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  Brad Watson: Origins of Last Days of the Dog-Men

At a party in Tuscaloosa, Alabama I overheard a woman tell a man about someone she knew who'd had her lover's dog put to sleep after the lover cheated on her. I was quietly aghast and excited to pinch this conversation, full of wonder at the perversely Greek elements suggested, with all the ridiculous, petty, mean, scheming, cruelty of the original stuff. I began to write at a story about it. Failure after failure, as is usually the case when you're a terminally ignorant swimmer in the wake of your craft.

Around that time, I nearly killed my across-the-hall neighbor's sweet mongrel collie, just for barking while I was trying to write (a dog story). One day, I went into the hallway and burst through the neighbor's door--the locks were weak in our building, but Tuscaloosa was and is relatively safe, though winos slept in our basement, which was open to the street--terrifying the dog, who'd never had this happen to him before. When I saw how terrified he was, I realized how out of control I was, so I apologized to the dog best I could and backed out of the neighbor's apartment. The locks weren't damaged, and I said nothing to the neighbor about it, though I had an uneasy guilt associated with a fear that somehow the dog might communicate to her what I'd done.

At any rate, this all evolved into a more thoughtful approach to writing the dog euthanasia story. I realized that dogs often became unwittingly or unwillingly entangled in our awful human soap opera dramas, and can even become pawns in them. I began collecting dog stories of this sort from the newspapers, from friends' anecdotes, from observation, and thought I'd like to write an oddball novel full of such anecdotal material.

Meanwhile, I had to make a living (or so I thought at the time--a big mistake that sucked me perhaps forever into the world of "career" life with all of its demands for money, money, money, whereas if I'd been smart enough to see it I'd have realized I had the whole system licked right then, living in a cheap town in a cool, cheap apartment, with a dependable old Chevrolet car, expenses less than 800 dollars a month, every one given up on me ever amounting to anything--absolutely the condition every aspiring writer with any brains should dream of acquiring or establishing), so I took a job as a reporter for a chain of weekly newspapers on the Gulf Coast and for some years wrote no fiction at all. I knew nothing of being a journalist and so the job kept me stressed out over whether I'd be discovered as a fraud or, worse, sued for faulty reporting about some coastal development scheme. I drank too much, tried to enjoy the beach life, do my job. But through it all I kept collecting dog stories. I came to understand that I could not make the oddball novel work out, but I kept the idea alive, anyhow.

After I made my way out of the journalism business I began to write fiction again, shaving away layers of rust. I attacked the dog book, which became a short story, the best I could do. I had several good dog stories left over, though, so I wrote them, too. Every October I took my week's vacation on the Florida coast, rented a cabin there, and wrote fiction for eight hours a day, for seven or eight days straight. It was like a training camp. The stories I wrote there gave me momentum for the rest of the year, when I'd write in my spare time. In 1993, by then a little less rusty, better oiled, I wrote the rough drafts or revisions of eight stories in eight days. Several of them were rough drafts of stories that ended up in Last Days of the Dog-Men. After that, the collection began to shape up.

Even so, I had no confidence anyone would publish a first collection of stories by an unknown writer with no successes in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, etc., etc. I sent the dog stories plus seven other stories (non-dog), mostly already published in literary magazines, to a Southern publishing house with a New York owner, and received with apologies what the respondent called something like "the first form letter rejection we've ever sent out," since lots of staffers were out sick. That was enough for me, a warning from the gods about foolish behavior. I put the manuscript down.

But I kept sending individual stories out, and finally Lois Rosenthal at Story accepted the last one I had to offer, "Seeing Eye." She'd rejected everything else I'd sent, albeit with lots of much-appreciated praise and encouragement. "Seeing Eye" caught the eye of Alane Saliero Mason, then at Harcourt Brace and now at Norton, and soon she had agreed to represent the book (without the non-dog stories) to her house, which eventually accepted it.

To my surprise, the book has done well for a first collection of stories. It's being published in England and Germany, and is currently in paperback from Dell. It's had the good fortune to receive two prizes, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. I feel tremendously honored by the recognition.

Right now my family and I are moving on to other things. I've been working on a novel, and we're all dealing with the transition from life in a small southern city, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to a big northeastern city, Boston. We were pretty settled in, before, so the move's been a little difficult for us. We're not big-city people, and many things here seem very odd to us. We're adjusting, though. I'm anxious to get back to work on the novel, and look forward to my classes at Harvard in the fall. I have some new stories in the works, too, and hope to publish another collection in the next few years. I'm including here the beginning of what may be my last dog story--still in fairly rough draft--"Water Dog God". This story began as a revision of a story in Dog-Men but became its own piece. I may even have included it in Dog-Men, had I not forgotten about it until some months after publication. I plan to complete work on the story this summer.

 
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Copyright © 1997 Brad Watson.

Photo of Brad Watson copyright © Rickey Yanaura.