'As Good as Gone,' A Conversation with Larry Watson

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Photo: Susan Watson

Larry Watson received his BA and MA from the University of North Dakota and his PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah. His fiction, published in many foreign editions, has received multiple prizes and awards. His short stories and poems have appeared in various journals. He taught at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for twenty-five years before joining the faculty at Marquette University in 2003 as a visiting professor.

As Good as Gone, his 10th novel, is set in the 1960s. It features an entire family, but especially focuses on Calvin Sidey, an aging cowboy living in a trailer outside Gladstone, Montana. Calvin has had no real communication with his family or with anyone else, for many years. He's asked by his son Bill to look after Bill's own two kids, 17-year-old Ann and 11-year-old Will, while Bill takes his wife to Missoula for surgery. Calvin agrees to babysit, but must confront the reality that his Old West ways of settling scores, issuing ultimatums, and teetering on the edge of violence are no longer acceptable.

Calvin Sidey in As Good as Gone is something of a mythic American cowboy--perhaps a Clint Eastwood type-- transported to 1963. Tell us your thoughts about this kind of iconic figure.
Maybe you're casting the movie, already. [Laughter]

I had a mythic western hero in mind as I was working on the novel, but I also wanted to undercut that myth even as I was writing it. In a conversation with his grandson Will, Calvin tries to destroy that myth by disabusing the boy of some of his notions about who and what a cowboy is.

I also had my own grandfather in mind; he was a cowboy in Montana, but was completely unlike Calvin Sidey. He was a gentle, kind man and would have chuckled at the notion of his being an iconic American figure. He thought the best part of his life was when he gave up the cowboy life and became a homesteader.

As Good as Gone is as much a family saga as anything else, isn't it?
Yes, I very much think of it as a generational family novel. I tried building parallels into the characters. Besides exploring Calvin's experiences, we have episodes of Bill Sidey as a boy; some of Will's; others of Bill's wife Margery as a teen-ager; and Calvin's granddaughter Ann's. I wanted to describe the struggles of a family showing how the different generations are reflected in those challenges.

As Good As Gone is populated by a diverse cast of characters, each with a distinct voice. What thoughts do you have about character and voice?
I don't much analyze it. I just hope if I have a sure enough sense of the character, his or her personality will emerge in the writing. One of the problems I had in the early drafts was with the internal perceptions of Calvin Sidey. I didn't yet have his voice. I'm not quite sure what happened, but I finally felt I knew him well enough to offer his take on the world. Maybe I just got older. [Laughter].

Speaking of character in As Good as Gone, you beautifully capture the thoughts and feelings of an eleven-year-old boy. Tell us about that.
I may be older and mature, but I can still feel an eleven-year-old boy inside me. Maybe it takes remembering an event from my own life, but I can certainly go back to the experiences and mindset of an eleven-year-old.

I was impressed by how well As Good as Gone describes the small elements of everyday life--the feel of sun on one's neck, the taste of river water, the smell of mildewed sheets. Tell us about that.
You've mentioned different sensory experiences. I do remind myself as I'm writing to include not just visual perceptions, but auditory, olfactory and skin sensations. I think of those things as the kinds of details that help shore up the reader's belief in what's happening, and it helps readers experience for themselves whatever is going on. I want them to identify with the experience.

Your prose is spare yet powerful, and reminiscent of Hemingway's. Who are your literary heroes?
You just named one: Hemingway. I'm re-reading Hemingway over the summer because I'm teaching a course in fiction. Hemingway was one of the first good writers I discovered on my own; that is to say, I wasn't assigned a Hemingway novel. I recognized how good he was. His short stories inspired me and made me want to try writing.

What's the most important lesson you've learned about writing?
It's not a complicated one: it's just to do it. For me, that means writing every day. I'm a slow writer. A two-hundred-word day is a good one for me. I've always taught so I have to allot my time between teaching and writing. The habit of writing every day is essential.

You're hosting a dinner party and can invite any five guests, living or dead, real or fictional, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
First, I'd have my wife there. I enjoy talking with her, and if you depended on me to keep the conversation going, you'd all be in trouble. I'd really like to invite Philip Roth and Alice Munro. I think so highly of them. Both of them have stopped writing, and I'd want to hear what they would have to say about not writing. I'd also invite John Updike whose work I admire. In contrast to Roth and Munro, he was in the hospital at the end of his life writing poems about getting chemotherapy. He never stopped. And lastly, I'd want my father there. All my novels were published after he died. I never had the chance to ask him, 'Hey, Dad, did I get this right?' I wish I'd have asked him more questions and had him talk more about his own experiences.

What's coming next from Larry Watson?
I'm not sure. I've finished a couple of drafts, but I'm not certain about what to do with them.

Congratulations on penning As Good as Gone, a suspenseful and evocative novel with stunning prose, painting strongly drawn characters facing daunting emotional, social and family conflicts.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel, The Lovers' Tango, was winner of the gold medal in the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Award for Popular Fiction