Visiting Writer Series features up-and-coming novel

Stella Moran / The Mossy Log

Claire Vaye Watkins discusses childhood inspiration, environmental themes that underlay her work

To a packed reception at the Frank Manor House, writer Claire Vaye Watkins said: “Books heal people all the time, just not usually the people who
write them.”

Watkins visited Lewis & Clark on Tuesday, Feb. 20 to read from the autofiction novel she is currently working on, to be entitled “Yellow Pine.”

I read her most recently published novel, “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” in anticipation of her visit and loved it. Her writing is absolutely fantastic. By which I mean this event was an excuse for me to find one of my new favorite authors and proceed to fangirl when she visited. 

I had so many questions after reading her book. Watkins’ style is very grounded and the main character shares her first name, so I believed the story was autobiographical until I looked it up online and discovered that its actually autofiction. Watkins is simply extremely convincing in her art. She draws from her own life while exaggerating elements of the plot and fabricating some events that she did not experience. 

“If I could choose, I wouldn’t write autofiction,” Watkins said, divulging her natural draw to the genre, and how the ideas come to her. 

Watkins has a large body of work including novels and essays, fictional and otherwise. The 2021 novel deals with themes of generational trauma, grief, motherhood and sexuality. 

“We have loved and loved and been loved despite the fissures and losses, violence, cruelty, smallness, deficits in money and time and attention, despite the betrayals and indifferences, the distance and weather, despite developing different definitions of certain words,” Watkins wrote in her latest book.

The main character is a woman named Claire who leaves her job, husband and one-year-old daughter to unearth her trauma back west where she grew up. Along this journey, she learns to accept herself and her sexuality, reflects on her improper preparation for motherhood, and, cliche as it sounds, finds herself again.

“The first thing to leave you in the desert is time,” she wrote.

Watkins’ home in the rural desert of California and Nevada plays a significant role in “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” and from what she read from her new novel, that story will take place in the same area. The novel begins with background on her childhood, and even further back to the lives of her parents and how they met. Though the story is autofiction, the vivid details surrounding her family history made me feel so close to the author. It is a fantastic way of getting the reader attached to and knowledgeable about the
main character. 

Throughout the book, Watkins also recalls something particularly close to home: the life of her father, Paul Watkins. Her father was loosely involved with the Manson family before the infamous murders, and famously is the author of “My Life With Charles Manson.” Tying it to him, Claire Watkins includes passages from his novel in italics throughout her own.  

“I think of (my autofiction characters) as an ‘I.’ In ‘I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,’ the narrator had a different name (at first). It just felt very fake, like I knew that she was a version of me, a ‘Claire,’” Watkins said. “It felt interesting to invite the conflation of author and character.”

Initially, I expected that she would read passages from her 2021 novel. However, Watkins decided to read from the novel she is currently working on. “Yellow Pine” will be related to environmental science and conservation, although it is still fictional and is not solely about these topics. Watkins discussed her particular interest in environmental science and the essays she had previously written on the topic. As she read, I loved how her style between books stayed consistent. Watkins has a distinct writing style, with rawness and realistic dialogue as particular strengths of hers. 

Reading Watkins’ writing is a privilege; it is a gritty, naked view of her life and her mind. I highly recommend “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” and I plan to read much
more of her work.

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