“I try to honor what the fiction demands”: A Conversation with Larry Watson08/08/2013
September marks the publication of Larry Watson’s ninth book, Let Him Go. The new novel is vintage Watson–like his bestselling classic, Montana 1948, it is set in the rugged country found along the border shared by North Dakota and Montana, and features characters with the same troubled trail through life. But Let Him Go is more likely to draw comparisons to No Country for Old Men than the typical American Graffiti references made in reviews of Larry’s earlier work. Replete with menace, severed limbs, and retribution, Larry’s latest had us wondering how he accomplished such an amazing shift in tone without missing a beat. We asked, and his answers are below.
Milkweed Editions: While Montana 1948 and American Boy feature teenage protagonists, the main characters in Let Him Go are grandparents. What inspired you to tell your latest story from an older point of view?
Larry Watson: I’ve had a quick, ready reply over the years to the question of why I have so many teenage protagonists, not only in Montana 1948 and American Boy but in Justice, Laura, and Sundown, Yellow Moon. I’ve said it’s because I’m very immature. And I’m not just being glib with that answer. I can still feel, at my age (I’m sixty-five), versions of the uncertainties, anxieties, dreams, and desires that accompanied my youthful self, and I’ve been able to project those on my characters. So the obvious answer to the how and why of Let Him Go’s older characters—I’m finally growing up! And part of what it means to age, as George and Margaret Blackledge and I have done, is to realize that more of life is behind you than ahead of you. Age is also likely to bring experiences of loss. But both young and old can, I think, feel impatient: the first group to grow up and partake of adult privileges and pleasures, and the second to act and seize opportunities before it’s too late. The young are eager for their first chance; the old for their last.
ME: Montana 1948 takes place in the 40s, Let Him Go is set in September 1951, and American Boy takes place in the 1960s. What is significant about each of these time periods for you? Did one period in particular feel the most comfortable for you to write in?
LW: In the books you mention, as in others, it’s true that I’ve stayed close to the middle of the twentieth century. Like Faulkner—and this is the only way I’m willing to place myself in his company—I’m interested in “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” and the mid-twentieth century strikes me as a time when those problems were perhaps especially acute. Alternatives to conformity and suppression had begun to suggest themselves, but people still had trouble acknowledging what their hearts yearned for, much less expressing those longings. The resulting tension is something I’ve tried to address in my fiction. Then the late 1960s came along, and hearts often got what they wanted. And a new set of problems arose…
ME: Both Montana 1948 and American Boy are written in first person, while Let Him Go is written in third person. What are the challenges and advantages of writing in each point of view and which do you feel most comfortable in?
LW: When an idea for a novel or short story comes to me, I always hope it will arrive as part of a package, and that point of view will be wrapped up with character, setting, style, and structure — a confluence of elements that seem to say, “Tell it this way.” That’s what I hope for anyway. Point of view, like other technical matters, has less to do with my comfort and more to do with what seems right for the story. It may sound silly, but I try to honor what the fiction demands and not impose myself on it.
ME: What is it about the American West that continues to engage you as an author? Why do you believe it is the ideal setting for your novels?
LW: Part of the answer to why the American West and Midwest appeal to me as settings (and could I put both those regions into my own category and call it “northern”?) is implied in my answer to question two. Those are regions where people are noted for their taciturnity, and while silence and reserve might well be estimable human qualities, they don’t serve us especially well when it comes to revealing what’s in our hearts and minds.
ME: What is your “writerly routine”? Where do you write, when do you write, is there anything you need near you or with you when you write?
LW: I don’t have a strict writerly routine beyond making certain that I write every day. I can write anywhere and at any time, though usually I’ll be at my desk at home or at school. I usually compose on the computer, but I can and do write by hand as well. It’s nice to have music playing but not necessary. On both desks I have a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage.
Questions by Sara Heegaard and Amy Lohmann