The author is in town to read from his new novel, "American Boy." Here he recalls his early inspirations: Hemingway, Salinger and Classics Illustrated comics.
He was born in North Dakota and now lives in Wisconsin, but Larry Watson has set several of his books in between the two, in Minnesota, including his latest, "American Boy," published this fall by Milkweed Editions of Minneapolis.
The author of "Montana 1948," Watson teaches at Marquette University in Milwaukee. His books have won numerous awards and have been published in 10 countries.
"American Boy" is the coming of age story of Matthew Garth, a boy who gets mixed up in desire and violence in small-town Minnesota in 1962. It began, Watson said, "as many of my books have, with a couple of disparate elements, often images, coming together.
"But the book itself won't happen until I have an opening line, which seems to me the gateway to a story that, somewhere, exists in its entirety."
Watson is in the Twin Cities to read from the book. We grabbed him last week to ask a few questions.
Q Describe your writing room.
A I can write anywhere as long as I have the materials at hand (computer ideally, but paper and pen will do), but I am most likely to write at one of my offices, either at home or at Marquette University. My office at home has walls of bookshelves, a comfortable chair for reading or writing, a desk with a computer, a CD player and radio, a television, and on the walls a Bonnard poster, a Harriet Wyeth print and framed covers of some of my books.
Q What is your writing strategy -- do you have rituals that you maintain?
A I have no rituals. It's pleasant if music is playing in the background, and I'll often have a cup of coffee or tea or a bottle of water near at hand, but none of those is necessary to the process.
Q How do you get past writers' block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
A I get past writer's block by refusing to acknowledge its possibility. My personal rule is that I must write every day, and if the sentences are recalcitrant I lower my standards in order to get something, anything, on the page. Once it's there I can try to make it better. The Internet is more likely to be a help than a hindrance. If I have characters having a conversation in a 1952 Studebaker, I can do an Internet search and probably within seconds have images of that car's interior.
Q Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A I read a lot of comic books as a kid, and though I read them indiscriminately I especially loved the Classics Illustrated series (not to be a comic book snob). "Men of Iron" I recall as a particular favorite -- and I just did an Internet search to verify the correctness of my memory. It took less than 30 seconds.
Q What books do you re-read?
A I'm a teacher, and teachers are professional re-readers. My course assignments (often modern American literature) have allowed me to re-read "The Sun Also Rises," "The Great Gatsby," "As I Lay Dying," all personal favorites, along with the poetry of Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and others. I'm re-reading "The Collected Poems of Robert Frost" more or less perpetually. Every year I re-read James Salter's "Light Years," and this year I combined the professional and the personal and required that novel in a literature class. One of my students said she thought it was the most beautiful book she'd ever read. It's probably that for me, as well.
Q What's on your desk?
A A computer. A cup of pens and pencils. A notepad. A dictionary and a thesaurus. Bryan Garner's "Usage and Style." Holman's "Handbook of Literature." "The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry." If you think these seem like the desktop companions of a man unwilling to trust his own authority when it comes to words, sentences, dates and definitions, you'd be correct.
Q Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A I'm at my desk at Marquette University. When I look out my window in the narrow space between a building's brick walls I see the bare branches of trees and, beyond, a slice of the Milwaukee skyline with the spires of four churches.
Q What are you reading right now?
A I'm reading short stories and critical essays written by students -- it's December and that time in the semester. But many of these are quite good, so it's a pleasure to read them. Grading them is another matter.
Q What's been the best place so far to do a reading?
A Two are tied for best place. Birchbark Books hosted me for a reading on a night when tornado warnings were issued for the Twin Cities. I was mightily impressed with the number of people who drove through the storm and the flooded streets to show up for the reading. Last year I read at a community college in New Mexico. The students there -- and at the reading -- were almost all Native American, and their questions and enthusiasm were touching, humbling and inspiring.
A When I was in my late teens I read "Catcher in the Rye" and Hemingway's short stories, and both made me feel as though writing was something that I could do. Before reading these books, I'd had writerly impulses, but I didn't know what to do or where to go with those feelings. Salinger showed me that a novel could be written in the slangy, digressive language of a troubled teenager, and Hemingway showed me that stories could be brief and powerful. I don't write like either writer (though I tried for a while), but both made writing seem possible for me.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.