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Larry Watson: The Interview

Larry Watson, the author of Montana 1948 and many other fine novels, has just published Let Him Go, his latest foray into literary fiction. Let Him Go, like many of his previous novels, was published by legendary independent Milkweed Editions, his publisher of choice. It tells the story of the Blackledges, Margaret and George, as they make the trek from their home in the Dakotas to Montana, where they hope to be reunited with their grandson, Jimmy, in the face of fierce opposition from his mother and stepfather, the utterly loathsome Donnie Weboy.

When Montana 1948 came out back in 1993, I somehow came upon a copy. It's a shortish book; I read it in one sitting, if memory serves. But what has really stuck with me is how enormously blown away I was by it. I was writing reviews and some other small-press oriented stuff for The Nation at the time, and I wrote about it for the magazine. It was, of course, a glowing review.

As for Let Him Go, once again I'm having a literary peak experience. I've read a lot of good books this year, some of them very good indeed. But, to be honest, I can't remember the last time I read a book that was not only this powerful but this deeply satisfying in every way (read here: Nation déjà vu). So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to catch up with Larry for a few moments shortly after his book's release.

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Chris Faatz: Larry, as you know, I've been a fan of your work for years. One of the things that makes your writing truly sing is the way you depict landscape, and the way that human beings fit into the landscape that you've chosen for them. In this book, which takes place primarily in Montana, the prose is taut and spare yet peppered with breathtakingly lovely depictions of the country and those who inhabit it. What do you draw from to bring this stuff forth?

Larry Watson: I always hope that an idea for a book will come as a package deal — character, situation, setting (in place and time), point of view, structure, and perhaps other elements all bundled with a label that says, "Here it is. Tell it this way." And that instruction as to how it should be told has to do with voice, which will affect the presentation of everything on the page. I don't know my entire story in advance of writing it, but I do have a sense of how it should be written.

I remember the landscape and the small towns from my years living in the region, and when I write from those memories, emotions often adhere to the physical detailsI remember the landscape and the small towns from my years living in the region, and when I write from those memories, emotions often adhere to the physical details, and in my rendering I try to be true to both feeling and material reality. The plains of Montana and North Dakota are beautiful, but not showily so, and as I write I'm also trying to do justice to the region's significant but subtle charms.

Faatz: Speaking of utterly loathsome, the biggest snag in the Blackledges' plan is the existence of Donnie's extended family, the Weboy clan, a kind of evil matriarchy ruled with an iron hand by Blanche Weboy. Blanche and her familial minions are sheer evil; how did you come to discover this role in your book? What did you do to bring it to life on the page?

Watson: I certainly understood that readers might well feel about the Weboys as you do, but I also believe that virtually everyone has reasons for their actions and beliefs and, if given an opportunity, will offer up justifications for their behavior. The Weboys are no different. Blanche feels she's in the right. Furthermore, if she were the sort who believed in seeking redress in the courts, rather than solving "problems" on her own and on her own terms, she could doubtless find a judge sympathetic to her cause. There are parallels between the Blackledges and the Weboys, and the two families are engaged in a conflict revolving around some very fundamental human questions: Where do we belong? To whom or what do we belong? What does it mean to be a Blackledge or a Weboy or a Watson or a Faatz (which sounds a little like a law firm)? In my fiction and my life, I try to remember that decent people can occasionally behave in appalling ways and less-than-decent people can occasionally behave with kindness and generosity. It's not always easy to know who belongs in which category.

Fiction also gives writers and readers an opportunity, as I once heard Robert Stone say, to hang around people we'd never want to go near in life. People like Blanche and Bill and Donnie...

Faatz: One of my coworkers, Dianah, who also read and loved the book, came up with this totally ace question: "One of the themes that struck me so hard was George's sacrifice of himself for the happiness of Margaret. Not only did it hit me hard, but it stuck! I've run through that scenario a hundred times in my head and still can see no way for the Blackledges to have a (completely) happy ending. How do you feel about using that sacrifice, or how do you think it changes Margaret?"

Watson: That is an ace question! I think Dianah is right on the mark to see sacrifice (or sacrifices) as central to the novel.

It's a commonplace to say of relationships that they require compromise, which generally means that both parties have to make sacrifices. And aren't those sacrifices made for the sake of the other's happiness? Isn't the nature of a sacrifice often to sacrifice something of one's self for another's? Of course some sacrifices are larger than others, but measuring them is pretty tricky. Many small sacrifices over time might outweigh one larger one. But probably both the question and my answer are trying not to give away an important plot point. If we're talking about what I think we're talking about, I'd say that George's sacrifice was for Margaret, yes, but it also came out of a sense of personal desperation. And if I'm wrong about what we're talking about, then I've added a needless complication to the conversation...

As for Margaret, the effect of George's action on her, it seems to me, is profound and changes both her sense of her marriage and herself. And thanks, Dianah, for the nod and for the perceptive reading.

Faatz: Montana 1948 was a consummate morality tale. Let Him Go is that as well and about 10 times stronger than the earlier book. But it's also so much more, expanding your range and vision in a way that makes for a stunning and incredibly memorable read. How do you write? Who do you consider to be influences on your work?

Watson: Years ago when I was reading a Cormac McCarthy novel (I can no longer remember which one), it struck me that he was doing something remarkable with point of view. He was using a more-or-less objective point of view, but his descriptions of the landscape, for example, were so original and individualized, in both language and perception, that we had a sense of the inner landscape of the characters. Their thoughts were not on the page, yet their inner lives were. I've always wanted to try something like that, and Let Him Go was my attempt. That fictional technique matched something that's true of human relations: no matter how close we might be to another human being, we can only know them by what they say and do. We can't know their thoughts, not really. Even when they reveal to us what they think and feel, they must do it through outwardly observable means. At some point in relationships, even or especially those of long duration, this limitation can be a frustration. Since Let Him Go featured a man and woman who have been together for a long time, it seemed a fitting vehicle for that experiment with an objective point of view. (Though really it's a form of omniscience.) Fiction writers, of course, can do what we can't do in life — have access to the thoughts and feelings of humans. I decided to forego that access in this novel.

But that's an answer to influence just in terms of a particular technique or mode that I tried to duplicate — or tried my version of. My influences are generally writers whose works don't resemble mine in the least (I should say my work doesn't resemble theirs). These are writers I read over and over for the pleasure the reading provides. And for the inspiration and motivation. In other words, I write nothing like those geniuses of style, James Salter, Philip Roth, and John Updike, but they make me want to try, not necessarily to write like them (it would be lovely if I could), but to accomplish something beautiful and true in prose. I know I'll fall short, but they make the attempt seem worthwhile, even noble. When I was younger, Hemingway and Salinger affected me in similar ways. I still reread them with pleasure. I'm more or less constantly rereading Robert Frost.

Faatz: It could be argued that your work's bleak. But, in my opinion, it's saved from that fate by the intense humanity of the writing. No thing is outside of the web you weave: from the compelling young Native American Alton Dragswolf, in whose shack the Blackledges stay, to the intense, unwholesome attractiveness of Bill Weboy; from the sheer kindness of the night nurse, Adeline Witt, to Jimmy's pathetic mother, Lorna; Let Him Go is consistently compassionate. No one seems outside the range of your caring. Do you see this as an accurate statement, that your love and care touches all of your characters, even the earth itself?

Watson: Oh man, this is a chance to make myself sound like a really excellent human being — yes, yes, I love the earth deeply and all the men, women, and children who walk upon it. And I'd like that to be true. I hope it is. But, really, in my fiction I'm just trying to create characters who have the complexity and dimensions of real life and who are living out their lives in settings that can be rendered vividly and evocatively.

Maybe it's also true that fiction lends itself to compassion — in both writers and readers — in that we're able to spend more time with characters and that exposure leads to understanding. An action that takes no more than a second is conveyed in sentences that take many, many seconds to write and to read and to contemplate.An action that takes no more than a second is conveyed in sentences that take many, many seconds to write and to read and to contemplate.

Faatz: You have been very successful in your long-term relationship with Milkweed. I remember you did a little bit with at least one of the big houses, but you seem to have returned to the fold. Can you tell me what kind of an experience you've had, how it differs from publishing with one of the big boys, and — now we get philosophical! — what you see the role of independent publishers being in today's world?

Watson: This question presupposes that writers get to choose where they go, and I know that many of them do, but many more of us have to be chosen. And on the occasions when we do have choices, others often make them for us, or at least nudge us in a direction. Over the years I've been with Scribner's (and that's not a mistake; my first novel was published by Charles Scribner's and Sons), Simon & Schuster (Pocket Books and Washington Square Books), and Random House. But a few times I've made the decision myself on where to go, and that was always to Milkweed. I had many reasons, but perhaps chief among them is the fact that the press and I live in the same part of the country. Because of that I've always felt that we have a special understanding — them for me, me for them. I've never regretted those decisions.

I know there are significant differences between large houses and small presses, but I don't know that writers really feel those differences; at least this writer hasn't. We generally work with only one person at a time — an editor, a publicist, a sales or marketing person. We rarely glimpse the conglomerate behind that individual, or at least I haven't.

Here, however, is an important difference for me: Only with my most recent books, American Boy and Let Him Go, have I met with an editor in person and had conversations about the manuscripts. Those conversations, with Milkweed's Daniel Slager in both instances, have been tremendously productive. They've been helpful, efficient, energizing, and enlightening.

I think — I hope — that this could be an exceptionally good time for small independent presses in that they're being shown manuscripts that in the past, when the so-called big houses published more literary fiction, would go to a big house first. But it seems to me that many writers are now heading to a small press first, and for all sorts of reasons. Not least of which is that small presses seem to care about art first and commerce second. Those concerns aren't mutually exclusive, but the priorities are important.

Faatz: I suppose you've seen the hoopla that's gathering around Let Him Go. It's been in O magazine, chosen as one of the top books published by an independent for the fall, and much more. How do you feel about that?

Watson: I'm a person who likes to keep the hoopla level in my life real low. But I know that some kinds of hoopla are very good for books, and I'm grateful for the attention Let Him Go has received. It's wonderful! I never expected it, and I certainly could never have predicted it.

Faatz: Lastly, what are you reading? What books are speaking to you now? What are some of your favorites from times gone by?

Watson: Recently I've had reading experiences that have nicely connected the past and the present. I was really excited when James Salter published a new novel this year. I jumped on All That Is as soon as it came out. When I finished it, I started reading Light Years, my favorite Salter novel and a book I reread every year. I'm also reading James Atlas's biography of Saul Bellow. Zoe Heller's The Believers is a recent read that I liked a lot.

Faatz: Anything further you'd like to say?

Watson: Since you brought Montana 1948 into the conversation, I'll take advantage of the opening and say how grateful I am to you for your early support of that novel. Your words of admiration were quoted early, and I think did so much for helping the book gain wider attention. We've never met, so this is my opportunity to say thank you... and now thank you for the flattering comments about Let Him Go.

Faatz: Larry, thanks very much. It's always a pleasure.

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