Claire Vaye Watkins 

Getting a sense of her landscape, success, memories and an infamous father

There are so many reasons to doubt the youth of Claire Vaye Watkins, not least of which is wisdom beyond her 30 years, especially in her writing. The winner of the Story and Dylan Thomas prizes, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Watkins' collection of short stories, Battleborn, was named one of 2012's best books by NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe and Time Out New York. She's also a professor at Bucknell and Princeton universities and is the co-founder (with husband Derek Palacio) of the Mojave School, a creative writing workshop for teens in rural Nevada.

"When I was a teenager I attended a writing camp and it was there that I discovered that art-making can be a vibrant part of your life. Up until then, I never had looked at actually having a job in the arts. I thought it was quirky and esoteric."

It's more than a living today for Watkins, it's a passion that she shares with more fans than she could ever imagine. And before she meets some of those admirers in a special reading Sunday, June 22, at The Cabin, Boise Weekly talked with Watkins about her inspirations and success. And no, we couldn't avoid asking about her father's close connection to Charles Manson.

Have either of your younger sisters ever made their way into your writing?

I think they might recognize elements of our sisterhood in my stories. But they probably didn't recognize themselves as much as other people would have. A good story usually makes you feel that the people are real, coming alive in your mind.

Your short stories are so vivid. Where did you store them over the years? In your head? Your heart? A shoebox or journal?

I think germs of them have been with me for a long time. I keep a journal with me pretty much at all times. I write down images, fragments and phrases. But you really don't have to write down the really, really deep stuff, the things that haunt you for a long time. I vividly recall images of a house, way out on a hill, and wondering about the people living in there. I keep returning to that, over and over.

Can I ask what you've been working on lately?

I just sent a new novel to my editor this week. A futuristic, pre-apocalyptic story about the culmination of a severe drought in the Southwest.

Did that come from your experiences, or did it jump from the headlines?

I think the story started with an image I had in my head of a sand dune field. I recall my mother talking to tourists who had come into her museum and rock shop, near Death Valley, and she would remind them that the sand dunes were a shifting landscape and you could get lost very easily. I thought that would be a scary place to set a story: at the edge of a huge sand dune field.

Do you still have items from that shop in your home today?

I do. If you saw my house, you would probably notice my rocks--I have some turquoise and quartz crystal--and some cacti.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about your father [Paul Watkins was once a member of Charles Manson's family, who prosecutors said would "procure" young girls for the convicted killer. Paul Watkins died when his daughter was 6]. Did you learn about him, or access him, through research or reading about him?

One day, one of my sisters and I asked our mom about our dad. And she pointed us to Helter Skelter [the bestseller written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi]. I was 10 years old at the time.

That's interesting because Helter Skelter is how many of us learned about Charles Manson and your father.

You would think I would have an inside line, but not really. I did what most people did: read about him. But it was a bit different for me; I was looking for an emotional subtext. I'm suspicious of the process, but it was still tempting to do things that way. Not everyone has a parent without a big cache of media to look at.

Do you have a sense of what his motivations were with Manson?

That's a good question. [Long pause.] I don't think so. It's not hard for me to envision getting caught up in that scene if you're coming from a background where you're not accepted at home, but yet you're accepted by a new group of people.

How do you handle your success as a writer?

That's another funny question to answer. Winning an award doesn't make me a better writer. I still struggle with the same cycle of doubt and frustration I've always had. In some ways, success is a nice validation, but my the old mentality is always asking: is it good enough?

It's clearly good enough. I would like to read you what The New Yorker's Rebecca Bengal wrote about you in May 2013: "Watkins works in the intersections between public history, private memory and imagination, the known and the far more alluring unknown." I think she nailed it.

It's a privilege that people who read your work take the time to read about it.

What's your favorite thing to do when you're not working?

I used to love jogging. But I'm actually seven months pregnant now.

Wow. How many baby books do you own?

I'm a little embarrassed to tell you. I would like to preface that many of them were gifts, but we have six.

That's not many at all. Are you ready to be a mom?

I guess I better be.

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