While becoming a writer, Bruce Watson worked as a factory hand, a journalist, a bartender, an office temp, a Peace Corps volunteer, and an elementary school teacher. His books include FREEDOM SUMMER, SACCO AND VANZETTI, BREAD AND ROSES, and THE MAN WHO CHANGED HOW BOYS AND TOYS WERE MADE. As a frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Watson wrote more than 40 feature articles on articles ranging from eels to Ferraris to the history of Coney Island. His articles have also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, American Heritage, Yankee, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003. He was interviewed by Cheryl Malandrinos.
When did you decide to embark upon a career in writing? Did someone or some event influence your choice in any way?
I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer. I wrote/compiled my first book in first grade – about astronauts. My mother helped me self-publish it by putting a cardboard cover on it. I’ve been packaging the world into prose ever since, with widely varying degrees of success.
Your diverse work appears to focus solidly on nonfiction. What interests you most about bringing these stories to life?
Like most students of high school American history, I hated the subject and thought it had nothing to offer. Only when I’d waged a 20-year battle against my own country, living abroad a lot, did I discover the “other” American history, the stories of men and women who took the nation’s ideals seriously and held its feet to the fire. These stories are essential to understanding that America is more than the sum of its victories, and everyone should know them.
How has geography played a role in the stories you tell?
In FREEDOM SUMMER the geography of the South was key to the attitudes and isolation that volunteers encountered in Mississippi. In SACCO AND VANZETTI the cultural geography of Massachusetts was important in understanding their trial and execution. In both cases, I did a lot of background research in order to know the setting. Any worthwhile non-fiction book depends on setting as much as any worthwhile novel.
Can you tell us about your latest release?
FREEDOM SUMMER: THE SAVAGE SEASON THAT MADE MISSISSIPPI BURN AND MADE AMERICA A DEMOCRACY deals with the Civil Rights turning point when 700 college students went to Mississippi to help downtrodden blacks. Working together with courageous locals, the volunteers taught in Freedom Schools, registered voters, and thumbed their nose at a century of Jim Crow oppression. The day-to-day heroism of that summer helped bring America out of the Jim Crow era and into the age of Obama.
What inspired it?
I met Freedom Summer architect Bob Moses while profiling him for Smithsonian. He told me stories of Freedom Summer that I never forgot.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning for the Telling True Stories panel at this year’s WriteAngles?
I’m planning to talk about how to tell a true story in a way that is just as gripping as anything you could make up.
What are you working on now?
I am working on various magazine articles (Smithsonian, American Heritage) and searching for a new book topic.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Frustrated novelists like myself need not despair. Real Life can be as dramatic, as inspiring, as nuanced as the best fiction.