This year, three accomplished and innovative fiction debuts by young Nevada-raised writers will hit the 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, prostitution and the challenges of growing up near Las Vegas. HCN contributor Jenny Shank recently interviewed the three authors via email about how Nevada inspired their fiction and the themes of their work.
High Country News You all grew up in Nevada, then later moved away. When –– and how –– did you realize Nevada's value as a setting for fiction?
Claire Vaye Watkins It never occurred to me to write about Nevada until I left. I hadn't thought of myself as a Westerner or a desert person or a rural person until I moved to Ohio. I was homesick, basically, and my homesickness made the place my muse.
Ben Rogers I wrote The Flamer after I moved back to Reno. I realized the value of Nevada as a fictional setting after reading some of the masterful stuff written by Robert Laxalt and Walter van Tilburg Clark, much of which is set in Reno or nearby. Growing up, the "important" books I read 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 place so I guess I don't have anything worth writing about. When I read some more, including beautiful stories written about my hometown -- sections of City of Trembling Leaves by van Tilburg Clark 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 (Nevada-raised author of the novels The Motel Life, Northline and Lean on Pete) did I understand the potential for Reno to be a place of literary return, at least, rather than escape.
HCN Did any of you feel more like a Westerner once you left the West?
Hassman 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 after a decade in Los Angeles). I had no private place to scream or bawl my head off. I'd previously just thought of that place as my car and taken it for granted. I had to learn smaller, tidier, quieter ways to freak out. I never owned enough black. I never felt sleek enough. Westerners: ungainly, colorful creatures with nearly bare feet who lose their shit while driving. That's me.
Watkins 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 okay for a woman is in part determined by region. I was accustomed to a sort of pioneer spirit of feminism that valued a woman doing things for herself, working, opening her own doors, paying her own way. I'm always a little aghast when I go to the South or the Midwest and I hear women praised for being demure, polite, seen not heard, and so on. When I was growing up in Nevada, those were never espoused as virtues.