This week longtime Ecotone contributor Brad Watson answers our Seven Questions and charms us with his distinctive humor and insight. His story “Alamo Plaza," about a family’s vacation in Gulfport, Mississippi, is one of our favorites to appear in the magazine. It won a PEN/O. Henry and now has a permanent home in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade.
What books are open on your desk right now?
Geoff Schmidt’s story collection, Out of Time (my students are reading it); a biography of William James (suggested by your own David Gessner); my wife Nell Hanley’s cento manuscript; Meg Pokrass’s new flash collection, Bird Envy; Jamie Kornegay’s forthcoming novel, Soil; Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. And some others a bit further off to the side. A couple of student theses.
If you could change one thing about a classic work of literature, what would it be?
I’d have Huck give Tom what-for when he pulls those shenanigans at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, instead of all that roundabout way of torturing Jim to achieve a phony redemption for Tom. A waste of time, and frustrating. Twain was self-publishing then, right? Well, he should have hired and trusted a good editor. Also, maybe a little more hoozah in that bed scene between Ishmael and Queequeg, don’t you think? It’s damn good as it is, but a devil in me wishes he’d pushed it a little further. Maybe just with dialog of some sort.
If you could spend a year writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?
In the American desert. Not too far from a very small town with one good bar and one good diner.
Name a book you bought for its cover.
I don’t think I bought it for its cover, but I would buy Duras’s The Lover for its cover, if I didn’t already own and know the book. That cover, contrasted with the opening section about a man coming up to her and saying, “Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravished.”
If you could adopt any fictional dog, which one would you choose and why?
Maybe Eggers’s dog in “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” although I think that our dog Hank (we didn’t know it was a cliché Western dog name when we named him, greenhorns) is already that dog.
How well do you have to know a place, if at all, to recreate it in writing?
It takes me a little (or a lot) longer than some writers I know. After nine years, I’ve written only a little bit about the West. I like to feel as if I’ve absorbed things in some way beyond my realization of it. I don’t want to find out I’ve been projecting without knowing. To the degree we can ever do that.
Typing or longhand? Both. Often, scenes in longhand typed later on. Occasionally an entire chapter or story longhand, typed later. I would like to do this all the time but too often start dashing it out on the screen before I even think about what/how I’m doing it.
Silence or music? Usually silence, although when I was drafting a novel (shelved for now) two years ago, I listened to one song by Dylan over and over, one by I think Schubert, one by Mozart. The Dylan song was “Things Have Changed.” I can’t recall the Schubert opus or the Mozart although both were piano concertos.
Morning or night? Morning, usually, until I’m deeply enough into something that I want to work on it all the time and badly enough to forgo the afternoon bourbon on the rocks. Then, morning and again in the evening.
E-reader or print? Print, although I will sometimes get an e-reader book to check it out, especially if I’m so curious I want to see it right away. But if I like it, I will then order the print volume.
Vowel or consonant? I love them both, and together. We are a threesome.
Train or plane? Train. I love traveling in the sleeper cars and being paired with strangers in the dining car. Too bad the food’s no good anymore.
Bookmark or dog-ear? Bookmark when I’m reading for pleasure; dog-ear when I’m teaching or reading to learn from someone whose work is astonishing me.
Cake or pie? Don’t eat much of either. Used to. My mom made the best pound cakes. And my Aunt Blanche made the best pecan pie. They’re both gone now.
Mountains or sea? It used to be the sea, overwhelmingly. I lived there a while. Winters in a deserted small beach town were exhilarating. Now I live in the mountains, and it’s the mountains. I still love the sea, but now the mountains are the staple, the sea is the reprieve, respite, relief.
Dog or cat? Dog. Have two. Cats are amusing, though. And useful, if you own a barn. A neighbor got ten for his, though, and the coyotes got ten. Since one of our dogs is a good mouser, no need for a cat, no need to sacrifice a good cat to the coyotes.
Brad Watson is the author of Last Days of the Dog-Men, The Heaven of Mercury, and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, in which “Alamo Plaza” appeared. The collection was awarded the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award and short-listed for the PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction. Recently Watson received the Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and teaches in the University of Wyoming MFA program in creative writing.