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Author channels young boy, teenage girl in latest family drama

Channeling youth

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By Laura Farmer, correspondent

In his ninth book, “As Good as Gone,” multiple award-winning author Larry Watson returns to a theme common in his many works: what it means to be a man in midcentury America.

“This novel takes the subject and looks at it from slightly different angles,” Watson explained in a recent phone interview. “There’s an 11-year-old boy’s take and an elderly man’s and a middle-aged man’s. And all of those people are trying to negotiate the world: what’s the best way to do it, what’s the right way to do it?”

Watson will read from his latest work and discuss his writing style at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City.

Manhood is a familiar theme to Watson’s readers, though in the past his narrators have been teenagers — considerably younger than Calvin Sidey, the protagonist in “As Good as Gone.”

When asked the reason for this shifting perspective, Watson laughs. “I got older.”

“I do feel as though I still have a teenager — maybe even younger — still inside me. I talked with an interviewer recently and said “Yeah, I feel as though there’s still an 11-year-old boy in me.” And he laughed and said, “Oh yeah, I can feel that guy in me as well.’”

“I create characters that I have some feeling for and some point of access to. Maybe the business about age isn’t as relevant as some other features of the character.”

While Watson’s protagonists are typically men, he’s just as comfortable — and effective — writing from a woman’s perspective. “In ‘As Good as Gone,’ I have a 17-year-old girl who is an important part of the story. At a reading someone asked me, ‘What makes you think you can write about a terrified 17-year-old girl?’”

“The first part of my answer was I’ve known my wife since I was 17 and she’s always willing to give me some tips. And the second part was if you just take off girl and do “17-year-old, terrified,” well, I was terrified when I was 17 of one thing or another, so maybe terror was my point of access.”

Watson, a visiting professor of English at Marquette University, didn’t start thinking of himself as a writer until he was pursuing his doctorate in creative writing at the University of Utah.

While he was working on his dissertation, he “developed the every day discipline. I was writing every day. I’d written short stories and poems before that, but it wasn’t until I was writing on a regular basis that I allowed myself to think of myself as a writer. And I more or less kept up that practice ever since.”

And while writing every day has worked well for Watson — he’s won two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Public Library Fiction Award, among other honors — he realizes this schedule may not work for his students.

“I don’t insist that any of my practices are going to be right for them,” Watson explains. “I’m trying to show them some possibilities that work for me, and I encourage them to find what works for them. If it’s the same way for them as it is for me, that’s fine. But maybe they need to find somebody else as a model, someone who writes only on the weekends, who writes furiously for eight hours on Saturday and eight hours on Sunday. There are people who work that way.”

But for Watson, he’ll keep writing every day. And likely will keep setting his novels right here in the Midwest.

“It’s my native terrain. I grew up in North Dakota and for most of my life I’ve lived in the northern tier with a brief sojourn in the west, Utah, for grad school. I know the territory, and I know something about how people think and feel and talk and act in this part of the world.”

“I can trust my instincts to get things right or close to right.”

Book reading

What: Larry Watson will read from “As Good as Gone”

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

Cost: Free

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