Author Donley Watt discusses writing, East Texas and his new book, Reynolds.
texasmonthly.com: You didn’t begin writing until later in life. What did you do before becoming an author, and what inspired you to make the switch?
Donley Watt: For years I read voraciously, especially fiction, all the while imagining that someday I would write my own stories. And all of those years I worked at other things—as dean of a community college, as a real estate appraiser, etc. One afternoon while pulling onions on an herb farm I owned, I got a vision of time running out and determined that I would give writing a try. As it turned out, all of those years of doing other things produced wonderful material for stories.
texasmonthly.com: Your first book, Can You Get There From Here?, won an award for best first fiction. How did it feel when your very first work was so well received?
DW: This award from the Texas Institute of Letters convinced me that my decision to write might not be crazy after all. Affirmation as a writer is not easy to come by, and unfortunately fades as soon as you start work on your next book, but this award sustained me through some discouraging days.
texasmonthly.com: What can readers expect from your new book, Reynolds?
DW: Once I had a psychology professor who told me that “everyone does the best they can, given the circumstances.” This drove me nuts for years, until I had done some living and done my best (not very well) given my circumstances. The characters in Reynolds have some strange circumstances, but are doing the best they can to make it in imaginative and (I hope) entertaining ways.
texasmonthly.com: In this book, you portray small-town East Texas quite well. What would you say defines the East Texas attitude?
DW: The best and worst of the Old South combined with the burdens and expectations that come from being Texans.
texasmonthly.com: How were you able to capture it? Have you spent a lot of time there?
DW: I grew up in East Texas, a wonderful place for a boy to live until he reaches adolescence. After that, as I discovered the ambiguities and temptations of the larger world, what seemed to be the strengths of the place and people became diluted and less certain. Complexity, conflict and particularity are, of course, rich with storytelling possibilities.
texasmonthly.com: The characters in Reynolds are vivid and colorful. Who or What inspired these people?
DW: Some years ago a good friend of mine, a writer originally from New Jersey, told me that she loved my short stories set in East Texas. “The place and the people are so exotic,” she said. Well, exotic maybe to her, but not to me. They are simply the people I grew up with and know. Larry McMurtry in his fine book of essays, In a Narrow Grave, writes about a brief visit to my hometown of Athens (a place he despised). There on the courthouse lawn he came upon a family that to him looked like monkey people, two young men and a girl who appeared to have just swung down from the trees. And I thought, no, they’re not monkey people, they’re not all that strange. They’re the Malcolms—Oscar and Billy Ray and their younger sister. We all went to grade school together. Just another variety of East Texas folks.
texasmonthly.com: There are a lot of familial issues in this story. Do you write from personal experience? Was your family as strange as this one?
DW: All families have their own brands of strangeness, but my immediate kin have little resemblance to the Reynolds family in my novel. Now there are some cousins and in-laws and an uncle or two; but I’d best not go there.
texasmonthly.com: What do you hope people take from this work?
DW: The recognition that we all are flawed, some of us more so than others. And that most of us do the best we can, and often the best is pretty lousy.
texasmonthly.com: What projects are you currently working on?
DW: My next novel, Dancing With Lyndon, has been accepted for publication.
The story takes place during one spring day in 1948, the year Lyndon Johnson helicoptered all over the state in his race for the Senate. When he landed for the day and night in Cottonwood, Texas, on Old Fiddlers’ Contest day, the lives of three of that town’s citizens are changed forever.