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Know the West

Three Nevada fiction writers make their debut


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.

HCN In each of your books, the landscape, setting and culture that the protagonists were born into influence their lives. Did you think about how Nevada shaped the plot of your story as you were writing?

Rogers I just did a word search: "Nevada" appears in The Flamer 13 times and "Reno" appears 18 times. 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 kind of boy he is. Nevada has 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. 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 the University of Nevada, Reno, 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.

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 and Reno have earned that reputation 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 extreme sport.

HCN In Girlchild and in several stories of Battleborn, the protagonist's mother dies. Is the early loss of a parent an important theme 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. 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. 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 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 Characters in each of your books adapt and become locals 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, 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 (when a person is a member of two or more distinct communities and uses a different communication style with each). We all do this to some degree and Rory gets an early understanding of when and where  and 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 BS.

Rogers The Flamer is a coming-of-age story, and the aspect of that transition that interested me was how a kid learns what he 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, and he has 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. I work toward destabilization because it makes something happen. Volatile people make interesting characters.