When I read Douglas Watson’s debut story collection, The Era of Not Quite, I was awash with a rare and nourishing feeling: that what I was reading was exactly what I needed to be reading at that time exactly. Each of his stories deals a dark and witty blow. The collection is alive with a searing sense of humor, with wild formal play. It cranked me up and it stomped me down. I’ve been recommending this book to everyone.
It was with supercharged anticipation, then, that I read Watson’s daring foray into the novel, A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies. I burned through this book in one day. It’s rich in the many agreeable elements found in Watson’s stories, mentioned above, only with the addition of the sustained concentration that comes with a novel’s mass. As the title suggests, it chronicles the life and death of a moody fellow. Here’s how it opens:
Everyone gets to die. Not everyone gets to find love first.
Some people don’t even get to look.
This novel is about a moody fellow who got to do all three. His name was Moody Fellow.
Moody looked for love for a long time before he found it. He looked in some, not all, of the wrong places and in quite a few of the wrong ways. It didn’t make things any easier that, from the beginning of his search to the short-lived sweetness that marked its end, he was a terribly—and we do mean awfully—moody fellow.
But enough ado. Let us begin at the beginning.
How should we read this introductory mini-summary? As a marker of contemporary metafiction? As a marker of a postmodern take on folktales, oral storytelling traditions, and nineteenth century omniscience? Any attempt at labeling, I’ll argue, simplifies this novel’s nuanced ambitions. Watson takes big risks. Through sublimely serious play and playful seriousness, these risks spin out, threading humor into heartbreak. Watson’s craft is as captivating as it is graceful. Please read this book.
Recently I had the honor of interviewing Watson over email. We talked about point of view, art and life, and the difference between writing stories and writing a novel.
Douglas Watson’s first book, The Era of Not Quite, won the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize. His second, the novel A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies, is just out from Outpost19. His stories have appeared in One Story, Ecotone, Epiphany, and other publications. He lives in New York City.
Where did A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies begin for you, and how did it get to here?
One day the title popped into my head. It seemed like the title of a novel I could write. So I began writing it. The first draft took me the better part of a year. When I finished it I put it away for a month or two, then started at the beginning again and wrote another, better draft. I did that four or five times—writing from the beginning to the end—and wound up with the book as it is. I sometimes wish my writing process could be a bit messier, that I could write hundreds of pages and then chop up that material and move it around. So far I’ve never been able to do that. I write from the first page to the last, obsessively line-editing as I go.
Your first book, The Era of Not Quite, is a story collection. I’d love to hear about how the move from story-writing to novel-writing felt. If you could give your past-self novel-writing advice, what would you say?
I guess the most important thing I would say is, You can do it! That was something I certainly didn’t know until I proved it to myself. Of course, the novel I wrote does give off a short-story vibe. It has forty-six chapters in one hundred seventy pages, and some of the chapters are just half a page. So obviously that is one way I solved the problem of how to write a novel, just doing these episodic little chapters. The other thing I found was that it became easier and easier to force myself back to my writing desk as the novel took shape. It really did gather its own momentum, and I got pulled along with it, wanting to see what would happen as I hope the reader wants to. The momentum was more sustained than it is with short stories.
The plural narrator in A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies speaks on behalf of narrators everywhere. Early on, we read:
Moody pedaled away up the street. It was a nice enough street, and Moody loved it, for it was the only street in the world that was his. To us narrators, though, there was nothing special about it, and we’re not going to bother describing it.
To me, so much of this work’s amazing wit, humor, and insight springs directly from the narrator’s lively voice. What was it like to work with this narrator? What were the pleasures? What were the challenges, and how did you approach them?
For me it was a lot of fun speaking through these narrators. (I usually refer to them in the plural like that, although not always.) Their omniscience and detachment allowed them to poke fun at the characters in almost a “Lord, what fools these mortals be” kind of way. They have affection for the characters, but they also see that at some level life is a joke and the world doesn’t care what happens to any of us. And why should it? It is a whole big world, and we are just … whatever it is that we are.
It’s impossible to live with the cosmic big picture in mind at all times, but for the narrators it is possible. And even for us mortal fools it can have a calming effect. As in: “Gosh, I wish I hadn’t said that dumb thing just now, but someday the sun will explode, so does it really matter?” That actually is what it’s like to be in my head sometimes. I think in Moody Fellow I allowed the characters to sweat all the big stuff in their lives while the narrators pointed out that it really wasn’t such big stuff. The friction between those two points of view is part of what animates the novel, I think. Maybe it has something to do with how we search for meaning in our own lives, too.
I do think that the way the book is narrated—from way up high, as though the narrators are perched on a cloud way above where the action is—can be a bit distancing for some readers. Either you are in tune with that sensibility and feel invited in or else you find it a bit odd and perhaps off-putting, would be my guess. Once I made that choice, though, I pretty much had to stick with it, for better and worse. That is how these things go.
To what extent do you think of this narrator as a character?
It’s funny, I don’t exactly think of them as characters. In the exit-interview scene they feel more like characters than they do elsewhere, but even there, they feel to me like voices, disembodied voices. A character has a body as well as a voice; he or she lives in the world, not just in language. But these narrators inhabit words and words only. I know I’m fudging things a bit, because if they’re disembodied, how are they going to rub ointment behind Moody’s ears to make him forget the interview? That is one of the joys of storytelling; you can fudge a lot of things, and the reader will let you, because the story must go on.
During Moody’s “exit interview” with the narrator, Moody asks, “Sorry, but what kind of a novel is this? Shouldn’t I have to make some kind of big defining choice or screw something up and then try to fix it?” The narrator answers that “this is only secondarily a novel. Primarily, it’s your life, and life has a way of not being art.” As the writer of A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies, do you agree? Do you think of this novel as “only secondarily a novel”? And if so, what is it primarily?
Oh, you know, it’s really a novel, of course. That was just some fancy footwork by the narrators. Or was it? I am in fact quite fascinated by the uneasy faceoff between life and art. The reason I prefer art—the reason I insist on making it—is that it’s quite a bit neater and more coherent than life. In life, there’s no filter. Everything just comes at you from all sides at all times, and you don’t even have time to try to make sense of it, because every day brings a new jumble of knives coming at you. Knives and other things. Whereas art is the product of reflection. When you write a novel you can put the important things in the foreground and leave the minor things in the background or off the page entirely. If you didn’t make those editorial choices, the reader would never forgive you and would never get to page ten of your novel.
But on the other hand, if the novel is going to be true to life, it has to retain some of that sense of things not quite adding up—or even not really mattering. Because, again, how important is any one individual’s life story really? It’s very important to that person, and it’s very important to any novel it may be at the center of—but to life in general? To the world? It barely matters at all. In my book, the narrators feel free to remind Moody of that fact. And Moody dies in the prime of life, which is a thing that does happen in the world. Maybe he would have gotten to make his big defining choice if he’d lived into his forties. A fictional story is expected to have a certain kind of arc, but in real life people’s stories get cut short all the time. There is no age at which people don’t die. That is how the world is, and I wanted to put that in the novel. It makes me angry, actually, but what can one do about such things?
What’s your day job? How does/doesn’t it intersect with your writing/writing life?
Four days a week I work as a copy editor at Time magazine. It works for me because it’s shift work—I don’t take my job home with me, not ever, and that allows me to get some writing done during my time off. Also, for a writer, copyediting is a bit like practicing scales would be for a musician. It keeps the words-and-sentences part of the brain sharp. Of course, I’d love to spend more time writing and less time editing, but I haven’t figured out how to sell enough books to make that possible. Also, I wish I worked for a company that wasn’t constantly laying people off. It’s depressing and a bit nerve-racking. But so it goes. I did get a satirical short story out of it, a piece called “Pink Slip,” which was recently published by Epiphany magazine.
What good stuff have you been reading lately?
Right now I’m reading Amy Hempel’s first book of stories, Reasons to Live. There’s a famous story in there, much anthologized, called “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” I’d never read it before. What a story! It just reaches into you and says, You will cry now.
I also recently read Denis Johnson’s first novel, Angels, which is similarly powerful but more so because it’s a novel and so you get more involved with the characters. It’s classic Johnson—people messing up their lives with drugs, alcohol, and violence. He neither glorifies these things nor judges them. I think his stance is that people do these things and so let’s have a look at what that is like, shall we? The way Johnson is able to humanize people who may be running from their own humanity is pretty amazing. That sounds glib; I’m not sure how to say it correctly. I can’t do justice here to what he achieves on the page. Anyway, it’s quite a book.
Another recent favorite of mine is Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science, which tells the story of an Italian economist at the World Bank who sort of blows up his life and then tries to understand why. It’s an ambitious novel, dealing with issues of politics and economic justice—things fiction writers (including me) don’t write about enough, in my opinion. But what stuck with me was the main character. He’s just really relatable. He’s a pretty intellectual guy, but he makes most of his big moves in life on impulse. “Act now, think later” could be his motto. He ends up having a lot of time to think.
Can you tell us a little about any projects you’re working on at the moment?
I’ve been writing new short stories, mostly very short. I’ll feel a lot better about life once I get going on my new novel idea. I’m hoping to get rolling on that this summer, now that the Moody Fellow release is behind me. It seems like a good idea for a book, but if I started telling you about it, it might not seem good anymore, and I would start weeping. So I’ll keep mum on it.
Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His work appears in Kenyon Review Online, Third Coast, Post Road, Heavy Feather Review, Unsaid, and other places.