Introducing 2013 Debutante: Claire Vaye Watkins

WatkinsOn June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.

This week we’re talking to Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the collection Battleborn, which recently won the 2013 Story Prize, and was published by Riverhead Books. Battleborn aso includes the story Claire published with One Story—“Man-O-War”.

The 10 stories in Battleborn explore the past and present of the American West, specifically Nevada, where Watkins spent much of her childhood and adolescence. As Antonya Nelson said in The New York Times: “Readers will be taken into the hardship of a pitiless place and emerge on the other side — wiser, warier and weathered like the landscape.”

1)     How did your celebrate when you found out that your first book, Battleborn, was going to be published?

I can’t really remember. The auction for Battleborn took a few days, so by the time the whole thing shook out and I had an official publisher, I’d been on something of a bender for some time. It was quite demanding.

2)    You published a story, “Man O’ War”, with One Story in 2010. What happened between the time of the One Story publication and the time of your book’s release?

“Man-O-War” came out in September of 2010, and I sent my agent the complete collection at the end of September. Riverhead Books bought the collection about a month later, around Halloween. (I remember this because I was shopping at a thrift store for a Halloween costume when I got the call from my agent that started that happy, taxing bender.) Between then and the book’s publication in August 2012 I got a tenure-track job, moved to Pennsylvania from Ohio where I’d been doing my MFA. I started teaching at Bucknell University, traveling back to Nevada whenever I could for research on this novel I’m writing and to generally replenish the well. I did some traveling in advance of the book’s release, out West, on the East Coast and very briefly in Europe. Mostly I just sat at home in Pennsylvania reading and wondering if there was something I should be doing.

3)     You’ve talked a bit about a project you’re working on that offers writing classes to kids in rural Nevada. Can you talk a bit more about the inspiration and vision of this project?

The idea for the Mojave School came to me when I was teaching high school students at a creative writing summer camp. The students there would say things like, “I never knew it was okay to want to be a writer,” and their epiphanies reminded me of my own, which visited me as a teenager attending Shakespeare camp at the Utah Shakespearean Company. In retrospect, I saw that that experience was seriously vital for me as a writer because it was the first time I met a bunch of other kids and adults who’d dedicated their lives to books and art. But I’d gone to Shakespeare camp on scholarship, and the camp where I was teaching years later cost just under $2,000. I thought it was such a bummer that no one from my hometown, Pahrump, Nevada, would get to come to a camp like the one where I was teaching. I was saying all this to my then-boyfriend, Derek Palacio, and he said very slyly, “Gee, someone should do something about that…” And so we decided we would.

4)     What advice would you give young writers who are working on their first book? 

When I was an ambitious young MFA student I sometimes felt frustrated that Ohio State’s MFA program didn’t seem to do much to “professionalize” us, meaning teach us about the publishing world and how to work it so our books got published. We spent just 1 day a year talking with editors or alums about “how to get published.” Now that I have a book out it’s completely clear why our time was structured this way: because all the publishing savvy and insider connections in the world can’t make you a better writer. I know this is easy to say from my vantage point, but trust me: constantly worrying about getting published is wasted energy and a drain on your very soul. I’m now tremendously glad I was educated the way I was, encouraged to obsess only about the writing, the writing, the writing, and not about who would buy it or how. So I’d advise new writers to spend 364 days a year on writing the best damn thing they possibly can, and maybe 1 worrying about how to get it out there.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Debutante Ball?

The outfits!

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