It was my good fortune to interview three fiction writers with outstanding debut books set in Nevada for the High Country News fall books issue. You need to subscribe to HCN to read the finished piece, but my editor has allowed me to publish some outtakes here:
This year, three accomplished and innovative fiction debuts by young Nevada-raised writers hit bookstores, including two novels –– Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild and Ben Rogers’ The Flamer (reviewed in HCN on Aug. 6) –– and a short story collection, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn. Girlchild tells the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix, who at the age of 4 moves with her single mother to the Calle, a trailer-park neighborhood near Reno. A resourceful, determined child, Rory finds an unlikely guide in the Girl Scout Handbook as she tries to navigate her way out of the webs of poverty and abuse. In The Flamer, Oby Brooks, a Reno boy with a deep devotion to explosions, accidentally sets his house on fire. His parents and science teacher decide to channel his pyromania into a useful pursuit, so they line up a life-changing internship for him at a local quarry. Battleborn explores the history of Nevada and California through intense, structurally inventive, and varied stories that touch on Charles Manson, the Gold Rush, legal prostitution, and the difficulties of growing up near Las Vegas. HCN contributor Jenny Shank recently interviewed Hassman, Rogers and Watkins via email about how Nevada inspired their fiction and the themes of their work.
High Country News: Did any of you realize the value of Nevada as a setting for fiction after you’d left it?
Claire Vaye Watkins: It never occurred to me to write about Nevada until I left. I hadn’t even thought of myself as a Westerner or a desert person or a rural person until I moved to Ohio and was suddenly somehow none of those. I was homesick, basically, and my homesickness made the place my muse.
Ben Rogers: I wrote The Flamer while living in Reno. I guess I realized the value of Nevada as a fictional setting after reading some of the masterful stuff written by Robert Laxalt and Walter Van Tilberg Clark, much of which is set in Reno or nearby. I thank both of them in my acknowledgements for making Reno a literary place before I was even born. Growing up, the “important” books I read always seemed to be set in important-seeming places. That’s where the publishers were and the writers were and so those are the stories that got put out there for impressionable kids like me to read and think, well, I didn’t grow up in a big, important place so I guess I don’t have anything worth writing about. So it was later, when I read some more, including such beautiful and important (especially for me) stories written about my hometown—sections of City of Trembling Leaves are nearly my biography—that made me think Reno could actually be an interesting and rich setting for a book.
Tupelo Hassman: Reno is all of Nevada to me, Las Vegas is something and somewhere else, a not-city, more like an amusement park. I struggle to conceptualize Vegas as a city just as I do with Anaheim, say. Company towns. Reno was a company town and now it’s a blown rose (and truly a mixed metaphor), it’s its own again, returned to seed. And then there is all the beautiful country in between.
I still struggle in seeing the value of it, I admit, literary or otherwise. Nevada is captor to people I love and that is hard to forgive (also not fair or logical, I know). Only when I was introduced to Willy Vlautin [ed: Nevada-raised author of the novels The Motel Life, Northline, and Lean on Pete and frontman of the band Richmond Fontaine] did I understand the potential for Reno to be a place of literary return, at least, rather than escape.
HCN: Do any of you feel more like a “westerner” outside of the West?
Rogers: Sure. Show up at a function on the East Coast where there are some dapper gents in coat and tie and suddenly your tattered ski jacket and jeans make you feel more like a grungy gold miner, fresh out of the mountains. Sometimes that’s a good feeling, sometimes not.
Hassman: Yes, Ben understands. I was in a sorry state of culture shock for almost my entire four years in New York. I learned to wear shoes for the first time (versus the flip-flops I’d grown accustomed to wearing in all weather after a decade in Los Angeles). My feet changed. I had no private place to scream or bawl my head off, I’d previously just thought of this place as my car and taken it for granted, was gone. I had to learn smaller, tidier, quieter ways to freak out. I never owned enough black. I never felt (and never am) sleek enough. Westerners: ungainly, colorful creatures with nearly bare feet who lose their shit while driving. That’s me.
Watkins: It’s difficult to picture Ben Rogers’ rugged handsome face being out of place anywhere. But I know what you mean, Ben. I felt very self-conscious about my manners in the Midwest—I am always helping myself to the contents of other people’s refrigerators. And I’ve noticed that what is and is not okay for a woman is in part determined by region. I was accustomed to a sort of pioneer spirit of feminism that valued women doing things for herself, working, opening her own doors, paying her own way, etc. I’m always a little aghast when I go to the South or the Midwest and I hear women praised for being demure, polite, wifely, seen not heard, and so on. When I was growing up in Nevada, those were never espoused as virtues.
HCN: Do you find it easier to write about a setting when you have some distance from it, either in terms of miles or years?
Rogers: Definitely. For me, with this book, I realized the value of my childhood as a setting after I’d left it. People and places and experiences of course take time to metabolize. With The Flamer, which is written from the POV of an older (30-something) Oby, we see boyhood through the eyes of a guy with at least a little worldly experience, some perspective. So there’s trees, but also forest. And you can’t see a forest without getting some distance from the trees.
Watkins: It’s good for my writing to be away, or at least it has been so far, but it’s bad for my soul. I have to go back often to recharge.
Hassman: I can’t see anything when it’s up close. When I try to write about the immediate or proximate, it’s crap.
HCN: In each of your books, the landscape, setting, and culture that the protagonists were born into influence the plot of their lives. Do you think about how Nevada shapes the characters’ lives as you are writing?
Rogers: Just did a word search: “Nevada” appears in The Flamer 13 times and “Reno” appears 18 times. And while I didn’t realize the extent to which I was doing it during the writing phase, I look back now at sentences like, “Nevada’s full of things that need blowing up,” and it’s clear that Oby just so happens to have found a great place to be the kid of boy he is. Nevada has a wonderfully unique landscape, with huge tracts of land that have often been considered disposable (e.g. the Nevada Test Site, or the quarry where Oby works) merely because they’re barren. And if Oby didn’t live in a place like that, it would have been necessary for him to end up there, in the way certain people just need to end up in Hollywood. He needs to be somewhat solitary, and he needs room to do his thing, to blow stuff up—and so Nevada is perfect for him. And I see now that’s no accident.
Watkins: One of my professors at UNR once said, “We are who we are because of where we are.” I’ve carried that around with me for a long time. I can’t even begin to understand who a character is until I know where they are. Early on I decided each story would be set in Nevada, and I whittled the stories to more specificity from there. So it became not just Nevada, but a shack on the edge of the Black Rock Playa, or Lake Street in Reno, a tiny ranch in Verdi, a hipster love triangle takes a day trip to Virginia City, a solo camping trip to Rhyolite, car camping at Lake Tahoe with your ex-lover, controlling husband, and a newborn baby.
Hassman: I thought about desperation as I was writing Girlchild and that feeling is synonymous with Nevada to me. I’m potentially offending some folks, I realize. I can only promise that Nevada, Reno, has earned that rep in my experience. We’re working on reconciliation. What I’m seeing now is that with desperation comes opportunity. Anything can happen. That might be the gift of Nevada, potential as an extreme sport.
HCN: Is your protagonist’s sexuality uniquely complicated by growing up in Nevada?
Watkins: I grew up in Pahrump, where prostitution is legal, and so did some of the girls in Battleborn. All girls—all people—are inundated with shitty images of what their sexuality and gender ought to be. I think that because sex is a literal commodity in rural Nevada—rather than just the very obvious figurative commodity it is everywhere else—that cultural nonsense becomes exaggerated and often grotesque. All characters take a look at what’s around them and fold that into who they are. The young girls in Battleborn might look up and see a billboard offering them $50 to masturbate on camera, for example. Knowing that, I’d ask myself: What is this girl going to do with that?
Hassman: At first I thought the answer to this is no (and how offensive it would be were I to suggest that sexual abuse is more common in Nevada, score three for offense!) but actually, yes. Rory Dawn isn’t abused because of where she lives—there’s a bad guy on every block in every city everywhere—but perhaps she survives because of Nevada’s landscape. When everything around you is ravaged, seasonally, economically, but blooms again anyway, you figure you can too.
Rogers: Oby, who at one point in The Flamer wonders if there’s such a thing as “pyrosexual,” is sexually complicated enough as it is. :)
HCN: The theme of this High Country News issue is “becoming local.” Characters in each of your books adapt and become a local in different communities. Why did such an initiation into belonging to a community appeal to each of you?
Hassman: Since Rory is so very young when she arrives in Nevada, four or so, it is her first home in many ways. She absorbs the code, like children do, and then becomes something of a teacher of it. This brings to mind the idea of code switching, we all do this to some degree and Rory gets an early understanding of when and where what codes apply and how to switch them. The pedagogical aspect of her approach to this code (the tests and anthropologist-like reports in Girlchild, for example) is crucial to her survival, it stops her from internalizing the b.s.
Rogers: The Flamer is a coming-of-age story, and the aspect of that transition that interested me was how a kid learns what it is he or she is into. What makes him tick, what he can’t help but be. And, as part of that, who he wants to be with. Oby is so spellbound by the quarry and the peculiar cliques of people who work there—so different than his friends at school or his family or anyone in his frame of reference—that he dives headlong into trying to impress them. He becomes desperate to earn, if not their respect, than at least their consent to help blow the living hell out of their mountain. Who wouldn’t want to join a club that has a weekly barbeque culminating in an earth-rattling explosion?
Watkins: I’m always trying to destabilize my characters. I figure if I can knock them off-kilter they might do something interesting. One way to do that is to throw them into a new place; a version of ‘hero goes on a journey.’ This is probably most intense for Joshua and Errol in “The Diggings”: they’re young, they’ve never left their family farm in Ohio, their father dies the same year gold is discovered in California and they light out Westward. Joshua has a really hard time adjusting to the goldfields. He’s afraid of the mountains, he misses his mother, he’s having to watch his brother descend into madness that he perhaps caused. There’s some element of this destabilization in every story: a young woman gets pregnant by the cokehead who broke her heart, a prospecting hermit finds a teenage girl left for dead in the desert, a family man work toward destabilization because it makes something happen—volatile people make interesting characters. Otherwise, I am not very good at making something happen.
HCN: When you write, what comes first for you in the process—a character, language, a plot idea?
Hassman: This feels like an SAT question in that I can only find the right answer by eliminating the answers I know do not apply, and yet… let’s give it a go. It can’t be plot because I’m never sure how important that is. I’m the type of consumer who never cares about a spoiler because I’m not reading, or watching, for plot. It might be character but I’m not sure I can untwist character from language (oh no! but how to untwist character from plot?). This leaves language, that is the answer my instinct is sniffing at, and we’re always supposed to go with instinct when taking tests, so I’ll go with that. Language!
All of that said, more likely it is a question that begins anything for me. Like this very question here. I want to understand a concept, a culture, a phenomenon, a love affair, so I dig into it and sometimes writing happens.
Rogers: I’ve had stories where language came first (where I wanted to write a short story in the form of a scientific journal article, for example), but with The Flamer it started as a plot idea, then became a character idea. Here’s how. I wrote a fantastically autobiographical short story called Hillbilly about a boy who goes to tennis camp and gets kicked out for blowing stuff up. I had the plot first there. But by the end of writing that story, I had by necessity invented this boy named Oby, who turned out to be sort of like me, and sort of not. And I said, to myself: self: what happens to this kid when he gets home? What’s his life like? Who are his friends? What path is he on? What’s wrong with him? What’s right? Et cetera. And that became The Flamer. It started with a character, but he had been born out of a plot.
Watkins: Typically it’s an image that comes first. One image will get stuck in my brain, usually an image of the place. For one story, “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past,” I was thinking about the brothels near my childhood home, which my school bus used to pass every morning. It was the image of this really cutesy building—pink and baby blue Victorian with flower boxes and dormer windows, curlicue trim, a red light rotating atop the weathervane—sitting at the end of a very long road. I’ll carry an image around with me and it will attract others: the swath of the Milky Way cutting the sky, an albino peacock, a prostitute tanning by the pool ringed by pomegranate trees (they’re rarely subtle images, as you can see). I’ll see these quite clearly and the visions help me see what the character sees and get to know them that way. Though very often I don’t actually get started on the story until the language level comes to me. Eventually, after living with an image long enough, I’ll hear a few lines in my head—and I roll with those. I realize this makes me sound insane, and I am okay with that.
HCN: Did any of you have an idea of the main themes of your book as you were working on it, or did you arrive at these themes out as you worked?
Hassman: I had one big old idea, that of talking about families of origin and how they are perceived by insiders and outsiders (in Girlchild’s case, the Supreme Court, the Social Service system, and everyone). I thought I might be able to talk about the impossibility of escaping one’s culture of origin. I’m not sure I achieved that. After a time, I started to love Rory Dawn and I wanted better things for her, at least I wanted her to have a chance at better things. It might be that she gets one. I might have failed in my primary mission and she might escape. Darn love.
Rogers: I wanted to take a stab at nature versus nurture—that’s a theme I was conscious of during the writing. I started the book before I became a parent, and so becoming a parent midway through had an effect, I’m sure, in an unanticipated way. I still don’t know what I’m doing as a dad—it’s improv, with high stakes—but maybe I built a little of what I thought parenting should be about into the behavior of the “mentor” characters—the parents, the chemistry teacher, the quarry manager. The nurturers.
Watkins: I never have themes in mind. I’m not a Big Ideas sort of person. Part of this is that I don’t think of myself as an especially intelligent person. I’m not a dummy, but I don’t have any staggeringly important contribution to the intellectual sphere of human experience. I feel my way through a story. Whether I’m reading or writing, I’m better with my gut and heart than my brain. So I leave the theme business to the critics and scholars and psychoanalysts. Not to say that Battleborn doesn’t have themes, or that I couldn’t squeeze some out if you forced me—I am an English professor, after all. And certainly not to say that this type of thinking isn’t necessary to making deep, lasting art, because it is. I only mean that a critic could articulate my themes, obsessions, worldview better than I can, or better than I will.
HCN: What are you working on next?
Hassman: This is a terrifying question if you are a suspicious person. I will knock wood and blind you with choices as is done in that ice-breaking game where a person shares two lies and one truth about themselves and others are made to guess at which is which. 1) I am writing a multi-voiced narrative about a family of bootleggers on the run from the feds 2) a memoir about scars 3) a memoir about my brother’s recent brain injury and becoming a caregiver in a family of caregivers. It’s terrifying beginning again, even if we are always beginning. I am assured I will be making all of the same mistakes over again, the ones I swore to never repeat.
Rogers: A collection of short stories. Maybe a multi-voiced narrative about a family of bootleggers on the run from the feds. We’ll see.
Watkins: Yeah, I’m too superstitious to answer this right now. But, in case my agent reads this, it’s not poetry.
HCN: In Girlchild and The Flamer, teachers single the protagonists out for scoring well on standardized tests and place them in enrichment activities. Why did precociousness on tests appeal to you as a quality for your protagonists to have?
Hassman: I’m always suspect of the word “precocious,” and I just realized that this is because it contains the word “precious,” which is one of my favorite epithets. Rory Dawn is not a precious child, but I suppose she is precocious, academically speaking. I have never been happy yet with the terms we have to describe these abilities, I suppose because I’m not sure of the value of what is gained by them. But why is she this way? It’s in order to highlight Rory’s connection with Vivian Buck (of Buck v Bell, the famous eugenics Supreme Court Case). Vivian had been deemed a genetic idiot by the Supreme Court but she made the honor roll the year before she died (from a stomach ailment). What if she hadn’t died? Would she have continued to be superlative? And to what end? What choices awaited her? Rory’s precociousness is an exploration of that. It also serves to underscore that ability does not always, or often, trump cultural definitions.
Rogers: Putting Oby in an academically gifted program gave me a chance to: 1) expose him to a bunch of teachings and let him absorb/react, which leads to his finding out more about who he is (FLAMER?), 2) expose him to a kids much smarter than he is, and let him absorb/react to that cold hard fact, since he initially believes himself to be a genius (INCORRECT!), and 3) get him access to explosives (SPOILER ALERT…)
HCN: In Girlchild and in several stories of Battleborn, the protagonist’s mother dies. In the case of Rory Dawn, this death seems to be the final stroke that makes her decide she’s now an adult and she will do what it takes to leave the Calle as soon as possible. On the other hand, in several stories in Battleborn, the death of a mother seems to have an opposite effect, such as in “Graceland,” where the protagonist’s grief over her mother’s death prevents her from moving forward, and threatens her relationship with her boyfriend. The common element, I think, is that both these motherless daughters feel very alone. Is the early loss of a parent an important theme for each of you in your work?
Hassman: Do you ever wonder if people are always and only ever writing about their first heartbreak? Or if they must do so until they’ve healed it somehow (assuming this is possible)? This is a little hypothesis I’ve been cooking up in my hypothetical laboratory (quite like a meth lab, actually, stinky and dangerous and illegal). My own mother died when I was young. It was my first heartbreak. Maybe that’s why Rory’s mom had to die too. Oh fiction, you sneaky bitch. Or maybe it is simply another parallel to Vivian, whose mother didn’t die but was taken from her by the state. I hope that this theme will become less important to me, though I doubt I could write about a family with two long-married living parents since this is completely out of my experience or that of anyone I know. Ever. In the universe.
Watkins: I love that: we write our first heartbreak over and over again. My father died early (I was six; my first memory is of the day he died), and my mother died late, as in three months before I started grad school, three months before I started Battleborn. The loss of a parent is not an important theme in my work, it is an important fact in my life. This is my obsession; these are my ghosts. I don’t know how long that will be so, but it is so.
HCN: I enjoyed the unique structure of Girlchild, which combined first-person sections from Rory’s perspective, sections from a social worker’s notes about Rory’s mother, Rory’s own sociological reflections about the Calle (such as in the chapter “anthropologize”), and thoughts derived from the Girl Scout Handbook, to name a few of the approaches. How did you develop this structure?
Hassman: I’d like to raise a toast now to those who purposefully develop structure. Long may you purposefully ride. I am not one of you. The social worker’s reports were part of how Girlchild began, that’s true. That was purposeful! The test sections, as I call them (you say the “sociological reflections”), seemed natural for Rory, pummeled as she is by academia, she must turn it to her own ends or it will swallow her up. The Girl Scout Handbook becomes, perhaps, her only friend. The type of friend, you know, who means well but still makes you aware of how wrinkled your pants are or that you left the house this morning without brushing your teeth. Again. At the end of all my careful planning, I have come to realize that Rory Dawn needs this array of voices to better let her know that she might have her own and help her find it.
HCN: Ben works as a Principal Engineer at Nevada Nanotech Systems. It’s clear that in some ways, The Flamer is a portrait of a young scientist. How does your background in science and engineering inform your fiction?
Rogers: Maybe it starts the other way around? My engineering has always been helped along by metaphor and analogy, I guess. It hastens my comprehension of, say, the behavior of different molecules if I give them personalities: big husky guys with low vapor pressures, or excitable ladies with latent energy lying in wait. In the textbook on nanotechnology, I ended up doing that kind of thing a lot—describing the electrical carriers within a field effect transistor as a kind of militia, or a microcantilever sensor as a diving board with a little girl on the end. It’s just how my mind is wired. So when it comes time to write fiction with a scientific/tech element—which I like a lot—it’s just a matter of flipping the polarity. See what I did there? I made another analogy! I have a problem.
HCN: Several of Claire’s stories delve into the history of the West in a fascinating way. Do you study history to inspire your fiction, or how did these stories come about?
Watkins: Research, along with image and language, is one of the engines that keeps me moving forward on a story. I read books and magazines and articles about whatever I’m writing about. I watch documentaries, listen to recordings, read anything I can get my hands on. The process is not always that I want to write about something so I research it, though that’s often part of it. It’s more like I’m an information sponge. I love to learn about places, especially the West. When I travel, I travel West and when I do, I’m very, very curious about place. I’m obsessed with learning about where I am. I spend most of my vacations either outside looking around or in museums, visitors’ centers, reading books about where we are. I’m always absorbing the natural history narrative, the cultural history narrative, and eventually these make their way into stories. I do this for everything I write, but it’s more obvious in the overtly historical pieces.