Monday, January 23, 2017

My First Time: Larry Watson

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Larry Watson, author of of ten books, among them the novels Montana 1948, White Crosses, Let Him Go, and, most recently, As Good As Gone. The Seattle Times had this to say about Larry’s latest book: “In the virile, enigmatic character of Calvin, Watson both indulges in and reworks the romantic myth of the American cowboy in ways reminiscent of Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy or Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. The wistful territory covered here will be familiar to Watson’s fans. A repressed little town on the plains, uncomfortably poised between the old West and the new. Shameful secrets and penned up passions that flash like heat lighting on the horizon of a brooding sky. A master of spare, economical storytelling, Watson sweeps us up in a captivating family drama that departs as quickly as it came, leaving us gratified yet hungry for more.” Larry teaches writing and literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he lives with his wife, Susan. Click here to visit Larry’s website.

My First Novel

My first novel was published with so little effort on my part that I completely misjudged what the process would be like.

I was working on a PhD in the creative writing program at the University of Utah, a program I’d been admitted to on the basis of a few short stories I’d written as part of my master’s thesis at the University of North Dakota. I continued to write stories and submit them to workshops for my first couple of years at Utah. The form, however, never felt comfortable, mostly because I struggled with what to leave out.

Then I came up with the idea for a novel, and I was not far into it before I realized how right that longer form felt, at least for me. If I knew nothing else about the novel, I knew I had to fill a lot of pages, so I let everything in. And everything seemed to fit, or at least I found a way to make it fit. Best of all, that indulgent writing philosophy led me to make discoveries that weren’t available to me when I wrote short stories, discoveries about my characters and their world, about language, and about myself and my world.

I can’t say that the novel wrote itself, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much material my original concept yielded. Soon I had 50 pages I was reasonably satisfied with, and I felt that behind those pages were 50 more, and 50 more behind those. I couldn’t be sure of the novel’s quality, but I felt as though I’d be able to produce the requisite quantity.

And with 50 completed pages I’d be able to apply for a generous national fellowship that some of my fellow students had been talking about. I sent in my application along with those pages and then waited to hear how I fared in the competition.

Well, I didn’t win a fellowship, but the competition brought another kind of good fortune. One of the judges liked my submission and got in touch with me. He’d been an editor but was now an agent with William Morris. Did I have an agent, he wanted to know, and if I didn’t, would I like him to represent me and my novel-in-progress? No, I didn’t, I said, and yes, I would. By then I’d written perhaps 150 pages, and he asked to see them. On the basis of those pages, he was able to sell the manuscript to Scribner’s (and that name should be a clue as to how long ago this was; today’s Scribner was then Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Once I finished the novel (which, I might add, was my first effort at the form), I submitted it to my committee as my dissertation. They accepted it, as I felt confident they would, since it was already under contract. My editor at Scribner’s didn’t ask for many changes (what took the most time, as I recall, was coming up with a mutually agreeable title—In A Dark Time was what we finally settled on), and before long the novel was published. That was in 1980.

It didn’t sell particularly well, but it received a few respectable reviews, and because I now had a novel on my vitae, I was able to get a teaching job.

Where, I wondered, was all the agony and frustration of trying get published? I didn’t have to find an agent; he found me. I didn’t even have to finish the novel before a publisher agreed to publish it. I was on my way, or so I believed.

And that belief must have constituted just enough hubris on my part for the literary gods of punishment and reward to conclude that there were lessons I needed to learn. Because everything that had once been easy soon became very difficult.

For 13 years I couldn’t get another novel published.

That agent and I soon parted ways when it became apparent to both of us that I wasn’t going to produce the kinds of novels he’d hoped for. The novels I did write couldn’t find a home, either through my efforts or the efforts of another agent I acquired—and lost. My slump ended when Montana 1948 was published in 1993.

I would have quit except...well, you know how it goes. No matter how short of expectations it might fall, your first time feels so damn good, you just want to do it again. And again and again and again...

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