Meet the Author: Paul Watkins
Paul Watkins was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford (on which the famous Hogwarts of Harry Potter books was based), as well as at Eton College and Yale University. He studied under Tobias Wolff at the Syracuse University Writing Program and published his first novel when he was 23. He has since published 12 books, including Night Over Day Over Night, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, Calm at Sunset, which won Britainís Astor-Foundation Encore Prize and was made into a TV mini-series by Hallmark Hall of Fame. He won The Royal Society of Literature Prize for his novel Archangel, which is now being produced for film by HBO. To research his novels, Watkins has worked on deep sea fishing boats, hiked on the tundra of Norway and traveled across the Moroccan Sahara desert. Watkins has taught fiction and history at the Peddie School for over 15 years. For 8 of those years, he also lectured at Lawrenceville Academy. He has held the Bergeron lecturing fellowship at The American School in London, as well as the Keables fellowship at the Iolani School in Honolulu. In addition, he has lectured at University College in Ohio, the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam, the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington DC, and the Explorers Club in New York City.
Q&A with Paul Watkins
Q: You have been favorably compared to writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. How does that feel and how do you deal with such high praise?
A: I am grateful. Most of the time, anyway. One of the things I started to notice after a while was that people who had made these comparisons criticized later books for NOT being like Hemingway or Conrad. There isn't much you can do about being pigeon-holed. That is a natural part of joining the ranks of any discipline. People need to know where you fit in. What you can do, in fact what you have to do, is not to apply these same brackets to yourself. Any time you start to feel hemmed in, it's a sign to start pushing the envelope to do new things. That hasn't always made for the best working relationship with my agents and editors. Naturally enough, when they see you have done something right - something that sells - they want you to keep doing it. I remember being told once to 'milk the cow', which in that context means to capitalize on one's success. The trouble is, once you start to do that, you find yourself writing for other people and not for yourself. You have to spend a lot of time in whatever world you have created for a novel, and if that isn't exactly where you want to be day after day, it's going to show in the final product. Ultimately, you don't want people to say you are like someone else. You want them to say you are like you.
Q: Your novels show that you must do a great deal of research. Do you enjoy the research as part of the writing process?
A: I do enjoy the research. I think you have to love the process as much as the product. I love getting lost in different fields of knowledge, knowing that they will add life to the book I'm trying to write. It's like an organized obsession - you have to become fixated with a topic far beyond the point of sanity - way beyond what your friends and family can put up with. I know the exact look on the faces of my wife and kids when they have reached the saturation point of me talking on and on about some obscure topic or other - and then I know it's time to shut up, at least until the book is done. And it's a little strange afterwards, having accumulated small libraries of otherwise useless knowledge, not to mention the amount of space it has taken up in your brain. I spent a lot of time in flea markets, museums and second hand book shops, hunting for some of those oddments which end up being characters in the books. The travel is important, too - field research, I guess you could call it. Some things you have to borrow from the lives of others, but landscape and geography need to be experienced, I think. I am trying to go a little easier on myself these days with the places I travel to - a revelation which came to me when I set a book in Paris a few years back. That was a lot of fun, a lot better than slogging around in the Sahara or humping a pack across arctic Norway, which I did for other novels. But you can't pick and choose. Once a story has snagged itself in your brain, you have to do whatever it takes, go wherever it sends you, so that you can be rid of it. It's like exorcising a ghost which has taken up residence in your head.
Q: With all the research you do, are you able to find any time to read fiction? If so, who are some of your favorite novelists, or maybe the ones you think have most influenced you?
A: I have a pretty regular gig reviewing books for the London Times. Frequently that includes novels, but I don't read much fiction for myself anymore. Not for fun, anyway. I find that writing fiction all day and then trying to read fiction for recreation is like jogging all day and then going out for a jog to relax. I read all the time - history, technical books - whatever the new novel requires, but that doesn't usually include fiction.
Q: Several of your novels are set during or between the two World Wars. Does this time period, a time of great conflict, hold a particular interest for you?
A: Yes, I often find stories in that time period. I don't know exactly why. I think it has something to do with the way I was brought up. The schools I attended in England were very old fashioned, both in the uniforms they made us wear and the codes of conduct we were expected to follow. We used to joke among ourselves that we were being prepared for a world which no longer existed, but we discovered once we had gone out into the world that it wasn't really a joke at all. An extraordinary percentage of boys from the Dragon School and Eton died in the First and Second World Wars. I think, sometimes, we had more in common with them than with people our own age. That may be only part of the answer. Each book has its own agenda. I think it's not always a good idea, once a book idea has taken hold, to chase it back to its source. In the writing of the book, those answers will appear by themselves.
Q: One of your novels, Archangel, seems rather different from most of your work. Most of the others have some military presence while Archangel is, in part at least, about one manís struggle with environmental destruction. The novel has something of a Biblical feel to it. Are environmental issues something you felt compelled to write about, or were you using Gabrielís struggles to examine other issues?
A: Each book has its own galvanizing moment - the thing that sets it in motion. All the thematic content, the larger context - all that happens later. What I am talking about is the spark of the original idea. For Archangel, it happened this way - I have a cabin up in northern Maine. I spend my summers there. One day, I was walking way out in the woods when I came to an area of clear cut. I had not known it was there until I came right up on it. The woods just seemed to fall away in front of me. That sudden feeling of emptiness, and the violence that caused it - the wrenched up trunks, the splintered branches, dead leaves, mud, broken stone - I don't think it will ever leave me. The forests up there seem so impenetrable, so permanent. To see it hacked down - I mean, it looked like one of those landscapes from the First World War after artillery has ploughed the ground - was very disturbing. The truth is that, at least in that part of Maine, the logging practices are generally pretty responsible, at least as far as I know. So I wasn't trying to take up a cause - I needed, somehow, to come to terms with that image of myself emerging from the woods and standing there on that vast expanse of torn-up ground, and all of the emotions it churned up inside my head.
Q: Iím sure you must be working on something Ė can you give us a hint of whatís coming next?
A: I have just finished - yesterday in fact - a novel set in Russia during 1941. My study is a junkyard of old WWII Russian clothing, equipment, maps. The place smells of cigarettes I never smoked but whose odor has clung to the wool and canvas of these old uniforms. Each night, the owners of these things come back to life and haunt my dreams. And then, when I wake up, I try to write them back out of my head.
Interview Date: April 2007
Profile and questions compiled by Mark B., Main Library