With the recent passing of our friend Barry Hannah — and in recent years such beloved writers as Larry Brown, Willie Morris and Eudora Welty — we're hearing new conversation about the state of Mississippi letters. Who are the new generation of writers rising to fill the enormous shoes of the great authors who helped forge our state's heralded literary tradition?
There are plenty out there, still young in their careers, who are publishing fine work, carrying the torch for this proud tradition. Among the first we mention when asked about the new generation is Brad Watson, a former student of Hannah's and a native of Meridian. He has published three books with W.W. Norton — his 1996 debut story collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men, met with considerable fanfare by readers and critics who placed him in line with the Faulkner-Hannah-Brown Southern literary tradition; 2002's National Book Award finalist The Heaven of Mercury, a terrific and off-beat novel of star-crossed lovers in small-town Mississippi, one of Turnrow's favorite books of the decade; and the latest, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which brings him to Turnrow this Thursday, April 1.
Watson's new book is a varied collection with a handful of stories that may stick in your mind forever. We've passed the by-now tattered advance copy around and have reached the consensus that stories like "Vacuum," "Visitation," "Water Dog God" and the title novella have staked their permanent claim in our literary imaginations. Passive readers may balk at these stories' darkness, more emotional than physical, but there is an honesty and humor that lend this book a playful melancholy. Through his characters and tone, he finds an accurate language to express the difficult and precise emotions riming the edge of loneliness and heartbreak without casting the reader into the fire. He manages to guide us often into the glorious shadowlands between ecstasy and despair, that hallowed ground where robust literature plays.
Our senior book fellow caught up with Watson in Laramie and posed a few questions about his new work and the writing life....
Turnrow Book Co.: How is
often imagine Wyoming as being serenely quiet and a bit
Brad Watson: I have stayed because of the landscape and the openness and the vistas. As Barry [Hannah] said, "In Mississippi, it is difficult to achieve a vista." Out here, it is not. It is windy. Not uncommon to take the dogs for a walk on the nearby patch of prairie and get hit with 50 mph gusts on a clear day. West of here is what they call the Big Hollow, the largest entirely wind-gouged valley in the USA. But yes, 500,000 square miles of state, 600,000 people, most of them in town. It's easy to get away and get quiet and calmer.
Turnrow: I imagine you got pretty well snowed in over the winter there in Laramie. Did you read any exceptional books you care to recommend?
Watson: Snowed in but also snowed under with teaching work and writing and other work. Last summer I read for the NEA grants, which took all summer and into the fall, then had a very busy school year from late August to ... ongoing. So most of my reading this year has been grant application fiction, books I've assigned my students to read, MFA applications, and so on. But in my class on 'innovative fiction' we've read So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell, a beautiful and ingenious memoir/novel; The Death of a Beekeeper, Lars Gustafsson, my favorite Scandinavian novel; Padgett Powell's new crazy novel The Interrogative Mood; The Lover, Marguerite Duras; Barry's Ray; Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son; stories by Joy Williams, Lydia Davis, Christine Schutt, Mark Richard, Gustafsson, Paul Bowles, Murakami, Ander Munson, Aleksander Hemon, Jamaica Kincaid, and parts of two Brautigan novels. I've read Glen Pourciau's fascinating, Iowa-prize-winning collection, Invite. On my bedside table, working on, is Stoner, by John Williams; Steve Yarbrough's new novel, Safe from the Neighbors; Ron Rash's Serena; Alyson Hagy's new collection, Ghosts of Wyoming; poems by H.L. Hix and Kate Northrop; Bruno Schultz; Danilo Kis; and many others I can't call up right now.
Turnrow: It's been a few years since The Heaven of Mercury. Do you have to pump yourself up for book tour, or is it something you enjoy? How are bookstores faring, generally, as seen in your travels?
Watson: I'm having a great time. Feeling a little overwhelmed sometimes, juggling a few too many things, but having fun. And for once, working on the next book, a novel, even as it goes on, which isn't easy, given school and book travel. The bookstores I've seen do seem to be doing well, which I think is testimony to the owners innovation and hard work against a tough, awful market.
Turnrow: This is you second story collection out of three books. Is this your preferred form?
Watson: I don't think so, although I'm probably better at the story than the novel because I've written dozens of stories and only a handful of novels, only one of which has worked out so far to my and my editor's satisfaction, but most of which are still in the works. I was surprised, though, at how much fun I had writing the stories and the novella in this collection. More fun than I've ever had writing, period.
Turnrow: The stories in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives seem to have shifted from a Mississippi or Southern setting. The place is not as distinct or essential to the characters and story. Does it have to do with being out West now? How crucial is sense of place to a story versus a novel?
Watson: I still think it crucial, although sometimes that sense of place, even if strong, may be kind of submerged in the story. It's very much NOT submerged in "Water Dog God" — which one early review idiotically typo'd "Water Dog Good," for God's sake — it's a teeming character. And I think it's there, recognizable if not named explicitly, in "Fallen Nellie," "Noon," and the title novella. And it seems very Southern to me. But I do think it's there, in a more submerged — or quietly integrated? — way in "Vacuum," "The Misses Moses," "Carl's Outside." "Terrible Argument" is set in Wyoming, although that is entirely in my mind aside from one utterance of the word "prairie." Interior space is much more important in that story, because it's about a couple of pretty tortured minds. And southern California's a pretty strong and obvious presence in "Visitation." I knew the main character was Southern, but didn't make anything of it because it was so much more important in that piece to get at his sense of confusion and loss and regret. He's living in the present in the exact opposite sense of what the psychologists refer to as the very positive "living in the moment." His moment is a kind of hell and he would like to find a way to get out.
Place probably is more important in a novel, as you're making a bigger world and the reader has more need to know where the world is, what it is. Although you can have very interior novels such as Padgett Powell's last two, in which place is definitely there but more through our recognition of the characters' origins, cultural and geographical, just from their language and sensibilities.
Turnrow: Earlier this month at the Oxford Conference for the Book, you sat on a panel about Barry Hannah and told some interesting stories about your time with him at the University of Alabama. You seemed to have been close to him during one his most devilish phases. How would you characterize the true Barry of that time versus the myth of a demented, unpredictable wildman?
Watson: As he has admitted in person and in print, Barry believed alcohol could put him in the perfect zone for his particular brilliant style, into his voice. As one person once said to me of As I Lay Dying, where you really are is in Faulkner's mind — so with Barry. But, as Barry also admitted, he had a hard time maintaining the balance — keeping himself in the zone and not barreling through it into a state of mind that was less under control — although I was always amazed that, no matter how far he fell out of absolute control, he was able to keep at least keep a finger-hold on what connected him to the brilliance, the ingenious vision and voice. Many times when he did wild things, when I was around or with him, he seemed kind of eerily under control: speeding down River Road in the MG like a stock car driver, under heavy influence, looking over and saying, "What's the matter, you afraid to die?" Or when, at 3 a.m., he calmly offered to break into my neighbor's apartment and shoot the stereo that was offending me with it's overly loud Big Band music. It was the timid, even cowardly students' fault, as far as I'm concerned, that bringing the gun — it was empty, for Christ's sake — into the classroom was offensive instead of instructive and/or entertaining. Barry loved guns as beautiful machines, and I don't think he ever shot anything with one, aside from cans and bottles, after his BB gun days as a boy. His writing about gun violence was an expression of outrage toward the actual violent, the destructive powerful, the stupid strong, the bully, the coward, the sneak. He never threatened me with a gun or a fist. He only ever threatened me with failure if I would not work hard enough at my writing. When I arrived in Tuscaloosa, I asked him if based on what he'd seen of my writing he thought I would do well. He looked over and said calmly, "Of course. We're going to make you a star. But you're gonna have to lose the tan."
I think when he was drinking, his criticism of younger writers' work was no more blunt or direct than when he wasn't drinking; from what I hear, it just got funnier, too. Once, when I was over at his place at 3 or 4 a.m., a lot of drinking going on, and admiring of a beautiful pistol, he suddenly seemed startled and said, "Are you hungry? Have you had anything to eat?" — he wasn't eating, himself, of course — "My god. Here." He went to the little refrigerator, pulled out a carton of something. "Here's some barbecue, real good stuff. Eat it, you need to eat." I opened it. It was some kind of barbecue, beginning to turn green. I ate it. I was fine.
Turnrow: From the standpoint of craft, how do you think knowing and studying
under Barry affected your work?
Watson: He always went straight to the story's main problem, said exactly what it was, and told you to address it. No bullshit, no padding, no petting or ego-stroking. Not to say that if he thought you were doing particularly well, he wouldn't tell you that, either in or out of class. But he never wasted your or his own time with pussyfooting around. I valued and still value that, although it seems harder for students these days to take it or accept it. It would be a lot better for all of us if they would. I learned that you work even when you're in bad shape, even if what comes out isn't what you'd hoped. When does it ever? But sometimes it's close. That you'd better know what you're trying to do, when you're writing, or else you're a sap or a fool. You'd better know what you think about something. There are values in this business, too.
Turnrow: Can we expect a novel next?
Watson: Already working on it, and hope to get a lot done on it this summer. Something I've been wanting to write about for a long time, something that's important, not just to me, in terms of subject. And I think the narrator's the right one, a good one, the right voice, and can see the story from the right angle and can tell it in his own good way. I hope I'm right. Took a long time to find that voice, so I hope it stays with me. I feel up to it.
We hope you'll make time to stop by and meet Brad Watson this Thursday, April 1, at a reception from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Stick around and hear him read from Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives at 5:30, and you can reserve a signed copy here.