Since a fancy pen is more powerful than any sword, Larry Watson will sign copies of Let Him Go (Milkweed, Sept.) today at Table 3 in the Autographing Area, 1–2 p.m., with the same Waterman pen he used the last time he was at this annual booksellers convention. That was back in 1995. The ABA gave him the pen to sign copies of his Milkweed short story collection, Justice. Watson is sure BEA in New York City during the digital revolution will be quite different from the ABA held in Chicago during the heyday of independent bookselling. “The book industry has changed so much,” Watson tells Show Daily. “I’m curious—I just hope I get in and out of there alive.”

Like the rest of us, Watson, 65, has gotten a lot older since 1995: the characters he’s created in his eighth novel are no different. While he’s most renowned for Montana 1948 (1993) and American Boy (2011), novels that feature teenage protagonists, Let Him Go narrates a sequence of events leading up to tragedy for its middle-aged characters. Margaret Blackledge persuades her husband, George, a retired sheriff, to accompany her on a road trip from North Dakota to Montana to persuade their late son’s widow to give them their four-year-old grandson, or they’ll simply take the child from its mother. It’s a quest doomed to failure from the outset, as the Blackledges become embroiled in a struggle over the little boy with their erstwhile daughter-in-law’s new family.

Watson felt a greater sense of urgency after entering the Blackledges’ universe. “Older people have a different sense of time,” he explains. “Time seems to pass more quickly, when you have more of it behind you than in front of you.” Margaret, he adds, feels like she has to “make things happen” while she still can. While the road trip was a literary device meant to provide a structure to the novel, Watson says that there’s also a more personal reason for George and Margaret’s trip through the Badlands into eastern Montana. A native of Rugby, N.Dak., Watson, who has lived in Milwaukee since 2003, where he teaches at Marquette University, says, “I know that terrain.” But it’s more than setting a story in a familiar specific place; it’s also important to him to set his stories during an era he remembers well, having come of age in the ’60s. “I’m stuck in the mid–20th century,” he admits. It was an “era of repression,” when “desires were unstated” and “conflicts were submerged,” he says, before the explosions of the late ’60s and early ’70s changed everything.