of time and money and attention and education that I was given. I wanted to say thank you for that because it’s been transformative. In a way, I think the MFA program is the last vestige of meritocracy in America, but that’s another interview entirely. And then, with Gold Fame Citrus, I relied much more on books than other people. It was a lonelier writing time for me. But mostly I just wanted to thank all of the people and the structures that made my life as I know it possible. I spend a great deal of my week in my jammies making up worlds. That’s a crazy, charmed life. I don’t ever want that to get naturalized, or take that for granted.

There seems to be something lonely about the actual novel, doesn’t there?

I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. I was a lot lonelier in my life when I wrote Gold Fame Citrus than when I wrote Battleborn. I’m generally on my own. I have two sisters and some extended family and that’s about it. I’ve lost a lot of people, and let go of a lot of other people. My husband, my baby, and me are kind of an island. It can be lonely sometimes.

You’ll hear from a lot more people now that the book is out.

But there’s a false intimacy when people read your work. No, it’s not false, it’s asymmetrical. After a reading—I’ve done this myself—I go up to a writer, and I say, Oh, you! And your work! Of course, I’m so grateful for a reader, especially a reader who actually liked my book rather than mailed it back to me. But I don’t know them. And they feel like they know me and we’ve communed, but we haven’t. I’ve just been alone.

Have you ever heard that thing about how Karen O, after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play a show, she goes comatose and doesn’t socialize with anyone at all? Not to compare myself to Karen O, but it has been said that I’m the Karen O of short fiction.

Oh, really?

By me! I said that. (laughs) I wish I could do that after readings. There’s such a lopsided emotional connection. I feel very vulnerable and very exposed in that setting. I should have taken the Ferrante route and never done any of this. I haven’t cultivated that mystique, so now I’m fucked. But for the book tour, I’m doing all kinds of corny shit like making gratitude lists. I’ll let you know how it goes in a couple months.


Photo: Heike Steinweg

Kyle McAuley is a writer, audio producer, and teacher in New York City.

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  1. “When you say you’re afraid of climate change, it’s probably not the same thing as saying, I’m afraid of being raped when I walk home at night. My heart doesn’t race when I think of climate change.”

    For those of us engaged in authentic, daily kinship with other species, it’s absolutely the same thing. Worse, even. Ecological and species destruction is, only a daily basis, monumentally depressing and anxiety-provoking. Your heart doesn’t “race” because your heart doesn’t belong to the earth.