Desert Gothic, Reno native Don Waters’ debut book of short stories, won the 2007 Iowa Award for Short Fiction, an honor that The New York Times Book Review has called one of the most prestigious in America.
Waters, a Reed High graduate who now resides outside of Santa Fe, N.M., writes of a West that’s a place where “skies are expansive, and beautiful, and a pretty good reason to believe in God, if that’s your thing.”
The characters he creates often seem trapped in the smallest details of their lives by bigger, often harsh and sometimes even grimly humorous details of their everyday existence, like the mortuary worker trying unsuccessfully to deliver the ashes of a suicide victim back to her estranged father in “What to Do with the Dead.”
DW: I think the claustrophobic feeling you describe is due to the gnarly situations in my characters’ lives, and therefore, in their heads. I like to dig into my characters’ psycho-dynamics and try to figure them out while they’re figuring themselves out. I’m a firm believer that bewilderment is a fixed quality of the human condition. Anyway, there’s a lot of emotional turbulence in this book, and I wanted to locate the elemental beauty in that turbulence. This is a pretty messed-up bunch, but I love them all.
PT: A lot of your stories actually take place here in Reno. Did you find that you had to leave the area geographically in order to write about it?
DW: Nevada, and Reno in particular, have had a tremendous influence on me as a person and on my writing. I do believe that leaving helped me understand the area better, simply because wherever I happened to move I always had a new place with which to compare it. The city and the landscape loom large in my imagination. Eight of the 10 stories are set in Nevada. Even though towns and cities aren’t always named, Reno acts as a sort of stand-in for all of the desert gambling towns in the book. … Reno conjures up a specific aura, and I take full advantage of this mental blueprint: old-time casinos, the quality of transience, of broken men and dreams, and a hazy sense of sordidness and Western lawlessness.
PT: There is definitely a huge sense of place in these stories, as though if Reno didn’t actually exist, it would be a hell of a great place to invent for strictly literary purposes.
DM: William Faulkner turned his home county in Mississippi into the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, and with this book I was aiming for something similar, but instead of writing about Faulkner’s Southern concerns of corruption and oftentimes race, my primary focus, for the most part, was with men pushed to the brink in the light-filled, stark landscape of the American desert—places that aren’t necessarily on the map of American literature but that nonetheless have a powerful history and can be transformed into interesting fictional worlds.
In Reno, there is also a fascinating duality at play: the city versus the desert. On one hand, there’s this twinkling, high-desert city shoved up against the border with California, and on the other hand, there’s this vast swathe of bone-dry desert to the east. And if you drive far enough out into it, it feels like you’re in the absolute center of nowhere. Of course, I love the desert. The desert is in my lungs. I’m drawn to writing about this territory because it defines, like no other setting, limitless space and simultaneously the limits of civilized space. The desert also serves as a proper metaphor for the droughts of my characters’ inner lives. The land’s naturally shifting moods often help reflect my characters’ emotional states—loneliness, emptiness, even surprise. Naturally, there’s also a prime abundance of town names and names of places throughout the state that I find immensely intriguing: Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, Massacre Lake, Tonopah, Pyramid Lake, and the list goes on and on.
Then there’s the city, downtown. For the most part, the “downtown Reno” in my writing draws heavily from this period of my life—the downtown that was composed of The Riverside, Harold’s Club, and the old boarded-up Mapes prior to its demolition. Porno shops, one-stop divorce offices, cheap motels and flop houses … like passing from one world and into another.