With his latest release, “Night Letter: A Novel” (Akashic Books 2023, $28.95), Florida author Sterling Watson proves once again that he is a master storyteller and exemplary writer. Tallahassee readers will have a chance to meet Watson and learn more about his new book from 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, when he appears at the Midtown Reader in conversation with Tallahassee author Marina Brown.
Watson’s “Night Letter” is set in the 1960s in the Florida panhandle, and the focus of the novel is on Travis Hollister, an 18-year-old boy who has just finished six years at a reform school in Nebraska. A tense thriller with a noir sheen, “Night Letter” balances revenge with loyalty and violence with redemption to create an evocative coming-of-age story. This is an excellent novel that Watson writes with the precision and eloquence that befits the best literature.
Concert:Musical Destiny: Classical Cellist Revisits Beethoven’s Fundamentals for Javacya Arts Concert
Local book:Katie Clark sprinkles some fairy dust into a children’s book
Festival:Bainbridge Brewery Serves as Center for Jazz & Blues Fest 2023 | Brew Band
“Night Letter” is the sequel to Watson’s “Sweet Dream Baby” (2004), which first introduces Travis Hollister as a confused, naive and intense 12-year-old boy who spends a harsh, eventful summer with his grandparents and aunt in a small town on Florida. “Night Letter” can certainly be read and understood without first reading “Sweet Dream Baby,” but reading both books will result in a far deeper insight into Travis.
In “Night Letter”, Travis is released after serving his sentence with only a set of clothes and a small amount of money. Sent to a reform school for a radical act of self-defense in his Midwestern home, he survives there by keeping his head down and building up his physical strength—the latter of which will prove most valuable as the story progresses.
Travis finally moves to Panama City, near where his father, a successful small-town lawyer, lives. After finding a job in a fish restaurant as a busboy, he rents a shabby study in a tourist camp run by an alcoholic widow and becomes friends with Emil, a black cook, and enemies with Jimmy, a dishwasher with clan ties and attitudes.
Before long, Travis is caught in the web of a 16-year-old girl named Dawnell. Despite her difficult life, Dawnell refuses to be trapped in the limited world of her poor and ignorant family, but makes a terrible mistake trying to find a way out of that life.
Her mistake will have consequences that will trap Travis and the others in an ever-widening circle of danger and violence. Travis will soon have a job to protect her – not only from Jimmy, but from her father and brother as well. Travis must face his own father. All of these plot tangents move inexorably toward a brutal climax, with not one but two shocking twists.
Emil serves as both a well-drawn character to admire and a plot device to expose the precarious balance between danger and acceptance for a black man—even one as respected as Emil—walking Florida. His friendship with Travis is undeniably one of the catalysts for the violence that follows, but Emil has always been dangerously situated in his time and place.
Watson, speaking of his characters in The Night Letter, said: “They, like all my main characters, start the story with their backs against the wall.” He added: “I love them for their stubborn faith that things can get better and for the persistence of love in their tortured hearts.”
Watson, who is the author of 10 novels, including “The Committee,” which was named the 2021 Book of the Year by the Southern Literary Review, has all of his novels set in Florida, but not on the beach. “I set ‘Night Letter’ on my home soil to continue exploring themes that have always haunted me: the redemptive power of love and friendship, the possibility of escape to a better place and the impossibility of ever escaping the past,” said Watson.
In addition to his novels, Watson’s short stories and non-fiction have appeared in numerous prestigious publications. He was the director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg for 20 years, and now teaches at Lasell University in Massachusetts. He lives in Gulfport, Florida.
Joining Watson in the Midtown Reader is Brown, a writer, poet, former professional ballet dancer, watercolorist, cellist, sailor and traveler. A multi-award winner, Brown’s name is a household name in Florida as she has written for newspapers and magazines for the past 20 years. He lives in Tallahassee.
Claire Hamner Matturro, former attorney and former instructor of legal writing at Florida State University College of Law and author of eight novels, is associate editor of The Southern Literary Review.
If you’re going
What: A conversation between the author of “Night Letter” Sterling Watson and Marina Brown
When: 7-8 p.m. Thursday, February 2
Where: Midtown Reader, 1123 Thomasville Road