"Something was wrong with Aunt Jane": Brad Watson on the uncommon woman behind his new novel, writing difference and the appeal of "fly-over" country

Salon talks to Brad Watson, acclaimed author of "The Heaven of Mercury," about his new novel "Miss Jane"

Published July 20, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Brad Watson   (Nell Hanley)
Brad Watson (Nell Hanley)

Brad Watson has been an aspiring movie star, a garbage collector, a digger of ditches, a bartender, a professor, and much more. With the publication of his 2002 novel "The Heaven of Mercury," which became a finalist for the National Book Award, and the recent arrival of his latest book, “Miss Jane,” he can now add masterful novelist to that list.

Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi—just like Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird”—and left there straight out of high school with dreams of becoming an actor. Once in Hollywood he could only find work collecting garbage. He had married while in high school and it wasn’t long before he and his young family found themselves back in their hometown where he ran his father’s bar. Watson quickly figured out he wasn’t a very good businessman since the bar ended up going bankrupt and the marriage didn’t last long either so before long he found himself in college, somewhat against his own will, which resulted in him becoming a Gulf Coast reporter. He worked for years at becoming a good writer and says that he gave up for a time simply because he was dissatisfied with the quality of his own work. But the writing kept drawing him back in that way that only writing and the South seem to be able to do.

It took Watson about ten years to write and publish his first book, “Last Days of the Dog-Men”, but it was worth the time and effort. The book was widely acclaimed and even secured the coveted Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors. He was hired at Harvard University and then his first novel, “The Heaven of Mercury” slayed the critics, garnering praise from practically all corners including the aforementioned notice from the National Book Awards, firmly establishing Watson’s place as a major American writer. At the time, writer Barry Hannah said of Watson’s work that “only the Irish geniuses wrote like this.” Since then he’s published short stories in places like “The New Yorker” and “Granta”, become a teacher at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, and his second book of short stories, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives” (2010) was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction, earning high praise. Never mind that he’s also been given a Guggenheim, a grant for the National Endowment of the Arts, a residency from the Lannan Foundation, and plenty other of the major awards available to American artists.

“Miss Jane,” however, takes Watson’s writing to new heights. The story is inspired by the life of his own great-aunt and tells the story of Jane Chisolm, born with a “difference” that could define her in a world that expects her primary goal to be finding a husband. But Jane is a remarkable character who refuses to be so easily defined. Instead, she creates her own love stories, finding wonder in nature and the people she knows and securing her own dignified and defiant place in the world. The novel is not only a lovely character study but also looks at the dignity of rural lives, medicine in the early 20th century, and the joys and heartaches of being a parent.

“Miss Jane” is an especially timely novel for right now, when so much of our turmoil is dependent on how we view the Other, whether it be because of race, sexuality, religion, or where someone was born. It’s also a novel that thrums with beauty, melancholy, and desire.

I recently talked with Watson about all of this as well as what it means to be a writer today, being a Southern writer living in the West, why dogs are superior to us, and much more.

As far back as 2002 you were already thinking about the possibility of writing this story.

Yes, about that long ago I started trying to figure out how to write a novel “inspired,” so to speak, by my great-aunt’s story. The problem was, no one really talked about her so-called problem, and very few were alive who remembered much about her, and there were no surviving medical records, revealing letters, diary, journal, etc., and I had to figure out what the most likely condition was, concerning her birth defect and how it would affect and determine the way she lived her life. That was more work than I expected, so it delayed the writing a long time. There were projects in between, including “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives.” I finally settled down, feeling more ready and able to write “Miss Jane,” in December 2013. Even then I went through more drafts than I ever have, though. I went into a maze on this one, took a while to find my way out.

What is it about her story that has haunted you for so long?

I think it was a combination of seeing her once, when I was a little boy and she was an old, frail woman, at a family gathering, and learning that “something was wrong with Aunt Jane,” but only knowing that it involved incontinence and the apparent inability to have a sexual life, thus, marriage, children, etc. And she loved her nieces and nephews. Then I found an old snapshot of her in a summer dress and hat, looking at the camera in what I thought was an undeniably flirtatious way. When I asked my mother about that, she told me that young Jane was popular with the boys (and she told me she was “definitely a woman”), that she used to go to the community dances up in the country where she lived. I asked how she pulled that off, and my mother had no idea. That added to the interesting mystery. Then I went to the cemetery looking for her gravestone and found one for Mary Ellis Clay but no Jane Clay. Back at my mother’s house, I asked about that, and my mom, typically, said, “Oh, I don’t know how she came to be called Jane. We just always called her Jane.” She was known to be upbeat, cheerful, undaunted. But my wife, Nell Hanley, and I talked about it and decided there had to be a lot more to it than that.

Although our primary focus is the title character, we get to know four other characters very intimately. Was this the plan from the beginning or was the emergence of those other interesting characters something that happened more organically?

It was hard to come up with a plan, especially after I found out I knew so little about the real Aunt Jane’s life. She seemed full of mystery, secrets. But the demands of imagining a life for Jane Chisolm up on a farm in early 20th century Mississippi eventually required a good cast of supporting characters to help flesh out her life, the every day and the imaginative elements of it.

You’re writing about a pretty touchy—and unusual—subject in "Miss Jane." So as not to give too much of the plot away, we’ll just say that your lead character is born with a genital birth defect. One of the most admirable things about the novel is the way you’re able to write about that without ever going for shock value in any way. Was that hard to pull off?

It was, frankly. And I credit my editor at W.W. Norton, Alane Mason, for helping me figure out how to walk that line. Eventually I realized that the understanding of her condition had to come gradually, incrementally if you will, the same way it would have to come into the understanding of Jane, herself. So I tried to use her as the filter and lens for that, as it seemed most natural and most humane, as well.

The novel could have easily—and predictably—been about the way society treats anyone who is different but instead it is more about the person who is different and how she decides to take control of her own life and not be defined by one part of herself.

Maybe it’s in part generational, but it is an aesthetic choice for me to put character and story before politics. I want any political or social implications to be as natural a part of the story as they would in a real life, if possible. I think the message, if there is one, comes through more powerfully that way. If you’re heading in with your fists balled up, I think you write non-fiction, an essay. I know plenty of people disagree with that, these days and in other times of high, meaningful, and important activism. But I think the novel that envelops such things in the story, that makes it a natural part of the texture of that world, can be powerful. I’m not making claims, here. Just talking about the way I work.

Sometimes it seems we are being ripped apart by our suspicions of those who are different from us. We’re killing each other because of our differences. What can we learn from the character of Jane Chisolm that is especially useful to us today?

It was certainly on my mind as I worked on this book. And, going back to the question above about what haunted me about my great-aunt’s story, that was part of it. Even though I was a "normal" kid in every obvious and evident way, I felt like a bit of a freak in ways that are hard to explain without sounding self-centered – but I felt that way to a degree in my family and in my little hometown as a whole, as well. I had an inborn attraction to and sympathy for – maybe empathy – people who were different, were made fun of, were ostracized for one reason or another. I tried to make myself into a tough kid in order to avoid being teased for being oversensitive, perceived as weak, etc. I was your typical quiet loner, bookish to the point I could be. But I went out for football, got into a few fights, showed out, went binge drinking, all that crap you do in a small town (or city neighborhood) to prove your manhood. I put up what was a shield but turned out to be useless, even a tool for self-destruction. Jane struck something in me. She, too, had put up her obvious defenses, part of that being silence, which she seemed to wield with an uncommon grace. My mother’s family was a pretty stoic bunch, after all. But Jane was not dour, like some of the tough ones in there were. From what little was remembered of her, she was kind, generous of heart, as well as tough. She did not ever complain about loneliness, I was told. She lived her life as if nothing was ‘wrong.’ I, at the time I became interested in her, was pretty much wallowing in self-pity for this or that. I never knew her. But I began to admire her. I wanted to know more. So I tried to imagine a life.

One theme that arises is the way Jane’s condition weighs so heavily on her parents. The impact it has on her father’s life is very powerful. You’ve said that having children has been “interesting, loving, and terrifying.” Were you drawing on some of your own experiences as a father when writing about Jane’s father, Sylvester, in this book?

That, and conversations I had with my mother about her own relationship with her mother and father. She, too, grew up in the country, on a cattle farm, kind of alone in that she was the youngest by several years and was left much to her own devices. She was as much an inspiration in this book as was Great-Aunt Jane, in a way. She loved her father dearly, deeply, and was pained by his own problems with depression and alcohol. She loved her mother (a woman who could not be more the opposite of Jane’s mother in the book), also, I would say worshipped her, and my grandmother was a beautiful woman, in and out. I had these things in mind, writing the story. I remember my mother’s terrible grief when her mother died – I was fourteen. And then my mother died while I was out here in Wyoming. I couldn’t get home in time to say goodbye. This, and being separated from my own sons while they were growing up – I guess all of this plays into or feeds the emotional undercurrent running through “Miss Jane”.

“The Heaven of Mercury” dealt quite a bit with race yet that never becomes a factor in “Miss Jane.” Why did you choose to not explore that element of the South during the Jim Crow time period that the novel covers? Is it simply because Jane’s life is so insulated? Was that a conscious choice?

I wanted the book to be very intensely about Jane’s inner life, physical and metaphysical, and her relationship with the world around her, the natural world and the beings that inhabit it. I thought that to a person like Jane, all things, including all other creatures (living trees, animals, humans), would be fascinating. That her life is always a bit strange, detached from lives lived by those who considered themselves to be “normal,” who didn’t have to think all the time about how undeniably different and separate they were from others. Add that to the fact that I grew up with parents who were unusually tolerant and, to my mind, kind-hearted people who denounced hate and discrimination, and you have the decision to make Dr. Thompson and, to some degree, Jane’s father, of similar minds. I wanted Jane and her condition, her situation, at the core of the book. Unlike in “The Heaven of Mercury”, where I tried to turn a caustic eye on race relations, injustice, and racist-inspired cruelty, the unheeded consequences of ignorance, the eye of this story had to be focused through Jane or, in asides with other characters, those who were seeing their own lives through the lens of their experience with Jane, herself.

Ultimately this is all about Jane Chisolm, and she is a person with a deep built-in store of empathy for anyone who suffers in any way, even though she also has a built-in toughness in terms of how to deal with her own, and how to tolerate the inevitability of it in others’ lives.

Your book is set in rural Mississippi. However, for many people that phrase—“rural Mississippi”— instantly conjures up thoughts of ignorant, racist, mean-hearted yokels.

I’ve been in enough situations where being the only Southerner present made me the freak to know ignorance of my home region marches on.

Yet your characters are complex human beings who never take on these kinds of traits—and you’ve mentioned your parents’ ideas of acceptance and tolerance, even as rural Southerners in the 1960s.

For all the ways it is struggling and, yes, deficient, or failing, flailing, it is also a place full of wonderful people, and possibly one of the most diverse places in the country. Not that everyone gets along. There is ignorance, there is racism. There are also more proud people trying to change that than might be apparent from the results at the polling booths. But writing the book, I was just thinking about these people, trying to make them real people in the reader’s mind. Here’s an anecdote, though. I was at a tea party or the like at a famous university in the early stages of researching “Miss Jane,” and I asked the host — who was a pediatrician, for goodness sake — if he could speculate on what might have been my great aunt’s condition. His response was, “You’re from Mississippi, right? Is there any history of incest in your family?”

I thought, I ought to make up a bumper sticker that’s like a middle finger to people who think like that: “Incest. It’s a Southern thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

It seems to me that as much as you’re writing about these characters you are also writing about a gone way of life—a rural existence that is either completely gone now or one that is seen as having little value these days. The idea of preserving lost ways of being is something that happens quite a bit in Southern literature.

It’s probably personal, in that the model for those woods was my wandering ground as a boy, and they were mown down, paved over. Farming in the South, like everywhere else, is mostly big and/or corporate now. Or it’s a “gentleman farmer” deal. I’ve lived in urban areas, but I don’t adapt to them too well. It’s part of the reason I now live in the least populous state in the lower 48, even though I miss home. If I could find a good way to go home, though, I would.

Right, that most common malady of the Southerner: homesickness. You’ve lived in Wyoming for the past 11 years. Since you’ve been out west so long now do you find that it is harder for you to write about the South—remembering the quality of light, for instance, or the sounds of a summer evening?

It wasn’t hard when I was living in the Boston area from ’97-’02. In fact, it made writing about the South a little easier, that remove. This is longer, different, and yes it made it harder. I visited often during the writing of this book, to try to soak up things I thought were being leached away. I went to the land where my great-aunt grew up, where my mother grew up. It’s all grown over, now, no longer farmland. But it helped me to envision the farm in the book. That and stories I remembered my mother telling me about growing up there.

What book or writer do you wish more people were reading today?

Like a lot of other writers, I hope more and more people continue to discover John Williams. His novel “Stoner” was an influence (among a few other works) while I was working on “Miss Jane”.

What particular books have had the biggest impact on you?

"Stoner" was one. “The Death of a Beekeeper”. “My Antonia” and all of Cather’s novels (Faulkner was an admirer of her work, by the way, which is interesting given the difference in styles.) Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. Barry Hannah, mainly the short stories. Welty, especially the early stories. “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan Connell. And Dreiser, actually, had a big impact on me in college — such powerful stories, even if he’s criticized for being a clunky writer. Of course the novels we read in my freshman honors course on Southern literature opened my mind to the idea of becoming a writer: Faulkner, of course, but also O’Connor, Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Twain (I’d never read “Huckleberry Finn” before that class), Wright, Madison Jones’ great civil rights novel, “A Cry of Absence”.

Today it seems that so many of the big books that come out from the New York literary world are very coast-centric, focusing on NYC or LA or other urban areas. It’s rare that a book that is so decidedly rural like yours gets the big push. Why do you think our culture is so negating of rural people?

I don’t know. A lot of younger people, writers included of course, are drawn to living in New York, Brooklyn in particular. I understand the attraction. I hate to see anyone move there because they think they’ll have a publishing advantage (though they may, for all I know), or because it’s cool (and it surely must be); but it’s very expensive, of course, and seems to me unless you have a trust fund you might find a cheaper place to write your first and second and so on books. There’s a kind of literary school, I suppose, among those who live in and write about the city. But some of it feels kind of insular, to me. It gives of an air of only caring to appeal to people who are experiencing the same things, living that particular life in that place. And for all the great diversity among people, food, art, and more, it also seems limiting in a way, to me – this is a big country, and finally most of us live in fly-over states. I’ve lived in the South, the Boston area, briefly in southern California, and for 11 years now in the front range of the Rockies. They’re all interesting. Of course, it’s obvious I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about.

Your work almost always has a good dog or two and there’s a couple in “Miss Jane” as well. So many writers have a deep affinity for dogs. Why do you think that is the case?

Barry Hannah once gave me the greatest blurb (for “Last Days of the Dog-Men”): “Watson’s people are the wretched dreams of honorable dogs.” Dogs are superior to us in more ways than not. In the important ways. If we were smart enough, we would allow them to teach us how to be more human, better humans than we are most days.

By Silas House

Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels. His latest, "Southernmost," will be released in paperback on June 4.

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