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The Writing Life: Haunted legacy follows Claire Vaye Watkins into 'Battleborn'

In her first short-story collection, the author reckons with the Nevada of her youth and the memory of a long-lost father, a Manson family member.

September 02, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Author Claire Vaye Watkins.
Author Claire Vaye Watkins. (Lily Glass / Penguin )

Claire Vaye Watkins tried to live in Los Angeles, but she couldn't stay. Her father haunts the city too much, says the author of the debut short-story collection "Battleborn" — as do the actions of his former friends.

Paul Watkins was a member of the Manson family, a charmer who recruited girls into the group. The notorious murders took place when Watkins was away in the desert, and he later testified against Manson.

Watkins died of cancer when Claire was 6, leaving her the private legacy of an absent father and a public one connected to the Manson case. In "Battleborn's" first story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," she folds her real-life history into something surreal and clearly metaphorical while also, she says, "getting the Manson thing out of the way."

Now in her late 20s, Claire is an assistant professor of English at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. She describes her childhood as alternately poor and working class. The first university graduate in her family, she says, "I didn't understand that you had to pay for college. I thought you got a bill at the end, like when you go to a restaurant."

She went on to get an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University. It was in the green hills of Ohio that Watkins began conjuring the arid West of her childhood for these stories. She had grown up with her parents in the tiny California town of Tecopa, in the Mojave; after her father died, her mother remarried, moving the family to Nevada. That state's unofficial nickname, which comes from its incorporation during the Civil War, gives "Battleborn" its title.

The stories are set in Nevada: in an apartment in Reno, the tourist town Virginia City, the Las Vegas strip, the Cherry Patch Ranch brothel in Pahrump. These are places often seen by people passing through, but Watkins tells the tales from the locals' points of view.

There are intimacies and secrets, betraying friends, fierce women, failed love affairs, a dangerous brother, a ghost, a beloved baby, an old man, alone. "Out here a person could get turned around and lose his own trail," she writes in the story "Man-O-War," "each stretch of nothing looking like the next, east looking like south looking like west, not knowing where he came on the lake bed, and not knowing how to get home."

As grounded as they are in real places, the stories are fictions, crafted with the skill of an artisan, working from the starting points of Mary Gaitskill and Aimee Bender. Watkins is uninterested in memoir, to the point of being averse to it.

"There seems to be this onus on the genre of memoir to explain," she says. "It's essentially an art form that says why are you who you are. I don't think we can do that in an honest way."

Take for example her father's 1979 memoir, "My Life with Charles Manson" — now a collector's item that sells for $90 and up. She points to the cover, which proclaims, 'It Can Be Explained; I Can Explain It.'"

That's simply too reductive for her. "In fact the whole mystifying, frightening thing about the Manson family is it really can't be explained," she says. "No one reason is good enough."

And yet that book provided an unexpected comfort to her. Claire was 19 when she read it, the same age her father was in 1969.

"I felt like it finally let me know something about him that I couldn't know any other way. That he was, like all of us, a deeply flawed person," she says. "Reading about an orgy at Dennis Wilson's house, it made him three-dimensional for me."

In the book, her father describes many sex scenes, including explicit details about his physical interactions with Manson himself. "On some level, I was like, ew, gross." But because he'd died when Claire was so young, she says she was grateful "to be let in a little bit on the specificity."

Shortly before she started graduate school, Watkins' mother committed suicide, and the sense of loss is palpable in some of her stories.

"I think I'd started to think of myself as inured to grief, that it was always a part of me," Watkins says. "My mom's death really made obvious how ridiculous that idea is. "

She is resolute in believing that a kind of openness and vulnerability is essential to being a writer. Here, Watkins' strong voice grows quiet. "That you would ever be prepared to lose someone. That you ever get better from it? I don't find that you really do."

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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