Corrections or additions?
This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on April 29, 1998. All rights reserved.
From Brutish Background, Winning Fiction
Paul Watkins has just published his seventh book,
"The Story of My Disappearance," and has a solid record of
sales in the U.S. and England. Tom Cruise is poised to take the role
of Charlie Halifax, his fictional 1930s renegade flyer in a movie
of "In the Blue Light of African Dreams." Yet Watkins’s publisher
still touts him as "a dynamic young writer." Is such a thing
It is if you’re Paul Watkins, who wrote (and re-wrote) his first novel
while still an undergraduate. "Night Over Day Over Night"
was published in 1988, when he was only 23, and nominated for England’s
prestigious Booker Prize. Untroubled by early success, he has kept
steadily to a nine-to-five writing schedule, completed seven novels,
and, at age 33, is ready to start his eighth. He has also added for
good measure, "Stand Before Your God," his memoir of the horrors
of 10 years spent in England’s public school (read, elite boarding
A product of that rigorous and brutish method of book learning, Watkins
has nonetheless struck out at every opportunity to escape books and
work on the sea, outdoors, with his hands, harvesting details of the
brutalities of real life for his fiction.
Watkins reads from and signs, "The Story of My Disappearance,"
just out from Picador, at Encore Books in the Princeton Shopping Center
on Thursday, May 7, at 8 p.m.
In an interview from his home in Hightstown, the voluble yet earnest
Watkins explains that although both sides of Watkins’ family hail
from Pembrokeshire, Wales, they come from different sides of the tracks.
His mother’s side of the family were landed people who trace their
roots there to the 1600s. His father’s family were coal miners. And
to this class clash, Watkins owes his curious childhood.
Norman Watkins, his dad, came to U.S. as javelin thrower for British
Olympic team in the 1950s and was thrilled with what he found here.
After training in the U.S. and Canada, he went home, married his Welsh
sweetheart, and the couple emigrated first to Canada and then to the
U.S. His mother, Patricia, still lives in Rhode Island, where she
runs her own business.
"My father always had a chip on his shoulder," says Watkins.
"He fought his way out of the country on his size — 6-foot-7."
Education was one of the virtues of the new continent of opportunity,
and Norman Watkins went on to become an accomplished geophysicist.
But he died young, at 42, of cancer, when Paul was only 12. "My
father had a mythic sense of America which was never extinguished
by the country itself."
Determined that Paul and his younger brother would be armed with the
benefits and social status of a British upper class education, Paul
was sent at age 7 to the Dragon School, a boarding school that serves
as a feeder for Eton and Harrow.
From Dragon, where the corporal punishment was such that, "I really
did get bashed around quite in bit — in a way, in fact, that would
have the whole faculty in prison nowadays," he proceeded on to
Eton. There, like today’s Prince William, he made his way through
the unforgiving, competitive system wearing tail coat and bow tie.
"That type of education has so many of its own rules and discrepancies
from reality, you learn to adapt," he says. "I was pretty
well behaved, but I was still beaten."
A "brute of a Latin teacher" gave some of these beatings.
"If you got your lesson right you got a red mark; if you got it
wrong you got a black mark. On Fridays, those with three red marks
were given chocolate; and those with three black marks were beaten,"
he says. The beaten boys were "given chocolate after," Watkins
"One of the misconceptions about the jaunty British upper class
is that they’re soft. That kind of upbringing instills in you a thorough
respect for politeness, but it also instills in you a knowledge of
brutality that allows the system to continue. The British didn’t get
to run three-fifths of the world by being polite. Behind that was
the knowledge of how to get things done at any cost."
Watkins graduated from Yale in 1986, and spent two years as a graduate
fellow at Syracuse where he studied with Tobias Wolff. "I owe
a lot to him." Today Wolff calls Watkins "without question
one of the most gifted writers of his generation. A storyteller to
his bones, he also has language, and a particularly masculine tenderness,
and a restless curiosity."
Watkins’ other novels include "Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn"
(1989), "The Promise of Light" (1993), and "Archangel"
(1995). He has just completed another novel, and returned from Hawaii
where he researched the one he’ll begin in September. He says all
share common themes. "One of the main themes running through the
books is a sense of belonging, a sense of loyalty, a search for a
homeland. These themes are brought out in people at the edge of their
"Six years ago bookshop people couldn’t figure out where to put
the novels. But one of the classic American genres is the literary
adventure story. Yet in England, it was immediately recognized as
being part of the genre." Both Watkins and his publicists name
Jack London and Ernest Hemingway as forerunners of the genre.
Watkins came to Hightstown almost 10 years ago with
his wife, Cathy Robohm Watkins, whom he met at Yale. Both work at
the Peddie School (http://www.peddie.k12.nj.us). Cathy is an artist, teacher, and curator of the
school’s Mariboe Gallery. Their daughter, Emma, is two ("Like
Mussolini with a dress on," Watkins says facetiously).
With the genteel title of writer-in-residence at the Peddie School,
Watkins teaches, but not too much. Each semester, on Wednesdays, he
teaches fiction to high school juniors and seniors at Peddie and at
the Lawrenceville School. "It’s been a saving thing for me,"
he says. "I’m fortunate to be part of a community that also allows
me to write. Otherwise I’d go completely mad."
In 1994, when "Blue Light" and "Calm at Sunset" were
out of print, Picador, a division of St. Martin’s Press, purchased
Watkins’ backlist. In 1996 it reissued the novel "Calm at Sunset,
Calm at Dawn," to coincide with the broadcast of a Hallmark movie
version. It is now publishing simultaneously "The Story of My
Disappearance," and, in hopeful anticipation of a Tom Cruise hit,
the paperback edition of "In the Blue Light of African Dreams."
"The Story of My Disappearance" is a literary thriller about
Paul Wedekind, a former East German spy marooned in New England by
the fall of communism. "It’s one thing when a country loses a
spy, but what happens when a spy loses a country?" asks Watkins.
The layered tale is told by Paul, who has created a new life for himself
as a fisherman on the coast of Rhode Island. As a college student,
he enlisted in the East German army where he was coerced by the Stasi,
the powerful secret police, into spying on Ingo Budde, a boyhood friend
turned black marketeer. Stationed in Afghanistan, the two men are
captured and tortured by the Mujahadin.
Years later, working as a fisherman off the coast of Rhode Island,
his buried history brutally returns. A beautiful woman, Suleika, becomes
his contact, boat captain, fishing partner, confidante, and eventually
his lover. As exiles, the two struggle to protect their secret, and
fight the surprising efforts of their past to reclaim them.
The story is narrated by Wedekind, who takes "Paul Watkins"
as his new name. "I wanted to try and blur the lines between fiction
and non-fiction. You see it so much on television — how we’ve
fallen in love not with the truth, but with the illusion of the truth.
People involved in deep espionage create this fictional identity and
they have to live in it like a house."
"The head game you play when you’re writing is to throw yourself
into these characters. I chose the fishing boats because that’s what
I know. And I chose my own name. But I’m not sure I’d do it again.
Writing about someone named Paul Watkins who isn’t you — that
can get a little creepy."
"In the Blue Light of African Dreams," picked up by well established
producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, has just been fast-tracked
by Paramount. "Archangel" is also in pre-production for a
movie by Robert Benton, the writer and director of "Twilight."
Watkins says Benton may have Paul Newman in mind for the role of Jonah
Mackenzie (the man with the chain saw).
Does Watkins aspire to change gears and write screenplays? Absolutely
not, he replies. It’s a different industry. "I do what I do sitting
in front of my computer in Hightstown." His doubts were reinforced
when he went up to Nova Scotia to watch the filming of "Calm at
Sunset, Calm at Dawn." "The film process is numbing for me.
I like being at ground zero of the discipline. I grew up with movies,"
he says. "It’s trendy to say that books have it over film, but
they’re just different. One I can do, the other doesn’t feel right.
With books, there’s always another story bubbling up and waiting to
— Nicole Plett
609-252-0608. Free. Thursday, May 7, 8 p.m.
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