An interview with the writer about the water crisis in California, the stories of the American West, and her stunning new book.

Gold Flame Citrus
Credit: From left: Courtesy of Penguin Random House; Heike Steinweg

In the writing of Claire Vaye Watkins, the landscape of the American West is more than just background. Land is as much a character as the people she writes about; deserts and badlands are active forces, all at once cruel, selfish, and violent. Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn (Riverhead, 2012), depicted the pitiless lands of Nevada—where she grew up—and transported us to the Gold Rush, the deadlands, a prostitution ranch, and Vegas. Her new novel, Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead), is an eerily realistic imagining of a future in which California's water has completely vanished, transforming the state into a lawless post-apocalyptic dystopia. We meet Luz and Ray, two squatters who have overtaken a mansion in Los Angeles's Laurel Canyon, the pool empty, and who loot, steal, and invent what they need to survive. When they inadvertently find themselves in charge of a lost kid, the couple struggles to find hope about the bleak future. Watkins’s prose is gritty and tender, and her lush writing paints a terrifying and moving picture of what it would mean to navigate a waterless world. T+L caught up with Watkins about the water crisis (both real and imagined) in California, the storytelling of the West, and the creation of her novel.

I assume you’ve been working on this book since before the current water crisis in California started to impact people's lifestyles in such a significant way.

Yeah, I've been working on this book for about five years. When I first started working on it, in the early stages, whenever I would work up the courage to tell someone that I was working on a book about the water crisis in the southwest, most people had no idea what I was talking about. There was no recognition on people's faces. And now, it's the other end of the spectrum: if you're going to write about the West and California, you have to write about the water crisis. It's incredibly prescient and timely. It makes me hopeful about this issue, because it's exploded into the collective unconscious in the past few years.

Water is something we take for granted on this planet. Tell me about how a drought puts a different pressure on the characters, changes them.

Writing about a water shortage is handy for a writer like me who loves, when reading, to be swept away in plot but whose characters seem to prefer to sit in one place. Thirst gives the characters something to want, which gives them something to do. It’s the body’s own rising action. It also makes them desperate, forces drastic action, so I can get away with moves that might otherwise be melodramatic. Thirst is like booze, a great lubricator of bad decisions, and I think well-intentioned bad decisions are endless fun. It's my way around my own writerly failings. I always have to construct some elaborate mechanism to fight my characters' inertia and ennui. In this case it took draining all the water from the Southwest.

You grew up in the West, and you're living in Michigan now. Did you spend time in California while writing this book?

I was born in Bishop, California and grew up in Nevada. I run a free workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada, so I go there twice a year for that. I went on a lot of research trips to Great Sand Dunes National Park in New Mexico and Death Valley and Lone Pine. My husband and I did a sort of self-styled writing retreat in Lone Pine, and that's where I finished the book, after visiting Manzanar, the internment camp where Japanese Americans were relocated during World War II. I finished the book there, in my mind at least—that's where the ending came to me.

What other research added to this book?

Well, I read a ton about drought and water, and about every topic from water policy in the American West and its shortcomings, back to the history of the Mormon exodus and irrigation being introduced. I reread Cadillac Desert, which I think is the ur-text about this whole issue; it covers the water wars in California and touches on the ways we think of the American West, and how consumption is a major part and problem of the American West. I read about dowsing for water, and I practiced it myself in Pennsylvania. It wasn't quite as challenging as trying to find water in Death Valley, but I did try it myself. I'm not sure if I have a gift for it the way my characters do.

The title comes from one character's description of what brought and keeps people in California. What are the three things that draw you west?

I think it would be history, family, and myth. Since I was born in the Owens Valley and my family identifies with that region, the California water wars in the first part of the twentieth century—as depicted in Chinatown—are the stories I think of. The perspective of the people in the Owens Valley whose lake was drained to fill the Los Angeles aqueduct—I've always identified with them, and I have that historical moment wrapped up in my family mythology and the stories we told ourselves about what kind of people we are.

You're such a masterful writer of landscapes; they do so much work in your stories. What do you find inspiring about the land of California?

It's not at all subtle. I don't know if this happens to everyone, but I can't drive across a valley in the West or look at a mountain range without having stories suggested to me about people who live there or what making a home in this place might be like. The landscape of the West is often called "harsh" or "unforgiving" or "menacing." Those are all really active words—these are landscapes that do something to you. So from a storytelling perspective, that's great; if you just plop people down in this place that's already doing things to them—keeping water from them, or making them very lonely, or giving them a long commute or a weird job—it's such an active engine for storytelling. I struggle a lot with plot. I like to read really great plots, but I don't have a plotty mind. So place is my way of giving the story a page-turning plot.

The plot here really moves, though. Tell me about the difference between writing short stories and writing a novel—do the stakes change?

I wanted to have a happy marriage between two warring elements of writing: the language and lyricism, and then plot. Conventionally, we're taught to choose one. We often think the two are irreconcilable, but I wanted to reconcile them so that you'd have a book that was really attentive to the sentence and rolling around in language but where you wanted to keep reading and were swept away by the narrative momentum. I've found it in novels like Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and Didion's Play It As It Lays, as well as her first book, Run, River. You might close that book remembering her sparkling descriptions, but there's a gunshot on the first page of it, and there are fires ravaging the riverbank: stuff is really happening! Lee K. Abbott is also a writer whose short stories are incredible juggernauts of moving plot and lyrical descriptions. William Trevor, too. We don't think of Alice Munro as a stylist, but she structurally does it; she combines time and narrative in a way that makes the reader realize on a craft level that a very cool plot has been presented.

I liked how each chapter of the novel is a bit different: you play with form, and you include things that mix up the structure, like lists and a character's book excerpt. Did you include these things as a way to keep up the momentum of writing the book?

That was something I really feared in writing this book. I had commitment issues. The idea of staying with a small group of people for that long felt suffocating and not that exciting. But I felt like, "That's what a novel is. It's time to put on your big girl pants and write a novel even though it's not that exciting." But then I thought, "Fuck that!" For one, the whole idea of a road novel is momentum and movement. I started thinking about road novels and road movies and Wallace Stegner's belief that movement is the central motif of the American West, that that's the best way to understand the identity of a westerner: to think about movement. And then I thought about sand and sand dunes, and the idea that this landscape is forever changing. It's kind of mythic. When I was growing up, there were a ton of spooky stories about the sand dunes, and how you could get lost in them, because the terrain would shift and you couldn't find your footprints or the horizon would be totally different. That's something out of a fairy tale, like the spooky enchanted woods.

I eventually decided that it'd be okay if I let each chapter and character and movement insist on their own form, style, and language register. I wanted to meet the work where it wanted to be, rather than shoehorn my interest into some sort of fuddy duddy idea of what a Novel with a capital N is. That was a major epiphany for me. One important realization I had that got me to finish this book was that the book could be whatever it decided it was going to be. If one day I sat down at my keyboard and found myself interested in the Mormon exodus, I didn't have to ask what it was doing there, or what it meant. Instead, because I was writing it, the novel had to allow for it. I eventually realized that my aesthetic wasn't going to be cohesive or harmonious, and that it would be okay to have a chapter about mole people, because I said it was okay.

That's the kind of confidence that comes, probably, from building whole worlds in your stories.

Yes. It's exciting, because I wasn't writing anything else while I was working on this. Aside from an essay or a blurb here and there, I was writing only this novel. I don't think I could've done that if I hadn't allowed myself space to experiment and embrace the whims and fantasies on any given morning.