BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. In Claire Vaye Watkins' novel, Gold Fame Citrus, extreme drought and disastrous planning have left the State of California baked and barren. Most people have evacuated East but Luz, a former child celebrity, and Ray, an Army deserter, squat in the abandoned mansion of an LA starlet, immobilized by inertia. Finally driven to leave, they confront an ocean of sand that threatens to engulf the entire Southwest. Claire, welcome to the show.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why drought, why not flood?
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: I have come from the Mojave Desert. I was born in Owens Valley, [LAUGHS] named for Owens Lake, which today is not really much of a lake at all. It's been drained, more or less, by the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. So I grew up on the desert side of California, and that story, the story that’s told in Marc Reisner’s book, Cadillac Desert, about the desert reasserting its dominance on humanity, [LAUGHS] I guess you can say, those are kind of like bedtime stories for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that was the starting point for imagining the world of the novel. How did it come to take shape in your mind?
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: I was just watching Planet Earth and watching the Deserts episode in Season 1 and there's a sequence about the Gobi Desert. David Attenborough is like [DEEP-VOICED], the largest desert on the planet!
And I was just like, but dude, what if it wasn’t? You know, like, and I just started envisioning this huge super dune which I, I was so delighted when I realized that’s what it's actually called, like, the Dune Sea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m wondering if you’ll read from your description of the sea. Start on page 118?
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Okay, will do. “The dune field overtook I15 in a weekend, reaching a corpulent four hundred square miles, insisting upon its reclassification from dune field to dune sea. Still rose the dune sea, and like a sea now making its own weather. Sparking white slopes superheated the skies above, setting the air achurn with funnels, drawing hurricanes of dust from as far away as Saskatchewan. Self-perpetuating then, the sand a magnet for its own mixture of clay, sulfates and carbonate particles from the pulverized bodies of ancient marine creatures, so high in saline that a sample taken from anywhere on the dune will be salty on the tongue. So came the name, amargo being the Spanish word for bitter; Amargosa being the name of the first mountain range the dune sea interred.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we meet the main characters, Luz and Ray,
in an abandoned mansion in a desiccated Los Angeles, where the pools are dry pits and the blackberries are filled with dust. And, in fact, on page 17 you describe this.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Yeah. “Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach… all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ugh!
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Gross. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of the book centers around the people who swirl around the Amargosa Dune. They’re the climate refugees called Mojavs –
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who are picked up in the desert and thrown into detainment centers -
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - but more focuses on a community, kind of a cult that lives on the Dune’s periphery, in defiance of the government order to evacuate. And suspicious of the government's intentions, the cult leader believes that the government wants this to be a dead place. What were you thinking about here?
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Oh - when you grow up in rural Nevada, conspiracy theories are kind of an oral tradition [LAUGHS] there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [LAUGHS]
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: And I love it. Growing up in a super libertarian enclave, as I did for some time, and my first home I ever had was my dad was basically squatting on BLM land.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bureau of Land Management land.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Right. So I kind of wanted to think about the people who'd stay behind because I just looked around my family or my town and would be like, these people would never leave. It’s so tied to their identity, where they live, and this idea of, like, distrusting the government, I'm not a libertarian politically but I totally understand it because they have proven so untrustworthy. And I don’t know, it’s easy peasy for me to slip into that mindset, coming from where I came from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, if we have reason to be suspicious of the government, we become very suspicious of this community too, especially its charismatic leader, Levi. There's a kind of talisman in the book. It’s a primer that he wrote of new animals that had evolved in the environment of the Dune –
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - the Dumbo Jackrabbit with giant ears that serve as a cooling system and the Stiltwalker Tortoise with long legs so the hot sun doesn't burn its belly, and a whole bunch of others.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: That was so, so fun, to like make up animals and that’s like something that happens over geologic time, it’s not gonna happen in 50 years. So I was like, if I’m already tinkering with geologic time, I can basically do whatever I want, right?
So why not tinker around with evolution and adaptation and also the idea, more importantly, perhaps, that what if this place that looks barren and empty, which this language is always, always used for the desert, what if it was actually very, very much alive?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Luz clings to this book, the hope it represents, the sense that it isn't all death and it isn't all an ending. And yet, no one else has seen these animals. Maybe those animals don't exist.
Maybe Levi’s making it all up.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Oh yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s part of his religion.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Levi has grown up on an - a fundamentalist Mormon compound, so, like, his, his myths are new. I see that in a lot of the West, particularly like the Anglo-Saxon West that tends to ignore Native peoples. So the idea is like the history is new, so it's sort of malleable and pliable and the stories are – like, why not if Brigham Young wrote the Book of Mormon just the other day, why can’t Levi write his new primer now?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure, if it’s part of a body of myth to create a religion, but if you really think those animals exist and they don't, it really is just - a lie.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: I know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And –
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: It’s a bummer, a total bummer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING]
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: [LAUGHS] She’s at this compound that's really scary and really hard to live in. It's like this absolutely awful version of Burning Man or something that’s dirty and crusty. But they're there because they feel they’re like spiritually called to be there, for some reason or another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: And I think Luz really wants to feel a spiritual sense of purpose. I identify a lot with Luz’s feeling, like, she wishes she had something she could believe in. So she finds this amazing book and gets goosebumps, like we do when we’re faced with the natural sublime or just the crazy uncanny of the natural world, if we’re, like, open to it. And then, I don’t know, I thought a lot about what makes someone be in a cult, in my life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you said drought is fascinating to you because it's a collision of human time with geologic time and that drought is something that we experience in the moment, but prolonged drought, that’s geologic time, right? So how do you think a novel enables us to think about drought or climate change, in general, in geologic time?
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: The big experiment of Gold Fame Citrus was could I write about climate change in a deeply evocative, affecting way? While I was writing the book, I did an event with the novelist Ruth Ozeki, who I love, and she said, at the bar afterwards, something like, you know, maybe our brains - this is just a limitation of our species, is that this is something we, we truly can't actually get our heads around, climate change or geologic time, it’s too big for us. We’re just kind of just these dumb reptiles who just barely got upright, basically, you know, and we’re “ugly bags of mostly water,” as they say, in Star Trek. You know, and I was like, but if we could do it, it would be with novels, it would be with art and storytelling, and that’s what makes us understand the understand-able. At least that’s the cult I’ve been in for the last few years. [LAUGHS] You know, so I wanted to put that thesis to the test: Can I make something that's really abstract deeply felt and feel immediate?
You know, it’s so hard to convince people of like the danger of home invasion, and that’s probably not going to happen. But climate change is definitely going to happen. The future is here, that time that we've all been worrying about is here. We don’t have the luxury of the future tense anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Consider this: The New Yorker's Jill Lepore recently wrote about the, quote, “radical pessimism of contemporary dystopian fiction.” And she said, quote, “Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it's become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness….It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn't ask anyone to bother to make one.” CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: I would love to get engaged in that project [LAUGHS] that Jill's describing, of resistance and hope in the future, and I admire all the writers who are engaged in it, doing acts of radical hope in their art. I'm not one of them [LAUGHS] because art for me comes from a weirder, deeper, darker unknown place and I can't really control it. I can't say to that part, hey, you know, you've got to write the story that's useful to the cause.
I don't know if storytelling is the thing that's gonna get us out of this awful current moment we’re in, in the long-long moment, the long current moment we’re into, like geologically, but it's what I have to offer, is telling a story and telling it powerfully and, and making felt an abstract confusing idea, if I can, and making something perhaps maybe beautiful in the process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was beautiful. Thank you, Claire.
CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Gold Fame Citrus and Battleborn. She’s cofounder of the Mojave School and teaches at the University of Michigan.
RUSS GONZALEZ: My name is Russ Gonzalez from Marion, Indiana. Number one, beachnesia, the phenomenon of not being able to remember what the beach was like at your childhood vacation spot because it's been eroded all the way back to the interstate. Number two, SPF’d. This is when there are so many UV rays that it’s impossible to put on enough SPF to keep from burning.