Larry Watson, author of several novels, including "In a Dark Time" and "Montana 1948," a fiction collection and a chapbook of poetry, was born in Rugby, N.D., and grew up in Bismarck, the setting for his stunning new '60s novel, "Sundown, Yellow Moon." (He borrows the title from a Bob Dylan song that adds, "I replay the past, I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.")
Watson earned his doctorate in creative writing at the University of Utah, where he was happily influenced by U. English professors David Kranes (still a prolific writer) and Hal Moore. He also did graduate work with fellow novelist and Salt Lake native Ron Carlson.
In writing novels, Watson hopes "the reader will do what the narrator does ask questions and then try to come up with an answer, thus revealing something about themselves. In a creative writing class I was teaching, a student said his father was a plumbing contractor and he could stand in a selected place on the site and point to where all the pipes would go. I thought, 'That is imagination."'
In a phone interview from his home in Milwaukee, Wis., Watson said: "We are not always sure what we're doing when we tell stories. A friend of mine who is working on a novel-like memoir told me he was not always sure what he is remembering and what he is making up."
There is no doubt in Watson's mind about his own writing he relies almost entirely on his imagination. So, when he writes in his new novel that 16-year-old Gene Stoddard's father, Raymond, goes to the state capitol and shoots to death a state senator, then returns home and hangs himself in his own garage, Watson is making it up.
It is not based on a news story.
The murder/suicide sends a small rural town into a fury, as everyone who lives around Stoddard speculates about the possible motive. Gene's best friend, who grows up to be a writer, re-creates the story and acts as the narrator nearly 40 years later.
The friend is a fiction writer and so he is unable to resist including fictional snippets that might help to explain the heinous event. Thus the novel is a fascinating blend of two interpretations or a novel within a novel.
Gene and his friend are in love with the same girl, the beautiful Marie Ryan. The relationship of these three and their parents is the chief focus as Watson outlines the impact of the crime on each. At high school graduation, Gene cracks and suffers a nervous breakdown, which gives his best friend a chance to win over Marie.
Their romance, unfortunately, is destined to fail, contributing to the tragedy.
Watson perfectly captures the heavy hormonal, sexual feelings common to most teenagers.
The dialogue is brilliantly executed and surprises readily appear throughout the narrative. A few sexual situations are frankly depicted involving the teenagers which do not detract from the efficacy of the novel.
Watson himself was more fortunate. "I married my Marie Ryan," he said. "Marie Ryan is a steady character when the others are not. She is able to understand the importance of moving on in life. She is also self-possessed as few adolescents or even adults are."
Occasionally, he writes notes on individual characters, "but usually, I have a pretty good sense of who they are in my head," Watson said. "I can make fiction happen, but I work every day on a novel. Not having the right word will stop me for minutes and even hours, so I spend a lot of time with the dictionary and the thesaurus.
"I can't write a rough draft and even come close. I don't read aloud while writing it, but I do notice a sensation in my throat sometimes and I wonder if there is something unconscious trying to make sounds while I'm working."
Watson regards his writing style as "spare, pretty lean, but always moving forward. I don't have an attention span to work longer than an hour at a time. I'd like to write a play or a screenplay, because I'm fascinated by how much of a story can be told when you can't say what a character's inner life is like."
Watson's favorite authors include Philip Roth, John Updike, Ian McEwan and Joyce Carol Oates. He believes teaching a full load of classes at Marquette University helps him with his own writing and often he completes his own student assignments to polish his skills."Besides," added Watson, "teaching gets me out of the house."