Writer Brad Watson was born in Meridian on 24 July 1955 and raised there. He married between his junior and senior years of high school, and after graduation he and his wife moved to Hollywood so that he could try his luck as an actor. He held a variety of non-acting jobs, but he had arrived at the beginning of a screenwriters’ strike and a studio shutdown, and after the accidental death of his brother, he and his family, which had grown to include a one-year-old son, returned to Meridian. He ran a bar owned by his father until Watson’s lack of business acumen led to the bar’s bankruptcy.
Soon thereafter, he enrolled at Meridian Junior College, where he first began writing fiction under the guidance of Niles “Buck” Thomas. After a divorce, Watson earned a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in 1978, working closely with Price Caldwell. He subsequently enrolled in the master of fine arts program at the University of Alabama, studying under fellow Mississippian Barry Hannah and graduating in 1985.
Watson worked as a Gulf Coast reporter and then state editor for the Montgomery Advertiser and as a copywriter in an ad agency before completing his debut book of short stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men (1996). The book features stories linked by the titular animals—as pets, companions, or seeming conduits of the soul. The quaky old poodle in “Bill,” for example, serves as stand-in for an elderly woman’s incapacitated husband: the dog, like the couple, can only make his “halting, wobbling way” around the house. Last Days introduced Watson’s lyrical and meditative prose, earning him positive reviews and awards such as the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His first novel, The Heaven of Mercury (2002), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction and the Southern Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction (along with Lee Smith). The novel is set in Mercury, Mississippi, a place inspired by Meridian where the “downtown was pretty lonesome at night, but pleasantly so.” Stitching southern influences such as Flannery O’Connor’s gothic and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, the novel is built around octogenarian Finus Bates and a lifelong love that he never pursued. Far more than Bates’s tale alone, Mercury’s “web of acquaintances” illuminates the narrative; various loves and dream lives and even the afterlife sculpt the community’s history.
The title story in Aliens in the Prime of their Lives (2010) features two Mississippi teenagers, Will and Olivia, in love and in struggle and expecting a child. Bound by “a pair of gold-plated wedding bands” bought at Stuckey’s, the two confront larger notions of contentment, reality, and even unreality. Whereas The Heaven of Mercury brushes into the afterlife, Aliens at times navigates liminal mental states, from the institutionalized to the imaginary to the despairing man whose “troubles had come from attempts to deny the essential hopelessness in his nature.” The volume was a finalist for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and earned him another Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011.
Watson’s 2016 novel, Miss Jane, was inspired by the author’s late great-aunt. The title character is shaped by a secret genital birth defect that deprives her of sex, childbearing, and related companionship. Though her intellectual and emotional life at times transcends her condition, her character explores the expectations, implications, and even defiance of what it meant to be a woman in the early twentieth-century South.
Watson taught creative writing at the University of Alabama before spending five years as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer and director of creative writing at Harvard University. After stints as visiting writer in residence at the University of West Florida, the University of Alabama–Birmingham, the University of Mississippi, and the University of California–Irvine, Watson moved to the University of Wyoming in 2005 to teach creative writing and English in the master of fine arts program. Watson received the Harper Lee Award as Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year for 2017.
- Susannah Felts, Chapter 16 (2011), http://chapter16.org/author-in-the-prime-of-his-life/;
- Lydia Fitzpatrick, Fiction Writers Review (24 November 2010), http://fictionwritersreview.com/interview/interesting-characters-an-interview-with-brad-watson/