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Author Larry Watson Examines Morality, Generations With ‘As Good As Gone’

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In the early 1990s, novelist Larry Watson felt like his career as a writer might be over. He didn’t have an editor, agent or publisher. He also didn’t have an idea that he felt was strong enough to write the kind of book that launches an author on the path to success. Then, he decided to a closer look at his own life.

“I started to think, ‘Well, maybe there’s a possibility in my own region, my own heritage, family,'" he says. "When I found that, it just opened a vein that I’ve been able to keep mining for a number of other books.”

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Author Larry Watson

The result was the novel Montana, 1948, a book that still resonates with readers more than 20 years after its publication. Its origins and success suggest that the adage that one should write what they know is true.

“Sometimes I think it’s some little thing that you know that gives you access to material that, otherwise, might be closed off or maybe that you can get because of that detail,” he says.

Set in the early 1960s, As Good As Gone, Watson’s latest novel, focuses on Calvin Sidey, a man who seems stuck in another time, who is faced with confronting a changing world. The story raises at least one serious moral question, something common to Watson’s novels.

“I am interested in those moral questions and those decisions of morality that people have to make,” he says. “A number of years ago, when Montana, 1948 came out, I said that it was, among other things, about doing the right thing. But, before you can do the right thing, you have to know what the right thing to do is. And then, even knowing, it can sometimes be really difficult to do the right thing. I think that’s what happens in the opening chapter of As Good As Gone: Calvin Sidey knows that the right thing to do is to say yes to his son when he asks for that favor. But he doesn’t do it happily.”

If morality is a common theme in Watson’s books, so too is his fascination with the passing of generations.

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“I’m interested in the question of, ‘What does it mean to be a good man? What does it mean to be a good human being?’ Calvin Sidey is not someone on whom civilizations are built,” Watson says. “He has lived in town but when the novel begins he’s living in isolation out on the prairie. His son, on the other hand, Bill Sidey, is somebody who helps to build a town, to build a community. He’s steady, he’s responsible, he’s dependable. He’s not nearly as colorful as his father. But he’s somebody you can rely on.”

The passing of generations is central to the novel, which is set in the early 1960s--but not yet the ‘60s that most think of. Kennedy has not yet been assassinated and the national turmoil that marks that decade has yet to begin.

“The world is moving in a direction that is not going to be conducive to the code that someone like Calvin Sidey has lived by,” Watson says.

As Good As Gone is Watson’s tenth novel. Looking back on his career, he says that he’s more than pleased to have written each of those books. But a writer is always looking forward, and the book that has just been released means less if there’s not another to follow.

“Many years ago I heard the poet William Stafford say about his published work, ‘I’d trade it all of it for a new one.’ I thought, ‘What? What? You’ve got to be joking.’ I’m happy that I’ve published those books,” he says, “I’m happy that I wrote them. But I sure hope that I have a new one.”

Larry Watson appears at Watermark Books Wednesday, July 20, for a reading and signing.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.


Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.