Brad Watson, an award-winning author and the University of Wyoming’s creative writing program director, died this week. He was 64.
Watson published four books and essays in The New Yorker, Granta, Black Warrior Review, Ecotone, The Oxford American, The Idaho Review, The O.Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the South, and others.
His 2010 short story collection, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, one of the literary world’s most distinguished honors.
“The Heaven of Mercury,” Watson’s 2002 novel, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Jacob Silverman in his New York Times book review called the novel “splendidly dream-laden.” His latest release, 2016’s “Miss Jane,” was also praised by critics.
UW interim provost Anne Alexander said she was “heartbroken” to hear about Watson’s death.
“He was an extraordinary writer, an inspirational teacher, a fantastic colleague and a beautiful soul,” Alexander said in a statement. “UW was lucky that he chose to be part of our family and make Laramie his home, and he will be sorely and dearly missed.”
Ammon Medina was a graduate student when he met Watson. Like Watson, Medina began with a focus on poetry that later moved to prose. Medina said Watson’s guidance was critical.
But more than that, Medina said Watson helped him through one of the darkest times in his life, offering a place to live.
After learning about Watson’s death on Wednesday, Medina said he cried for several hours before a friend came to bring him dinner and a laugh. Afterward, he said he was able to reflect on how Watson impacted people he knew.
“He was a really thoughtful guy who always took the time for people,” Medina said.
Medina said he thinks Watson’s work will continue to be relevant for generations, and that his loss is a major blow to the literary world.
“The whole writing community is going to feel very heavy with this news,” he said.
Watson was born in Mississippi and lived in Alabama, Florida, California, Boston and Wyoming. After trying a year in Hollywood to break into the film industry, Watson returned to Mississippi where he began his higher education and eventually his writing career. Watson graduated with a bachelor’s from Mississippi State University and a master’s from the University of Alabama.
In addition to the aforementioned awards, Watson received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Marfa residency from the Lannan Foundation, a residency from the Aspen Institute, a Fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and an Award in Letters from the American Institute of Arts and Letters.
According to his website, Watson has two sons and a granddaughter. He was married to writer and horse trainer Nell Hanley (to whom Barry Hannah used to refer as “the lovely Nell”), who, “in addition to a whole lot of other things, cares for their (her) five horses on their property on the windy plains just south of Laramie.”
On living in Wyoming, Watson wrote “Letter from Wyoming,” originally published in Granta Feb. 2, 2010:
“Before I moved to Wyoming in 2005, I was – like a lot of people outside this region, it turns out – not quite sure just where it was. As for its character, no idea. We have our stereotypical notions of better-known states like Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. They exist in our imaginations as real places of this or that kind. I don’t think you can say the same about Wyoming. For a couple of years, almost everyone who called or emailed would ask, ‘How’s Montana?’ They couldn’t ever quite remember that I was in Wyoming. It’s like a state covered with one of those mythical invisibility suits. You look at it, but you don’t see it, you don’t really register that it’s there – or you do, because it’s beautiful, but you think it’s Montana. I’d bet that a lot of people who vacation in Jackson Hole don’t really think of the fact that it’s in Wyoming, most of the time. As soon as they get off the plane and onto a pair of skis, they think they’re at a resort somewhere in western Colorado. They can’t quite fathom, really, that the place is in Wyoming, because no one can quite ever remember that Wyoming exists.”