Make a List of Everything You Have Lost: Claire Vaye Watkins Interviewed by Madelaine Lucas

A transgressive novel that careens through the desert landscapes of a childhood fraught with addiction, climate collapse, ties to the Manson family, and more.

I Love You But Ive Chosen Darkness6

“I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy,” wrote Claire Vaye Watkins in her 2015 essay, “On Pandering.” Her new novel, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness (Riverhead Books), is a result of that reckoning. Formally transgressive, highly autobiographical, at turns elegiac and surreal—it sends her fictional alter-ego careening through the desert landscapes of her childhood where she grapples with everything from her mother’s opiate addiction and her father’s involvement with the Manson Family to climate collapse and those enduring myths of American middle-class stability: marriage, monogamy, and motherhood. It is the story of a woman who walked into the desert, embraced the darkness, and returned to tell us her tale.

—Madelaine Lucas

Madelaine Lucas What has the last year been like for you? A big question, I know.

Claire Vaye Watkins Yeah, really big question. I’ve been living out here in the Mojave Desert for about a year. I’d just been rambling like a rolling stone, living in all these different places, and finally the pandemic really put the fear of God in me. I felt a homing, nesting, get-into-your-tortoiseshell instinct like never before. So, I bought this little cabin and I’ve been living here mostly by myself. My daughter is with her dad during the school year and with me on breaks, so a lot of solitude and tremendous emotional fluctuations. Deep sorrow, incomprehensible grief, but also ecstasy and joy. I’ve been falling in love and walking in the desert every day, meditating, doing all that. I hope to one day get to a point where self-care isn’t my daily regime—like all I do is try to be okay—but that’s what it feels like these days. I don’t really care about productivity at all anymore. Producing for the sake of volume, who needs it?

ML There can be this pressure for artists to be doing something with all the time we have at home now, but we’re living through trauma.

CVW Yeah, that is what I’m doing. For me, the witnessing is the work. The thing I’m mostly doing is just watching. Usually just sitting very still and watching the sky, or writing in my journal about what’s happening, or listening to the news and crying. I have a block of my day that’s just for weeping. The stuff I have made has been really weird because I don’t have to do it, it’s completely at will. I just started doing things that felt really good—meaning it could be pleasurable or joyful to do in my body, or the idea of it was pleasing to me. I made a billboard with my friend Brant. It said, “Make A List of Everything You Have Lost.” We put it right in front of Trump Tower during the 2020 election. We actually set up a hotline for it, a grief hotline. That felt like what I needed to make at that point. Or short little essays about losing my grandma. It’s been much gentler. I have note books going all the time and I don’t feel like I need to figure out what things are when I write them down.

ML Speaking of work that resists easy categorization, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness was such a wild journey as reading experience. It struck me as part odyssey, part road novel, part ghost story, part love story. I’m curious how you think about it. Do you see yourself working in any particular traditions?

CVW Mostly I feel like that’s none of my beeswax. I was just saying to my beloved last night when we were driving home from Los Angeles, it’s weird to work on novels and not really care about novelty or making it new. I never really felt capable of that. It was more about whether it was delightful or surprising to me, and that had a relationship to how honest it was. Maybe this comes from growing up with all the adults in my life in AA, but there’s this idea that if you bullshit yourself, the medicine won’t work. I kind of feel like that. That’s what pushes me to write. So, then it has this magpieing, ventriloquism type of thing, with elements of all this different stuff. 

I used to think that was a defect about my writing. But if you trust your weird sensibility, then consciousness is pretty singular. With this book, I wanted to see what would happen if I got really porous to other people’s influences, other people’s voices—like my parents, most obviously, but also those other sources, like Loafing Along Death Valley Trails—and put my words right up against theirs to make another thing altogether. Collage has always been a pretty important impulse for me.

ML There is an autobiographical element to I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness. Some writers find it frustrating to be conflated with their fictional characters but this book seems to encourage or at least embrace that confusion. What feels exciting about that to you?

CVW I think it had an electrifying effect in terms of me being more honest about it being really close to me. In fact, she is me and is not me—and that’s the way that she starts to relate to other people, too. She says that about one of the other women characters: She is me and is my own sister.” It’s kind of a version of the last line in Weather by Jenny Offill, “The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.” So maybe that autofictional impulse had those interesting metaphysical resonances for me. I was first exposed to that little trick, which I enjoy so much, with men who had been to war, like Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, and Kurt Vonnegut—“all this really happened more or less being the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five. That seemed to me really playful and also really true about how trauma works. I also don’t find it as shattering of realism as some readers do. They’re like, You broke the contract and now your thing doesn’t feel real! But it’s more real, and it was always not real! It’s ink and papyrus, babe.

ML Playing around with real dates and names and archival documents is also a technique you used in some of your early stories. How did you first arrive at that way of working?

CVW Yeah, you’re right. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness is basically a novel-version of “Ghosts, Cowboys,” the first story in Battleborn. Back then, I could only figure out how to do it for ten pages or so. Like, this is kind of what it feels to miss my dad, to be grieving for my mom, to be living in a post-frontier American West that you can’t help but notice is dying all around you. I don’t know if I was scared or I just didn’t feel I had the chops for it. That story began as a poem I wrote in undergrad, so this mode of inquiry is certainly circular for me. It seems to go out formally, while the territory goes in. Battleborn was set all throughout the Mojave and the Great Basin, and then Gold Fame Citrus was really just the Mojave, and I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness is basically the shape of the Amargosa River, this little J-shaped, ephemeral river. So, I seem to be going out and down—like a mine, of course!

ML It’s interesting to think about structure in terms of organic, natural shapes.

CVW Oh, I know. I get uptight about structure and I think it’s because of my training as a short story writer. There’s something kind of mathie about short story writing sometimes. You can hold the whole thing in your hand, it’s like doing a Rubik’s cube. You can make a short story perfect, but a novel you cannot. You have to let go and make room for mess. If you look at a crystal or a plant, that’s messy, it’s weird. It’s asymmetrical, or has strange patterns that are organic. I love how everything can fall through the cracks—arguably in the postmodern novel most of all—and that’s like fiction, you know. It’s just this gumbo thing.

ML Yeah, fiction is gumbo! You mentioned that I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness is like a novel version of your story “Ghosts, Cowboys.” What made you want to return to those themes and events at this point in your writing life?

CVW Looking back, I think it had something to do with that realization that, as I heard Monica Youn say one time: you can get more than one poem out of your trip to Rome. “Ghosts, Cowboys” was circling the central mysteries of my whole existence. It’s okay to go back to that and circle that again. Maybe it was letting go of the worry that the time where I was allowed to be curious about the most confounding things that ever happened to me was over and you get ten pages and that’s it. So, a couple hundred, why not?

ML And maybe more?

CVW Oh, absolutely. I think of writing a sequel to this all the time. Partly because I like being this version of myself. It reminds me kind of a stand-up comedian’s persona. One of my friends said, it doesn’t really sound like you, and I’m like, yeah, because it’s my most impish self that I never show you because I love you and I care for you. And because the narrator’s allowed to be bad, she also gets to some deeper, more interesting stuff faster. She has epiphanies in six months that took me six years to have.

ML An important part of the novel is dedicated to the letters that your narrator’s mother, Martha, wrote when she was a teenager. I read that these were adapted from your mother’s real girlhood letters. Why did it feel important to include them in the novel?

CWV Originally, I hadn’t planned to include them in the novel at all. I got sent the letters and I wanted to have an electronic document of them to share with my siblings as a backup, in case something should happen to them. It’s an actual shoebox full of letters, on the shelf. Once I started dictating them, I was like, This is really good writing. I started high-grading, as you say in rockhounding—you know, taking the very best specimens—in a way that I do for any character that I’m making. I magpie around and bring things in. I gave myself permission to be a very heavy-handed editor because she’s not on this plane with us anymore, but I asked myself, what would be fair to her as true, if not factually accurate? I don’t know where she ends and I begin in those letters.

At a certain point, I realized that of course I was digging the voice so much, because she gave me my voice. This is my matrilineage, the music where my music comes from. To hear her talking so exuberantly as a girl about partying and crushes—it’s all the parts of her that I never could have accessed being her daughter, even though she was a pretty open, frank, brave person. You just can’t know who your parents were before you came along, it’s a paradox. But I did get to know that by turning these letters into a novel, and I could also do the thing for her that you have to do when you write characters, which is see them as whole, mature, complicated people. Which is, not incidentally, also one of the ways that we can tell if you have a mature and healed world view. You know, can you accept that your parents are people? A lot of people never get there, and a lot of parents can’t really show that to their kids. It’s one of the great heartbreaks. That’s why it can feel so lonely to be in the family, I think.

ML Your father is an important absence-presence too, and you quote from his memoir, My Life With Charles Manson. His involvement with the Manson Family gives his legacy a sensational quality, but in this novel, I felt there was more of an emphasis on trying to understand your mother’s life and death. Did that have something to do with a desire to tell the more untold story?

CVW It was probably just intuitive. The section that is the most autobiographical started as me just trying to write for me because I had postpartum depression and I wanted to feel my hand moving across the page again. I would watch basketball and write LeBron a hundred times because I wanted to feel that I was physically writing. My mind was kind of being remade. The only thing I could really figure out to write about was all the stuff my daughter’s birth was bringing up and to answer a very simple question: What happened to me back there? Both of my parents had left these artifacts of writing—the letters and the memoir. Both were kind of shifty, as far as getting to know a person. There are times in the letters where I think my mom is probably lying or exaggerating. Like, did they do that much LSD? And then my dad’s book, of course, was cowritten and had a sensational dimension. It was about trying to find the real, deeper human within those linguistic artifacts.

ML Yeah. I love that idea of being a daughter-archivist. There is a real archival quality to the novel.

CVW Definitely, and you know, my parents ran a museum. They made stories. They physically made little dioramas about history. They found these mammoth bones and told a story of why we were where we were. I’m basically doing the same thing. 

ML Was it harder to write about your mother or your father?

CVW Both were terribly, terribly hard! No way to compare! (laughter) But when I could do it, it felt pretty special. It was really interesting to see the relationship between style and my emotions for them. I had to ask myself, Is this an angry sentence? Am I punishing them? Why might that be? It was like very intense psychotherapy.

Claire Vaye Watkins C Lise Watkins

MLThere is a lot of darkness in the novel—environmental crisis, the opiate epidemic, poverty—but there are also some parts of it that are really funny. How did you balance that?

CWV I think that’s just how it is in the Mojave Desert, and in my life. It’s like the thing that Flannery O’Connor used to say about what a northerner calls grotesque, a southerner calls realistic. Dark humor is just called humor in Death Valley. Partly that’s how repression works in the American West, I think. It’s either this taciturn cowboy or a charming yarn-teller. 

ML One of my favorite scenes is when Claire has to give a creative writing lecture at a public high school on no sleep, still high from the night before, and wet from having fallen into a river. That sequence made me think of Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency” and it occurred to me how rare it is to see a woman in that role—a female fuck-up, or Fuckhead.

CVW I like the idea of her being a female Fuckhead. Reading Denis Johnson, Lucia Berlin, and Sherman Alexie, it was like being back in my parents AA club listening to rock bottom stories. I was like, Oh, I can just do that? I know how to tell this. I don’t come from a world where it’s rare to see women being the fuckups. Poverty and addiction is hardest on women and women who can survive in it have usually found a way to tell their story in quite a captivating, urgent way. This is like the little passage I have in the book about how people tell the story of how they got to Las Vegas. It’s never, ever boring!

ML Claire has followed an aspirational trajectory in the novel, rising from working class Nevada beginnings to a comfortable middle-class existence as a professor and a mother and the wife of a doctor. But she finds herself feeling completely alien in that life, and also full of rage. Why did it feel urgent for her, and for the novel, to reject those conventions of success and stability?

CVW Oh, because I think that they’re a lie. I find marriage, monogamy—and the family, to a lesser extent—to be pretty dark institutions, pretty sinister presences in society. I wanted her to be able to be like an apostate and defect from the cult of family. It’s very telling to me that the metaphor that Charles Manson used was the family. And it’s like yeah, this seems better than my actual family because my dad was in World War II, this is a dream compared to the real American dinner table because we get to do drugs and have sex and only be violently abused every once in a while. Charles Manson became a boogeyman for the counterculture but his values were not countercultural at all, they were totally mainstream. He was a misogynist and a racist and wanted power.

ML I loved the moment in the novel when Claire arrives at an artist commune and doesn’t know whether to refer to it as a lowercase “family” or an uppercase “Family.” Of course, it would be hard for this narrator to distinguish when a family is or is not a cult!

CVW I don’t think it is clear to many of us!

ML What do you think is so compelling about returning to one’s origins, either physically as Claire does in the book, or on the page as a writer? 

CVW I have a lot of ill-supported theories about how I can really only be myself in a particular bio-region, that I really only feel like I know who I am when the sky is the right height, and that happens in certain parts of the American West. We are who we are because of where we are. You think certain thoughts if you see mountains, and others if you don’t. One of the reasons why this book is so hard on the Midwest is because it’s a place where the natural ecosystem is totally paved under. It’s hard to know your oneness with all living things when what you see out there is the chemical green Monsanto-sprayed field of soybeans that are going to go in a shipping container to the other side of the world. At a certain point in my life I started to think, what kind of ideas do I want to engage with? The things I wanted to think about were in the West, so it seemed obvious that I had to be here because I wanted to be a thinker of this particular landscape.

ML I wanted to ask you about the title of the novel, I Love You, But I’ve Chosen Darkness. Do you think of love and darkness are binaries, or can they coexist?

CVW I think they absolutely do coexist. I don’t know that that “butis a conjunction that she’s endorsing by the end of the novel. Darkness comes to mean the unknown, which could also have love in it and in fact, will have love in it. Going towards the darkness becomes the ultimate kind of act of love. The most loving thing you can do is to really look at the thing that you’re scared of and know that you are whole enough to survive it, to endure it. I’m skeptical of writers exulting the trade too much, but when I told one of my students that I was worried there was something unethical about polishing up your wound and showing it to an audience for consumption as a pretty art object, she said, actually, that sounds like the best possible thing you could do with your pain—to make something for another person out of it. That’s also what an expression of healing can look like. Like, I’m okay enough to care for you, reader. I made you this book.

ML At one point in the novel, your narrator says, “books heal people all the time, just not usually the people who write them.” Has this been true to your experience as a writer?

CVW Writing has saved me but it’s okay if it doesn’t. It can also really break you. But I think that way of looking at things is a little too cynical for me. If anything, I think the inverse. I really only feel responsible for my own salvation at this point. I don’t try to control the reader’s healing or their experience. To me, the book itself is not the thing that’s going to heal you. It’s having written the book, being a person who looks around, and what writing does to your gaze and the way that you look at humanity. I like to think of the book as a byproduct of being very alive, like a written meditation or something.

ML I feel like it would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the vagina dentata. How did that myth find its way into the novel?

CVW I’m really interested in the myths of the feminine evil. We tend to think of them as existing in old stories—vagina dentata just being in Latin makes it seem like it’s from another time—but I see them all around. I was in this red-light district museum in Virginia City and I saw this Victorian chastity belt that had these teeth on it—almost like a bear trap underwear—to, like, keep your prostitutes secure. And I thought, wow, we are really afraid of vaginas. A lot of male rage and fear is only explained by a deep fear of women. Speaking of darkness, one book I read about the vagina dentata myth was speculating that it has primitive origins in the idea that the penis disappears during sexual intercourse. I believe Shakespeare is the one who started using “thing” to mean genitals and “no thing” was the word for the vagina—“nothing”, “your nothingness”. That idea that we’re a void, that’s not that different from how we think of the desert or darkness or the unknown.

ML In an earlier interview with BOMB you spoke about a feeling of shame around writing autobiographical stories, saying “I thought that writers who drew on their personal experiences were somehow less informed or immature.” How has your perspective on your process changed since then? 

CVW I realized that the idea that there’s somehow less art in writing that feels close to the bone is just an old, ancient, disempowering story about who gets to be alive. Even in stuff that seems really far away from a writer’s experience, it’s still coming from them, from this one singular imagination. If you were to disallow yourself and say what you think isn’t interesting—which so many women are encouraged to do—then you would never make anything because it all comes from what you think and what you experience. It’s a major part of art-making and that’s actually undeniable. I don’t even really believe that much in talent anymore. I think everyone has this deep spirit—we need to be making and creating things—and if you don’t honor it, or if you’re not permitted to honor it, it dies inside you and it’s toxic. It’s like a soul death. I’m grateful for releasing myself of the view that there was something wrong with my process because it was mine. Now I just trust it, however it comes. I don’t need to evaluate or judge the writing anymore. It doesn’t have to be for everyone or even anyone. I don’t want to say, this is a bad breath I’m taking, you know? It’s just part of a habit of being. It’s just part of being alive.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness is available for purchase here.

Madelaine Lucas is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her debut novel, Thirst For Salt, is forthcoming from Allen & Unwin (Aus/NZ) and OneWorld (UK). She is a senior editor of NOON annual, and teaches creative writing to adults and young people at Columbia University and Catapult.

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