Claire Vaye Watkins, the author of Battleborn, was named one of the National Book Foundation's "Five Under 35" fiction writers of 2012. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, The Hopkins Review, Hobart, One Story, Ploughshares, and Las Vegas Weekly.
"[A] breathtaking debut . . . [Watkins'] stories . . . carry the weight and devastation of entire novels.”
“Gloriously vivid stories about the human heart.”
For this series I’m asking writers I love to recommend a book. If I haven’t read it, I read it. Then we talk about it.
In this installment, I’m talking with Roxane Gay about Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins.
Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of [PANK]. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com
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Colin Winnette: I’m interested in why we read what we read. Why we pick up the particular books that we do, and why we keep at them. What brought you to Battleborn? What led you to read it for the first time, and why did you want to talk with me about it here?
Roxane Gay: This book was sent to me by a publicist at Riverhead. I hadn’t even heard of it, but once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. I was excited to discuss the book with you because it has been, by far, my favorite book of the year in a year of great reading.
CW: Most, if not all, of these stories focus on characters who are struggling with the past, and who will likely continue to struggle after the story’s end. In your opinion, what is the function of a book like this? To observe and report? To capture a state, or states, of being? Are there therapeutic efforts here? All/none of the above?
RG: I’m sure writing is therapeutic for many writers but I think there’s a lot more than that going on here. This is a book about how strength is forged and how sometimes, we cannot help but succumb to our weaknesses. The collection’s title really shapes how the stories are read and really helps each story capture this sense of what it means to be battleborn.
CW: Or, more specifically, what did the book offer you?
RG: As I read these stories, I wanted nothing more than to keep these stories near me, always. There is such control and grace in each story. Watkins tackles complex and intense subjects but there’s no melodrama here. Not only did I derive an immense amount of pleasure from reading Battleborn, I learned so much as a writer.
CW: What is a story like “The Diggings” doing in a collection like this? It was one of my favorites, but it’s certainly an outlier.
RG: I don’t really think “The Diggings” is an outlier. On the surface it seems like that because it’s set during the Goldrush and it’s a story about brothers but it’s also a story about desire and desperation and suffering and you can see those themes in most of the stories in this collection. I tend to think of this book as a masterclass. The range of stories is simply amazing and so when I consider Diggings within the context of the rest of the collection, I think, “Of course.” Not only does it fit thematically but it also fits with the diversity of the overall collection.
CW: I recently drove from Texas to California. We passed through Las Vegas on the way and eventually began to see the brothels in the small towns that surround it. It was a peculiar sight: rows of 18-wheelers and compacts alongside a few double-wides marked with a sign that read something like “Shady Ladies Ranch.” Watkins takes on one of these brothels in “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous.” A lot of us have images of the places written about in the book — Vegas and the surrounding desert are iconic images — but few of us have experienced the intimacy of a life lived there, or even an extended visit. Watkins gives us insight into these intriguing places, or helps us imagine them a little more fully. How did you react to the function of place in this book? In many ways, the book is its setting, and those who populate that setting.
RG: Place is everything in this book, an inescapable gravity for the stories. I felt totally immersed in the stark beauty — both natural and manufactured — of the West and how that starkness shapes the people living within that landscape.
CW: Which story sticks out to you as best exemplifying what this book has to offer? If you could only recommend one story, rather than the collection, which would it be, and why?
RG: My favorite story is “Rondine Al Nido,” but my first instinct was to say that every story is the best in its own way. “Rondine Al Nido,” though is something else. The narrative frame intrigues me because it keeps you sort of off kilter. The story is disturbing but we see these rather unpleasant moments unfolding in really subtle increments. The horror, for lack of a better word, builds so slowly that it becomes almost bearable. The elegance of how this story was told takes my breath away.