The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Don Waters

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I was living in my hometown of Reno, Nevada when I began writing stories. I was twenty or so, and I would get off work and just walk around downtown and stop in every casino and bar I came across. I had fallen in love with Reno and northern Nevada the way you might fall in love with a girl. It was fun as hell and a great period in my life. I had low rent, an easy job that paid well, and I stayed out all night, as bars never close there. On weekends, I began hiding out in the library and reading every book I could find about Nevada and Reno. I discovered Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Robert Laxalt and I loved them both, and still do. I was always seeking out Nevada writers and that’s how, years later, I came across Don Waters. A bookstore owner raved about his short story collection, Desert Gothic. He’s from Reno, she exclaimed. So I picked it up and loved it. And then as luck would have it he moved to Portland, Oregon, where I live now, and he and I got to be friends. Along with Claire Vaye Watkins, Don Waters is one of the great Nevada writers and one of the best western writers we have. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation I had with him.

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The Rumpus: How did you get into literature and writing? Reno’s not known for it, and I didn’t even know they had such things as creative writing classes until I was in my twenties. I’d love to know the road that got you to it, and if Reno played any part in it.

Don Waters: I’m sure growing up in Reno had something to do with it, but you’re right, becoming a “writer” wasn’t necessarily on my radar. I was lucky to have a few wonderful teachers early on who introduced me to some great books, but otherwise I sort of stumbled my way to writing.

Desert GothicIn my late teens I became interested in fanzines, and I became interested in fanzines through that old punk rock store, Insurrection. I always came out with armfuls of these amazing, personal little publications. A few locals published some of them. The best was Bob Conrad’s Second Guess, which was smart, and incredibly well written. Anyway, I became a zine fanatic. These little zines introduced me to music, sure, but more importantly they introduced me to a wider social and political world. Reno’s fairly provincial, and back then you couldn’t just jump on the Internet. Alternative sources of information were hard to come by. Eventually I wanted to try my hand, and I started putting out my own zine. That’s when I began writing, mostly bogus stuff, really, self-important rants and music reviews, but I was cutting my teeth by creating my own little books, which was important, I think.

I only became interested in so-called literature and literary writing later on, probably around the age you found out about writing classes. I read Pale Fire by Nabokov and that was it for me. That was it. Do you have any novels that did that? You read it, and you thought, I need to do that, or at least I want to try… You must.

Rumpus: Ha, I remember Insurrection! It’s the only record store I’ve ever been in where the owner would sit behind the counter with a cooler of beer. I’d get a free beer with every record I bought. I hung out there for years, but I never read the fanzines.

It was only because of the great Australian songwriter, Paul Kelly, who wrote a song based on a Raymond Carver story, that I discovered the books of Carver. It was Carver who really shook me and said, hey, you can write stories about failing people, too. You can write working-class stories about people hanging on by a thread. Those were the stories I was really drawn to, that made sense to me, and Carver was the first writer that bridged the gap for me. His stories gave me the confidence to write my own versions. After that, I went up to the university and took classes with Gailmarie Pahmeier and Randy Reid and they were great to me. Because of them I discovered Larry Brown and Barry Hannah and James Welch, three of my favorite writers. And lucky for me, I was born to the right city. I love Reno and loved writing about it. I still do. But as much as I liked it there it was a hard town to be in a band or write. I grew up in a pretty conservative home. Not many people I knew understood writing stories or playing music. It was a rough town for me to be an art weirdo in. I’m a slow mover and didn’t have the courage to leave until I was nearly twenty-seven. But I had to leave so I could find people who didn’t think I was a bum for writing songs and stories. What about you? When did you leave?

Waters: Funny you thought Reno was a hard town to be an art weirdo in. The city, to me, is the kind of place you can be any kind of weirdo. Whether or not anyone will appreciate it, well, that’s a different story. You left because you wanted to be around people who appreciated writing and the arts, but I left for college, at eighteen, and went to New York. It was a lot of shuttling back and forth between widely different places and social classes, Reno to NY, NY to Reno. After that, I moved to San Francisco because it seemed to be the spiritual heart of the kind of writing I was interested in at the time. You had the legacy of the Beats and this incredibly experimental and vibrant attitude in the contemporary arts, whether it was film or music or writing. But, like you, I returned to Reno and the desert in my writing. It was only through being away did I start to understand it.

I say it all the time: Reno is unlike anywhere I’ve ever lived. And of course, you set your first novel there. When I picked up The Motel Life, I saw Carver’s influence, sure, but you transported your characters to the high desert stage. Also like Carver, your work has now been translated to film. How was that process for you, seeing The Motel Life turned into a movie? Did you have much say on the script?

Rumpus: I sold the movie rights to The Motel Life just after it came out. I was excited as hell and every time I talked to the people who bought it they told me to sit down because the good news they were about to tell me would give me a heart attack. I always hung up happier than hell and seriously hopeful. But then I wouldn’t hear from them for six months, and then when they would call they’d say the same thing. This went on for about five years or so and then the option lapsed and the Polsky brothers bought the rights. By then I didn’t think much about it. I showed them around Reno and they promised me they’d make the movie there, and that was about all I had to do with it. I didn’t even know they were making the movie until a friend of mine told me that they had set up an office in Reno. But man, they were great to me. They shot the movie in Reno, in all the places in the book that were still going, and they brought me down to meet Kris Kristofferson. So it was a great experience. They used the amazing animator and illustrator Mike Smith for the animation, so I was more than honored. One of the things I liked most about the film was the cinematography, the way they made the West look. We both write about the West. It’s a reoccurring theme in our work, which brings me to your great new novel, Sunland. What lead you to that story?

Waters: To keep it short, I wrote a short story years ago, “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer,” about a man who crosses the border to get opiates for a dear, ill, elderly friend. That story stuck with me. I couldn’t shake it. I liked the idea about writing a multi-generational novel. And I also liked the idea about this kind-hearted, prescription drug mule, a guy just trying to scratch out a living.

Rumpus: Tell me about your research experiences across the border.

Waters SUNL dj design hi-res copyWaters: When I started the novel, and when I returned to those characters, and that setting, I knew I wanted to enlarge the story world beyond a senior residential village in Tucson. I wanted part of the story to take place in the desert borderlands. While I was writing it I was also moving around a lot. Berkeley, and then Santa Fe, and later Las Cruces. In Las Cruces our house was a quick thirty-minute drive to the border fence. On the other side was Juárez. I drove south a lot. There’s a particular feeling in the air when you live down there. You know you’re living near the border. A lot of the things I saw, like secondary checkpoints and the omnipresent Border Patrol, made it into the book. But my story happens in Tucson, in a different desert, a more beautiful desert, in my opinion, and I explored Tucson and the surrounding areas by myself and with a humanitarian group known as Humane Borders. I hopped the border quite often to get a look around. I also read a ton of books. The border and the drug wars have given rise to a sort of cottage industry of border books. Sunland can probably be considered a companion to all the nonfiction literature out there.

But anyway, I want to talk about your new project. The Free, your fourth novel, has just been published. I really loved it. It’s a working-class novel and reminds me, like much of your work, of Steinbeck. What really strikes me is, in many ways, we share similar concerns, especially with our new novels—namely healthcare, nursing, and trying to raise money by illegal means. What do you make of that? Years ago I remember talking with The Rumpus and discussing your band, Richmond Fontaine, and I said your album “The Fitzgerald” might as well have been the soundtrack to my story collection.

Rumpus: That’s great you think the “The Fitzgerald” could be a soundtrack to Desert Gothic! And you’re right. Much of The Free is about nursing and healthcare. We both wrote novels addressing those issues having never even really discussed it with each other. Pretty amazing, but it’s hard not to think of those issues. When a family member can’t get health insurance or the cost of it becomes like paying a second rent, it’s difficult not to worry about it all the time. In The Free I was trying to talk about a few big subjects—healthcare in the U.S., the cost of the wars on the soldier’s families, and the struggle of the working class to get and pay for health insurance. The book about killed me and I think I rewrote it thirteen times before I even showed it to anyone. It’s a book I felt I had to write and it wore me out. It definitely pushed me.

As for Steinbeck, hell, I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. I’ve had his picture by my bed since I was thirteen. When my life gets rough I always disappear into Cannery Row, with Mac and the boys. Steinbeck’s novels have always been a great comfort to me. Do you have any books that are good luck charms to you, books you always keep around, that you find yourself buying copies of, even though you already have a couple copies at home?

Waters: Sure, that happened to me the other day. I was at a thrift store and I spotted a copy of Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery. It was in great condition. Her novels are terrific, but I love that one the most, probably because it’s set in northern Africa, a place that interests me. Anyway, I couldn’t bear thinking about it sitting on a dusty lower shelf in a thrift store, so I bought it. I put it in my truck and I’ll give it to one of my friends. I used to do that kind of thing a lot more. I used to buy friends copies of Dennis Cooper’s novels. Later, I did the same thing with Nabokov’s Pale Fire. As for good luck books, books I always have around? The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Also, A Confederacy of Dunces. And White Noise. I could go on and on. There are so many.

Rumpus: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Waters: Willy, I did a foolish thing. I managed to write another story collection. I can’t help it. I love writing stories. Not long ago I wrote down list of the stories I’ve written over the past few years, and I realized it’s another collection. Of course, I’m joking when I say I did a foolish thing, because I think it’s a strong group of stories. I’m also writing a memoir about fathers, sons, and surfing. It’s the scariest and most honest thing I’ve ever written. I wonder how often that happens to you, writing something frightening but necessary.

Rumpus: I started writing in the hope it would take the edge I’ve always had off me. So I usually tend to write about things that scare or haunt me. Or maybe things that I can’t figure out or lay to rest. It always starts from that point. I figure if I’m going to spend three or four years on a book I want it to scare me and worry me and intimidate me and hopefully help me out.

One last question, to bring things back to Nevada: do you see yourself ever moving back there and, more importantly, ever writing a novel set in Nevada?

Waters: I don’t see myself moving back, unless there’s a really good reason. Friends still live there, and so does my mom, so I frequently visit. Nevada is always with me in one way or another, and I’ve always thought the Truckee Meadows valley is hard to beat, especially the way the Sierras bludgeon you with beauty. When the sun’s falling and the clouds are right, I can’t think of a more incredible sky. I miss that. And that’s why, yes, there’s a good chance I’ll write a Nevada novel. A number of stories from the new collection take place there. I just finished another that’s set in southern Nevada. Scenes from my memoir happen in Nevada, as you’d expect. Long ago I wrote a Nevada novel, when I was twenty-four, but I put it under my bed. Maybe I have another one in me. I don’t know. We’ll see.


Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, Willy Vlautin started playing guitar and writing songs as a teenager and quickly became immersed in music. It was a Paul Kelly song, based on Raymond Carver’s “Too Much Water So Close to Home,” that inspired him to start writing stories. Vlautin has published four novels: The Motel Life, Northline, Lean on Pete, and The Free. Vlautin founded the band Richmond Fontaine in 1994. The band has produced nine studio albums to date, plus a handful of live recordings and EPs. Driven by Vlautin’s dark, story-like songwriting, the band has achieved critical acclaim at home and across Europe. This year will see the debut album from Vlautin’s new band, The Delines, featuring vocalist Amy Boone (The Damnations). Vlautin currently resides in Scappoose, Oregon. More from this author →