The Irish writer John Banville once said, “Under the artist’s humid scrutiny the object grows warm, it stirs and shies, giving off the blush of verisimilitude; the flash of his relentless gaze strikes and the little monsters rise and walk, their bandages unfurling.” Brad Watson’s characters come to life thusly, little monsters dreaming through Gulf Coast towns, lazing on the beach, jumping off garage roofs, walking into the path of shotguns, being abducted by aliens or seduced by palm-reading, poolside gypsies. His stories are inhabited by flawed, fascinating and fully realized characters. They come to life in places so heartbreaking and familiar, so thoughtfully imagined, that to read a Brad Watson story is to leave yourself, which is the point, after all.
Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1955. He now lives in Wyoming and teaches writing and literature at the University of Wyoming. A self-described ‘misanthrope’, Watson was anything but misanthropic over the course of several email exchanges and a phone interview. Warm, affable, funny and blunt, Watson’s personality is a mirror of his writing. What’s most admirable about his stories are their willingness to stare life down, in all of its infinite complexity and messiness. His characters survive, even transcend, the darkest moments of being, and though the journey is often dark, it is also tender, funny and real. They are abundantly human stories, yet dreamy, wispy things in their rendering.
Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award. Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.
I reach him in his office in Laramie. It is late afternoon, and he has just finished making copies of his students’ theses. Watson speaks softly, with just a hint of a Mississippi drawl, more noticeable in the slow cadence of his words than by any twang in his speech. He asks if can call me back because his son has phoned with a homework problem. His son is a senior in high school and lives in Alabama. Watson apologizes (unnecessarily) for the interruption. We talk for the better part of an hour. At times, I lose track of the fact that I’m trying to takes notes on what he’s saying because I find the conversation so interesting.
Making the Little Monsters Walk: An Interview with Brad Watson
By Richard Farrell
Richard Farrell (RF): I’d like to start with a question The Paris Review once asked of Arthur Koestler: What do you dislike most of all?
Brad Watson (BW): (laughing) Rules. Rules and the people who follow rules, who are obsessed with keeping them and enforcing them. Assholes who get uptight and yell at you if you cross the street the wrong way. That kind of bullshit. But you can apply it across the board.
RF: You’ve travelled around a lot. You’ve grew up in Mississippi and you lived and worked in Alabama, Florida, in Los Angeles and Boston. You’ve lived in Wyoming for the last 6 years. And one of the things that struck me about your writing is how deeply important a sense of place is to your work. I wonder if your sensibility about place in your writing evolved out of so much movement in your personal life.
BW: In a sense, yes. My life and imagination are deeply rooted in Mississippi and Alabama, so my stories still seem to arise from that and there. But being away also intensifies that imaginative connection and even frees it up, somewhat. You’re able to be there in your head, unaffected by the present circumstances of actually being there. So in a way it’s more purely imagined.
I don’t necessarily think about place consciously as I work, since it’s all but instinctive. I look back at it in a work, rather than calculating it in. But if I didn’t have a strong sense of a place, I couldn’t write. Writing a story or a novel, everything is tied closely to the sense of the place. The writing is saturated with it, somehow saturated by place.
I’m still absorbing things here in Wyoming. I haven’t yet written about it, and I’ve been here almost 6 years. Wyoming is a good place to live and write. I’m not bothered by living here and writing about the South. As I said earlier, it gives me a different perspective on place, an outsider perspective. In a way, I have an outsider status and an insider status because I grew up there, in the south, and I live away from it. So living far away is not an impediment.
You have to go back, though, from time to time, to get the smell and feel of a place. Try to immerse yourself again.To hear people talk. To refill the well with that familiarity, those memories. You can deplete the well by not writing about it, too. It develops a slow leak.
RF: I live in San Diego, and I was struck by how accurate your details were in describing parts of this town in the short story “Visitation.”
BW: We spent 2 or 3 summers travelling in Southern California, my ex-wife and I. I lived some of that story, in those roadside motels. You notice things differently, like Loomis does in the story. As a writer, trying to absorb a place into an imaginative experience, you probably pay attention to things that someone else might miss.
RF: Right. You hardly write about the beach even though your story is set in San Diego.
BW: Those roadside motels were a long way from the water. We went to the beach when I’d visit, but not passionately, I’d say. To walk more than to swim. That water’s pretty cold until you hit August, and I’m no surfer.
RF: You once quoted John Barth’s essay on plot by saying that stories are structured by “incremental perturbations.” You talked about how a story starts in a state of balance, but a precarious balance. And things becomes imbalanced as the story moves. Is this how you think about plot?
BW: Well, for better or worse, I usually don’t think consciously or particularly about “plot,” per se – at least in most of what I do. At some point you have to step back and clarify or examine, more so in a novel, I think, but in stories, too. I think consciously about plot more often after a draft is done than when I’m writing it the first time. I think more about plot when I’m teaching than when I’m writing. I try to write instinctively, as much as possible, hoping I’ll stumble onto something wonderful that transcends my everyday intellectual and imaginative capacities. As for Barth’s essay, it’s just one way to think about plot, and not a bad way to approach thinking about it. I think he’s right that most stories, novels, plays begin with things in a kind of precarious balance, which is upset by subsequent events in some way, building complication and tension, demanding some kind of resolution, for lack of a better word. Things often aren’t actually “resolved” in the everyday sense, of course. Sometimes things finally fall completely apart, and then there’s silence, maybe a devastating but beautiful one. There are so many ways to “resolve” or end a story, and what that is, that ending, can be determined only by the story that precedes it, that produces it.
Charlie Baxter was visiting one of my workshops last week and he said that there has to be a ‘Captain Happen’ in the story for it to move forward. Like a ticking clock or something that moves the story along. Or a request moment, like in Hamlet, when the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes on stage and demands revenge. That sets the story in motion along its way.
Sometimes when young writers eschew plot, especially writers who are interested in language, it’s to their peril. They don’t want to crack the pretty object they’ve created by putting plot in. It was something I had to work hard to overcome when I started out.
RF: Back to stealing Paris Review questions, this one asked once of William Maxwell: What is the force that makes you a writer?
BW: I was a juvenile delinquent as a teenager. I drank a lot of beer and got in trouble. I started doing some theater and it was the only thing I was doing with a purpose. I got married and moved to Hollywood and tried to make it as an actor. Los Angeles was a very different place back then. More the size of Atlanta now than, say, Mexico City.
I moved back home and ran a bar for a while. I was unfocused and lackluster, but I lucked into a course at a community college. It was a course on the Southern novel. It was the first time I’d read any great books, really read them. It was the first time I read seriously. I got an ancient Underwood typewriter and started tapping out stories.
I was working in the dark for a long time. I wasn’t a reader growing up. I read mostly pulp novels, and I was married and working full-time by the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. There wasn’t much time to catch up on my personal literary education. But I started reading Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. I read Huck Finn. I hadn’t read it before, believe it or not. I read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. It was my favorite book then because it was written in this beautiful poetic language but it moved too. It was highly poetic and my way into writing really was through the sound and rhythm of it, at first. But it told a great, highly dramatic, beautifully hard-boiled and elegiac story, too.
You go through plateaus and valleys as a writer. I have boxes full of bad stories. After I graduated college, I went straight to grad school. I wonder if I would have struggled less if I’d taken some time off in between. If I’d been away from it for awhile, I might have done my bad writing then, before taking that thrashing in the woodshed and becoming so structured toward the short story that I couldn’t imagine a novel for a long while. I was writing my bad novels along the way instead of when I was young, when you can fling in there with ignorant bliss. I have six novels in the drawer. There’s something in them, because I’ve stayed with them, but I finish things slowly.
I published two or three stories during grad school. It was harder then, there were fewer places to get published, but they were more mediocre stories, and I stopped writing for a few years. I went into journalism for a while, but I couldn’t really let fiction go. When I came back to writing fiction, I told myself I was going to have more fun with it.
It’s hard for me to get it right. I’m very easily distracted. Then there’s other things, travelling, making money, having a family that is the reason for having to make the money. But I don’t know what I’d else I’d do if writing weren’t at the center of my life. I’d worry less, possibly.
RF: John Banville wrote, “Fiction is a kind of infinitesimal calculus, approaching nearer and ever nearer to life itself and yet never really having anything of real life in it, except the fictionist’s obsessive and doomed determination to get it right.” And while your writing is based in the realist tradition, you often break the boundaries. You have dogs narrating, alien abductions and necrophilia and other wonderful things happening all over the place. Do you set out to make your writing unsettling?
BW: When Charlie Baxter was out here, he read one of his stories, “The Winner,” from his new collection to my workshop class. It shook me up. It wasn’t a horror story but yet it was, too. It was very unsettling. I think the best stuff does that. Joy Williams’ story “The Farm” is like that. But something like Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow is terrifically unsettling, too. Reading it, you feel anxious, heavily moved, sad, and something like in love with the language and characters and situation.
Good stories like that upend me. They’re so powerful that they sift into your cellular life as if they’re transforming you. This is the real reason I do this.
RF: Steven Heighton, the Canadian writer, says, “Art is a persistent wake up call.” He says it shakes us out of our perceptions of reality.
BW: Whether in the strongest realism or in stories that bend the rules or in the best genre-oriented work, good writers make you see something new or the import of an experience. What makes “The Farm” so effective is that what we think of as the real world becomes so terrifyingly strange once she wakes up to that new awareness at the end of the story.
The most realistic stuff, if you really see it and write clearly and powerfully about it, is going to seem very strange. Effective realism is stuff we normally walk through like ghosts—writing is an act of re-seeing things, with unbearable clarity. I think this is what drives people to be writers. We just can’t take it for granted. Writers are people who are fascinated by the world around them and the deceptive, intriguing strangeness of it.
RF: The Paris Review one last time: They once asked Barry Hannah, who was one of your mentors, if he shied away from race in his work because he was a southern writer. How difficult is the topic of race for you to write about? You clearly don’t shy away from it.
BW: Neither did Barry. In “Vacuum,” the question of race and racism helps evoke the central character’s presence. He has to deal with it directly and it changes him, or causes a kind of awakening. I remember these things from growing up in the South during the Civil Rights movement, and right after, which was, in some ways, the worst of it. People didn’t want to change. So when I write about it, I try to show how people treated each other. I don’t worry about how I portray it, except to try to do it as honestly as I can.
RF: You mean with respect to the racial epithets that were used? The word, ‘nigger,’ specifically?
BW: You can’t avoid that sometimes because it existed then and still does. A lot of people don’t want to accept it, and some people won’t read the work because it’s in there. I remember after The Heaven of Mercury came out, someone posted a comment on Amazon that said it was a racist book. I contacted my publisher and eventually Amazon removed the comment. The worst part was that another writer made the comment.
The word exists. It is part of how people spoke and it’s how many still do, and it is a part of history. History is not at all tasteful. I feel it would be ridiculous to not use such language in a story where and when it would have been spoken. I’d feel like a phony if I simply avoided it. In order to adhere to historical, social accuracy, in order for the work to be honest, you just can’t get that word out sometimes. Lots of other words, too. If you have characters who act like real people, it’s going to exist just as it does in life.
If I do a reading of a story like “Vacuum,” I’ll preface the reading with a brief “apology” in the archaic sense – a defense or explanation. If people are upset, then they are. But these things happen. These things are said. It’s ugly, but it’s true, and it’s important not to pretend it isn’t said or that it isn’t true. And to ignore it is not going to make it go away. Exposure may do more for that,if that’s not giving too much credit to the power of fiction.
RF: I want to ask you a question about how you think about form or structure for a work. If you’d care to comment on this.
BW: I like to see the shape of it in my mind and sometimes that’s early and sometimes it’s a gradual formation. With The Heaven of Mercury I had to lay the chapters out on the floor, taking up the whole living room in my apartment in Cambridge, stand back, walk around among them, trying to see it physically before I could see it in my mind.
RF: I also wanted to ask you about ‘dirt eaters’ (or clay eaters). They appear in at least 2 stories in Aliens. I find this fascinating, and know very little about it (other than about the disease Pica, this because my wife went to medical school and used to talk about it.) Where did this come from and why did it reappear?
BW: As in “Vacuum,” a woman who worked for my family when I was a child loved to eat a certain kind of slick blue-orange clay. I would fetch chunks of it for her in a little paper sack she’d give me. I tasted it once and wasn’t so impressed. But I’ve never forgotten the thick, sticky texture, and taste like nothing else. It’s common – or at least it was at one time – among poor people, mostly women I believe, to eat clay. I’m not sure the experts have resolved the issue of why they love it, crave it, or need it. It is rich in minerals, I think, and it probably soothes the stomach, absorbing acid.
RF: More than most writers, you play with time in your stories. You almost use time in an elastic way, moving forward and backward and backward again. Especially in your novel, The Heaven of Mercury, you jumped around so fluidly. How do you think about time as you write?
BW: In an afterword to a recent edition of William Goyen’s House of Breath, Reginald Gibbons says the book is oddly close to and evocative of childhood for a writer nearly 40 years old, as Goyen was when the book was first published. He says it’s because it was Goyen’s first novel, in progress since his 20’s. But for me, I am still closest to that time, even in my 50’s. It has something to do with my history of not having such a great childhood or teen-hood (though my parents were wonderful, loving people—I don’t mean it was their fault) and being unable to stop revisiting it. I made a lot of mistakes, and I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on around me. It was almost as if I didn’t have language then, the language others around me seemed to have, the understanding or savvy. A lot of people thought I was pretty damn slow, I think. My parents never did, somehow. They understood daydreaming, dreaminess, the imaginative fog. They didn’t realize how little I really understood about practical matters, unfortunately. In any case, it’s Faulknerian, for me: the past isn’t even past. Life seems to me like a continuum you move about in freely, in memory and imagination. Vonnegut (bless his curmudgeonly heart; the only time I got to meet him, he berated me for not having read enough of a particular writer) got that metaphor right in Slaughterhouse Five.
RF: In The Heaven of Mercury, one of your characters, Dr. Heath, speaks a great line of dialogue. Finnus has just been injured by a shotgun pellet and he’s gone to see the doctor. “You’re lucky. A man chases a woman into the path of a shotgun and lives has got a lot to ponder. You ponder it son.” It seems a lot of your characters are chasing women into the path of shotguns. Is there something to this?
BW: (Laughs for a few seconds before he answers.) Well, I guess it’s the story of a great part of my life. Desire can actually make you insane, incapable of logical thought. Like some kind of sharp object stuck into your side and the pain makes you stupid or careless. And it has barbs. Hard to pull back out.
(Laughs again) I’m settled down now.
Richard Farrell is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq where he has published memoir, craft essays and book reviews. He is the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and is at work on a short story collection. He lives in San Diego with his wife, two children, and a spoiled English bulldog named Petunia.