Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Selecting the Essential Story: A Literary Conversation with Brad Watson

Interviewed by James Madison Redd

Brad Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. His first collection, Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His first novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (W.W. Norton, 2010) is his most recent collection, which was a finalist for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and received the Award in Fiction from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. In 2013 Watson was honored with an Award in Letters from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is at work on a new novel.

Redd: You were a reporter for many years. Do you have a journalist’s mentality when you begin to research a topic?

Watson: No, I wasn’t really a very good journalist. I was just a writer who happened to work for a newspaper for a while. They were always on my ass to keep it briefer, stop elaborating. Every time I got onto a good story I felt like I had to write everything I knew about it. I wanted to tell the whole story. Even now I’m often frustrated by what straight news stories leave out. Drove them crazy. Except for my first editor, when I worked for the little weekly. He needed copy. “Write whatever you want, as much as you want,” he said. And I did. I guess I’ll turn the question around and say that I brought a fiction writer’s mentality to writing newspaper stories. I didn’t make things up, but I was writing stories about people and about a place. Short stories, essays, and news feature stories are similar in that way, for good writers who work the trade. Has what I researched for those stories fed my fiction, though? Very much so.

What that time as a journalist did for me was get me out of academia and to the greatest degree possible out of the kind of strange solipsism that living in academia too long can create in someone. As a reporter, I met many different kinds of people, heard a lot of their interesting stories (so I didn’t have to depend so much on my own limited experience, although I’d had more by that age than some, since I was raising a family before I finished high school and delayed college a while, etc.). A lot of what I wrote about down there turned out to be research for a few short stories and some chapters in The Heaven of Mercury. But, no, I was a fiction writer first, newspaper reporter second, and only for a few years. Journalism sustained me through a period when I couldn’t really write fiction and wasn’t sure I wanted to write fiction anymore. It did help to confirm for me that I did want to write fiction again. Those ‘factual’ stories were good for the imagination.

Redd: What did your family teach you about storytelling?

Watson: I guess it’s a cliché, the old saw about Southern storytellers. But it’s true, too. I had a lot of good storytellers in my family. A lot of it came in the form of anecdote. But the characters were always filled-out, described in a way that defined their humanity, so that the anecdote as it were had the impact of something larger, deeper. Sometimes, when you got more than just an anecdote, you realized, even if you didn’t realize it at the time, that the storyteller was selecting, something a writer has to do all the time, selecting the essential story of that person’s life from all the rest of it, because that particular story was the defining one. 

An example, I guess, would be the times my mother described to me the terrible effect the Great Depression had on her father, and how he would sit by the fireplace into the evening talking to himself, while she sat on the floor next to him and rolled him cigarettes that he would smoke while talking to himself, toss them into the fire, let her roll and hand him another. She said he had imaginary conversations with people, or maybe spoke out recreated conversations he’d had with people. Grievances. Laments. I’m using this in a novel I’m working on now, because you can see how much story is behind a little moment like that, an anecdote like that. It’s filled with the heavy atmosphere of what that man was living through at the time.

Redd: Mississippi is the setting of most of your stories, yet you haven’t lived here in some time. How do you keep the place fresh in your memory?

Watson: I’ll be honest. It’s getting harder to do that. Partly age, partly being away for nearly a decade now. I’ve begun some work set out here in Wyoming. I’m making notes, have started a couple of stories set out here. Maybe notes on a novel. But I’m slow to adapt, unlike some of my friends who are able to write about a new place fairly soon after arrival. In the meantime, I’m still working on things that happen or happened back home. It’s harder to maintain a sense of the immediacy that you need, require. I guess my ideal day job would involve teaching here in the fall, teaching at a Southern university in the winter and spring. Any takers down home?

Redd: Many of your stories spawn from narrators with failing or fading memories. I think of the narrator of “Alamo Plaza.” Authors and their narrators can both suffer from the same trouble. Do you feel that the erosion of memory provides the perfect soil for good fiction?

Watson: Absolutely. That erosion is inevitable, anyway, to a greater or lesser degree depending upon your relationship to the particular memory.

Redd: The decay of memory can also be haunting. Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Some of your characters are ghosts who walk on the Earth, as if passing away doesn’t mean that one is dead in any final sense. Why are you drawn to these other otherworldly characters?

Watson: I guess I do have a few characters like that, some more so than others. I wonder if you’re thinking of The Heaven of Mercury, in particular the chapter in which Birdie dies while a mockingbird is singing outside her window and she passes through the mockingbird’s song into death. The following Birdie chapter describes her moving as a ghost through the world, into her past, into places that marked her life. I had a notion to describe the micro-moment or -moments in the mind between life and death, imagining what that would be like. But all the characters in that book are either haunted by the past or cannot escape its insistent presence and influence on the present and their sense of the future. I suppose it was my way of trying to get at the strangeness of living in the present and the corporeal, which often seems otherworldly, especially if you are living with the past haunting you all the time.

Memory, memory in life and in the making of fiction, though, is really a subject unto itself, isn’t it? When we talk about the decay of memory, we’re talking about something complex and elusive, because the transformation of an event into memory is just that, a transformation of some kind. We make an event into a story and we store it in a part of our mind that is not very well understood – as I understand it. The fact that various witnesses of an event may remember it differently says something about the nature of memory, right? Even a few minutes after the automobile accident, various witnesses report seeing the same event in subtly various ways. My editor at The Montgomery Advertiser, Bill Brown, used to say that we report the truth as we understand it. So there you have an interesting link to journalism and fiction.

Redd: You’ve said you had more fun writing Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives than any of your other writing. Would you describe that fresh and exhilarating method of envisioning the novella that finally allowed you access to the story?

Watson: I was having trouble with a novel, so I tried my hand at short stories again, as a break, a relief, and decided I was by God going to have fun doing it.  I had written, in one form or another, the beginning of the title story in Aliens many times, up until the point before the escaped inmates from the asylum show up in the young married couples’ apartment. I finally brought in these alien characters who could inhabit the bodies of various people in order to spy on and/or make contact with the young couple, who’d attracted their interest. Delicate hand on the tone control was essential here. During the visit by the escaped asylum patients, who are inhabited by the aliens at that moment, they put the young couple into a kind of coma state in which they each dream out – in a very realistic, Star Trek holodeck kind of way – the rest of their lives together. The young man and young woman envision very different scenarios, and when they awaken they realize their young marriage isn’t going to work out at all. And their parents have the two-day-old marriage annulled, in any case.

I know it sounds odd that I would write a novella that uses elements of science fiction. For a while, I couldn’t find the tone, or angle, to make my idea playfully and meaningfully workable instead of just silly. But I was trying to work more in the way that Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse-5, in which he bends realism to include not only a realistic variation on the notion of time travel, but also actual alien abduction and intervention in human lives. And it’s not pure sci-fi. I forget the term for science fiction that pretty much makes up the ‘science’ that’s behind what happens in the story—I think it’s Sci-Fi Soap Opera, odd term. It’s funny to me that several people, even interviewers and reviewers, have assumed that the aliens in the story aren’t really aliens, that what happens to the couple doesn’t involve an alien intervention. I assume they thought or think I wouldn’t attempt something that borrows from the sci-fi genre in such a flat-out, shameless manner. I got the sense they were embarrassed for me, and wanted to give me a chance to talk my way out of it. But no, I was borrowing sci-fi, shamelessly, and I enjoyed it. Some readers think the story is some of my best work. Others think it’s silly and somewhat on the level of a “Twilight Zone” episode. But I stand by it.

For me, this approach to writing the story provided a way to describe the disappointment I experienced (without going into something too close to memoir) when my first marriage, which was also a teenage marriage, an elopement, went so badly awry that it seemed incomprehensible and debilitating. It took me a couple of decades to get over it, and I’m not sure I can say that I ever really did get over it. It changed me, my life, my whole way of understanding or not understanding myself. Like the young man in the Aliens novella, my life seemed alien and unnavigable. I felt like I had ruined my own life and my wife’s and young son’s lives as well. In fact, my older son’s mother has never forgiven me, to this day, for failing that marriage. How could I not try to write about something so life-changing and devastating? But I couldn’t just write it as it happened. I couldn’t because it was too difficult, and because it wouldn’t have been fair to my first wife to do so. To write things as they actually happened beyond the elopement seemed too much an invasion of privacy, and embarrassing. So the aliens’ psychological abduction, if you will, which was ultimately an intervention, was or is a metaphor for the way real-life marriages can go awry in such confusing and emotionally devastating ways. I was exhilarated because I believed and still believe that this metaphor is emotionally accurate in the story. So, when I say I was overjoyed, I suppose that involves the idea of it being a long-awaited cathartic experience. Akin to the way a Christian feels when he or she believes he or she has been “saved” or “reborn.” Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but it really did allow me to get something out of my system that had seemed trapped there for a very long time.

Redd: Aliens is your third published book. Nearly two decades after the publication of Last Days of the Dog Men, how do you feel your writing has changed?

Watson: I try to write with a little more stylistic restraint, to be more aware of when I might be slipping into a bit too much flair. Take what my former teacher Barry Hannah would have called the plume out of my hat, so to speak. But I’m not so guilty of that in Dog-Men as I am in The Heaven of Mercury.

Also, lately, I’ve written some stories, like “Aliens,” that aren’t quite as traditional in form as my earliest work. I’m trying to keep myself entertained, I suppose. I don’t want to write the same story over and over again, although all writers do that, inevitably, to one degree or another. I just don’t want to bore myself or others, if I can avoid it. I have few enough readers, as it is. No reason to drive away any more, you know. But you do the best you can. If anyone reads something I’ve written and says or thinks, “That’s a Brad Watson story,” I want them to have a hard time defining just what they mean by that.

A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize and finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and scholarship has appeared in The Oxford AmericanNew Orleans Review, Fifth WednesdayFiction SoutheastDeep South Magazine, and Briefly Noted. He is the former editor of the Prairie Schooner blog.