Brad Watson is the author of three books of fiction, all published by W.W. Norton and Co. Last Days of the Dog-Men (1996) 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 Heaven of Mercury (2002) won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Fiction, the Southern Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (2010) also won the MIAL fiction award, and was a finalist for the St. Francis College Literary Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Ecotone, The Oxford American, The Idaho Review, and elsewhere.
WHAT INSPIRES AND INFLUENCES YOUR WRITING THE MOST?
Sometimes it’s an interesting person with an interesting life or story, sometimes an extraordinary or deeply interesting place, and the history of that place, sometimes it’s anecdotal, overheard. Often though it’s reading great stories or novels — or poems, since prose writers should read poetry — being moved all over again, falling in love with great writing all over again. When you teach, you realize you’ve made what you love into your job, so in order to keep that from shutting you down, you have to keep reading for pleasure. That’s where you learn the most, anyway, from the books you love to read. And that’s what I tell my students: Reading and writing will make you a great writer, not this workshop.
DO YOU HAVE AN AGENT? IF SO, HOW DID YOU FIND HIM/HER?
I do, Peter Steinberg of The Steinberg Agency. He represented a friend who recommended him to me, and me to him, thought we’d work well together, and we have. I’d already published my first collection of stories, with W.W. Norton, so I guess I was a safe enough risk.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE PUBLISHING PROCESS?
The fact that someone was willing to give me a contract, after I’d spent 20 years writing short stories and publishing only a few of them in literary magazines (I had a folder with rejection slips and the occasional letter, about an inch thick, and a file of acceptance letters about a millimeter thin). The fact that a great editor at a great publishing house actually thought my work worth putting out there. I’d got to the point that I didn’t think it was ever going to happen. I wasn’t going to stop writing, but I was going to stop hoping for a ‘publishing career,’ whatever that might be (and I think I know less and less what that might be, today, given the way things are changing so rapidly). And then I got a phone call from Alane Mason about one of the stories I’d published in Story magazine, asking if I had a collection. And I said, Yes, I do.
DO YOU MARKET YOURSELF? WHAT (SPECIFICALLY) DO YOU DO TO BUILD/MAINTAIN YOUR READERSHIP?
“Not really,” and “Not much.” I don’t enjoy it, I’m not any good at it. So I just have to write and continue to try to do my best, which limits what I publish, because if I’m not deeply interested in the story, it’s not going to be any good, and there are a lot of false starts and cliff falls. I write a lot, but most of it doesn’t work out. This is unfortunate, because one of the best ways to build an audience is to be prolific, but to be successfully prolific you have to be reliably interesting with every book. If you’re prolific and disappoint readers too often, being prolific won’t do you any good. (I almost never throw anything away, by the way — that work that doesn’t quite work out. I put it in a file or on a shelf, in case one day I figure it out, or want to wade back into it. Occasionally something longer presents itself to me as a possible short story or novella, so I mine the longer failure for a shorter success.)
I’m old-fashioned and believe that the writer’s only real job — day jobs aside — is to write, and to write the best work one is capable of writing. I’m happy to go out, give readings or talks, visit classes or clubs — when and if anyone is interested — but even that is pretty distracting, work-wise. It interrupts work you’ve inevitably already begun on something new. I don’t really believe anyone knows for sure, yet, whether or not using social media to promote yourself works all that well. Maybe it does in those rare cases when someone does or creates something that, as they say, “goes viral.” In any case, my personality is not a good fit with self-promotion. I know the Norton marketing people wish that wasn’t true. Off to the side: I’m a little afraid of the power of the Internet these days, to tell you the truth. It has so much potential to do good, as when an oppressed population uses it to expose corruption and political violence. It also is a terrifying tool in the hands of people doing evil things in the name of, for instance, God, or religious justice. And those are just two well-known examples.
I tried to create a website for my last book and failed. I can’t even figure out how to pay someone else to do it. I try to take solace in the fact that a lot of great writers don’t do any of that stuff. And it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
I actually AM in favor of online magazines, such as this one, although I love print and always will. As long as the online magazines are edited by smart, conscientious people, it’s only good. More writers have more places to publish their work — and to publish longer work, odd-sized work, that print magazines generally cannot accommodate. The only problem then is that sometimes it seems impossible to keep up. I was looking at the web version of one very old, established magazine and couldn’t believe the amount of interesting work available there. I’d spend all year on that one magazine, trying to absorb it all. Sorry, I suppose I got a bit off-track, there.
BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER WRITERS?
Well, one thing good about publishing today is the proliferation of high-quality, conscientious small presses with real integrity. They publish books because they love them, hope to make a profit, of course. But most aren’t as nearly as bottom-line oriented as large publishers. They don’t have a corporate boss to please or feed. So, if you send your book to New York and are rejected, try the good small presses. Chances are your first book will sell just as well with a good small press that has a good distributor as it will with a large press — and the chances for small press books being widely reviewed, being seriously considered for prizes, are excellent these days. When I was a young writer, a lot of critics and even readers didn’t take work from small presses seriously — except for a few, like LSU Press, which was publishing the early work of writers like Lewis Nordan and Allen Wier, among others. As far as self-publishing goes, I guess I think you’d better make sure you have a good editor, because everyone needs that.
Don’t worry (try not to, anyway) about whether or not you’re doing enough to make yourself popular or famous. If you’re good at self-promotion, you’re probably good at not overdoing it. Try not to fret over who’s won the bigger advance, enjoyed greater sales, got rich enough to quit her day job — who ‘broke in’ when they were younger than you are now. Who wrote a best-seller in six months when you’ve been trying and failing at simply finishing a good book for years. Try (I know this can get hard, after a while) to approach it all the way you did when you began, with unashamed lust for the language, out-of-your-mind in love with the very act of writing. (If you began writing mainly in order to get rich and famous, I’m not talking to you.) Just try to write novels, stories, non-fiction books, essays, and poems that are as good as the ones that made you want to write them, yourself, in the first place. I believe in aiming high, even though I usually miss the mark by one measure or another. Anyway, all that is all that matters, in the end. We’re all going to die. Try to write something good enough to survive after you’re gone, even though there’s no guarantee that it will.