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Las Vegas Book Festival
Illustration by Delphine Lee

Exchange: Coming Home, Sort of

Desert Companion

Married authors Claire Vaye Watkins and Derek Palacio discuss the Las Vegas Book Festival, haunted writers, and returning to the West

Derek: Claire, we made it! We live in the West now, which has been a dream of ours for quite some time. We’ve talked a little bit about how that feels, but now that we’ve settled a little more into our Las Vegas lives, I was curious how you’re thinking about our relocation. We spent 10 years in the Midwest, and now we’re in the big city over the mountain from your childhood home of Pahrump. Do you feel like this is a homecoming? Or are you still just taking in Las Vegas, noticing all the ways it’s changed since the last time you lived out here?

Claire: I’ve never lived in Las Vegas, but it’s been my city since I can remember, destination of many long car trips from Pahrump or Tecopa. We’d come here about once a month for groceries and supplies and to visit my relatives, and you and I have come through town just about every summer for the past five years to do the Mojave School, our free workshop for teenagers in Pahrump. So, I feel a kind of uncanny sense of homecoming — homecoming to a city where I have never actually lived. I think it will take me some time to articulate just what it means to me to be back under this sky. And of course, it’s a tremendous honor to be here as a Shearing Fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, which has already done so much to invigorate the city’s literary and cultural scene, the Believer Festival, and beyond. They’ve got a stellar season of programs this fall. I’m super stoked about the Las Vegas Book Festival, which is always amazing.

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Derek: Yes, I’m really excited, as this will be my first appearance at the Las Vegas Book Festival! I’m fortunate to be talking about immigration and fiction with Joe Milan Jr., award-winning author and one of the current Black Mountain Institute Ph.D. fellows. My novel, The Mortifications, concerns a Cuban family moving back and forth from the island, and I’m excited to revisit some of the conversations surrounding that kind life-changing relocation and exile. I made my first trip to Cuba after the book came out (just three weeks after), so it will be really interesting, now that I’ve had some time to process that experience, to dig into questions of home and identity. I think in the end we might be covering similar ground at the festival. As I recall, you’ll be on a panel about writing about the American West. I’ve always marveled at your ability to engage in the mythos of the West without glorifying the propaganda, and I wonder now if you feel your writing responding to this sort-of homecoming. Do you think your current projects will shift from the return? Do you think coming back is going to affect your writing with the same force as leaving the West did 10 years ago?

Hear More: Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire: Well, I hope so! As you know, this was one of the many reasons for moving back here: The writer I want to be lives in the West. For years I’ve been describing myself as a Westerner in exile in the Midwest, which you always roll your eyes at. I’ve made so many trips back here to research the novel I’m working on, but ultimately, I knew I needed to be out here for good. The first Westerns were written by folks who only visited the West, about a place and a way of life (open-range agriculture) that they had never experienced. Propaganda and nostalgia filled the void. Literature of the American West grew in response to this flattening, and many of us are still working against this narrative. That being said, nowhere has stories like Nevada. I love the way people talk here, the frankness and the music of it. Everybody in Las Vegas has a good story. I’m working to capture that, now that I’m immersed in it. What are you working on during your Black Mountain fellowship?

Derek: That sounds really exciting. I hope you let me read it ... I’m working on a new novel about a swimmer, an Olympic hopeful. The book is also about sex and religion, and it does venture into some mystical terrain (or at least it does right now — I’m only halfway there!). But I wanted, in the wake of The Mortifications, to explore a little more directly my own ambivalence about my Cuban identity, to find a way to engage the modern tenuousness of the Cuban-American experience. My swimmer is of Cuban heritage, and at some point, he is going to defect to the island in order to compete at the Olympics. I’m curious as to what this might look like, how a character might engage one of their identities as a response to their ambition. I also think there might be wonderful and revealing tension in a character’s unsettled experience of a country he claims but does not know. At the same time, the book, I hope, is also about Catholic mysticism, about a sense of the self in relation to larger spiritual mysteries. I do think there is some exciting overlap between the two, as the call toward an unknown “home” does not feel too distant from the call toward an unknown god. More likely I just can’t think of anything new to write about, so I’m returning to old haunts.

Claire: Old haunts are the very best haunts! I mean it. Hauntings are crucial for writers, don’t you think? All my favorite writers circle the same few obsessions, even when they’re branching out in other ways. That Rachel Cusk trilogy we devoured this summer? Circles, hauntings. The main character Faye’s family is spectral in those novels, yet they’re central to Cusk’s inquiry — her kids, that jettisoned husband. I think one of the spider-senses a writer must develop is a sensitivity to what haunts them. And then, of course, you have to somehow summon the bravery to run toward that thing, to not run away from it. That’s the advice I give to writers most: Write what scares you.

Derek: I love this, and I can see in your own work how seriously you take this advice. I think in each of your books, you’ve tried to engage some deeper level of Nevada and/or the American West. Some element of the culture and places you come from that feels both true but also unnerving, a bit unsettling. In Battleborn, you wrote so stunningly about how the landscape governs our sensibilities, and in Gold Fame Citrus, you confronted the limits of the myths of the American West, the decay of a philosophy in the face of environmental crisis. So perhaps you would agree with me on this idea, that the writers we both love to read (like Rachel Cusk, Louise Erdrich, Tommy Orange, Joy Williams, Toni Morrison) probably feel equally haunted by their obsessions. Really, I’m saying it’s a two-way street, that when a writer finds her materials — the obsessions — that content exerts a force on her. It shapes and influences the resulting text as much as the writer’s own impulses and aesthetic. It’s easy to treat the writer as an authority, and what I love about our obsessions is how they lean on us, consciously and subconsciously, such that we can never claim complete control over a novel or a short story. The best material, when we engage it openly and honestly, resists absolute power. That’s the mystery I sense in my favorite books, and I think it’s also what allows us to return to certain subjects, to make of each new project a homecoming.

LAS VEGAS BOOK FESTIVAL Begins at 9 a.m., October 20, Historic Fifth Street School, free

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