Since she was a child Watkins was drawn to writing: “It seemed like a natural way of expression for me. I always wrote in a diary,” she says. “But it didn’t really occur to me that writers were living, like right now, until I was in college, really.” That Watkins made it to college was a feat in itself. At first she wanted to be a filmmaker, but “bungled the whole college-admissions process,” as she puts it. “No one in my family had ever gone to college, so I didn’t really understand how you paid for it. I thought you paid for it at the end, kind of like at a restaurant. So, I was going to go to the University of California at Santa Cruz. I got a bill for, like, thirty thousand dollars in the summer, and I just laughed. I think I threw it away.” When she received the second bill, she realized she’d have to come up with another plan.
Suddenly I wasn’t writing for just a little group—my workshop. In the short term, it was kind of crippling, to be honest, but eventually I got over it and felt really, really, really lucky.
After taking a year off, Watkins enrolled at the University of Nevada in Reno (UNR), where she attended on a scholarship established by the state of Nevada, which had sued tobacco companies on behalf of the state’s residents, especially children. “There were day cares and things in casinos,” says Watkins. “Every kid who graduated high school with a 3.0 could go to a Nevada university for free, so that’s how I ended up at UNR.”
Once there, Watkins studied with fiction writer Christopher Coake, author, most recently, of the novel You Came Back (Grand Central Publishing, 2012). He took her under his wing and encouraged her to pursue an MFA at Ohio State, where he had gone. Watkins followed Coake’s advice and moved to Columbus. And it was Coake who, at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, introduced Watkins to John Freeman, who’d just become the American editor of Granta.
“Granta happened to be doing an issue about fathers at the time,” Watkins recalls. “John mentioned this to Chris, and Chris said, ‘I know somebody who has written a really cool, short essay about her father.’ Which wasn’t true—I hadn’t written anything about it. I met John eventually at the conference, and he said, ‘Chris said you’re working on something, and you should send it to me.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll send it to you. Sure.’ And then I went back to the hostel where I was staying and wrote something.”
Freeman ended up publishing Watkins’s short piece online, and it immediately caught Aragi’s attention, so much so that she broke one of her cardinal rules. “John and I had agreed when he first started working for Granta and taking on new writers that we would observe ‘church and state’ rules,” says Aragi, who lives with Freeman in New York City. The unwritten rules stipulated that Aragi wouldn’t look for clients among Freeman’s stable of contributors, and Freeman wouldn’t look for contributors on Aragi’s client list. “And I was very good about them, until he showed me her piece. And then I went, ‘Can I have her phone number?’ To which he said, ‘We don’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Give me her phone number.’”
It’s true that Watkins’s short piece was in part about her father, but that particular fact didn’t strike Aragi as terribly important. In fact, Aragi, who is from England, didn’t know who Paul Watkins was. “I have to admit I didn’t know anything about him. I’m remarkably ignorant about the whole Manson story,” says Aragi. “I think everyone in America knows the whole Manson story backwards, but I wasn’t perhaps the most informed.” Instead, it was Watkins’s facility with compression and her ability to write about place and landscape that impressed Aragi. “She is an American writer in many senses.”
Aragi contacted Watkins and soon after took her on as a client. But it was difficult at first for Watkins to write under the pressure of having an agent. “I was pretty freaked out by it, because I wasn’t looking for an agent. My goal was to leave my MFA program with a manuscript that I could think about maybe starting to send to agents,” Watkins says. “Suddenly I wasn’t writing for just a little group—my workshop. In the short term, it was kind of crippling, to be honest, but eventually I got over it and felt really, really, really lucky.”
The MFA program at Ohio State awarded Watkins the Presidential Fellowship, an annual university-wide award given to a handful of graduate students. “It gives you an additional year of full funding,” she says. “I just wrote and read for a year, and that’s when I finished Battleborn.”
Two years after she and Aragi began working together, the book was ready to be sent to publishers. Watkins had spent a good deal of time crafting it, in workshops and on her own. As she finished stories, she’d send them to Aragi. “She would say, ‘Keep going, keep going, that’s good, keep going.’” says Watkins. “She never said, ‘What’s the endgame here?’”
Watkins’s vision for the book was clear from the start. She knew she wanted it to be about Nevada, and she set for herself formal challenges. “I would think about a place in Nevada, and I would write a story from there. But I didn’t want any two stories to be too similar, in terms of point of view, or psychic distance, or aesthetics, or language.” It is this range that is one of the striking powers of the book. The stories are connected by their settings but, as Saletan says, “thrillingly idiosyncratic” in their structure, and yet each is accomplished and authentic in its own right. Which is perhaps why, when Aragi sent out the manuscript, ten major publishers—Grove; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Random House; Norton; Little, Brown; HarperCollins; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Bloomsbury; Holt; and Riverhead—competed for the opportunity to publish it.
Saletan says when she first read Watkins’s stories, she was struck immediately by the voice. “It was like nothing I’d read before. The stories were desolate and tender, hard and intimate all at once. I also loved the boldness with which she takes every myth, every stereotype about the West head on, including the ones about her father and the Manson Family, and claims them for her own to reimagine.”
Before the book’s U.S. publication, Watkins travelled abroad for the first time, to promote the foreign editions ofBattleborn. Rights were sold in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Holland, which, Aragi says, is especially impressive, given that the market for short story collections in those countries is even more difficult than it is in ours.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed at Claire’s self-possession,” says Saletan about working with the author to publish her debut. “She had a strange and hard upbringing, and with the approach of publication have come all sorts of new experiences. With each new step I have been struck by her lack of pretense: She seems to genuinely take in and appreciate each new experience while remaining very much herself. Many far more experienced writers could learn from her in that respect.”
Mary Gannon is the editorial director of Poets & Writers, Inc.