The Rumpus Interview with Don Waters

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“That gorgeous cholla cactus outside the window also has horribly sharp spines. The desert is an incredibly violent environment. Plants and animals had to get mean as hell in order to survive.”

Don Waters’s story collection, Desert Gothic, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. He is the recipient of the 2009 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award in fiction and the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. His short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Epoch, Tin House, The Believer, the 2009 Pushcart Prize anthology, and Best of the West 2009. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his partner, the author Robin Romm.

Rumpus: What’s the story behind the title of your book, Desert Gothic?

Waters: Let me just say that I have a major brain crush on Flannery O’Connor and many other Southern Gothic writers. Southern Gothic themes speak to me. When I put the collection together, I realized that there was commonality between my writing and Southern Gothic. Some characters have deformities and a certain physical grotesqueness. Some characters are sent on journeys. And of course, there’s the regionalism aspect. But my stories take place in the American desert. So I thought it was natural, as a sort of umbrella description, to title the book Desert Gothic.

I like Joyce Carol Oates’ explanation that the gothic imagination is a blend of the sacred and the profane. The opening story in Desert Gothic certainly fits this description. But in general, I think the term gothic tends to confuse. One reviewer wrote that there was nothing gothic about the book. I disagree. There’s an entire body of literature that fits into the gothic model. The confusion comes from the label, I think. We have gothic architecture, historical gothic novels, gothic music, and when I was growing up, at least, an entire subgenre of teenage kids with interesting choices in eye makeup. Anyway, the word has long legs. It spans centuries. It’s bound to confuse, which is okay. I like that.

Rumpus: What are the connections between the stories in your collection?

Waters: The American desert, of course. That’s the connection, especially the Nevada and Arizona deserts.

Our culture has mythologized the desert as this enchanted, magical, somewhat holy place, particularly here in Santa Fe. Take a look at a picture of Monument Valley or a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Both can be awe-inspiring. Such massive beauty humbles you.

But I wanted to add a correction to some of that. When you live in the desert, as I do, you understand that the opposite also applies. That gorgeous cholla cactus outside the window also has horribly sharp spines. The desert is an incredibly violent environment. Plants and animals had to get mean as hell in order to survive. Not long ago, I went on a hike in the mountains north of Santa Fe. The views were glorious. And then later in the day, a poisonous centipede crawled over my bare foot in the bathroom. The desert is full of contradictions.

Rumpus: Did you intend for the desert to serve as an extra character in your stories?

Waters: Not necessarily, but the desert certainly is present in a major way. Desert cities are also represented. Reno, Las Vegas, Tucson. Initially, when I put the collection together, I had eighteen stories in front of me. I think fifteen out of the eighteen were set in the desert. I chose the strongest ten, and those became Desert Gothic.

It just so happens that the desert is in my lungs. I love the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the east coast, but all those trees make me feel so crowded in. I need to be able to see distances. The desert is all about distances. It’s also a fine place to gain perspective and realize how small our lives really are.

Rumpus: One thing that really makes your collection extraordinary is the unique characters at the heart of each story. Can you explain the commonalities these characters share?

Waters: They’re all flawed, and they all fear death. Each of them, in their way, also recognizes the absurdities in life, although they may not come out and say it. In other words, they’re human.

When I draft a character in my notebook, I like to give that character a string of DNA. If I know a character’s strong qualities as well as deficiencies, then I begin to understand what the character wants. If I know what the character wants, I begin to understand the story better.

I don’t like reading books where the characters don’t have at least one thing wrong with them. I stop believing the story, the characters, all of it.

Rumpus: The details in your characters—from their occupations to their health to their religious beliefs—are rich and add tremendously to the stories. How much research did you have to do for them?

Waters: Character detail is always important. When I’m looking into a character’s occupation or health problem, I tend to do a lot of research. Sometimes too much. When I was in Oakland, CA, I lived across the street from a mortuary and down the block from a crematorium. I wanted to invent a character who worked there, and an employee at the crematorium was tremendously helpful. He told me almost everything he knew. The story wouldn’t have the inside jargon without his help. Usually, when I’m researching, I just find out who the expert is and contact them and ask questions. Recently, I needed information about zoo animals. Instead of going to the library, I called the San Diego Zoo. I called the National Zoo in Washington. I called the Oakland Zoo. You can always get great anecdotes when talking to someone one-on-one. You won’t get that by reading an encyclopedia entry. People are generally very nice and willing to help.

Rumpus: Your writing echoes some of the themes and feelings evoked by fellow Reno native Willy Vlautin’s band, Richmond Fontaine. What is it about Reno, and the desert, that allows both of you to develop similar themes independently?

Waters: I suppose we saw and experienced a lot of the same things. Reno, when I was growing up, felt small. But there were so many larger-than-life characters there. Joe Conforte, for example. He owned the Mustang Ranch brothel. He fled to Brazil in the 1990s because he had so much trouble with the law. But I remember that he also used to give away free turkeys at Thanksgiving. Why did he do this? Goodwill? Because he was a nice man? I still don’t know.

I guess that being born and raised in Reno elicits similar reactions. And those reactions can be strong. After all, it’s hard not to walk past a downtown Reno motel that rents rooms by the month and not wonder about the busted lives living inside those shag carpet rooms.

I’ve been all over the country, driven from the west coast to the east coast ten times, and Reno still strikes me as completely unique. When I lived in New York, it felt odd to admit that I was born and raised in Reno. Many people had never met anyone from Reno. I felt like an alien, and for good reason. It’s as though I’d breathed a different kind of air my entire life. Who else in the country gets raised amid neon casino lights, pawn shops, slot machines inside grocery stores, and legal brothels just outside of town?

As for the band Richmond Fontaine, well, count me as a fan. A very nice woman at Sundance bookstore in Reno turned me on to the band when I gave a reading there. I bought several of the band’s albums. I especially love The Fitzgerald, named after the downtown casino. When I first listened to that album, I thought it sounded like the soundtrack to my book.

Rumpus: Is there a particular author or work that you believe has been more influential to your writing than others?

Waters: That’s a tough question. I don’t want to omit anyone. Naturally, I could list for you the authors that get royalty treatment in my bookshelf. Amy Hempel, Edward Abbey, Joan Didion, Ben Fountain, Don Delillo, Patricia Highsmith, and of course Flannery O’Connor and the so-called dirty realists.

This may sound like an odd pairing, but Vladimir Nabokov and Dennis Cooper have had a tremendous influence. My writing is nothing like Nabokov’s or Cooper’s, but their influence burns bright.

I read Nabokov’s Pale Fire when I was twenty-one. He opened up new worlds. His writing is brilliant and playful and dangerous. He was unlike anyone I’d ever read. At that time, I couldn’t get enough. I read something like seven of his novels that year. And when I read Cooper’s book Guide, his prose simply disassembled me. He writes in a colloquial style that’s poetic and sharp as a diamond. He also redefined for me what’s possible in a novel.

Rumpus: Your book captures life in the desert and its cities like only a native could. What kind of response do you get from those outside the desert west?

Waters: With this book, in particular, the purpose wasn’t just to write about the desert and its cities and people. That’s what I know, so I drew from that. I don’t consider myself a western writer, or a southwestern writer, but I don’t mind the label either. In the book I wanted to explore hard-scrabble lives on the outer economic seams. I felt a very strong obligation to write about people and situations that are so often overlooked. Not to mention, there’s an inherent sense of narrative pressure when writing about lives on the brink.

The responses have been kind, in general. A friend in New York said that I brought the desert landscape to life. He said that he’d never been, and the descriptions were vivid. That’s always nice. Otherwise, I just hope to tell a good story.

Rumpus: The city of Reno conjures up something unique in the American mind. What are your favorite references to the city in the broader culture?

Waters: One favorite reference, besides Johnny Cash’s famous line about shooting a man in Reno, would have to be from Tom Waits’ song “Hang on St. Christopher.” It goes something like “Hang on St. Christopher. Get me to Reno and bring it in low.” I always imagine cruising into town on east I-80 and driving a muscle car while listening to that song.

I also like Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movie, Hard Eight, which was filmed in Reno. I haven’t seen that one in a while, so I wonder if it would hold up. I also have a vague memory about being an extra in that ridiculous Kingpin movie. But I will neither deny nor confirm the scene in which I do or do not appear.

Rumpus: What other projects are you working on?

Waters: I’ve been working on a novel for the past two and a half years. I have a draft of it now. These days, I print it out and demolish the pages with a red pen. So far I’ve done this seventeen times. I don’t know who said it, perhaps Joyce Carol Oates, but she said that writers are all masochists. Whenever I sit down with my red pen, I have to agree. Of course, there’s also a bit of pleasure to be found in pain.


Caleb Cage is a freelance writer in Reno, Nevada. He is the co-author of the book The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq, about his experiences as an Army platoon leader in the country in 2004-2005. He is currently working on a project about Johnny Cash. More from this author →