Joshua Wheeler and Carrie Fountain grew up in Southern New Mexico, Wheeler in Alamogordo and Fountain in Mesilla. Their childhoods were marked by expansive vistas, atomic testing, ranch life, and more than a few stories about UFOs. The big skies begged big questions, and the restless search for meaning in the desert led both away from home. Wheeler is based in New Orleans, and Fountain in Austin. But both continue to circle back, in their lives and writing.
Recently, the two published books about their home region. Wheeler’s first book, Acid West, is an essay collection and ode to the area. Fountain’s fiction debut, I’m Not Missing, is a young adult novel set in the state’s lower half. In July, 2018, they corresponded by email.
JOSHUA WHEELER: We’re both from Southern New Mexico. We both write about our home. You’ve suggested our recent books are very different, mine an essay collection and yours a young adult novel, but I think there’s a ton of overlap, even beyond the setting. Both are preoccupied with the cosmos, in the form of the aerospace industry that dominates our region, but also in a more spiritual way. Miranda, your main character in I’m Not Missing, seems not exactly “converted” by the end, but is certainly as curious about Catholicism as she is the idea of a Goldilocks Planet. This flirting with the power and reach of organized religion is in Acid West too. And Miranda is a journalist, a writer of nonfiction, a burgeoning essayist, perhaps. She’s a young person struggling to understand truths (or the lack of truth) in her relationships, in her reading of the Lives of the Saints, in her thinking about the whole cosmos. Her experience feels so familiar to me, and that’s surely because you’ve captured the longing of adolescence so well. But I also wonder if there’s a particular brand or quality of coming-of-age that’s unique to our home region.
CARRIE FOUNTAIN: It hadn’t occurred to me to think of it that way, but I think you’re right, especially about the way growing up in Southern New Mexico might form a particular idea and develop a certain imagination about space and the universe and the meanings to be drawn from it all. When I was a kid, space was right there. The universe was right there. I’m older than you, so you probably don’t have the memory of when the space shuttle Columbia unexpectedly made a landing at the White Sands NASA facility in 1982. That was mind blowing for this NASA-obsessed eight-year-old. The ’80s were all about space. The Challenger explosion is one of my most formative memories. I can still feel the same feeling I felt that day, like falling backward into a bottomless pit, trying to come to terms with what we were seeing on the screen.
I came of age with wide open night skies overhead and missiles being tested on the other side — or I suppose I should say on your side of the Organ Mountains. As you say in your book, “a lot of weird shit happened” on that land. I mean, they set off the first atomic bomb there. It’s hard to find a greater moment of existential mind-fuckery than that. I remember in my teens reading about how the scientists that developed the bomb weren’t entirely certain the Trinity test wouldn’t ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world. My dad was toddling around Mesilla, just down the way from what could’ve been the end of the world. How could one come of age in that place and not be preoccupied with some pretty big questions? Did these kinds of questions lead you to write Acid West?
I think so, but it took a while. I tried poetry. I guess we both started off with poetry, and have now wandered into other genres. I never published poetry but the years I spent studying poetry at New Mexico State University were important, mostly because I’d been living in Los Angeles and they gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with Southern New Mexico on my own terms, apart from my family’s long and torrid relationship with the place. I guess the essays came out of me just trying to untangle a lot of the stories I’d grown up with, stories about aliens and atom bombs, cartels and the cosmos. But also I don’t know that I had much choice. For as long as I’ve been claiming to be a writer, my grandmommy has been ordering me to write a book about New Mexico. Is your family this way, like more than just proud to be an old New Mexico family, but insistent on its centrality to your identity (and theirs)?
Oh god, yes. When my first book of poems was published my father was genuinely surprised and offended I’d neglected to say in my bio that I’m the great, great, great granddaughter of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain.
I loved your essay on the Trinity explosion and the Tularosa Downwinders. It’s such a monumentally important story, and yet for so many of us it’s personal, part of the lore. My grandmother remembered the sky lighting up that morning in Mesilla, and the garbage excuse they gave, about some ammunition dump accidentally igniting, I think? She died of cancer at 74. I’ve heard that story of the blind woman near Albuquerque asking what happened. I also have long worried about my poor choice to confiscate a small piece of Trinitite when I went to Trinity as a teen. I kept it and then misplaced it in my room and have worried all these years that I was stupidly exposing myself to radiation due to a lack of tidiness. I was strangely comforted to read in your essay of others keeping tons of the stuff. We’re all going down together, at least.
You’re probably safe on the Trinitite front. Though, who knows? The whole unbelievable part of the story of the Gadget is that the government still refuses to recognize that exploding a radioactive bomb might have had some adverse effects on the people living near the test site. Your grandmother’s story is so common in Southern New Mexico. Even though the story of the Bomb has been told a thousand times, you almost never get the perspective of New Mexicans. I spent years not wanting to write about the Bomb exactly because it was the first thing anyone mentioned when they heard I was from Alamogordo. But I’m glad I did because I think it’s helped raise awareness about the families who lived downwind from the test, and their current fight for compensation. Though the plight of the downwinders is sometimes grim, they’re joyous people. They’re New Mexican! Writing about them helped me understand something about resilience that is central to the region’s identity. I get bogged down in the despair. Sometimes I think a really good New Mexico book would just be a night at one of my family’s dinners. Lots of joy and history and plenty of tall tales.
I am really intrigued by these family dinners…
The family dinners used to be pretty grand affairs, and often not too far from where you grew up. My Aunt Peewee and Uncle Danley have a quarter horse operation in Mesquite, NM…which you can get to from Mesilla if you take Snow Road as far as it goes. Thanksgiving was a raucous game of touch football in the corral, then hours of interminable stories about the old days from the adults as they sat around a huge dining table playing Hearts. I am, by a long shot, the worst storyteller in my family. I could never, and still can’t, get in a word when all the old ranchers start up.
I know from reading your book that your family is in agriculture and ranching, but did you grow up around horses — which is to say: was there a time in your life when you considered yourself a cowboy? Having grown up among cowfolk, I have a deep admiration. Some of my closest friends in high school were FFA/4-H. I’m proud to say that my friend Julie named her prize-winning pig after me! When my book was in copyediting, I was asked to reconsider using the term “shit kicker.” It’s offensive. I’d never known that about that term. I’d thought of it as I think of the word “jock.” But I did ask around and was embarrassed to find that yes, indeed, the term is offensive. It felt so weird to be schooled like that so late in my life on something that felt so familiar. I don’t think I’d ever called anyone a shit kicker back in the day, but I still felt deeply ashamed that I didn’t know that term is offensive.
I learned the term shit kicker from people who called themselves shit kickers. It certainly sounds derogatory but, at least where I’m from, it’s often hollered with pride. And it certainly was a clique in high school. I was a nerd, mostly. But I did a bit of everything: some 4H, some FCA, some soccer, some theater, had a few punk bands. But no, never a cowboy. But also I wouldn’t say the nostalgic version of that cliche was something I grew up around. My uncle, who maybe most fits that type, made his living as a smooth talking banker. My cousin, who was maybe most involved in the cattle industry, was a hotshot scientist developing new formulations for industrial feedlots. So…I’m not sure I ever met a real “cowboy.”
I wonder if I’m really nostalgic for the way things were or just nostalgic for the way things were when I was writing about them. Do you think writing about home changes your perception of home?
It’s hard to say. I took great pleasure in returning to Mesilla in my imagination every day, hanging out in Miranda’s adobe house and thinking of places the characters go — the Fountain Theater, the Bosque, even the Pic Quik. I tried to steer clear of nostalgia, doubled down repeatedly at certain points on seeing the place through the eyes of a teenager, someone longing to get out of there and start their life elsewhere. But then again, my character Nick loves it. It’s his place, as Miranda says at some point. It’s his Goldilocks planet. And even with that character I had to imagine what about Southern New Mexico a teenage boy might fall in love with. And of course it’s the land itself — the landscape and the natural world.
I guess I find your question difficult to answer because I’m writing this from Southern New Mexico, where I’ve been with my family for nearly a month, and being here is complicated and sometimes vexing. It has made me realize that in my imagination living in small town Southern New Mexico has always sounded perfect: seeing far horizons, seeing mountains, getting outside in the evening, and hiking any damn time, most often without seeing another person on the trail. But in actuality it’s been more complicated. There are fewer things to do with kids, there aren’t as many places to get healthy food, there aren’t as many cutting edge artists doing crazy shit all over town. I sound like a hipster priss, don’t I? I hate that I feel that way, but I do. My kids have watched more television in the last month than they ever have.
My husband and I keep looking out at the vistas and telling each other we’ll retire to New Mexico and grow old here. That sounds about right. My life started there and someday it’ll come to an end there, hopefully peacefully and in the distant future. I feel very close to New Mexico in my heart. It is my forever home.
One of the things I love so much about your essays is that you get Southern New Mexico so perfectly right. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything that has felt that right to me. How about you? Do you feel differently about that place now that you’ve written a book of essays about it?
I couldn’t scrub the New Mexico out of me if I wanted to. But also, I don’t know that I’ve gotten it right, though I appreciate you saying so, especially because your writing, all the way back to (and especially) Burn Lake, feels like home. But, if anything, I learned it’s too vast and varied a place to capture in any satisfying way. That’s the charm. That’s why I’ll keep on struggling to write about it. That’s why y’all will need to save a place for me in your retirement community.