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Brad Watson, whose writing turned an unflinching gaze toward life, dies at 64

Mr. Watson based much of his writing in the Deep South, where he grew up.
Mr. Watson based much of his writing in the Deep South, where he grew up.

While running with a friend around Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs, Brad Watson would talk about a novel he was writing that was set in a fictional Mississippi town much like the one where he grew up.

The physical and emotional distance from his past — living in Massachusetts, teaching at Harvard University — actually “made writing about the South a little easier,” Mr. Watson said in 2002, the year he published “The Heaven of Mercury.”

That first novel, mostly written while he was Harvard’s Briggs-Copeland lecturer in literature, became a National Book Award finalist, one of many accolades in a writing career that spirited him to teaching posts in places such as Mississippi, Alabama, Cambridge, and the University of Wyoming, where he directed the school’s creative writing program.

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For men in Mr. Watson’s family, heart ailments and early deaths were as ever-present as their shared Southern sense of place. He was 64 when he died in his Laramie, Wyo., home Wednesday of what his wife, Nell Hanley, believes was cardiac failure.

Critics and readers tend to categorize, and Mr. Watson’s work drew quick comparisons to Southern writing’s firmament.

Like William Faulkner, he created a Mississippi locale where many of his fictional characters lived. Gothic elements prompted some admirers to invoke Flannery O’Connor, and Mr. Watson’s acclaimed short stories made others think of Eudora Welty.

“The setting is the American South, but too much is made about Watson writing about the South,” John Freeman noted in a 2010 Globe review of “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” Mr. Watson’s second collection of stories. “Like Welty and O’Connor before him, he simply writes – and that’s why he gets it right.”

Throughout Mr. Watson’s work lie powerful, unforgettable passages. Early in his final book, the 2016 novel “Miss Jane,” the title character’s mother is consumed by anger and despair while chopping firewood:

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“When she had spent her rage, kindling chunks around her as if the woodpile had exploded and left her standing, she buried the ax in the block and stalked off out the back yard and down the main trail in the woods to the fishing pond. She stood there looking at the smooth brown surface of the pond, arms straight at her sides, and thought she could go back up, fetch a heavy piece of mechanical scrap and a rope, tie it about her waist, and walk into the water until submerged and will herself to fill her lungs with the silty water. She let her mind imagine the scene, the moment.”

Mr. Watson “has shown, as few writers have, how wildness, in us and in our environment, can be deliverance,” Amy Grace Loyd wrote in a 2016 New York Times review of “Miss Jane,” which he based loosely on the life of a great-aunt.

Loyd added: “A writer of profound emotional depths, Watson does not lie to his reader.”

Love of nature or affection for a dog could be as profound, and as profoundly nourishing, as relationships between humans in Mr. Watson’s books.

He also never averted his eyes from the world’s ugliness and horror. “History is not at all tasteful,” he said in 2002.

“He was just so unflinching at looking at things not pleasant to look at,” said his wife, a writer and former teacher who now works with horses as a hoof care practitioner.

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As a teacher, he was known for being generous with his time and devoted to his students.

“I wish like hell that he knew how many and how much people loved him, both as a man and a writer,” his wife said in an e-mail exchange. “If you’d asked him to believe either one he wouldn’t allow it as the truth. That breaks my heart.”

Wilton Brad Watson was born on July 24, 1955, and grew up in Meridian, Miss., the second of three sons born to Robert Earl Watson and Bonnie Clay.

Robert tried his hand at several jobs and lost money when he was swindled by partners in one venture, said Mr. Watson’s younger brother, Craig of Birmingham, Ala.

Bonnie took jobs to supplement the income and was an expert at stretching what money there was, Mr. Watson recalled in interviews.

In high school, Mr. Watson and his girlfriend married and had a child. Through his senior year, he went to school, was a parent, and on afternoons and weekends “he worked for Firestone and had to change semi-truck tires,” Craig said.

After high school, Mr. Watson moved with his wife and infant son to Los Angeles, where he hoped to be an actor, only to find studios closed by a strike. He ended up driving a garbage truck until he was summoned home to Mississippi when his older brother, Clay, was killed in a car crash.

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Relatives encouraged Mr. Watson to return to school, where fell in love with literature at Meridian Junior College. He finished a bachelor’s at Mississippi State University and a master’s of fine arts at the University of Alabama, yet he struggled with writing short stories, even giving up for a while.

When he published, each book brought recognition. His 1996 short stories collection “Last Days of the Dog-Men” won a first fiction award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives” (2010) was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in fiction. “Miss Jane” was long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award.

Mr. Watson’s first two marriages ended in divorce.

He married Nell Hanley in 2011, though by then they had been a couple for years after meeting on Cape Cod.

I loved the man and I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said.

Along with Nell and his brother, Craig, Mr. Watson leaves a son from his first marriage, Jason of Lexington, S.C., and a son from his second marriage, Owen of Boston.

Mr. Watson’s sole grandchild, Maggie, suggested a detail that made it into his final book.

After she heard an early chapter read aloud, she said " ‘Pappy should put a peacock in there.’ And I did. And it changed everything,” he wrote in the acknowledgements.

“He was just a wonderful, great guy,” Jason said. “I was overwhelmed by what he did. He had that drive to do what he loved.”

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The night before Mr. Watson died, he had long phone conversations with Jason and Craig.

“We laughed and told stories about funny people and things we’ve done,” Jason said.

“We’d just started telling stories, old stories,” Craig said. “We’d always make each other laugh.”

Though not all of Mr. Watson’s work was death-haunted, “I’m attracted to the elegy,” he told the Globe in 2010. “I’m most moved by loss, so that’s where I usually start.”

Deaths and burials sometimes brought his work to an end, too, and the short story “Noon” concludes with images that linger long after the book is closed:

“He buried her in the yard, with a stone on top to keep the cats from digging her up to sniff at the bones. But over time she drifted in the soil. The grass grew from her own cells into the light and the air. She watched him when he passed over with the lawn mower. The times between mowings were ages.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.