Claire Vaye Watkins on Growing up Manson and “Battleborn”

For writer Claire Vaye Watkins her life has been lived in the shadow of her father, Charles Manson’s right-hand man, but in her debut story collection she breaks free to capture the American West with beauty and power. She speaks to Claiborne Smith about her hunger for Nevada, her mother’s death, and her fiction.

08.04.12 8:45 AM ET

A man on a solitary drive to Rhyolite, Nevada—a “dead town picked clean,” he says—gets out of his truck to examine what he thinks is the remnants of a car accident. As “a hot west wind took the puffs of dust from where I stepped and curled them away like ash,” he finds a ’66 Chevy Chevelle, abandoned groceries, two prescriptions for mood-elevating drugs, and a sealed Ziploc bag of letters from a woman who signs off as M. That Chevy reminds the man of the time someone with a bandana over his face entered the gas station where he worked, the moment a long time ago his life changed for good.

The working-class Nevadans in Claire Vaye Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn, are like that man, the narrator of her story “The Last Thing We Need”: lonely, scarred, kind, curious, and itching for some real connection to other people, their own past, or their own place. Just like the narrator, they more often than not have locked themselves into a looming, violent state of suspense because of their curiosity or need to connect.

The mythology of the West has always been fueled by its dramatic, vast land—long camera pans in John Ford films that make you ache for its rugged vistas and words like creosote, sagebrush, and sierras in the novels and stories of Wallace Stegner, William Kittredge, Annie Proulx, and Rick Bass.

Watkins uses those words too, but she is a new writer of the West, one who doesn’t rely so exclusively on depictions of landscape to reveal the character of the people who sometimes stubbornly live there. She is as comfortable writing in the past as she is about present-day Nevada, and she has a postmodern insight that the straight, omniscient story is never as revealing as the stories we tell one another to soothe ourselves. The West isn’t some exotic American myth in her stories; it’s a place where, as Watkins describes one of her characters, a person can keep “weighing herself down with stories and still feeling empty.”

Take the protagonist of the story “Rondine al Nido,” a teenager Watkins calls “our girl” straining to summon the grief she knows she’s supposed to feel when a voice over her high school loudspeaker announces the 9/11 tragedy. After a one-night stand in nearby Las Vegas she and her best friend Lena embark on with some college boys, our girl can barely look Lena in the face as that summer, “the whole of her is gradually succumbing to the dimensions of their town, its unpaved streets, its irrigation ditches and fields of stinking alfalfa.” Or the brothers in the long story “The Diggings” who leave Ohio for the Gold Rush, “the first in all our life together Errol had regarded me with greater interest than that due an old boot.” As Errol spirals into madness, his brother desperately tries to rescue him from himself in a story whose suspense is dark. The brother encounter the following words etched onto a boulder on their way to find gold: “Expect to find the worst desert you ever saw and then to find it worse than you expected. Take water. Take water. You cannot carry enough.”

Her father was Paul Watkins, who was Charles Manson’s right-hand man, procuring young women for Manson to have sex with (Manson wasn’t handsome enough to lure them on his own). Paul, who died in 1990, never killed anyone, and he eventually testified for the prosecution in the Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders. He also went on CNN urging viewers not to get caught up in cults. “My father first came to Death Valley because Charles Manson told him to,” Claire wrote in Granta in 2009. “He always did what Charlie said; that was what it meant to be in The Family. The desert my father knew then was a place of dune buggies and doomsday, a wasteland accessible only by four-wheel drive, where even Helter Skelter couldn’t find him. He was in Death Valley during the Tate-LaBianca murders and he fled here again, afterwards.”

Watkins writes about the West as a gift her father gave her (“it is the only thing that satiates my hunger for him,” she wrote), but to write about it, she had to leave it. I asked her why she uses the names of actual places in her stories—why describing Nevada evocatively isn’t enough (take, for example, the Cherry Patch Ranch, the brothel 70 miles outside Las Vegas Watkins uses as the setting of one of her stories). “I was really, really homesick,” in Ohio, where she attended graduate school in creative writing, she says, “and I would Google Earth shots of Nevada. I was maybe a little afraid of forgetting Nevada—‘What was the name of that great brothel?’”

Several months before she moved to Ohio, Claire’s mother, an alcoholic who had relapsed, killed herself. For all the attention Watkins receives because of her father’s past, she never knew him well (he died when she was six). Her mother was “this incredible dynamo, a great bullshitter,” Watkins says. Her mom taught Watkins how to parallel park in the parking lot of a brothel in Pahrump, Watkin’s hometown, because it was one of the only places in town that had a curb. “My father’s story is more in the collective subconscious but my mom’s is closer to the project,” Watkins says. “It’s harder to talk about.”

Novelist Christopher Coake taught Watkins as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno. “She was almost out the door here before I knew anything about her personal life,” he says. Watkins was hearing from the MFA programs she had applied to when her mom died. “I took her into my office and told her I was there for her. She wasn’t feeling really chatty about it.” After Watkins wrote about her father in Granta, editors called her because they wanted her to write a book about her father and the Manson scandal. Coake says the attention “freaked her out” somewhat. “The thing I want to give her the most credit for is, she’s 28 years old, she’s much wiser than that and always has been,” Coake says. “She is in control of herself and in control of her story in a way that I think is probably necessary for her to go forward.”

‘Battleborn’ By Claire Vaye Watkins. 204 p. Riverhead. $25.95.

“I think she would have been a writer in spite of whether or not these terrible things happened,” says John Freeman, the editor of Granta. “Her father’s experience and her mother’s taught her how to tell stories. She’s surrounded by desperate stories.” Freeman says it’s crucial that her first book is a collection of stories, not a memoir. Readers expect a writer’s full heart in stories or novels but give the memoir writer “some expiation, some out” if the writer wants to preserve some privacy. “In fiction you can’t do that,” he says. “It bends the story that immediately gives it a wrong tone. She’s a remarkably tough-headed and clear-eyed woman when it comes to dealing with terrible things,” Freeman says. “It makes the achievement of that book remarkable because the trauma is a side-show.”

From Bad, Something Good:

Watkins isn’t the first writer to emerge from a notable tragedy in his or her family or a difficult childhood:

* Even accounting for the fact that 19th Century French middle- and upper-class children were sent away from home at what we would consider a young age to be educated, the parents of Honoré de Balzac weren’t exactly nurturing. They largely left Balzac to the care of a governess, which explains why the character of the governess in his 1835 novel Le Lys dans la Vallée is so cruel. When Balzac was sent off to school for seven years at the age of eight, his father thought he would inculcate a noble work ethic in his son by purposefully withholding enough allowance. His wealthier classmates thought that was pretty funny.

* Liza Ward based her novel Outside Valentine on the 1957 murders of her grandparents by serial killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. “I tried to remember the carpets at my [grandparents’] house, the arrangement of furniture, the arrowheads my father had collected as a boy, wondering if the murderers had noticed, run their fingers over all these particular things, and thought twice about the lives they were about to destroy,” Ward told an interviewer in 2005.

*  He did have eight children and a paltry income, but Charles Dickens’ father John Dickens got hauled off to debtors’ prison twice. The second time, Charles had to ask his friends for the money needed to free his father. Then his father approached Charles’ same friends asking for more money.

* Truman Capote’s mother sent him to live with her relatives in Alabama after she and his father divorced when Capote was four. When she remarried, he moved to New York to live with her but his stepfather was caught embezzling. Capote’s mother later killed herself.