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MSU alumnus nominated for PEN/Faulkner

July 14, 2011

By KATE SALTER
sdnsubmitnews@yahoo.com

To consider the great figures of Mississippi literature is to simultaneously consider some of the most notable authors in all of American letters.
The Magnolia State is as rich in talented writers as it is cotton, catfish and white-tailed deer.
And these writers’ talent has not gone unnoticed by both national and international awards committees.
Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Richard Wright, Larry Brown, Shelby Foote, Margaret Walker Alexander and Richard Ford are just a few of Mississippi’s authors who have garnered nominations and prizes including but certainly not limited to the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the Nobel Prize in Literature.
And there’s one more name on that laudable list — a name which Starkville residents and everyone associated with Mississippi State University can be proud.
Brad Watson, writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming and Meridian native, graduated from MSU in 1978 with a degree in English. He then received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Alabama, where he later returned to teach in 1988 after working in the newspaper business on the Alabama Gulf Coast. In addition to the teaching post at Alabama, Watson also served as the writer-in-residence at the University of West Florida, the University of California-Irvine, and the University of Mississippi, where he held the coveted Grisham Writer-in-Residence position. He has been at Wyoming since 2005, and was recently named one of four finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction. The nomination for this award, which was founded in 1981, places him in company with former nominees and American literary icons such as John Updike and Philip Roth.
For Watson, the PEN/Faulkner nod signified not only personal success, but the continued importance of short fiction in particular.
“Although the award may not get the flashy press the Pulitzer gets, it meant and means a lot to me for my book to be in there with the others,” Watson said. “And for the judges to recognize short stories equally with novels in this particular year is significant, in my mind. This is a time when commercial publishers have less and less desire to risk publishing collections, so for major awards to include collections in their lists is important and heartening.”
Although Watson’s previous short story collection, 2005’s “Last Days of the Dog-men,” received such accolades as the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Watson — also the author of a 2002 National Book Award-finalist novel, “The Heaven of Mercury” —  believes “Aliens” exemplified his improving skills and the importance of luck.
“It always takes some luck, no matter how good the writing,” he said. “I hope the quality of the writing stood out. That’s all you can hope for, if you’re writing what they call literary fiction, competing against thrillers and mystery series and best-selling non-fiction … I think the writing is tighter, less self-indulgent in certain ways. I hope I’m showing a more skillful hand all around.”
Apart from good fortune and artistic development, Watson attributes his experiences in Starkville and at MSU to his professional success, especially the close relationships he formed within the MSU English Department while serving as a student worker there.
“The English faculty was excellent, and I like small college town life,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the cheap meals at Starkville Café and the old cafeteria in the Union, I might have evaporated into the air in starvation.”
One figure in particular stands out to Watson in terms of influence during his time at MSU — a time in which Watson began seriously perfecting his writing.
“I worked with Price Caldwell, a great writer who encouraged me and let me know when I was good and not good,” he said. “It was while at State that I wrote my first tall batch of short stories, not good ones but stories written with so much desire to be good. I’d stay up all night writing stories, show them to Price, get the verdict, write another one. It was a kind of furnace for me, at the time. Invaluable. And, although I had good friends, I had a lot of alone time, too, which any writer has to find.”
Apart from the sustenance he received from the cafeteria and the Starkville Cafe, Watson has an exhaustive list of favorite spots on campus at MSU and in the Starkville area which provided him quiet places to both work and relax — both of which he considers important activities for a productive writer.
Watson said, “[I went] up in the old bare stacks in the library before its renovation to study and just think; going out to the Refuge to refill the well; classes with my favorite English, history and French professors; walking the old tree-lined streets of the neighborhoods at night, thinking; Len-Lews; trips to the Woodpile (and back), skinny-dipping in the pond that’s now just off the highway to Columbus but then was secluded down a dirt and gravel road; walking the campus, afternoons and evenings, especially the grove beneath the president’s mansion and the pond there. Many more.”
Like a great deal of prospective university students, Watson decided to attend State based on strong family connections. And those ties carried through to the next generation.
“My older son Jason graduated from State in forestry, too,” said Watson.
Although his son didn’t follow his father’s career path, Watson’s position at the University of Wyoming has helped him foster young students with writing aspirations. As the popularity of collegiate writing programs has grown, Watson says that his duty as an instructor can only go so far.
“Writing teachers can’t make it happen; they can only take what you give them and help you see what you have and what you don’t,” he said, “... (and) encourage you in the right directions, discourage the wrong ones. It’s not like teaching math or science, but there is a discipline.”
He added writing programs are best suited for writers who have worked on their craft in the past.
“You need a certain amount of maturity as a writer to really take best advantage of the writing programs,” Watson said. “The early classes for undergraduates are good, too, ... in limited measure — just so that you can have someone help you develop that sense of critical self-awareness you need to make the first leap from awfulness to mediocrity; or, to be kinder, from ignorance to the beginnings of a more intelligent and tough-minded approach to it all. And to make you read like a writer, and read widely.”
Watson advises area writers who may feel overshadowed by the success of native Mississippians such as Faulkner and Welty to view their legacies as a constructive lesson for the future.
“You come out of your place, and such a rich literary history shouldn’t be thought of as a burden; it should be an education, a history that informs what comes next,” he said.
Watson also encouraged area writers to remember their most important tool is self-reliance.
He said, “[A] writer doesn’t need much in terms of resources beyond his or her own experience and a little bit of research and reading. I think it’s nonsense to think we’re at a disadvantage vis-a-vis urban writers. I don’t understand why Southern writers move to New York … even though I think writing at a remove can give a new perspective on the native place. But why not do it in someplace cheaper than New York?”
And while a larger city may provide of wealth of support for aspiring writers, Starkville is far from devoid of community-sponsored opportunities for artistic enrichment. Although his personal involvement with them is limited due to time constraints, Watson spoke positively of community-based arts programs that support writing, such as the Starkville Community Theatre’s Fourth Fridays and the Starkville Writer’s Group which meets on Saturday mornings at the Book Mart.
“The best thing about them is friends reading one another’s work and telling one another the truth about how to make it better and as interesting as it can be,” he said.
Watson is busy exploring his own new interests as he begins work on his next book. His next novel will tackle the complex world of Southern politics.
“[It’s] a novel set during the early 1970s civil rights troubles,” he said.
Watson is also at work on a few short stories. 
As his own body of work flourishes and expands, Watson considers his place in the fabric of Mississippi — and more broadly, Southern — literature. He advises aspiring writers in the Starkville and MSU community, and throughout Mississippi to view the examples set forth by Faulkner, Welty and others as positive reinforcement and not as a cumbersome obstacle.
“You come out of your place, and such a rich literary history shouldn’t be thought of as a burden; it should be an education, a history that informs what comes next,” he said.
Although Southern literature is historically marked by its characteristic sense of place, literary critics struggle today to define contemporary Southern literature under those same parameters. More specifically, the agrarian Mississippi in which Faulkner matriculated no longer exists. Through modern advances, the South relies far more on technology and industry than ever, and with increased connectivity with other parts of the world through television, Internet and highly developed modes of physical transportation, the region is arguably far less distinct. In this changing environment, Watson said he still believes Southern fiction to have a unique place in the wider scope of literature.
Watson said, “Writers had better step up and try to figure out just who and what the South is now as opposed to 40 or 50 years ago. It has changed, is changing and it’s hard to grasp just how. Obviously, [it’s] more metropolitan, and the big cities are ... more “American” than Southern in ways that are probably a mixture of the superficial and the significant. 
As far as which issues Southern writers should address as this young century progresses, Watson says as far as his own fiction is concerned, he believes “it’s time to write seriously about race relations, civil rights, our recent history in that area. And I think our novelists probably should be writing more seriously about Mississippi/Southern politics. I’m trying to do that, now, but don’t know how successful I’ll be. I think (Tom) Franklin (novelist and writer-in-residence at Ole Miss) and (Steve) Yarbrough (former Grisham writer-in-residence at UM) are doing a good job of getting into that. We should follow such leads.”
If his award nominations are any indication, Watson himself is providing a significantly strong lead in the future of American fiction.

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