Claire Vaye Watkins was born in Nevada and lives in Ohio, where she is putting the finishing touches on a debut collection of stories that all unfold in her home state, from down south in Nye County and Las Vegas, to Reno, Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, and the Blackrock Desert, the site of Burning Man. “Gold Mine,” which appears in our new issue, takes place entirely at a Nevada brothel.
What brought you to the bunny ranch as a setting?
I grew up Pahrump, Nevada, where prostitution is legal. There were two brothels near my house and the school bus used to drive past them every morning. As a girl I was especially fascinated by one, the Chicken Ranch, because it was done in this ornate dollhouse Victorian style, which I’d never seen before, with dormers and flower boxes and painted in lovely pastel pinks and blues. I wanted to live there.
Of course, as I got older my relationship to those buildings became more complicated, let’s say. But a part of me has always been enchanted by them. There’s something magical about a brothel. It’s this alluring Eden compound in the middle of nowhere, even if it’s also grotesque and exploitative and dangerous.
For a story about a brothel, it is remarkably chaste; the only sex act depicted is between the gay madam and his married male mentor.
You’re right, there’s a lot of dirty talk but not much business. Does that make me a tease? I suppose I was more interested in the emotional bonds between the characters—Manny and Joe, Manny and Michele, Michele and Darla, Darla and Manny—because in this world that’s the stuff that can really get you into trouble. I don’t find the sex part of prostitution that interesting. (Such a tease line.) It’s the emotion work that gets me. As I see it, sex isn’t the real currency at the Cherry Patch Ranch—it’s affection and intimacy. And everybody’s looking for it.
I’d originally written this story without the affair between Manny and Joe, but Manny felt entirely too stable. We couldn’t see what Michele meant to him. I needed something to knock him off kilter, to make him more vulnerable, more lonesome, hornier. So I broke his heart.
An earlier version of the story borrowed its title from You Were Never Lovelier, the screwballish musical comedy about a man abroad surrounded by romantic possibilities. Is Michele, your fish-out-of-water Italian protagonist, a Fred Astaire type?
I hadn’t thought of him that way, no. I liked the disconnect between Michele’s desperation and Astaire’s zaniness, and I thought Manny would have seen that, too. That’s one of my favorite writing moves, bombarding characters with pop-culture detritus and seeing what it means to them. You see it in the first scene, with the newspaper and Us Weekly. And there’s another point in the story when Manny is giving his girls a pep talk, and he uses a line from How to Win Friends and Influence People, which tickles me. That’s one of the chief ways we try to understand ourselves, by looking for our reflection in art, making meaning where we need it. There’s a real sadness in that endeavor, I think, because usually the meaning we find is the kind that doesn’t fit quite right, the kind that will have to do, anyway.
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