Larry Watson is not a cowboy. He doesn’t saunter with legs bowed from a life in the saddle. He doesn’t roll his own cigarettes or shade his eyes with the brim of a Stetson or buy his jeans at a Tractor Supply Co. Instead, he reclines behind his desk at Marquette University, his beard white and carefully trimmed, his glasses two thick, black-rimmed circles – professorial, though hardly pretentious. In his latest novel, 2016’s As Good As Gone, set in small-town Gladstone, Mont., and recently long-listed for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a minor character – by no means a cowboy writes a Western in his mother’s basement.
“That something he knows a good deal about, is it?” asks protagonist Calvin Sidey, a reclusive cowboy stained by rumors of murder, back in town after decades away.
“Gladstone born and bred – does that qualify?” his mother asks in return.
“About as much as the rest of the scribblers filling up the racks at the drugstore. What the hell. No reason he shouldn’t get in on it.”
Watson grew up in Bismarck, N.D., the son of an attorney and an oil abstractor. He writes his stories slowly, sometimes just 100 words a day – a cow chewing cud – but never a word less. Best known for Montana 1948, his novella published in 1993, Watson is the author of nine novels, one short story collection and a chapbook of poetry. When he hits the blank page, he never knows where he’s going, and he doesn’t want to. “My own self-discovery is huge,” he says. And while most of his novels are set out West, he doesn’t consider himself a “Western” writer. If anything, he says, he writes “Northerns.”
At roughly 30,000 people, Bismarck in the ’60s was hardly the Wild West. Watson grew up in a milieu of Midwest modesty, he recently wrote an essay for Freeman’s magazine, which entailed inconspicuous consumption, the kind of place where the poor aspired to a middle-class life, and “so did the wealthy.”
“So I liked the fiction of John Cheever and John Updike, because in a way it seemed pretty close to my life,” he says. “But nobody in Cheever or Updike country would think that somebody in North Dakota on the plains had a life like theirs.”
It is, perhaps, Watson’s defining characteristic: dissonance. The dissonance between urban and rural, between myth and reality, between who he is and who he writes about. Afraid he’ll pin himself down, he deliberately avoids questioning what broader themes his bibliography may reveal, though he suspects it has something to do with the American West myth.
In the great tradition of writers from the West – think Willa Cather or Mari Sandoz, who took refuge in New York to write about Nebraska – Watson’s relocation from the Plains of his youth to Milwaukee has only aided his work. Here, he says, you can be left alone, “and alone is how writers do their work.” It doesn’t hurt that his colleagues at Marquette where he’s been a visiting professor of writing and literature since 2003, include award-winning authors and poets like C.J. Hribal and Angela Sorby, nor that Milwaukee’s Boswell Books is “the best independent bookstore in the country,” in Watson’s view. He never writes fast, but here in Milwaukee, he writes more. Several finished manuscripts already wait in his publisher’s queue, and he’s busy working on the next.
“Maybe staring out the windows of our condo at Lake Michigan, that more-or-less level surface stretching to a far horizon, reminds me of where I’m from, the northern Plains,” he says, “And because I write more from memory than observation, my present view provides me with a strange access to another place and time.” ◆