Billy Watkins, who makes writing superbly seem as effortless as breathing fresh air, will receive the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence at ceremonies Saturday in Natchez.
Watkins, a 64-year-old country boy from Gholson in rural Noxubee County, thus joins the ranks of such Mississippi writers as Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Ellen Douglas, John Grisham and Shelby Foote.
Says Watkins, “I read the names of the people on that list and it’s really hard for me to grasp this and be comfortable with it.”
Wright Award winners are honored for a body of literary work. They must be outstanding, living writers with a strong Mississippi connection. Watkins is as Mississippi as the blues, catfish and stone ground grits. He has written literature several times a week for 36 years in The Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper. He has also authored two successful books.
When a friend suggests Watkins should become comfortable with the award because he has surely earned it, Watkins shakes his head. “Aw, man, not like the people on that list. I consider people like Willie Morris and Larry Brown to be writers. Me? I don’t know about that. I do like to tell stories.”
Watkins has told poignant stories on newsprint about otherwise ordinary Mississippians for longer than many of his readers have been alive. He writes gracefully and compellingly about the human experience – living, loving, joy, heartbreak, misery and dying. People open up, bare their souls to him. And then he writes their stories in a straight-forward, economical, easy-to-read style that makes some of his longest stories seem short.
Watkins tells a story about his early days as a sports writer at The Meridian Star, when he was riding through the countryside with Mac Gordon, his editor and a mentor. They passed through Dekalb and by a grizzled, old man in overalls sitting on a bench watching the day go by.
“See that man over there?” Gordon asked.
“Yeah,” said Watkins.
“That’s who you’re writing for,” Gordon said. “Remember that. Don’t use words he can’t understand.”
Says Watkins, “That has stuck with me all these years. I still write with that old man in the back of my mine.”
Billy Watkins is the youngest of two sons born to Jimmy and Margaret Watkins. Jimmy Watkins, a rural mail carrier who played guitar and sang in a country music band, died when Billy was 7 and older brother, W.G., was 12.
Says W.G Watkins, now a highly successful, Jackson-based lawyer, “The death of our dad impacted every aspect of our lives and forced us to escape from reality into our minds and imaginations.”
W.G. Watkins says that in Gholson, he and his brother could watch only two channels on the family television. That’s all there was. Imaginations were a necessity.
“Billy was a sweet kid with a big temper and even bigger imagination,” W.G. says. “In our yard, we played Augusta National, roamed centerfield at Yankee Stadium and scored on the final play at Tiger Stadium.”
The brothers also escaped into music and into books. “W.G. read everything he could get his hands on, so I did, too” Billy says. “Like our daddy, we both played guitar and played in bands.”
When Billy was 11, the family, which by then included stepfather Bubba Hailey, opened a country store about 50 yards from the family house. The 20-foot by 20-foot store sold everything from aspirin to pigs’ feet to tire patches. In the summers and after school, Billy and W.G. were more or less the proprietors.
W.G.: “The characters who came through there undoubtedly shaped Billy’s ability to relate to people and tell stories. Customers would buy a coke and some baloney and cheese and crackers and sit in the store and tell stories while they ate their lunch. In retrospect, I think it helps explain why Billy can make you feel like you’ve known him all your life when you first meet him. He developed that friendly smile and easy banter from that store.”
As a teen, W.G. Watkins knew what he wanted. He went off to Ole Miss and eventually a law degree. Billy wasn’t so certain. He went to junior college at East Mississippi in Scooba, then to Mississippi State and finally to Ole Miss where his brother was in law school at the time.
Billy was a semester away from a degree in real estate and insurance, dreading either, and falling asleep all too often in those business-oriented classes. Then on Super Bowl Sunday, 1975, he watched on TV as the Pittsburgh Steelers body-slammed the Minnesota Vikings at old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. And the thought occurred: “Man, I sure would like to write about this.”
The next morning, he visited the office of then-Ole Miss journalism department chief, the late S. Gale Denley to learn how long it would take him to switch gears and get a journalism degree.
The answer was a full load of journalism classes in the spring semester, both summer sessions and again in the fall. So that’s exactly what he did, writing for the Daily Mississippian and, as a correspondent without pay, for The Meridian Star.
“I loved it, I absolutely loved it,” Billy says.
“He found his passion,” says W.G.
Billy remembers telling his mother about the big switch after nearly four years of preparing for something else entirely.
“She was happy, because she could see I was happy,” he says. “Of course, if I told her I was gonna grow cabbage for a living, she would have smiled and said, ‘Grow it as good as you can, son.’ I really did have the greatest mama.”
After six years at the Meridian newspaper, a sports job opened at the old Jackson Daily News. Watkins applied. The late Orley Hood, a fine writer and editor who relished good writing, gladly hired him as the Mississippi State beat writer. Watkins spent five years covering the likes of Jeff Malone, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Don Smith and many more Bulldog legends. Later, he began writing sports columns.
“I loved it, just loved it,” he says.
But he did not enjoy spending all those nights and weekends away from his wife, Susan, and their two young sons.
“I was missing birthdays, Little League, Easter, anniversaries and other holidays,” Watkins says. “I remember covering the Super Bowl in San Diego. My youngest was a week old. I’m in San Diego where every sports writer would love to be, but the only place I wanted to be was home.”
A couple years later, a job opened up in the features department. Watkins applied for it and got it. He has been writing features and columns ever since.
Things you should know about Billy Watkins: He’s deeply religious. He loves all kind of music. He was an outstanding youth sports coach. He doesn’t eat anything green. He has a daughter, Mandy, from his first marriage who he counts as one of his closest friends. His two grandchildren enchant him. If you see him without a baseball cap, it’s probably in church. He is a self-professed “space geek.” His first book – “Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes” – has been ranked by the British Broadcasting Company as one of the top 10 books ever written about space travel.
And this: Seventeen years ago, Billy thought he was about to die.
W.G. Watkins believes two events have shaped his brother’s life and his writing. One was the death of their father. The second came five days after 9/11 when Billy was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia and told he probably didn’t have long to live.
“Knocked me for a loop,” Billy says. “I hadn’t been feeling good, but I wasn’t expecting that.”
He missed one day of work and told only family and close friends.
Long story, short: Ten months into his treatment his doctor prescribed a new experimental drug. It worked and has continued to work.
“I have been blessed more than anyone deserves,” he says.
His brother believes – and this writer does, too – Billy has done his most remarkable writing in the years since.
W.G. again: “Billy certainly writes now with a keener appreciation of the fragility of life. He can express his emotions better. When you think you don’t have a year, and you blink and have been given almost 17 years, you become more humble and anybody who writes knows writing is an humbling experience.
“I told him that God touched him with the ability to touch people’s lives and make them feel something about strangers,” W.G. continued. “He demonstrated in his words that we are all just people with problems and pain, but invariably out of the problems and pain can come joy and love.
“Faulkner said the duty of a writer is to write about the human condition and ability of man to prevail. Billy fulfills that duty better than anyone I know.”