Writer Brad Watson was born in Meridien, Mississippi and studied at Mississippi State University and received an MFA from the University of Alabama. He has been a journalist and English instructor and recently completed a five-year stint teaching creative writing at Harvard. His short fiction has been published in Story, Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review and Dog Stories. His short story collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men, won a Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His first novel is The Heaven of Mercury. Brad Watson and family have recently moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he teaches at the University of West Florida.
Robert Birnbaum: You are a long way from home, up here in Boston.
Brad Watson: Yeah, and sometimes it's felt very far away. I had days when I first got here when I got the dreads. I'd felt so displaced and alien. I was almost like a kid afraid to go out of my apartment.
RB: How long have you been living up here?
BW: It's been five years. I feel pretty acclimated now. But in the beginning it was tough. We moved up here and moved out of a house, a sprawling house in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. The house note was $450 a month.
BW: We moved into a tiny, two-bedroom apartment in Cambridge that was owned by Harvard and cost us $1450 a month.
RB: Sounds like a psychological experiment.
BW: We got rid of furniture and still couldn't fit everything in. I was really freaked out. We immediately moved to the Cape, to a temporary rental down there. That made it harder to get acclimated because I only came in two days a week. We had a beach house in East Denis the second, which was beautiful.
RB: You came up here to teach?
BW: That first book [Last Days of the Dog-Men] allowed me to apply for real creative-writing teaching jobs. I had worked in journalism and then I went back to adjunct teaching and I had to get another job after that because it wasn't paying well enough. I started writing public relations for the University of Alabama, did that for four years and then I got the book contract, and I went back to teaching in the English department for two years as a lecturer. So, I applied for this job on lark, I didn't think I'd get it. They liked the book, so I wound up at Harvard. It's really my first appointment as a creative writing teacher. And it was my first time living outside the South except for one year in Los Angeles when I was 17.
RB: You went there to make your fortune as a screenwriter?
BW: No, as a movie star. I was a high-school actor, and I got married the summer of my junior year in high school. My dad and uncle came up with this scheme to get me a job building sets for the movies because I was a carpenter apprentice in high school. I'd work from noon, if it was summer, until 8 o'clock. They thought I could build sets and they had a connection. My uncle's boss was a shoe manufacturer who had a son who was a lawyer for the movies and I got out there and as soon as I got out there the guy said, "Well the studio has just gone on strike. Nobody's working." And they told me to go home. I didn't want to go home, just yet. I ended up staying out there about 9 months and working as a garbage man in Hollywood, driving a truck.
RB: There's a story.
BW: Yeah. I wrote a draft, kind a memoir of this. I wrote it in just three weeks. I still want to go back to it. It was pretty good. I had a lot of weird jobs and ended up as a garbage man, which was fun. This guy had one truck and one employee, which was me. But then my older brother was killed in an accident and I went back home for the funeral and my wife and family convinced me to drop it and go back to Meridien.
RB: That's very brave. Leaving Meridien, Mississippi to go to Los Angeles.
BW: Everybody, including me, didn't think I had anything to lose. I had a high school education. Not any real inclination to go to college. I wasn't really a good student. I really did like the theater. We all thought, "Why not?" But it was terrifying. I was from a town of 40,000 people in the South and had never even been to Atlanta. I revisited a lot of those emotions when I moved up here. It's disorienting.
RB: Your plan wasn't to stay here long term, you were teaching and writing your novel?
BW: I had started this novel in the winter of '96. That's when I wrote the first pages. I had a month-long retreat to a place called Seaside, Florida, an artist retreat. I wrote a hundred pages, which was a pretty good start. Some of that even survived into the book. I was also teaching 4 classes a semester at Alabama and was looking for a job. It was a hard book to write. I kept running into a wall, knowing I really didn't have a grasp of the story. I started over every year and I'd get maybe 125 pages, next year 150 [pages]. Finally about two years ago I ended up with something that went from the beginning until the end and was about 240 pages long in manuscript and I knew that I had the book. I just needed to go back and fill in and find a structure for it. In spring of last year I finally got some time and I worked on it exclusively for about three months and I got full draft out—something that I knew was the whole book. But it was in almost a completely different structure than the way it ended up. It was almost like something modeled after Ulysses. This old man Finas, moving around town trying to deal with the death of this woman Birdie and recollecting a lot of things. I had too many subplots going to keep the reader oriented. I decided, with my editor, I needed to take a lot of this information and write Part I in a linear fashion. Which I did in the fall of last year. The revision was a structural revision plus a little bit of finessing.
RB: Apparently this book also had a different title when you started out.
BW: Yeah. The Obituary of Helen Browning Wells. The thing is that it was just an idea; I submitted proposals for three books and this was the one they liked the most—and this was the one I didn't have anything done on. (Both laugh). The other ones, I had pages on. This one sounded the most appealing to them.
RB: What was it that you proposed?
BW: I gave a synopsis that was nothing like what the book ended up being. A very traditional story about this guy who owns a weekly newspaper and who wants to eulogize the woman he was in love with. He starts to write her obituary and every week he fills up the obituary space with stories about her and the town gets more and more interested and more and more incensed by the things he is writing because he is revealing things about the people in the town. It really was set up as a traditional comedy. And then I started writing it and I was bored with the idea. At that point, I began to write sentences that I thought were good. It's as if I groped my way to the story by way of the language. It's one reason why it was so hard for me to figure what my story was.
RB: How many of characters in the final version of The Heaven of Mercury were in your original idea? Finas, Birdie, the two black women, Earl and his family?
BW: Really, not even Earl and his family.
RB: How do you talk about Birdie without talking about her husband?
BW: At that point I didn't know who she was. I bounced around a lot thinking that I needed a model from someone in my experience, for Birdie, I didn't know where to start. Or whether I wanted to start from scratch and create her from the dust that was there. I toyed with the idea of using my grandmother, of using my aunt, who ended up being the model for the character Avis.
RB: Is it possible that you wrote four or five novels or got close to completing four or five novels in the process of getting this one done?
BW: They were all too abortive. I didn't get far enough along. Although I did write enough about one character to use as the basis for the book I am trying to start now.
RB: What does "trying to start" mean?
BW: It means I'm reading. She had a medical condition, a birth defect that I'm trying to read up on so that I can understand the different things it could have been. Because no one really knows in my family, and once I understand what it could have been, deciding what it should be for the purposes of this book and understanding its ramifications for the story. I wrote some pages about her when I was trying to make her the Birdie character. I guess you could say it provided a lot of fuel for this book.
RB: Nothing gets wasted.
BW: Not really. A lot of the early stuff did get recycled and revised into this book. The Parnell character, the undertaker was not part of my synopsis but he appeared in that first 100 pages because I knew she was dying and I wanted to put her there in the undertaker's parlor.
RB: The bizarre story of Parnell and the Littleton girl came to you later?
BW: What I had early on was the story of him [Parnell] meeting and courting his wife Selena and much later in the book, that last year when I wanted to flesh him out I decided on that chapter.
RB: While you were are up here writing this novel, was there a group who read your work as it was progressing?
BW: I didn't have anyone for this book aside from my editor [Diane Mason at Norton] until the summer of 2001 when I knew that I had a workable draft. I had been teaching night classes at the extension and through those classes I had met several good writers. I asked them to read that first draft which was the reflective draft with Finas wandering around thinking about the past. The decision to restructure was decided between me and my editor. She really didn't think that it was accessible and didn't think I was gaining a lot by keeping that more difficult structure. I was resistant at first but I did come to think that she is right.
RB: Why do the chapter headings have Latin titles?
BW: I started with just this one chapter, Finas Ex Machina, from the old Latin stage term, deus ex machina, where God would come up through the trap door because of the business with turning on the radio and sending the signal through the town [Finas has an early morning radio show in Mercury] and because I had that I gradually toyed with using those Latin phrases—a lot of them are faux Latin—just as way of having fun. They started to have a resonance for me, so I liked them. I tried to achieve a balance so that I didn't overdo it, sort of leaven it with some fairly traditional titles.
RB: And when did you decide on the title?
BU: Just last year, when I though the book had something in common with the Divine Comedy. Because of his [Finas'] being guided by Birdie's presence in his own mind through some of the things that had happened in the past. So I thought there was something of a parallel there. I was looking through a new translation of the Inferno and then I picked up my old translation of the Divine Comedy, and when I looked through Paradiso, I saw the Heaven of Mercury. The town was already Mercury, by that point. I turned to that chapter and it turned out to be about betrayal, and I thought that fit. Also, a heaven on earth, not necessarily paradise but one in which there was communion with the dead, seemed to fit. I don't pretend to be a Dante scholar.
RB: I'm interested in this notion that you were blocked for 4 years. Had you been down in Foley, Alabama or Meridien, Mississippi, down in your home country, would you have had that experience?
BW: I don't think it necessarily had a bad effect on me in terms of finishing the book. I was going down there in the summers. Also, during the winter break. I didn't feel out of touch with the place. In a sense, I was trying to come up with this place Mercury out of my memory of Meridien, Mississippi, my hometown, anyway. So I don't think that was an impediment.
RB: How about just in terms of your general comfort or ease?
BW: I think that was definitely a problem. It was a big part of the problem in the first three years of being up here. I loved being on the Cape and actually the first year we were out there I wrote fairly well. I had a big sprawling house and an attic where I could get away. The second year in Dennis, a beautiful beach house overlooking the bay, didn't help me at all. There was a little bit of a problem in terms of dislocation and comfort even though it was a really comfortable place. It wasn't so good for the book.
RB: I usually get to this question earlier, but I thought I'd ease in to it. Can you give me some of your thoughts on Southern writing?
BW: Hmm. (long pause) Well, it's always been hard for me to give what I thought was a coherent and worthwhile answer to that question. I don't think that the southern literary tradition is a burden or an impediment, really. I kind of go with Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," which says basically that you build upon, that you cannot escape a tradition if you come out of it. If you deny it, it is self-defeating. I love the Faulkner I've read, the Robert Penn Warren, the Eudora Welty stories, Flannery O'Connor stuff. Some people have said that this book reminds them of O'Connor. I'm not sure how except in the sense of there being some morbid humor in it. I'm very aware of those writers, when I write, as people who taught writers from the South today something about how to see the place they are from. As long as you don't try to write their stories, I think you are okay. A lot of what I get from reading those people is learning how they use the language, how they translated something from that culture, which ironically is not a really literate culture, into great literature. That's an unavoidable lesson when you read them.
RB: I don't know if it's a literate culture, but it's clearly a story-telling culture.
BW: It's very much a story-telling culture. I come from a world where there wasn't a great deal of reading going on. We didn't have a lot of great books around my house. We weren't a literary family. But you can't get into school without hearing about and learning about the Southern literary tradition. So you are aware of that. When I was in high school and I wasn't inclined to go to college because I really hadn't read anything. And I didn't until I went to college. I didn't feel prepared for a literary career. Unlike somebody like Faulkner who had one year as a special student at Old Miss but had literary friends and literary ambitions early on, I didn't. O'Connor, something about her religious tradition was an education for her. Welty came from a somewhat sensitive and literary household. I didn't. I come from middle class, subdivision New South—I'm not really making any sense.
RB: I'm not sure what the answer is about Southern writing. Here's the thing. It would seem that in the past it was seen as a diminishment to say something was Southern writing, a kind of ghettoizing, in the same way one would call something Jewish writing or Afro-American writing. That perhaps those stories were seen as not as important as so called American stories.
BW: The good thing about being called a Southern writer, because there is this tradition when you have people like Faulkner and Welty and have a Nobel Prize winner coming out of a regional literature, it seemed to expand our sense of that literature beyond just purely regionalism. You probably now have people who perceive that writing in two ways. Some see it as quite regional and play into some of the conventions and cliches of Southern literature and then you have other people who want to do what Faulkner did. Which was to make it something bigger. So if you aim high like that, you can just hope that you can get as far as you can go. Whether or not you end up failing, writing something that's merely entertaining in a regional way, or whether you transcend the region and write something that is broader than that is, I guess, up to the individual. That's just not the case with Southern literature. If you take Jewish literature then you have someone like Roth. You can't just call him a Jewish writer. Or Ralph Ellison, though I know he is controversial. You can limit yourself or you can try to push the boundaries and use your region and your place to your advantage to write something that isn't bound by some of the restrictions of region.
RB: I don't know why I am drawn to stories like the ones in The Heaven of Mercury. In some way I think the novel has the same kind of flavor as Richard Russo's Empire Falls. There is a strong sense of place, but that place doesn't become a character like New York or Paris tends to become. I also like writers like Reynolds Price, Elizabeth Cox, Tony Earley, Allan Gurganus and Richard Ford.
BW: Ford has move around a lot and written about different places. He still, seems to me, to be very much a Mississippian. But of course he has written about New Jersey and Montana. I don't think he minds being called a Mississippi writer or Southern writer, but I don't think he wants to be bound to write about the South. He's a big admirer of Walker Percy, who I think is somebody who wrote about the South but in no way do I think of Walker Percy—I don't think anyone does— as being a regional writer. He wrote about New Orleans, Birmingham, but you don't get the sense that it's claustrophobic in a regional sense at all. This is a place in America and he's writing about America in this place. Although it definitely has a certain Southern sensibility and the characters are of their region. Very much so in the way they speak, the places he describes and thing that happen, seems very Southern but it doesn't seem regional. It seems more open than that.
RB: Could your book have been set in Las Cruces, New Mexico?
BW: I wouldn't have been able to write it. (both laugh) That's the thing. You are of your place and from your place.
RB: How much does the mythic Gulf Coast Mercury resemble northern Georgia or South Carolina?
BW: You could move Mercury around in the South. Although it's based on my home town, it's demographically different and not as close to the Gulf Coast. I wanted to write about the Gulf Coast so I moved Mercury further south. I think it is kind of a floating entity. It is a Deep South place with a strong connection to the Gulf Coast.
RB: I took it as being more about being coastal than being Southern.
BW: The Birdie character is born there and moves up there [to Mercury] but maintains her connection to the place. Finas also has a strong connection because his family has a place there. Also, in the chapter "Lost Paradise" both characters either after death or near death gravitate back toward the Gulf Coast. It's really important. That has a lot to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time on the Gulf Coast.
RB: Is that where Foley, Alabama is?
BW: Yeah, it's 10 miles north of Gulf Shores, which is on the beach. I wanted to write about the place. The book started out being set in a town about 20 miles from the coast but I was trying to write about characters who were the type of people who came from a place like Meridien, further inland. I needed to find a way to marry those impulses, for myself. I needed people who had connections to the coast and inland.
RB: The big hurricane of 1906, was that a real historical occurrence?
BW: Yeah. It wiped out a little town called Navy Cove or Pilot Town. In history is a town of bar pilots, people who in skiffs would guide the ships around sand bars in Mobile Bay into the harbor port. All the people there, through generations, were bar pilots and they made their living doing that and ate fish oysters and grew their gardens. They were self-sufficient.
RB: What could be better?
BW: I used a document written by a man named S.A. Ladner who survived the storm of '06 and who connected the storm to the wrath of God. He thought the storm came and wiped out their town because the young people had become a little too sexually promiscuous. And there was a hint that the clan had become small that inter-marrying was going on and so he thought it was something equivalent to Noah's flood. They did not rebuild after that. I've been to that site and saw an old cistern and that's about all that's left. Now, of course, it's marked for development. You can't drive in there anymore because they're going to put up condos. Probably a resort with a golf course and big hotel. It started out at the turn of the 20th century as that sort of place, only on smaller scale. People would come up from the ferry boat from Mobile and stay at a place called the Henrietta Hotel for the summer.
RB: The smaller scale was because there were less people in the country. Pretty soon only really wealthy people will get to see the waterfront.
BW: It's almost that way now.
RB: A minor detail, but why is Cuba, Alabama named that?
BW: I don't know but I do have some relatives buried there. For all I know you'll find place like that in the South, where you'll have refugees like Cuba. On the other hand the other towns from that area are from Indian names. Like Kissame and Kiwanee and it could be that it's evolved spelling of an Indian name or place—Kuba.
RB: Back to the book—it's all plausible, even the fantasy. But I couldn't understand the black maid's motivation. Without giving away what she does, I didn't quite get her.
BW: It's interesting that you say that. For a while, I met the same sort of resistance from my editor. It never did seem implausible to me. Her initial or outrage was toward Earl's father, who rapes her. Because she takes this remedy from Vish the medicine woman, to abort the child that she conceives after that rape, she is sterile. So her thinking was if she had been fertile she could have convinced Frank, her lover, to stay on. So she blames the fact that her life became so narrowed down and sterile in other ways on the old man, Junius Erkhart. Over the course of her life, this anger begins to seep out and to be felt and expressed toward Birdie and Earl, they define the scope of her world, which has become very small and frustrating. She redirects her anger towards them. When she does what she does, she intends to do it to Junius.
RB: It's just harder to accept that based on the displays of decency by Earl. He does also give a speech to someone on how he thinks conditions are going to change in the South.
BW: For his time, Earl is a moderate. Well, she hadn't intended to do anything to Earl at all. It was an accident.
RB: The person who comes closest to being evil and a villain in Earl's sister. Everyone's flaws still seem to be worthy of sympathy. You don't seem to revile your characters.
BW: In that these characters grew out of relatives I either knew or heard a lot of stories about I knew how those people were flawed and yet and very sweet and kind and generous at the same time. If I have a vision of humanity, it's that. Rarely, do you see what you perceive to be pure evil. What you see are people making mistakes being blinded by their anger or frustration. And doing harm to other people not so much with the long-term intention of doing harm as simply expressing themselves with their limited ability to act properly in any given situation. Selfishness, greed, pride—all of this figures in but at heart you have a decent human being who has made a lot of mistakes and probably has a great deal of regret over those mistakes. I see myself as being a very non-judgmental person. It probably serves me a well as a fiction writer. Sometimes as a human being you can get in trouble if you don't become judgmental to a certain degree. I'm sympathetic to all these characters—I'm even sympathetic, to a degree, to the Junius character, who, is to my mind, probably the least redeemable character in the book. He has fewer regrets, but at the same time he is a character about whom I told a story about his younger days when he kills his brother-in-law in a fight, he is doing it to defend his sister, who has been abused by this man. So, even he has a modicum of redeeming qualities.
RB: This is the character that, at his sister's deathbed, refuses her request to forgive her.
BW: Yeah, he's the hardest character in the book. That's why I see him as the least redeemable.
RB: Your book was favorably mentioned at the recent BEA (important book trade show) and you are moving down to Florida to teach and then you are scheduled for a publicity tour. How long, 2 or 3 months?
BW: I hope 2 months intensively and then maybe some scattered readings. It's a distraction when you are trying to start another book and you have to continue to think about the one you just finished. I had a hard time with that with the first book.
RB: Is there a sense of being finished when the final draft is done?
BW: Yeah, I want to move on. I want to get to the next thing. I don't want to get caught up in talking about this book to the degree that I can't continue to work. I think, all to easily, that lands you in a kind of a stasis. You are talking about something that is over and when all the talk about that is done and there is quiet again, you realize you are nowhere. You are not in the middle of anything, anything new. It's a let down. I've tried to get started on this book so I have momentum and I don't have to overcome the inertia that inevitably follows this kind of activity.
RB: Characters don't haunt you?
BW: Oh, in that sense? They are still very much with me. The writing of the book is over and I want to move on, but I'm still thinking a lot about these people. Especially since they did come out of—the book finally grew out of anecdotes, family stories.
RB: I was surprised but pleased by the way the book ends. Something echoes and reverberates at the end.
BW: When I was writing it I realized I had this chapter with Birdie's spirit wandering around and hovering before this boy on a beach house deck—I had that around for two or three years and didn't know how it was going to work into the book. When I was writing these last drafts, I began to realize there was some echo in the sense there is this boy on the deck, there is Finas' grief over the loss of his own boy, the sense of Finas being a boy when he first loved Birdie and the vision of the butterflies which had resonance for me in connection with Birdie wandering around as a spirit. It was one of those things that began to feel more and more right, the more I got there. I wasn't at all certain that this ending would work, even though I had it as an ending, those lines, actually for a couple of years. The book made its way after a little back wash, made its way back, feeling done and right. If I kept at it and waited long enough this book would kind of form itself, almost like a planet forming out of the particles, I just had to be patient and let gravity do its work. (chuckles) I had to try to end it poetically, lyrically. So much of the book works only because the language works. The book wouldn't work so well if I hadn't found a voice for the book, and I think that I did. But for so long that was all I had, and that was my grief. I had the language for the story, but I didn't know what these characters were going to do. From almost the beginning to the end it was about language and sound and the feel of this book. That made it hard to write because I didn't start with a story and go from A to B to C. I laid it out that way in my proposal, and I couldn't write that. I lost interest in writing that. I was going sentence by sentence. I had a lot of varied and apparently incongruous material I had to try to let gravitate to a center and hope that it would hold.
RB: You said you have lots of books you want to write.
BW: I do. I have always had a lot more material than I either had time or the ability to write. I don't lack for stories. I've signed on to write a story inspired by a great aunt that I had and also another collection of stories. While I was trying to write this book and trying to get away from writing it at times, I wrote a draft about my Hollywood experience. I wrote a draft of a novel about some boys who get in trouble accidentally killing their boss and try to runaway to Liverpool in the late ‘60s. I have a kind of Bildungsroman that I want to write that I have several—at this point unconnected or barely connected stories—that I would like to coalesce into that. I've begun a novel that's kind of a literary mystery with a newspaper reporter trying to figure out something about the disappearance of a young woman athlete and couple of others. What I wish for, really, is unlimited writing time and a place to sequester myself so that I can really bear down and concentrate only on these things. I feel like I'm overflowing with material and don't quite have the wherewithal to write it.
RB: What are the prospects of The Heaven of Mercury becoming a movie?
BW: My agent shopped it around, but most people who read it say, "I love this, but I can't see how I'd make it into a movie."
RB: Wasn't that said about Paris Trout?
BW: He [Pete Dexter] has two or three main stories going on. When they see that I have not only Fina, but Birdie's story and Earl's story and Creasy's story and Parnell and Selena's story—a student of mine who is a filmmaker, is working on a script. I hope to see it in August when I see her again in New York. Maybe if she can do a script and show that to producers, maybe they'll understand something about how this can be envisioned as a film. It'd be nice if I got back around to my first ambition and they give me a small part in the movie. I'll finally be a movie actor. (Laughs)
RB: (laughs) Sure.
BW: They'll let me play Earl, the scoundrel, the womanizing husband.
RB: Another good story. Well, thanks.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing