A writer of brilliant, award-winning fiction, Brad Watson will be remembered by family and friends for his sense of humor, his keen intelligence, his honesty, his empathy, his sheer authenticity, and his smile, which was often sly as if he were up to something.
For his friends, the only thing better than reading Brad’s stories was listening to them: tales that gradually wound their way through many twists and turns, and were delivered in a gravely but gentle voice tinged with a Mississippi accent, one that he claimed to have lost when he headed to Hollywood as a young man to become an actor.
His empathy and humor were on display in his most recent novel, "Miss Jane," in which he fully inhabited the title character, based on the life of his great aunt who lived in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century. At a time when writers are often cautioned about not straying too far from their own little matter, Brad boldly imagined the lives of others, perhaps most majestically in his novel "The Heaven of Mercury," which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The book’s main character, Finus, is full of wistfulness and melancholy, a man who admits his own "inability to see the world except through the crinolated filters of self-consciousness need." But within the book’s pages Brad himself, as if fulfilling Finus's wish to "not be who he was" flies from character to character, inhabiting each completely, from Finus to Finus's unrequited love, Birdie Wells, to Birdie's maid, Creasie, until we experience a full and varied, and heartbreaking, world.
Wilton Brad Watson, who died Wednesday, was born in 1955 in Meridian, Mississippi, where he lived until he moved to Los Angeles after graduating Meridian High School, where, as he put it, “he tried to get into the movies but ended up a Hollywood garbage man, instead.” He returned to Mississippi after the death of his older brother, taking a job as a bartender at a bar named Crazy Horse (after Neil young’s band) that his father owned, and gradually going back to school, first to Meridian Community College, then Mississippi State, where the writer Price Caldwell stoked his crazy dream of becoming a fiction writer, and finally grad school at the University of Alabama, where he studied with the great Southern writer Barry Hannah. After graduating, discouraged by his work, Brad gave up fiction for almost a decade, working as a reporter in the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Years later, after Brad’s first published book Last Days of the Dog Men (Norton, 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, and after Brad had landed a prestigious five-year appointment as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard University, he brought Barry Hannah and another Southern writer who had influenced him, Padget Powell, to speak to a packed house at Harvard. Hannah, who was very sick at the time, teared up at the podium, saying that he felt "like Quentin Compson come to Harvard," and that now he knew "this southern boy has made good."
While at Harvard, Brad spent the winters on Cape Cod, and it was there he met his wife and fellow writer, Nell Hanley. After leaving New England, Brad and Nell travelled and taught at various schools before landing in the then-new MFA program at the University of Wyoming in 2005, where they recently bought a property south of Laramie with room for Nell's five horses. Brad was known as a compassionate and caring teacher, one who deeply understood the struggles inherent in trying to make art.
The effort to create family despite loss was a theme in Brad’s life as well as his work. Brad was immensely proud of his sons Jason and Owen, and, in his own words, was “the proud grandfather to Jason and wife Katie’s magnificent and talented daughter, Maggie.” He was also a great friend to many, and to lift a glass of whisky with him was a pleasure that those who did will never forget.
Brad can still be found in his work, which includes, as well as the three books listed above, his short story collection, "Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives "(Norton 2010). In addition to the awards listed above, Brad has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Marfa residency from the Lannan Foundation, a residency from the Aspen Institute, a Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and an Award in Letters from the American Institute of Arts and Letters.
He will be profoundly missed by his readers, his friends and his family.
David Gessner was a friend of Brad Watson. Gessner is the author of 11 books, and the chair of the Creative Writing Dept at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.