The Rumpus Interview with Brad Watson

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Brad Watson’s new collection of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, is just out from Norton Books. Watson’s two previous books are the National Book Award-nominated The Heaven of Mercury (2002) and the collection Last Days of the Dog-Men (1996), which won the Sue Kauffman prize. The stories in Aliens have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, 2010. Originally from Meridian, Mississippi, he lives in Laramie and teaches at the University of Wyoming.

The late, great Barry Hannah, writing about The Heaven of Mercury, described Watson’s writing as a “sort of calm wail” and said, “Only the Irish geniuses wrote like this.”

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The Rumpus: When writers deal in family unhappiness they often wind up with stories that are described as “bleak.” Your new collection has several divorces, miscarriages, an argument that ends in bungled gunplay, a joint-custody visitation, even a touch of incest—and yet I can’t describe these stories as “bleak.” I wound up thinking that you weren’t writing about unhappiness so much as troubleshooting happiness—as in why-won’t-this-damn-thing-work?

How do you approach these subjects? How do you guard against a kind of expected bleakness when writing about them?

Brad Watson: I’ve actually been a little surprised and disappointed at a couple of early reviews that described the stories as ‘bleak’ or suggested they were too bleak; one reviewer even called the book (although she praised the stories, the writing) a ‘real bummer.’ Let me lay it on the line: When I finished this collection, I thought some of the stories in it were the funniest stuff I’ve ever written. In the past books, when there was humor, I would say it was definitely or particularly dark—that is, very grim humor with little relief or emotional release in it, or grotesque, such as when a bunch of guys become confused as to whether their barbeque meat is human or dog, instead of pork.

But in this book, is it not actually funny when the boy busts his balls jumping off the roof onto a rocky horse in order to prove a point, in spite of the dire condition of his parents’ marriage and their general domestic discord and unhappiness? Is it not funny when a man shoots himself in the foot just to prove a point and end a terrible argument, even though the marriage is indeed a terrible and terrifying one? Or when a couple of old maid sisters go through the ritual of proving the efficiency of their rental apartment’s toilet, with comic gravity, even though the demonstratee is a pretty wrecked-up guy just out of rehab and headed for divorce court? I think there is a pervasive sadness in these stories, because people are dealing with disappointment and loss, but sadness is beautiful if the person experiencing it embraces the sadness, loss, and survives, endures. And I do believe that, in several of the stories, the contrasting moments of humor or comic relief are much more at the fore than in the previous work.

Not to compare myself to the great story writer, himself, but I don’t think that Leonard Michael’s stories are bleak; though maybe he didn’t get accused of that because his stories are a lot funnier than mine, even though possibly darker, too. These people in my book are survivors, people working their way through these disappointments and losses. So if that’s what you mean by troubleshooting happiness, yes.

Rumpus: Nowhere is this “troubleshooting” quality more evident than in the remarkable title novella”Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives.” Without giving too much away, you’re able to use alien abduction to explore a teenage couple’s chances for happiness. Where did the idea come from? When you hit upon it, were all the possibilities apparent—or did they come upon you slowly?

Watson: I used a somewhat different version of the conceit in a novel I wrote and set aside in 2004, when I was writer-in-residence at Ole Miss. I don’t remember exactly when I came up with it, nor how. I wasn’t actually reading Vonnegut at the time, though of course I have read Slaughterhouse Five, where Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time,” a different phenomenon than mine but maybe somewhat related.

Tonally, as opposed to the way Vonnegut borrowed from sci-fi, I think I wanted to borrow a bit of the strange sweet sadness that’s in some of Brautigan’s better work—without undermining it, as he was wont to do. I do know that I’ve wanted for some time to do a little genre bending, or a little pick-pocketing from sci-fi in a realistic novel. As to the possibilities and my awareness of them, the idea did develop and change as I applied it to the novella in “Aliens.” Because the subjects of the experiments are the main characters (they were not, in the novel—maybe part of that novel’s problem), because I decided the experiments should be intrusive only in terms of the imagination, the effects upon self-awareness, the sobering effect of being forced to grapple with reality through the medium of something not conventionally ‘real’ at all. In the novel, the people were ‘disappeared,’ zapped into the lab, living out their holographic lives, but never waking, never returning. The idea as it worked itself out in “Aliens” has a much more sustaining resonance—I hope.

Rumpus: William Maxwell famously fought editors to keep his “thinking dog” in So Long, See You Tomorrow. John Cheever has a line about one of his own fictional dogs, “We know very little about the canine sense of intelligence and nothing at all about the canine sense of eternity…” Your first book of stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men had dogs a-plenty, yet here you are, years later, with more dogs—indeed in “Terrible Argument” the dog’s consciousness is important and then pervasive. Why dogs? What do they give you? Why did you first hit upon them?

Watson: I didn’t know that Cheever line, but love it, especially the eternity part. And I want to say up-front that So Long, See You Tomorrow is (as it is for many writers) one of my all-time favorite, most beloved novels. For the writing, for the blurring of memoir and fiction, for its imbedded exploration of how fiction is made from what little we have of memory or fact. Anyone writing or trying to be a writer should read it. But to your question: I did not have a dog to call my own dog until we moved to Wyoming; now we have two. When I wrote Dog-Men, I started trying to write a short novel that would include every dog story or anecdote I could fit into it, but I had no story or structure. I gathered a lot of material about dogs, and became a devoted observer of dogs, dogs and their people. The seed of the entire thing, though, was overhearing at a cocktail party an anecdote about someone who put her husband’s or lover’s dog to sleep as revenge for his infidelity. I was fascinated that someone could commit that kind of cruelty as revenge for a much more common (I’m not saying acceptable, but it’s not killing a living creature loved by another or other creatures). I wrote an early draft of the book’s title story, then tried to write the novel, then broke out the good stories from that project into eight stories. I was careful in Dog-Men not to anthropomorphize, even to the point of trying to represent the dog’s inner life in “Seeing Eye” purely in terms of sensory perception. I do love what Maxwell does with the dog in So Long, and I think that the dog somehow is a variation on Maxwell’s own consciousness in the story.

Although I love Paul Auster’s work, I was not fond of Timbuktu, in which the narrator is a kind of talking dog—I kind of thought that made it impossible for me to enter the narrative. That said, I contradict myself by admitting that I love Dave Eggers’s story, “After I Was Thrown into The River And Before I Drowned,” which is narrated by a dog, a heartbreaking and hilarious dog. But maybe Eggers’s dog is simply more believable, in terms of convincing us of his particular appropriation of a human-ish consciousness. You either make that kind of thing work, or not. In the case of my story, “Terrible Argument,” I decided to risk going into the dog’s point of view near the end (with hints of that coming earlier on) because it seemed the best way to humanize this terrible couple, ironically.

Rumpus: Just as your work deals in unhappiness without seeming bleak, your work is frequently set in an identifiable South, but you don’t seem interested in the South for its own sake. Are these stories about the South because that’s what’s been put in front of you? And, as you’ve spent the past few years in Wyoming, does that mean we’ll soon be seeing that landscape in your work?

Watson: I’m not terribly interested in the question, what makes a person or a story or novel or poem ‘southern.’ Too often when you get into answering that question (which I realize is not your question), you start to guess or lie or mimic other’s answers or accidentally slip into your own version of (without being aware of it until a horrifying ‘later’) Southern clichés or even more horrifying, an only quasi-conscious (at best) defense of them.

Joy Williams, one of my favorite writers, is compared to Flannery O’Connor all the time, although she was raised in Maine by a Congregational minister and his minister wife. It’s their dagger-deep intelligence and astonishing clear understanding of what’s really going on and the complete lack of compunction about writing it and the mastery of language and the way fiction can work that make them similar. And Marquez read Faulkner, right? Everyone did, and if one did not despise his work one absorbed something of it and figured out how to deal with that. I imagine that if O’Connor’s salesman (if I recall correctly) father had been transferred to central Illinois before he died, and her mother had not had a Georgia farm to move back home to, we’d have gotten some vintage fiercely hilarious stories about people in Maxwell’s rural and small town Illinois. So yes, I write stories mostly set in the south because I know it best, the landscape and people and towns and to some small degree the cities (oddly, I know Boston better than I know Atlanta or Atlanta or Memphis, I think, but I haven’t had much urge to write urban settings, don’t know why). It is the dominant place in my memory and imagination. But rarely have I felt the need (and never the urge) to emphasize the ‘Southernness’ of place for the sake of its Southernness. And I have a backlog of stories that, in my head, take place in the south. I want to write them first. I don’t know if I’ll ever write about Wyoming, although I’d like to become fluent enough one day to do that. But right now my head is still full of unwritten stories that take place in the south.

Rumpus: That said, you’re from Meridian, Mississippi and wrote about a version of Meridian—as Mercury, MS—in your novel, The Heaven of Mercury. For those outside the South the differences are probably not terribly noticeable, but to me your Mississippi seems different in small but important ways (the coastal flora and fauna, the coastal culture, and an almost sense of Alabama) from the “official” literary landscape of Mississippi: the Delta and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha.

What is your sense of your South in contrast to other Southern writing?

Watson: My slight experience with the Delta and people from there, however slight, convinces me that it’s kind of like a foreign country even within Mississippi. There was a powerful isolation there, I think, because of the vast farms or plantations, the heavy presence of and great dependence upon slavery, and something about its flatness, that created the kind of culture-within-a-culture that’s akin to the way Appalachia is so different from the deep south or the mid-Atlantic coastal states or Pennsylvania, etc. It seems impenetrable to me, almost, although it’s not, since writers like Welty (from Jackson, just left of center toward the lower Delta in the state) understood it. If you’re a Mississippian, and you live your whole life there, and you spend a lot of time in the Delta, you might come to understand it and absorb some sense of kinship. North Mississippi, Faulkner’s country, is much more similar to the piney woods area I grew up in. In his case, it’s a matter of historical perspective/setting and Faulkner’s own distinctive internalization of that history and his literary, cultural, and political interests or even preoccupations or obsessions.

In my experience—which I think is not unusual—the Gulf Coast is a place that many inlanders stake a partial claim to and have a particular fondness for because it was the easiest and most pleasant place to escape the claustrophobic feeling you got in that very hot, heavily humid, and often breezelessly suffocating Mississippi summer. So anyone who could afford it (and the Mississippi coast was the cheapest, thirty years ago) went to the Gulf every summer. It was like being let out of “the cooler” in a rural state prison. You knew it, intimately, in your own way, be damned if you were native to the sub-region or not. If you had a little more money, you could go to the Alabama or north Florida coasts. We spent time in both; more in Mississippi, but some in Gulf Shores, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida. Then, in the 1980s, I moved to the Alabama Gulf Coast to work as a reporter, did a lot of feature writing on the local history down there, and since I already felt a kind of belonging, it seemed natural to write about that area. In some ways, it seemed more natural for me to write about it than my native inland, maybe because I began to come of age as a writer down there, became more of an adult down there in general. I ended up putting in some six years down there, and for a time it felt more like home to me than did Meridian. And I do have an unfinished novel in the drawer that is set down there, so I’m not done with it yet. I once wondered if that would be my main place as a writer; but I’m less certain now than I was then about that. I do think it’s fairly wide-open, and that’s part of the appeal, yes. And it’s a very interesting place with a fascinating history and complex culture. Baldwin County Alabama is the largest county east of the Mississippi, I believe—or so someone told me recently.

Rumpus: A number of years ago you participated in a well-known audio roundtable with Larry Brown and Barry Hannah—both now no longer with us. In that conversation you speak of reading to get yourself going on the page. I’m interested in that—that feeling of listening to another writer and then playing your own riff, a feeling of improvisation and conversation with writers on the page. How does this work? What writers have worked or always work when you’re trying to get going?

Watson: It happens often and with a surprising (to me, anyway) variety of writers or work. When I read Lars Gustafsson or Per Petterson I’m reminded of and almost feel transported to the world of one of my novels-in-progress, set on the Gulf Coast and concerning an isolated man dealing with certain problems and contemplating them as well as a few mysterious or perplexing older (or dead) members of his extended family. The voice in my unfinished book is contemplative, the humor is understated and kind of wry or dark, and the narrative is highly internalized. And so when I read the Swedes or Norwegians I think of that story/manuscript and either want to get back to it or try to get back to it. It’s an on-going process and relationship. When I read Barry or Padgett Powell or Mark Richard I want to think about and clarify for myself just what my own voice is like on the page, and whether or not I’m listening to myself closely enough and being honest to myself in getting it down.

When I read Maxwell, I’m overwhelmed with what seems a beautiful sadness and I think it wells up in me what I think is a strong attraction to and kinship with the elegy—which I first recognized back in college, reading Beowulf, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. I am always a little peeved to hear writers young or older suggest that we don’t all borrow and steal from one another all the time, because that is the history of literature, for God’s sake. And now we have this movement that wants to borrow, swap, sample at will and without acknowledgement, seeming to claim that literature and writing are an even more and even extreme inherently collaborative and collective activities than we’ve ever acknowledged before. I don’t know just where I stand on this yet. I need to better understand just what they’re saying, what they mean, before I can understand really what’s going on. This of course involves the internet in a big way. And when I started writing, especially when I started trying to write, the old world of traditional publishing was still in place. I wanted in, but can’t deny that the difficulty of getting into that world was and still is extremely frustrating to young writers. In any case, I believe influence is strong, unavoidable, pervasive, even inevitable, and should be embraced.

Rumpus: Who have you been reading that all the rest of us should be reading (but are not)?

Watson: Well, I have my “I’d rather be reading Airships” bumper sticker, and am a member of the web group, “Get Barry Hannah’s books back into print.” I hope a lot of people are still reading Barry, and Larry Brown, and that the numbers will increase in the wake of their deaths. I think Joy Williams should be read and lionized at least as much as or more than some of her more famous contemporaries. When I read Joy Williams I resolve to pay closer attention to what I’m doing, sentence by sentence and moment by moment, and not get careless and fall into the habit of writing what would be the easier next sentence instead of the exactly right (and often surprising) next sentence. I love Lydia Davis’s fiction. I’m reading Stoner, by John Williams, recommended to me by Chris Batcheldor. Gustafsson, especially The Death of A Beekeeper. Oakley Hall’s Warlock seems to be making a comeback. People might think about reading their favorite Brautigans again, such as Trout Fishing in America or The Hawkline Monster, two of my favorites. Glen Pourciau, whose collection Invite won the ’08 Iowa award. I always wished I could write like Larry Brown, our beloved LB, but I couldn’t. Not that I can “write like” any of those writers nor wish to. I want to absorb great things from them into my own chemistry, if I can. We might all ought to read David Shield’s new book Reality Hunger. But this is a dangerous business. I apologize, apologize, cut out my eyes.

Rumpus: The eleven stories and one novella in Aliens in The Prime of Their Lives swing through—with their own take on—a number of very different conventions, both formal and thematic. To take a few: “Water Dog God” seems to be your riff on the Gothic of the Southern variety, “Ordinary Monsters” is a series of strange short episodes, and one of my own favorites, “The Misses Moses” is a lovely example of what used to be called a “sketch” before that term sunk under the weight of not seeming serious enough—I think it’s absolutely sufficient.

Could you say a little about the way these—and other stories—found their shape?

Watson: “Water Dog God” (which an early review typo’d “Water Dog Good,” which sounds like some kind of bad dialogue in an early western) is actually an older story, a story I wrote while frustrated with the story “A Blessing” in my first collection. I switched narrators and point of view (third to first), changed main characters, and came out of the room thinking, “This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever written.” Then I went back to my original version of “A Blessing” and fixed it up. It was years later I found “WDG” in the drawer, re-read it, and revised it, realizing it could be a good story. So, yes, it’s more gothic maybe because it’s from an earlier time in my writing life. But also, yes, it didn’t seem so connected to the tradition maybe because it grew out of another of my own stories more than something from, say, Faulkner or Welty or O’Connor. I think it was just a matter of imagination-isolation. And the place is a real place I know well, the home of a good friend, and in that and the earlier story place is huge in its influence in shaping the story.

“Ordinary Monsters” came out of my fairly brief interest in the short-short, the ultra-condensed short story. I taught a summer class in it to undergraduates and wrote along with them and a few of those were decent enough to keep on hand. One assignment was to write a story after watching Night of the Living Dead, which is where the title piece comes from in that bunch. Another (“Her Tribe”) was inspired by a beautiful little story by Janet Kauffman, “Women Over Bay City.” Another from an actual visit to the “Bodies” exhibit. And so on. After I’d written about 20 of these things, I realized that a handful of them had a fairly decent thematic unity to be found, and so I included them in the collection under the umbrella title.

“The Misses Moses” is one of those quiet little stories that you wonder if anyone will appreciate, so I’m pleased to know that you did appreciate it. I like it. I am usually timid about reading it in public because I think it won’t be appreciated in a public reading and people will think the whole collection is quiet and understated, which it is not.

As far as other stories in the collection, it’s as varied as a collection can be in terms of how the stories took shape. “Vacuum” grew entirely out of the first paragraph, which was a visual memory from my childhood associated with a strong emotional memory of shame. I wrote the first paragraph, and invention seemed to flow from that, and I was lucky that the story found its way in the kind of (for me) delightful internalization of the boys’ mental confusions and machinations.

“Noon” came from something a very tired OBGYN said to my second wife and me just before the birth of our son, which horrified us and led me to an obsessive need to imagine the lives of a couple who’d gone through that—but I grafted it onto our life in Tuscaloosa, in our town, in our house, in our lives, so the entire experience of writing that story was deeply emotional for me.

“Terrible Argument” was my attempt to take an archetypal problem—conflict in marriage—to its most absurd and tragicomic limits, hoping to keep the whole thing just barely contained within the plausible and acceptable.

And the title novella, well. I did run off with my pregnant teenage girlfriend in the summer between junior and senior year in high school, eloped, got married, all in secret. But I could never write about it. It was all too private, and too close, and because the marriage lasted only four years, too painful. And I did not want to write anything that would embarrass or compromise in any way our son’s mother or our son. When I hit upon the conceit of the aliens coming in to mess around with their heads and their whole experiment—with their own somewhat comically malevolent experiment—I found a way to get at the emotional content of that experience without being explicitly autobiographical. It was another story that, for me, was very important to write. And I had to find my own way to write it. I’ve always wished (like a lot of people) that I had the time on this earth to live several very different lives, anyway. This is the closest I or anyone else can get to that, I suppose, aside from being someone like Richard Burton. The English explorer, not the actor.

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Rumpus original art by André Eamiello.


Drew Johnson’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Swink, and StoryQuarterly and was cited in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009. Against his better judgment, he is working on a novel set partly in the Hindu Kush. More from this author →