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.”
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’ 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’ 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?