Wilton Brad Watson was born on July 14, 1955, in Meridian, Miss. His father, Robert Earl Watson, ran a shoe store and owned a bar; his mother, Bonnie (Clay) Watson, was an office worker.
As a youngster, Mr. Watson did not have writing ambitions. His poor handwriting generated mockery from a teacher, and he did not know how to type.
“Dim child — dreamy but dim,” he once said of himself.
While in high school, he acted in plays at a local theater, which led him to try for a Hollywood career. He headed west with a wife he had married between his junior and senior years and their baby, Jason. But instead of finding acting jobs during a writers’ strike, he collected garbage.
Back home, he enrolled at Meridian Junior College (now Meridian Community College), where he wrote his first short story.
He studied fiction writing at Mississippi State University (he and his wife had split up by then) and wrote a pile of short stories that he himself said were bad. In the spring before he graduated in 1978, he attended a symposium at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where he hoped to meet the darkly comic writer Barry Hannah, who was teaching there. Mr. Watson was headed to the school that fall to start work on a master’s in creative writing.
The two met and spent the day bar hopping. At one point, Mr. Hannah said, “as if to himself, ‘You wouldn’t believe how beautiful my wife is naked,’” Mr. Watson recalled in “A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah,” a book of essays published two years after Mr. Hannah’s death in 2010.
“That was uttered not so much as a statement of wonder,” Mr. Watson wrote, “but in the way of words that might lead to physical combat.” When Mr. Watson said, “I wouldn’t know,” Mr. Hannah “looked at me, steady. ‘You’d better not.’ He didn’t smile. He seemed to mean it.”