Brad Watson was born Wilton Brad Watson (#WiltonBWatson) in Meridian, Mississippi. He lived there until moving to Los Angeles after graduating high school, where he tried to get into the movies but ended up a Hollywood garbage man, instead. He’d married the summer between his junior and senior year at Meridian High School, and worked construction after school and on weekends to support the family. Since he’d done a lot of acting in school and Little Theater plays, his father and uncle suggested he give it a go in Hollywood, believing a contact they had out there could get him a job building movie studio sets. But he arrived shortly after the instigation of a SAG writer’s strike, the movie business shut down, and he worked a series of jobs (construction, selling fire alarms, changing truck tires, among them) before landing the job as sole employee, driver and bin-lugger, of Lucky Disposal, a one-truck garbage business owned by a colorful, hard-working Armenian immigrant, Zarko “Lucky” Dmirjian.
Brad and his wife and now one-year-and-three-months-old son Jason returned to Meridian after Brad’s older brother was killed in an accident, and Brad took over running a small bar his father had bought. The bar was called “Crazy Horse,” after the Neil Young band, and it served simple fare: canned American beer and 25-cent pool on a bar-sized table. After Brad’s negligent business practices bankrupted Crazy Horse, his family talked him into enrolling at Meridian Junior College – somewhat against his will, as he’d thought to get back into construction and work as a carpenter. But he did well at MJC, got into an honors English course taught by Niles “Buck” Thomas, a Southern literature scholar who’d studied with novelist Madison Jones (A Cry of Absence) at Auburn University. In that class, he first decided he would try to become a fiction writer.
The young marriage broke up soon after Brad moved the family to Starkville and enrolled at Mississippi State, and he lived incognito for a while in the school’s Married Housing apartments near campus, unable to afford unsubsidized housing. He studied fiction writing with the late Price Caldwell, whose story “Tarzan Meets the Department Head” was published in the 1977 edition of Best American Short Stories. Caldwell suggested he apply to the Master of Fine Arts program at Alabama, and since Tuscaloosa was (like Starkville) just a short drive from Meridian, enabling him to continue visiting his son Jason every other weekend, he applied. Also, he’d discovered the writing of Barry Hannah and relished the idea of working with the man Truman Capote would later call “the maddest writer in America.”
He got into the program at Alabama and spent some years there working with Hannah, then Chuck Kinder, then Allen Wier and Don Hendrie, Jr. When he left, having published a few short stories in small magazines, he moved to the Alabama Gulf Coast and worked as a reporter. He gave up writing fiction for several years, dissatisfied with his own work. He moved up to coastal correspondent for The Montgomery Advertiser, then State Editor for that paper, before leaving newspaper work for a stint at an ad agency. A year later, he returned to Tuscaloosa, and taught as an adjunct while trying to write short stories, again. It would be another eight years before he was able to publish his first book, Last Days of the Dog-Men (Norton, 1996), which won The Sue Kaufmann Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award. The book also helped him land a five-year appointment as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard University, where he wrote The Heaven of Mercury (Norton, 2002). Mercury was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won (along with Lee Smith) The Southern Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction, and the Award in Fiction from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
From there, Brad moved around as visiting writer-in-resident at several schools – The University of West Florida, Alabama-Birmingham, Ole Miss, and The University of California – Irvine – before accepting a job in the new MFA program at The University of Wyoming, where he still teaches now.
In 2010, he set aside work on a novel and completed the stories for Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (Norton, 2010), which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction, and earned him his second Award in Fiction from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
Since 2002, Brad had been trying to write a novel inspired by the difficult life of his maternal great-aunt Mary Ellis (nicknamed Jane) Clay, 1888-1975. But work on the book proved difficult for a number of reasons, so there were several false starts. After working on drafts of several other books along the way, he determined in 2012 to finish the book inspired by his great aunt, one way or another, and spent three years working on nothing else (aside from his teaching and building fences on a small horse property he and his wife Nell Hanley purchased in 2013). He finished in the fall of 2015, and MISS JANE will be released by W.W. Norton on July 12, 2016.
He hopes to return to one of those novels he worked on while struggling with early drafts of MISS JANE, as well as work on a collection of linked stories, two of which have been published, in Granta (2010) and The New Yorker (2014).
In addition to the awards listed above, Brad has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Marfa residency from the Lannan Foundation, a residency from the Aspen Institute, a Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and an Award in Letters from the American Institute of Arts and Letters.
He’s proud father to two extraordinary sons, the above-mentioned Jason as well as Owen, currently a student at The University of Wyoming, and is proud grandfather to Jason and wife Katie’s magnificent and talented daughter, Maggie. He is married to writer and horse trainer Nell Hanley (to whom Barry Hannah used to refer as “the lovely Nell”), who, in addition to a whole lot of other things, cares for their (her) five horses on their property on the windy plains just south of Laramie.
On growing up in Meridian, Mississippi
Meridian was good and not so good. Good in that it’s a quiet little town with beautiful old turn of the century downtown buildings, a slow pace of life, lots of friendly people. Not so good in that there wasn’t a lot to do for teens, so we spent a lot of time drinking too much beer and crashing our cars and motorcycles. There was a great Little Theater, though, that I got involved in during high school, where you’d meet interesting people from the Navy Air Station just outside of town. May be why I tried to become a Navy pilot after graduate school.
It was a place full of your great assortment of characters, many of whom I got to meet via my status as a fourteen-year-old curbside beer salesman, which gave me access to miscreants and seedy old folks of various kinds. They all had stories, or they lived them out violently, tragically, comically.
Interview in Fiction Writers Review November 24, 2010 by Lydia Fitzpatrick
On living in Wyoming
Before I moved to Wyoming in 2005, I was – like a lot of people outside this region, it turns out – not quite sure just where it was. As for its character, no idea. We have our stereotypical notions of better-known states like Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. They exist in our imaginations as real places of this or that kind. I don’t think you can say the same about Wyoming. For a couple of years, almost everyone who called or emailed would ask, ‘How’s Montana?’ They couldn’t ever quite remember that I was in Wyoming. It’s like a state covered with one of those mythical invisibility suits. You look at it, but you don’t see it, you don’t really register that it’s there – or you do, because it’s beautiful, but you think it’s Montana. I’d bet that a lot of people who vacation in Jackson Hole don’t really think of the fact that it’s in Wyoming, most of the time. As soon as they get off the plane and onto a pair of skis, they think they’re at a resort somewhere in western Colorado. They can’t quite fathom, really, that the place is in Wyoming, because no one can quite ever remember that Wyoming exists.
On Dogs, swimming pools, cheap motels, and babies
I like most dogs, and love some, especially my own (as it is with most people and children, as well). I hate all swimming pools except saltwater pools, because of the chlorine—feels like you’re bathing in bleach. I’ve spent far, far too many nights in cheap motels for one reason or another and if I could avoid it forever more I would, but I know that I can’t. I’ve been father to two babies, now older of course, and being a father—married or divorced—has been one of the most interesting, loving, and terrifying experiences in my life. So, of course, I write about it.
Interview by Susannah Felts, Chapter 16 April 22, 2011
We have two dogs now but actually they’re the first dogs I could call my own. My brother had a couple of dogs while we were growing up, but they were HIS dogs. I had a cat along with my second marriage, the greatest fat cat in the world, who was much like a dog and who liked to box the ears of small dogs just for fun and out of meanness. He came when you whistled.
Fictionaut Sep 29, 2010
On how long it takes him to write a short story
Anywhere from one day to 30 years.
On why he ran off to Hollywood to become an actor
“My dad thought that since I’d screwed up my future, I should go for broke.”
Interview with Susannah Felts, Published in Chapter 16 April 22, 2011
On day jobs
It’s always a struggle to balance writing and the day job, even when you have one of the better teaching jobs (if you put anything into it). I’m not a naturally organized or efficient person, so that makes it all the worse. Sometimes it’s harder to write as a teacher than it was as an ad writer or PR writer. The labor jobs, you really don’t have much energy left for writing during the week, so you hope you will be given the weekends by your spouse or partner.
I spent many years thinking about the possibility of the writer’s ideal day job. Really, I think I have to agree with what Shelby Foote once said to me, after criticizing me for taking a teaching job at Harvard. He said, “Why in the hell would you want to do something like that? If I had to work a job, I’d pump gas or something.” I was too embarrassed to say that I was already knuckled under to conventional bogus burdens such as health insurance, etc. And the truth is I’ve had more time to spend as a writer when I was a garbage man (wish I’d actually been a writer then, instead of an aspiring movie actor), or ditch digger on the construction site, hauling garbage away and such, or pumping aviation fuel at the local airport in Tuscaloosa – even if they were physically more demanding. Problem is, the airport job for instance, which I loved, paid just five dollars an hour and I had rent, child support, and so on. The longer a writer can put off succumbing to the so-called essentials in “contemporary society,” and the accompanying anxiety it all creates, the better.
Interview by Lydia Fitzpatrick in Fiction Writers Review November 24, 2010
On what he dislikes most (aside from day jobs)
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.
From “Making the Little Monsters Walk” Interview by Richard Farrel in Numero Cinq Vol. II, No. 12, December 2011
One of the “Watson” Poems, by Michael Pettit
It goes time, indolence, boredom,
depression and Watson figures his way out
is at twice the speed of sound. It’s booze
tonight though, sitting home with thoughts
of Navy jets, Mach II, and the blues
he’ll leave behind like the sudden sonic boom
that shatters the farmer’s rain gauges,
drives his milk cows and wife crazy.
Watson uncorks his bottle, already over
the next flat state, delighted and busy
doing a swift 1,500 miles per hour.
Glassy-eyed, he turns the pages
of a glossy book: F-104 Starfighters,
the XP-86 Sabre jet, an F-4 Phantom.
Behind each dark-tinted canopy
he sees his own face: composed, handsome,
heroic. And it’s there amid the debris
of an airshow disaster, the four fires
on the desert, the four perfect black
columns of smoke. O to be a Blue Angel
burning, becoming wholly and finally air!
Watson knows how, step by step, the soul
can die in the living body. He’ll make sure
they go together, and when they do, go quick.
From Blue Angel: Being the Sacred and Profane Life and Times of Watson, Founded on Fact, by Michael Pettit.