"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Nevada joined the Union in 1864, during the Civil War, and because of the state’s origins, its motto is Battle Born. Those words are emblazoned on the state flag, but for many Nevadans, battle born is also an ethic — the idea that from struggle, strength will rise. That same ethic shapes the 10 stories in Claire Vaye Watkins’ magnificent debut collection, “Battleborn.” This collection tells a story about the American West — the vastness of it, the cruel beauty of the landscape, and how that cruel beauty shapes and threatens to break the people who live their lives in the desert.
Watkins was raised in the desert, spent most of her life there, and grew up hearing the stories about the people and places that sprung up out of the dry earth. Then she went to school to learn how to write those stories, to bring them out of the desert landscape.
There’s also an amazing story in her own biography: Her father, Paul Watkins, was tight with Charles Manson; one of his jobs was convincing young women to sleep with Manson. As she wrote in Granta: “My father first came to Death Valley because Charles Manson told him to. He always did what Charlie said; that was what it meant to be in The Family.” Watkins, who never killed anyone, ultimately testified against Manson during the Sharon Tate-LaBianca trial.
There is a great deal of comfort to be found in the stories of “Battleborn” because they are filled with heart and sorrow, loneliness and longing. There is a quiet wisdom to Watkins’ writing, particularly in stories like “The Archivist,” where a woman recalls not taking painkillers during her abortion and says, “At the time I mistook suffering for decency.”
If suffering were indeed decency, the characters in these stories would be an overwhelmingly decent lot. Each protagonist carries a burden and is searching for someone to help them shoulder that burden. Though the stories are dark and suffused with thwarted desires, they also carry hope. No matter how suffocating the circumstances of each story, Watkins finds a way to offer the reader a breath of fresh air, a moment of possibility to hold onto, and it is those moments of possibility that sharpen “Battleborn’s” beauty.
Claire and I spent about an hour on the phone talking about “Battleborn,” her writing, her mother’s influence on her storytelling, the dignity of children and more.
The title of your book is “Battleborn.” How do you think these stories are battle born?
Part of the process itself is battle born, but there are definitely stories that come from conflict or grief — personal stories of grief or me working out feelings of being embattled, but then also that generic writerly impulse that says, “You walk into a room and think, ‘What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen in here.’”
Do you think of yourself as battle born?
I haven’t before but I wouldn’t resist it if someone characterized me that way. A lot of Nevadans identify with that phrase. It’s the state motto, and if you’re in Nevada, you pretty much can’t throw a rock without something being described as battle born. It’s a phrase that embraces all the contradictions of the place, all the danger and beauty and seediness and grace.
How did growing up in the desert shape your writing?
Because we lived in really, really remote parts of the country, we spent a lot of time moving and driving. The first home I lived in was out in Tecopa, Calif., which at the time was at least 30 miles from a grocery store and still is, actually. Even if you wanted to get to a grocery store that was affordable to a family like ours, on welfare, you had to drive to Las Vegas, an hour and a half away. I would spend a lot of time in the car with my mom, and she was a terrific bullshitter. She would tell these stories about the place, the geology, the people who live there, about rumors she heard growing up. It was these epic stories and as you drive through the desert, in the middle of nowhere, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Who lives there and how did they get there; will they ever leave?” It’s a place that visually begs for a story.
I once lived in Arizona and the West definitely does lend itself to storytelling. Do you get your storytelling instincts from your mother?
Definitely. She also ran a little museum in Shoshoni, Calif. That’s where I am right now, a few miles outside of Shoshoni. She was an impromptu tour guide in a rock town and she made jewelry, so she was always telling stories about the place. I’m starting to realize now that they weren’t exactly true or geologically accurate. She wasn’t a docent but she was a really good storyteller and it seemed like that’s what really mattered. Also both my mom and my stepdad were in recovery, so I grew up kind of with AA as my religion and I spent a lot of time around 12-step clubs. Storytelling is a huge part of that culture. You tell not only any story, you tell your rock bottom story, over and over and over again. People are saying to me these days that these are really gritty stories, and I’m like, “Really, you think so?” That hadn’t occurred to me. I developed a high tolerance for grit early on.
I do see grittiness in “Battleborn,” but I tend to write gritty stories myself, so that’s one of the things that attracted me to the collection.
Women can write such material and it gets responded to as “gritty.” When grit comes from women it gets a little more of a raised eyebrow.
Absolutely. A lady writing about difficult topics — how dare she?
I’ve been getting a lot of questions that are basically a disguised version of, “How do you write like a man? I’m amazed by this.” I have to take a deep breath before answering those questions.
How do you answer that question about writing like a man?
I say I don’t write like a man. I think it’s always meant as a compliment. It’s that benevolent sexism, so I say that maybe in fact you should reevaluate what you think of women’s writing. It’s the same way I answer a question like, “Why doesn’t your writing seem like MFA writing?” Maybe you have a rigid and narrow definition of MFA writing, because the fact is I did learn how to write in an MFA program.
Your fiction is often labeled as writing that evokes a sense of place. What does that label mean to you?
The label is tied into the question of regionalism. Some writers resist being called regional writers, but regionalism is the mode of American fiction, from Hawthorne all the way down. We just don’t think of New England writers as regional writers.
In “Ghosts, Cowboys,” there were several places where the narrator suggests that in this new place is where the story truly begins. I love that sense that some stories have multiple beginnings. How do you know where a story starts and where a story ends?
I usually start a story way too early. I’ll write four pages of landscape before I get to a person. I have a few readers who’ll say, “You know, maybe you want to get a person in this story,” and I’m like, “Oh yeah, right, it’s all like mountains and valleys and sand moving around right now, OK, fine.” I’ll convince myself to get a character eventually. I was always taught to get as close to the trouble as you can. In terms of ending a story I always overwrite the endings. One of my teachers would always say I can always lob off at least my last two paragraphs if not the last two pages. It’s an amputation process on both ends for me, but I have to get it out first.
One of the stories I loved the most was “The Archivist.” At the end the narrator and her sister are struggling with the same thing. They’re motherless daughters worried that maybe there’s too much of their mother in them. A lot of us worry about carrying the people we come from and the places that we come from. I also thought the story ended on a pretty hopeful note, with The Miracle and her brawny hand curled in a fist. Do you think there’s hope in your stories even though many of them are what people might call gritty or dark?
Definitely. I try never to force any kind of moment. I try to not be gritty for grit’s sake or not be hopeful just because I’m unhappy. I try to give each character the story they deserve. I’m actually glad to hear you say you like “The Archivist” because it was one of the stories that was kind of scary for me to write. I’m still a little unsure about it, but it’s a story about sisters, how to be a mom when your mom hurt you so much, and it’s very close to the relationship my sister and I had after our mom committed suicide. She had a baby about a year after our mom died and I had an abortion like three months after she died, so questions about how to be a woman in the wake of a woman who loved and hurt you in such intense amounts was on my mind for years before I wrote the story.
What were you unsure about? Was it because it came from that personal place?
I was thinking a lot of my niece and my sister when I wrote the story. One of the lines in the story is, “I love her more than a person should love one thing,” and that’s not a good place to be. I was afraid I would be rescuing them, that it would be a cutesy moment or that it would be sentimental at the end, that maybe I needed that world to be OK for The Miracle to be this tough little dynamo at the end, even though she’s asleep. My fear is I needed that ending more than the story or the reader needed it.
I have two nieces and when they fall asleep they seem like they can conquer the entire world.
At one point in the story, The Miracle grabs Nat’s finger. Nat says she wants her niece to be strong, to hold her with that baby strength. Babies look a little bit buff, they look kind of meaty, at least my niece did. I always thought maybe I need her to be strong because she’s a girl. Everybody’s going to feel some serious pain in this life but I have to tell myself she won’t. It’s this epic lie you have to tell yourself. I can’t imagine what her parents do.
Do you often write from personal experience?
I do. I may not start there but if I really want to write something honest I need to think deeply about why I’m interested, why I care about this person. I often find there’s a connection to something that’s on my mind, some relationship I had or some moment I keep worrying about. For a long time I thought that was a cheap or immature way to write, and then I realized I was doing it sort of sneakily anyway and now I don’t worry about it so much. I am just grateful the stories come. It’s supposed to feel a little bit raw. If I feel totally in control, the writing is not really going to be great.
Do you like to feel out of control when you write?
I do like to make good art. That’s something I have to go towards, the scary stuff, the hurt. The alternative is to become a little bit of a robot and I don’t want to do that either. I don’t want to forget the rawness and the real human impulses behind those stories.
Is research part of your writing process?
I do tons and tons of research. I always read a lot about whatever it is I’m working on and when I wrote “Past Perfect” I grew up near brothels – prostitution is legal in this town in Nevada where I grew up so I learned to parallel park at brothels. I spent a lot of time reading about brothels and corresponding with some people who work there and there’s this amazing documentary called “Pleasure for Sale” that I watched, which is set at the Chicken Ranch, the brothel by my house. Some of the stories definitely feel more researched than others, but I spend a lot of time reading about everyone. It’s important that the language of this world is convincing. How does a rock hound think and feel? How does he see the world? How do teenagers working in a pizza parlor feel?
You can see that authenticity in the stories. I loved the brothel story for that reason.
A fun fact about the brothel story is that while I’m utterly pro-sex-work, I could not resist the impulse to name the prostitutes after girls who were mean to me in high school. That’s the truly transcendent part of the process.
In “The Diggings,” there is a moment when Errol is outside and he says, “This is the greatest church there is.” Where is your greatest church?
That’s very insightful. I agree with Errol. I’ve always been a really undogmatic atheist. I just don’t care if there’s a god or not. I’m not interested in theological questions, and I grew up really secular. I was more interested in the idea of the desert prophet walking out into nature. It’s obviously a really romanticized, sometimes hokey vision but it does seem true to me. I live in Pennsylvania now and people who know me really well will say, if I’m down, if I’m out of sorts, “When’s the last time you went to the desert?” That’s why I’m here right now, recharging my batteries and remembering. It’s where I feel like my truest self. That’s as close to religious experience as I ever get.
There was real range in the stories in “Battleborn” — historical fiction, an epistolary story, a story about marriage, stories about sisters, even a story set in a brothel. Where does that instinct to work across time and setting come from?
It probably comes from my coming of age as a reader. I came up reading anthologies mostly. I would read the Best American every year and O. Henry and the Granta “Best of” lists. It wasn’t until later that I would seek out a whole book of Salinger or O’Connor’s collected works. I can’t think of one writer where I’ve read everything they’ve ever written. I’m omnivorous and maybe a little promiscuous in my taste. It would be like, “Here’ s an Alice Munro or a Mary Gaitskill story.” I want to write something like that. Here’s a Salinger. I want to write something like that. Here’s Aimee Bender. I want to write something like that. And I also would get really bored. I wrote “Battleborn” when I was an MFA student and so I thought this is my education. I should try something different. I asked myself, “What haven’t I tried yet?”
Good experiment. Who are some of your favorite writers?
I really love Louise Erdrich. “Love Medicine” is one of my touchstones. Joy Williams, Joan Didion, Aimee Bender, Tony Earley, Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Tim O’Brien. “The Things They Carried” was really important for me — it’s one of those books I had open on the desk when I was writing in those dark stages. That story and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “The Swimmer” are perfect pieces of art. They haunt me. I want to write like that.
What is perfect art for you?
The stories I admire feel really urgent. Every time I read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I get afraid and anxious. That’s a magical process. I always tell my students writing is nothing short of telepathy except you don’t get to be in the same room with the people whose minds you’re controlling. You’re making people feel. I’m somebody who feels. I was just thinking about this because I’m writing an essay about it. Both of my parents are dead. I’m an orphan and I often feel like an orphan. I feel alone and afraid, and a story, which is bleak and can make me feel differently, that, for me, talk about religious, that’s also pretty close to it for me.
Two of the characters that stayed with me were the young women in “Rondine Al Nido.” That story was really haunting. At the end, the narrator, our girl, and Lena are in a hotel room with strange men. The narrator is holding Lena’s hand and she says, “We’re having fun,” but it’s so clear that fun is not really what’s being had. There was still that moment of connection in what felt like a pretty hopeless moment. A lot of these stories made me think about people trying to connect even if they are flawed in how they are trying to reach others. How do you connect your characters, even when they’re in these hopeless situations?
It goes back to that question of being afflicted. Maybe my affliction is feeling alienated from other people. I haven’t ever really had any sort of patience for small talk and polite conversation. The older I get the more tedious I find talking to people but not connecting, not touching each other, not saying anything risky. I think about that a lot and my characters are thinking about it too. They’re wanting there to be something real, I think there’s that line in “Virginia City,” where she wants to have lost something that meant and of course she doesn’t even know what it means or how it means or what, but it just ought to feel like something real and true. I’ve never quite been good at that but I’ve always thought about it because the alternative, which is kind of just being polite and talking about the weather …
Yes. The weather must be exhausted being talked about so much.
Especially when it’s sunny 340 days a year. That’s probably a cultural thing too. I grew up poor and “working-class” people have less of a tolerance for niceties. In my experience, the people I know from home are not really interested in the maneuverings of polite society.
Your writing tends to go beyond polite and the kinds of things we’re supposed to say or think or do. Is there anything you’re afraid to write about or that you won’t write about?
I don’t have a standing policy but there’s certainly some stuff I avoid. There are a lot of mothers and daughters in the book and those mothers seem a lot like my mother, but I don’t think of any of them like her. I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever written about her, not that I ever will but she died five years ago and I still don’t have the distance. It’s a little bit too out of control for me.
Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publicationsMore Roxane Gay.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)