by Claire Vaye Watkins
Issue #140 • September 15, 2010•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
The fifth of July. While Harris loaded his find into his truck Milo slunk out and sniffed around the dry lakebed. The bitch was a pound mutt—mostly Lab was the old man’s guess—and the abandoned stash was a good one, like last night’s festivities never got to it: at least fifteen Pyro Pulverizer 33 Shot repeaters, a load of Black Cat artilleries and Screamin’ Meamies, some Fortress of Fire and Molten Core mortars, probably three dozen Wizard of Ahhhs and one Man-O-War, a hard to find professional-grade shell pack, banned even on Paiute land after an Indian boy blew his brother’s face off in ‘99. It was a couple grand worth of artillery, all told. The largest pile Harris had ever found.
Every Fourth of July kids from Gerlach, Nixon, Sulfur and Indian kids from the Paiute res came out to the Black Rock with their lawn chairs, coolers of Miller, bottles of carnival-colored Boone’s Farm for the girls. They built themselves a bonfire, got thoroughly loaded and shot off fireworks. The lakebed had no trees, no brush, no weeds to catch fire, just the bald bottom of an ancient inland sea.
Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins is a Nevadan and a Presidential Fellow at the Ohio State University , where she received her MFA. Recent stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Hobart, The Hopkins Review, Las Vegas Weekly and Granta.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CVW: I grew up in southern Nevada near a dry lakebed. When I was a teenager my friends and I used to wake up very early on the morning of July 5th and go out to the lakebed and scavenge fireworks, as Harris does. Our lakebed was not as remote as Harris’s; there were a couple brothels that we could have walked to in a pinch. Still, it was way out away from everything we knew, completely without shade or water. There was a sense of danger in the errand that has stayed with me.
(Note: people in northern Nevada, where Harris lives, call dry lakebeds “playas,” but all my readers kept seeing that as playa, short for player. So I had to change it to lakebed, despite the regional inaccuracy.)
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
CVW: The point of view. Originally this story was written with a much closer third person, often using the free indirect style. I wanted to convey the music of Harris’s dialect, but over and over again I ended up with hokey redneck shtick. It took me a long time and many keen readers to admit that the free indirect style wasn’t authentic—it was condescending, really—and that I had to pull back the psychic distance. That and I had an exceptional knack for overdoing Harris’s sexuality. Early drafts of this story featured too many erections by half.
HT: Why did you choose to set “Man-O-War” in Nevada?
CVW: Nevada is a very strange, very fraught place. I think of it as an amalgamation of many extremes. The landscape is beautiful but also sometimes frightening. A rural setting is romantic but also violent. Las Vegas, supposed Sodom of the United States, is also a bastion of Mormonism. A generation ago southern Nevadans sat on their suburban rooftops watching nuclear bombs explode. Up north you can take a day trip from the Black Rock Desert to the pass where many members of the Donner Party expired. It’s an unsettling place, which is good for story. And I can’t think of another place at once so lyrical and so cinematic. There is this sign hanging in the Delta Queen Hotel, which says “Virginia City is a town of relics and memories and ghosts of the past.” Drama and de-familiarization are inherent in that kind of vividness. And I’m rather morbidly charmed by the themes of Nevada history: boom and bust, basin and range, the oasis, the casino, the whorehouse, life in a so-called wasteland.
HT: Rocks and minerals are important objects that weave their way throughout the story. Was this on purpose, and is it why you made Harris a miner?
CVW: My dad was a miner and he taught my mom about rocks and mining. They had a tremendous rock collection, though the word “collection” suggests a certain curatorial oversight that was never exercised. Our yard looked a lot like Harris’s. They also ran a little rock shop and museum outside of Death Valley and after my father died my mom ran it on her own. Because we lived way out in the Mojave we spent a lot of time driving to the shop or a babysitter’s or school or to Las Vegas for groceries. My mom probably knew more about rocks than Harris does—they both certainly know more about them than I do. She was also a terrific bull-shitter and on these long drives she’d tell my sister and me elaborate narratives about the geology of what we saw, how that mountain was actually a dormant volcano, and that outcropping there was actually an earthquake fault, how this whole valley had been transformed from an ancient seafloor. This is the closest I can come to accounting for why I tend to see stories in the natural world.
Mining seemed an apt metaphor for a lot of the themes in “Man-O-War.” Harris is looking for something that is probably long gone. And yet he knows that the earth sometimes offers up these perfect, improbable finds. I’ll send you a picture of this excellent sulfur specimen I saw recently at the W. M. Keck Museum at the University of Nevada Reno. This incredible thing was found in northeast Nevada, in an area most people would describe as barren. It is so stunning that it’s almost alien looking but it was found in the ground
. There’s that vividness again, that de-familiarization.
Also, I adore the sound of rock names. Turquoise, schorl, gneiss, mica, chrysocolla. Say chrysocolla out loud. It’s probably the loveliest word there is.
HT: You seem like an expert on fireworks. Is this from research or experience? The scene where Harris explains the colors is beautiful.
CVW: Thank you. I didn’t add that scene until fairly late in the writing, at Lee K. Abbott’s suggestion. In early drafts I’d written Harris finding the fireworks but he never lit them off. It was your classic Chekov’s firecracker.
But that’s all research. I’ve actually become quite terrified of fireworks in my old age. I’m a little uneasy holding a sparkler.
HT: When Magda’s relationship with her father is revealed, it is horrible, but also rings true for the narrative. Is this something you knew when you started the story, or did it come as a surprise?
CVW: I knew that would be going down from the beginning. When I start a story I’ll free write for a while and when that runs out I’ll write up an outline and work from it. Then, when I get stuck, I’ll ditch the outline and go back to riffing for a while, then I write up another outline and so on until a draft is done. The situation between Magda and her father was in my original outline, but I didn’t know when or how Harris would realize it. And what was even trickier was what he would do once he found out. I knew it would be a cathartic moment for him, if a neutered catharsis. He’s angry—at Castaneda, at himself, at Milo even—but also powerless and frustrated and afraid. What would be left when he could no longer ignore certain truths about his life? I didn’t know. I think the end of my outline looked something like this:
XIV. H loses his shit.
Come to think of it, that’s how pretty much all my outlines end. I’d like to say that Harris showed me the way to the final moments. You know, writers say things like that. They say, Then the character suddenly did X, or, I thought my character would do this but he
wanted to do this
. That might be the experience of some people, but it’s yet to be mine. I wish it were because it sounds like a ball. I think framing plot and character in those terms rings false to me because it denies that the writer is a decision maker. Too often we talk about writing as though it were this mysterious alchemy. Yes, there are breakthroughs. There are moments of surprise and wonder and little epiphanies along the way, but they don’t come without long hours thinking about who this person is, how they see the world, what they’re telling themselves and why. That is exceedingly difficult. And when the breakthroughs do come you need to make about a thousand craft considerations to get them on the page. Even if an image or a plot move comes to me in a dream I have to get up and set my rump in a chair and agonize over getting it right. I hope to get to the point where my characters seem so real that it’s as though they have free will, but I’m not there yet.
HT: Do you think there’s any hope for Harris, or is he destined to spend the rest of his life alone?
CVW: The thing with Harris is he’s barely able to admit to himself that he needs anyone. We are who we are because of where we are. Harris’s identity is built on this Western myth of the rugged individual. There is an incredible loneliness in that ideal, I think, and he suffers for it. By the time he finds Madga he’s left very little room in himself for tenderness, or vulnerability, or love. That’s why he slips so easily into this feverish, delusional place, even though he knows somewhere in him how it will end. Harris sees Magda’s arrival as his last chance, and because it goes so wrong I doubt he’ll open up that part of him again.
I feel badly for having written him into such a dark place. I do wish he could join the Gerlach Rotary Club and meet a nice retired lady prospector to go opal hunting with, but I don’t see that happening. (This after my tirade against talking about characters as though they’re sentient...)
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
CVW: Too long. My earliest draft is dated April 18, 2008. I have been working on it on and off since then. This troubles me. At this rate I’ll finish my collection in time for books to be replaced with brain beams and holodecks.
HT: What are you working on now?
CVW: I’m finishing up a collection of short stories set in Nevada. It’s called Battleborn. “Man-O-War” is a part of it. I’ve also started on a novel, but I’m too superstitious to say any more about that.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CVW: In workshop at Ohio State Erin McGraw sometimes said, “the good is the enemy of the great.” I think of that often. My mentor Christopher Coake has this from Roger Ebert on the wall above his desk: “The muse comes during composition, not before.” I like this because I don’t know a writer who doesn’t struggle to get to the keyboard every day and maybe the best advice helps us get there. Myself, I require a great deal of ego fluffing. To that end I have this above my desk: “I sold kilos of coke, so I’m guessing I can sell CDs.” That’s Jay Z.