FARGO — All things considered, it hasn’t been a bad year for Larry Watson.
His 11th novel, “The Lives of Edie Pritchard,” came out this summer and, after a delay, “Let Him Go,” a new movie based on his 2013 novel of the same name, opens Friday, Nov. 6, across the country.
The drama, starring Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, was scheduled to open earlier this year, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic pushed the release date back.
Watson, a Bismarck native, doesn’t mind that he won’t walk down the red carpet for the film’s premiere.
“I don’t know if we would’ve gone,” he says, referring to his wife, Susan, from their home in Kenosha, Wis.
“Let Him Go” follows George and Margaret Blackledge looking to bring their grandson back to their ranch after they see his stepfather hit the boy and his mother. They run into problems in the form of the stepfather's family, led by cruel, controlling mother Blanche Weboy.
The law, secrets and family struggles set in western North Dakota and eastern Montana is familiar territory for Watson. His 1993 novella, “Montana 1948,” garnered him national acclaim, as did the following books “Justice” and “Laura.”
Watson didn’t have much to do with making the film, but he and Susan did visit the set in Calgary and even were used as extras in a restaurant scene.
“You better look quick or you’ll miss us,” he says.
Still, he did talk to writer/director Thomas Bezucha early on about the story.
“He had a good understanding of it. Right from the start we were on the same page,” Watson says.
The author says he can’t speak as to why Bezucha set George and Margaret Blackledge’s ranch in Montana and the Weboy home, where their grandson has been taken, in North Dakota. In the book, the Blackledge ranch is in Dalton, N.D., and the Weboy house is in Gladstone, Mont.
While neither of those towns actually exists, Gladstone, Mont., is a setting for other Watson stories.
Bezucha moves the Weboy family to Gladstone, N.D., which actually is a small town in Stark County.
“There is?” Watson says when told there is a Gladstone, N.D. “I better check my North Dakota settings.”
While he was born and raised in Bismarck and earned his master’s degree from University of North Dakota, Watson has more often preferred Montana settings to those in his adopted home state.
He says he doesn't necessarily view Montana and North Dakota differently, though he admits the setting of “Montana 1948” was deliberate.
“I slipped it across the border because I was fairly certain Montana would have more frontier connotations,” he says. “I use the theme of crossing borders, both physically and metaphorically.”
While he’s now lived in Wisconsin for about 40 years, Montana and western North Dakota keep emerging as settings more than Wisconsin. He acknowledges being labeled a regionalist, but in his mind it’s a particular region.
“I was a little surprised how much my novels got labeled Westerns,” he says. “I think of myself as writing Northerns, on the Northern Plains, where there’s a harshness and isolation in the people and land.”
Family fights are another common theme in his work, and while he says he’s been fortunate to be part of functional, loving clans, his attraction to dysfunctional broods is normal in his profession.
“Fiction writers are interested in trouble and conflict. None of us have to look far to see examples,” he says. “I’m fascinated by those people who deal with conflict in close contact.”
“I was a little surprised how much my novels got labeled Westerns. I think of myself as writing Northerns, on the Northern Plains, where there’s a harshness and isolation in the people and land.”
— Larry Watson, author and Bismarck native
He’s drawn a little from his own family. As a stoic former sheriff, George Blackledge may seem to be a familiar character, as that type has popped up in Watson’s books before — with good reason. Both his father and grandfather were sheriffs in Pierce County, N.D.
While George isn’t directly inspired by his ancestors, Watson saw the character as “taciturn, modest.”
“I felt I could write believably about sheriffs,” he says.
Margaret is also drawn somewhat from the types of women the author saw growing up — strong, independent farmers and ranchers.
“She’s maybe a little more vibrant,” Watson adds.
Interestingly, he says Blanche has some of the same characteristics.
“Blanche is willing to step outside not just legal or moral boundaries,” he says. “In some ways they are like opposite sides of the same coin.”
Although two projects, the film and his latest book, came to fruition this year, he’s already working on his next projects.
“I don’t take days off from writing,” he says. “If I finish a novel on Tuesday, I start another one on Wednesday.”