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LARAMIE -- Author Brad Watson once wrote a story about his widowed neighbor, only he didn't know her. She just seemed like she had a story, so he made one up.

He's a fiction writer, after all.

He wove a tale of her bittersweet marriage and her husband's early death.

By the time he finished he had learned more about her and felt odd publishing a story, even fictional, about her life without her knowing. So he asked her to read it.

She did and laughed. He was way off base, she had the happiest marriage in the world. But she didn't care if he published the tragic love story based on her fictitious life.

Watson, an author of three books and associate English professor at the University of Wyoming, sometimes uses people he's known in his stories, even if the connection is loose.

"Someday I may base a character on a rancher I watched recently in jury selection, even though I was only with him for 30 minutes," he said.

He recently received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship after publishing "Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives" in 2010, and was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, the largest peer-juried fiction award.

Watson, 55, grew up in Meridian, Miss. At 17 he made a pilgrimage to Hollywood, determined to be a famous actor.

"I turned out to be too small to be a jock so I had to switch to something else," he said.

As many of these stories go, instead of starring in the next blockbuster, or even a commercial, Watson worked as a garbage man for nearly a year.

A family death brought him back home to Mississippi. He'd lost interest by then, anyway.

He went to community college and took a southern literature class. There he read Southern greats like William Faulker, Robert Penn Warren and Flannery O'Connor. They inspired him to read more and try writing.

Watson went to graduate school at the University of Alabama and sent stories to any magazine he could. Some were published and some weren't.

In 1996, after a writing hiatus and a crushing rejection letter from a publishing house, Watson answered a call from and editor at W.W. Norton & Company. The editor also sat on a board for the magazine "Story" where he'd published a story already.

She wanted a book and a novel to follow. They published "Last Days of the Dog-Men" and his only novel, "Heaven of Mercury."

The first is not to be confused with "Last of the Dogmen," a movie with Tom Berenger about an American Indian tribe. Watson still hasn't made it to Hollywood.

The first book earned him a five-year teaching job at Harvard, followed by several stints in other universities and eventually, in 2005, the University of Wyoming.

His most recent collection of short stories highlights his story-telling ability, said University of Wyoming colleague Alyson Hagy.

Both Watson and Hagy are finalists for the High Plains Book Award.

"In Aliens there are some whopping, awesome tales. It is very ambitious and wide-ranging," she said.

"In his bones he understands the kinds of stories that will be compelling to listeners and readers."

***

Watson is one of those people who commands attention by speaking softly. His grave, southern voice invites the listener to sit and stay awhile.

Joe Posnanski graduated in May from the University of Wyoming's Master's in Fine Arts program, and said Watson was the reason he came to Wyoming from Illinois.

Watson was always supportive, willing to get a drink and talk. Even with a hectic schedule and mounting accolades, Watson never turned down a question.

"I would come into his office and have a problem writers have and he could take the air out of you," Posnanski said.

"In a way that makes you realize it's not as dramatic as you think your problems are."

His earlier years, spent as a garbage man, public relations specialist and journalist that makes him an accomplished teacher and writer, Hagy said.

"I use him as an example, that the short and predictable road is not always the best road," Hagy said.

"When he writes something he's deeply committed to it, he's not churning out books."

Current Master's in Fine Arts student Tim Raymond noticed Watson's ability to weave a story, mixing the strange and sometimes horrifying with humor.

In a workshop last semester, Watson told a long story about his chiropractor and used it for a metaphor about moving small pieces for a story to create a big effect.

"He was talking about moving pieces of someone's spine," Raymond said.

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"That's how I think of him, telling this long, silly story that doesn't come together until later, but is then exact and clear and a good insight."

He passes that ability on to other students, said Sarah Norek, one of the first graduates of the Masters in Fine Arts programs in 2007.

Watson oversaw Norek's independent study and she remembers countless hours spent sitting and talking in his orange chair in his office.

"He was really good at helping us figure out who we were as writers," she said.

For one project, Watson created a list of books he thought Norek should read, then instead of asking her to write what she thought about the books, he urged her to write a response to the stories.

"I was able then to take what I had felt when reading the story, and take what the writer was able to do with certain nuances, and try them out on my own," she said.

***

Right now, Watson is still a southern writer. Most of his characters are southern, and many stories take place in the south.

"I don't think I understand much in a deep way about Western character the way I want to," he said.

The longer Watson stays in Wyoming, writing by the window in his Laramie house, hiking in the mountains and wandering around the state, the more he imagines he will one day write about Wyoming.

Just as soon as he finishes two books he's working on, his "Southern backlog."

One involves desegregation of schools in Mississippi and the other a political campaign, also set in his home state.

Both are more comedic than his past three books, which often focused on loss and tragedy.

"I'm most moved by loss, by people who have had to endure losing things that were important to them," he said.

He's not sure if his novels will take a darker turn.

For all the aspiring writers out there, Watson has a couple simple tips: Read plenty and widely, write every day, even if it doesn't seem like it's any good and don't be discouraged.

Most importantly, write what you want.

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Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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