As a teenager, University of Wyoming creative-writing professor Brad Watson tested his talents in Hollywood. He wound up as a garbage man.
Thirty-five years later, he has left the garbage bins of Tinseltown behind and can count himself among America’s literary elite. For his 2010 short story collection, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” Watson was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Considered one of the most prestigious American literary honors, the peer-reviewed award is named for William Faulkner, and includes a $15,000 award.
Reached by phone during the university’s spring break, Watson (who has the gravelly voice of a road-weary country singer) said the nomination was “wonderful news.”
“To be a literary writer and receive this kind of recognition, you can’t aim for better,” he said.
He learned March 15 that he’d lost to writer Deborah Eisenberg, author of “The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.” He wasn’t surprised, and had expected either Eisenberg or Jennifer Egan, author of “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” to win.
The other nominees were Jaimy Gordon, author of “Lord of Misrule,” and Eric Puchner, who wrote “Model Home.” All five will be feted in Washington D.C. May 7; runners-up receive $5,000 each.
Watson, 55, who turned to writing after his failed year in Hollywood, is not new to literary prizes. His first collection of short stories, “Last Days of the Dog-Men,” won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His second work, the novel “The Heaven of Mercury,” received the Southern Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award in Fiction.
“Aliens” also was just picked as the winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters fiction award.
“I have to say everything has been big,” said Watson, who was vacationing in Walla Walla, Wash., part of a road-trip. “Each book has been awarded something. It’s been lovely.”
Watson’s road to writing has been long and filled with the kind of hardship that proves good literary fodder. Raised in Mississippi, he married after his junior year in high school and had a son soon after.
So, he and his young family moved to Hollywood.
“My dad thought that since I’d screwed up my future, I should go for broke,” Watson said, with a laugh. He had acted in school plays and local theater, but Hollywood studios went on strike just after Watson arrived in 1973. So he did odd jobs, including trash-collecting.
Watson returned with his family to Mississippi — humbled. His parents talked him into enrolling at Meridian Junior College. To his surprise, he scored high on an English test and landed in honors English.
“It was a complete surprise. I hadn’t thought it was something in the realm of possibility,” he said.
Watson, whose fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and been reviewed well by The New York Times Book Review, was not much of a reader growing up.
“I read eclectically,” he said. “I didn’t read seriously. We didn’t have a lot of books in the house. I read trash. I read by accident. I read ‘The Exorcist’ in Hollywood and some old detective novels between jobs.”
That changed. In the honors English class, Watson read his first Faulkner story, his first Flannery O’Connor, his first Robert Penn Warren. He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in English from Mississippi State University in 1978, followed by a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Alabama.
His marriage did not make it. Watson married again and had a second son (now 17, his first is 38) but that marriage also didn’t last. He’s now in a relationship with a colleague in UW’s English Department.
Watson’s students in UW’s creative writing program are impressed with his literary success — in their own way. “In their own words, they’d say they are ‘psyched,’” said Watson.
Will they listen more? “I doubt that,” he laughed.
In Walla Walla, Watson was grading papers but also making time for fiction. He has two novels, one possible short story and one short-story-morphing-into-a-novel in the works.
“I always have more projects going than I ought to,” he said. “I wish I was like some of my colleagues or even my students who can remain focused on one thing and see it through. Whenever I’ve tried to do it, I can’t. It’s a character flaw.”
He doesn’t call himself a slow writer but “an infrequent finisher.” His personal standards are exacting. About a novel in the works (inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Good Country People”), Watson said: “There’s some good.” He pauses. “Uneven is what I’d say. I’m playing around with it. … But, I don’t know, this may not amount to anything.”
“I tell my students, ‘You have to be somewhat thick skinned to improve,’” he said.
Watson came to Laramie to teach in 2005 after a search for jobs in the Southwest didn’t pan out.
He visited in January.
“I knew nothing about Wyoming. I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ It was a little desolate. But they took me to Vedauwoo and Centennial into the Snowies. I thought, ‘My God, I’ve never seen anything like that.’”
An avid hiker, biker and snowshoer, Watson appreciates Wyoming’s austere beauty and lack of congestion. “I’ve had a lot of ‘I can’t believe where I live’ moments,” he said.
The PEN/Faulkner nomination comes with a big dose of publicity, and some worry Watson could be wooed to a bigger-name institution. He has taught as visiting faculty at Harvard University, the University of West Florida and the University of California-Irvine.
“I’m pretty happy,” he said. “There’s not another place I’d really want to go.”
“They’d have to offer a damn good deal.”
Susan Gray Gose is a freelance writer who lives in Lander with her husband Ben and two children, Lily and Gage. She has been managing editor of the Lander Journal, a correspondent for People magazine, an assistant editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a reporter for The News & Observer (N.C.) She also writes fiction.