On June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’ve been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.
For our final debutante interview, we’re talking to Douglas Watson, author of the collection The Era of Not Quite, published by BOA Editions and winner of their Short Fiction Prize. The Era of Not Quite includes “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero” published in One Story last month.
Douglas Watson’s debut story collection is chock-a-block with deaths, births, sea and land voyages, excursions to the library, philosophical asides, and things like wolves. People fall in and out of love, walk in and out of buildings, take two steps forward and two steps back. Futility is a theme of the book, but so is the necessity of trying. Recently, Freebird Books in Brooklyn hosted a book launch event for Watson, and as a finale, Doug sang a song he’d written for the occasion, “The Era of Not Quite,” accompanied by Anthony Tognazzini on percussion and One Story’s own Hannah Tinti on ukulele. Click below for the musical madness, then read on about cheese, secrets, and fairy tales.
How did you celebrate when you found out you had won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and your first book was going to be published?
I think I did a kind of off-kilter jig and grinned up at the tops of some skyscrapers. They didn’t seem as big as the news about my book! I’d been playing phone tag with Peter Conners, the publisher at BOA Editions, and I was on my coffee break at work when we finally got each other on the phone. I remember it all very clearly: it was a warm night, and I was working overtime copyediting a royal-wedding-themed special issue of Time magazine. I’d prefer not to measure the readership of my book against the readership of that special issue. Anyway, so I did a jig, swigged some coffee, and then walked back to the Time & Life Building and all this copy about Kate Middleton and what’s-his-name. No subject on earth interests me less than British royalty, but still, it was a very good night.
The final story in your collection, “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero”, is One Story issue #177. I know that you published this story with us only months before your book release but has anything happen in the time between your publication in One Story and the release of your book?
Gosh, so much has happened just since One Story accepted my story for publication. It’s amazingly good timing for me, having the story come out just before the book comes out. I don’t know of another literary magazine that can match One Story‘s reach. If there are other such magazines, I want them to know that I love them and look forward to working with their editors! Anyway, I’ve heard a lot of nice things from readers about the “Messenger” story. And I’m very excited to do a jig at the Debutante Ball.
Each of your stories seem to be not-quite fairy tales. When it comes to storytelling and fairy tales, do you have any favorites or influences?
The not-quite-fairy-tale thing is something I just fell into. It’s been a million years since I’ve read any of the old fairy tales. Of course I would recommend Donald Barthelme’s retelling of Snow White to any reader, even someone with no sense of humor and a dwarf allergy. But Barthelme was doing something different; he brought a completely modern, or I suppose postmodern, voice and aesthetic to an already existing tale, whereas I discovered, sort of by accident, that I simply liked writing in the style of a fairy tale, modernity and postmodernity be damned.
I think when you write a fable or fairy tale, you have the ability to at once be a bit silly and also go more directly at the big stuff, as in: “There once was a girl who was sad. Why was she sad? Well, it was because her whole family had died in a train accident. She didn’t smile for the next ten years, but then one day at the market…” Etc. I don’t know if that made any sense. By the way, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is one of my favorite books. I don’t know if one would call it a book of fairy tales or what exactly, but it is very, very good. And then there are George Saunders’ Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, but those are not exactly fairy tales either. Some of Lydia Davis’s stories have a kind of fairy-tale flatness to them. There are so many great books out there, I don’t know why we try to write new ones.
In your story “Against Specificity”, you write, “Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents.” Doug, what does Indiana represent?
To me it represents a single long, boring drive I took across the state in the spring of 2004. I was visiting a few campuses as a prospective MFA student, and the drive west on I-70 from Columbus, Ohio, where I eventually enrolled, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I mean, life can be dull, but this was taking it to another level. I grew up amid hills in Pennsylvania, and as I drove across Indiana, I got excited every time I-70 went up twelve feet in order to cross over another road. “Woo-hoo! Look at the view!” I would say. Of course, I’d started my drive in Boston and had spent entirely too many hours alone in the car by the time I got to Indiana. So I was crazy, and the country was crazy—the 2004 election season wasn’t a calm time, if I remember correctly. The four American contractors who were killed and mutilated in Fallujah—that happened during my drive, and for the first time in my life I found myself tuning in to the Rush Limbaugh radio show. Limbaugh was out sick that day or something, but his stand-in said something like, Let’s kill a thousand of them for every one American who died. So everything was horrifying, and there I was in Indiana, and I remember feeling as if pro-Bush Indianans at rest stops were squinting at my Massachusetts plates and trying to decide whether to beat me up or just beat up my car. That stuff was only in my head, of course, but to a writer, that just makes it all the more real.
Anyway, none of this has anything to do with what Indiana represents. I actually don’t know what it represents, since I’ve basically never been there. I am sure that any two Indianans will give six different answers as to what their state represents.
What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball on June 6th?
Meeting the other debutantes and eating lots of cheese—I assume there will be cheese. Also there is the matter of that jig… But for real, I’m very pleased to be able to acknowledge the great debt my writing owes to my mentor Michelle Herman, who teaches at Ohio State. I’ve had a number of great writing teachers over the years, but Michelle is the one who said what turned out to be the most important thing for me to hear at a crucial time in my development as a writer. It’s something every novice writer ought to take into consideration. I think we’ve run out of room in this Q&A, but I promise to reveal the great secret to anyone who buys a ticket to the Debutante Ball. I’ll be the guy doing a jig over by the cheese table.