Monday, April 27, 2015

I have waited far too long to post another entry, and for that I hope you will forgive me. For the past few months, every time I have thought about what I might write next - and this sort of public diary does not come naturally to me, any more than it would to Pekkala - I have reminded myself, or perhaps it would be better to say that my characters have reminded me, that there was other work still to be done. But this weekend I finally put the lid on the latest Inspector Pekkala book. This is #7 and is titled BERLIN RED. It takes place during the final days of the Third Reich against the backdrop of the final showdown between the Red Army and the remnants of the once mighty Wehrmacht. Here is the official description - 
The year is 1945.
East of Berlin, the Red Army stands poised to unleash its final assault upon the ruined capital of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.
To the north, at a lonely outpost near the Baltic sea, German scientists perfect a guidance system for the mighty V2 rocket, which has already caused massive damage the cities of London and Antwerp. This device, known only by the codename Diamondstream, will allow the rocket to arrive at its target with pin-point accuracy. So devastating is the potential of this newly-mastered technology that Hitler’s promise to the German people of a ‘miracle weapon’ that will turn the tide of the war might actually come true.
When a radio message sent to Hitler’s Headquarters, heralding the success of Diamondstream, is intercepted by an English listening station, British Intelligence orders one of its last agents operating in Berlin to acquire the plans for the device, Desperate to evacuate their agent from the doomed city before the Red Army swarms through its streets, British Special Operations turns to the Kremlin for help.
They ask for one man in particular – Inspector Pekkala.
Anxious to acquire the plans for himself, Stalin readily agrees to risk his finest investigator on what appears to be a suicide mission.
But when Pekkala learns the reason that the British have singled him out, he knows that he must make the journey, no matter what the outcome might be. The agent he must rescue is the woman he had planned to marry, before the Revolution tore them apart, sending her to Paris as a refugee and Pekkala to a gulag in Siberia.

This time, for Pekkala, it is personal.
I hope that sounds appealing. It took a lot of research, and rocket technology is not my forte! One great help to me was a book titled The Bunker, by James P. O'Donnell, who was one of the first American soldiers to enter Hitler's underground complex in Berlin after the cease of hostilities. He went on to interview many of the participants in the final Gotterdammerung, which saw Hitler wedded to his mistress Eva Braun, their suicide soon afterwards and the desperate attempts, some successful and some not, of the Bunker entourage to escape from the battle which was raging all around them. 
I am pleased with the way it turned out. Now that I am on the other side, it feels very strange to have spent the better part of a year lost in that concrete labyrinth, wearing that Kabuki theater of masks which make up the characters of Pekkala, Kirov, Stalin as well a a few new faces, such as the German detective, Oskar Hunyadi, and rocket scientist General Professor Hagemann, both of whom I grew quite fond as I tapped out their lives while outside the snows of this past winter were piling up against my windows.
I was so deep down in the mines of writing it that I barely had time to reflect on the release, earlier this month, of The Red Icon, #6 in the series, which was published by Faber & Faber, as all the others have been.  I am very grateful for the many kind messages you have sent about the latest book - from all over the world - for your thoughtful suggestions and your encouragement. I cannot tell you how restorative it is to find in my inbox, at the end of a long stint of writing, some friendly words to finish up my day. 
I am particularly grateful to those of you who are reading the books in translations of languages so foreign to me that I can scarcely make out what they are, and yet who write to me in English, some of it less polished than others, but all of it more than I could possibly manage in your own languages. The thought that these stories have found an audience in so many different tongues - I think the number is 24 or 25 - is something for which I will always be grateful.
As I have mentioned before, the character of Pekkala is based, at least in part, on my grandfather, who served in the Metropolitan Police in London from the 1930's-50's. I finally stumbled upon his discharge certificate, as well as a picture if him in his very early days of service, when he was working towards his police driving certificate. I have posted those along with this entry. I wish I knew more about him, but he died when I was very young and my own father, from whom I might have learned a great deal, did not survive much longer after that. 
I will catch by breath now, for a day or two, before I head back into the mines. If I'm not writing every day, I feel as if I'm only half here. But for now I am going to shut down my computer and put my feet up on my desk and watch the clouds go by. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I promised myself that, once I reached page 100 of the latest Inspector Pekkala book, I would add another page to the blog. I hit that mark two days ago and now feel that particular sense of relief which comes from knowing that a new book is somehow anchored to the world, instead of just floating around inside my head. This is #7 of the series and it takes place during the Battle of Berlin in the spring of 1945. Compared to some of the other research projects I had to undertake in order to be complete the other books, this one has been relatively easy so far, since there is so much written about this final battle for the Third Reich. Most of the time, it is a question of piecing together parts of many different books, since none of them alone can provide me with what I need to know. Every once in a while, I manage to come across a book that is entirely relevant to my research. This has been one of those times, and I will forever be grateful to James p. O'Donnell for his book 'The Bunker', which chronicles Hitler's final days in his underground fortress beneath the Reichschancellery in Berlin. 
The autumn has been so beautiful these past few weeks - the red maples and the poison ivy and the squadrons of Canada geese flying overhead - that I find it hard to put in the usual amount of time at my desk. Soon enough, the winter will clamp down on this place like the hatch on a submarine and it will be easier to install myself at my desk every morning, in the dreary half light, turn on my desk lamp while I wait for the sun to come up and start writing on my bomb-proof Getac B300, which I bought, rather than something more elegant and svelte, because during the summer my desk is quite often a rock or a tree stump out in the woods, instead of the black cherry desk which was made for me many years ago by a company in the American midwest called Arhaus.
I have done a lot of traveling since I last posted a blog. In the winter, I was up in Maine quite a bit - there's a picture in this posting which I took of myself just before I set off across a frozen lake. I was wearing 1930's gear as an experiment - research, really - you can't google what it feels like to walk across a frozen lake in the 1920's (When you read the new Pekkala Book, #6, The Red Icon, which is due out in 2015 - you'll see where I put that research to use).
In the spring, I was down in Mexico doing research for a new book which I am writing under my own name, my real name that is - Paul Watkins - as opposed to the alter-ego of Sam Eastland, which has otherwise taken over my writing life. I was also up in Maine again for the summer, and I have posted a picture of the little hut in my garden, where I do a lot of my writing these days. My daughter has largely taken over my hut, decorating it with flashing Christmas lights and other things I find distracting.
Back in new Jersey, where I spent the majority of the academic year, I have just begun my 26th year of teaching at the Peddie School. So much time. I don't know whether to be proud or to burst into tears, Much to my own surprise, I still enjoy the work as much as ever and the school has been very kind to me and to my family over the years. One of the great perks of a writer's life is that you can live anywhere - in the early days, I had all kinds of places marked out on the map - Waimea on the island of Kauaii, Tulum down on the Yucatan Peninsula, Lipari in the Eolian Islands, Essaouira in Morocco, Trondheim up in Norway. New Jersey was not on the list. The fact that I am here, and enjoying it, it a testament to the loyalty I feel to Peddie. 
I have a new American publisher, Opus Books, and have very much enjoyed getting to know its founder and director, Glenn Young. It is almost scary how much we have in common.
Over in London, I continue to work with my editor at Faber & Faber, Walter Donohue, who I have now known more than half my life.
My agent, Deborah Rogers, passed away suddenly this year. I would meet with her in a little Italian restaurant near the Portobello Road every autumn as I passed through London on my way to wales to visit relatives. Some people you just can't imagine ever not being there, and Deborah was one of those. I still hear her voice in my head. I am going over to London again in a couple of weeks and I have tried, and failed, to imagine how it will be to walk into to the agency, which is tucked away on a side street on the edge of Ladbroke Grove, and to have her not be there. She had the messiest office I have ever seen. I wonder what it looks like now. 
Apart from that, this has been a very good year for me. I am 50 now and time has made me easier to live with than I used to be. I am more patient. I am a better listener. I was always good at pretending to listen, but now I actually do. I still run as many miles each week as I did when I was 25. I think that the person I needed to be to get started as a writer is not the same person I need to be to make a life of this discipline. I probably could have written that a little more clearly. Late, perhaps, I will figure out some better words. But you know what I mean. 
Thank you for reading the Inspector Pekkala books. You can write to me through the website and I am pretty good about responding. I always enjoy hearing from you.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

I don’t write this blog often enough. Most of the time, when I sit down to write it, I think to myself – you could be doing your book – and I end up writing that instead.  It is not in my nature to tell people I don’t know about myself, and to need them to know what I’m doing. The way I interface with the world is mostly through the books and I imagine it will stay that way.
But I wanted to write now and thank those of you who have written in to say you enjoyed, or are still enjoying since it only just came out, the new Inspector Pekkala book. Even though the book was only published a week or so ago, I have had more messages from more kind people than I received altogether for the first book in the series.
I know it is a horrible clichĂ© to say that something warms the heart, but it literally does to read such thoughtful and enthusiastic messages. There are a lot of days when things aren’t going smoothly with the writing – too many interruptions or a piece of the plot which I have to take apart and put back together, as brutal an operation as breaking a bone which has set incorrectly – and I start to lose faith in what I am doing. This is not one of those jobs in which you get regular and consistent feedback, as you might in a sports game for example. With the writing, weeks and months go by when you are so far down in the mines that you can’t even remember the way out, let alone keep track of what you are ultimately trying to create.
The publications of the books, both the Eastland series and those I have written under my own name (Paul Watkins) used to be a huge event for me.  It was inevitably disorienting, whether things went well or not. Good news is as diverting as bad news when what you really need to be doing is sitting at your desk and writing. I had to work very hard not to be run off the rails by publicity work, reviews and the pressure to keep up momentum.
A strange thing happened to me a couple of years ago which, although it was a little traumatic at the time, actually helped me to gain some distance. I used to read all the reviews, good or bad, and did my best not only to be grateful to those people who had taken the time to write them no matter what they said, but also, if possible, to learn from them with an eye towards writing in the future. Then I started to notice that I was getting identical reviews on various websites – and by identical, I mean word for word the same – but apparently written by different people. The other strange thing about these reviews, all of which were horrible by the way, was that they appeared to be generic. They could have applied to any book at all. I knew something was fishy but wasn’t sure there was anything I could do about it. Then I received word that I had even targeted by another author, named RJ Ellory, who also wrote crime fiction. Apparently, he had created a number of accounts on Amazon and was using these accounts, all of them listed under different names, to undermine the work of people he believed to be the competition. He was also writing rave reviews for himself under these same names, which I thought was just funny.  He got caught eventually, and his various fake accounts were made known, which is how I found out about it. I hadn’t lost any sleep over it – if you are kind-hearted enough about humanity to think that there aren’t people out there who will do everything they can to wreck you, particularly if they can hide behind a mask while they are doing it, just because they can – they this is the wrong line of work to be in.  But I thought it was so sad and desperate and so cheapening of his own talent that RJ Ellory had taken it upon himself to do this, that I quite reading reviews altogether.
But I do read the messages that people send to me through the Inspector Pekkala website, and I am pretty good about writing back to everyone, although sometimes it takes me a couple of weeks. I very much appreciate those of you who have take the time to write, particularly over the past couple of weeks. I’m glad you are enjoying the new book – The Beast in the Red Forest.
 It was a real pleasure creating a nemesis for Pekkala.  The challenge was to avoid making someone who was simply his opposite. You have to give them a reason for being who they are, no matter how twisted that is. And the thing about people who are twisted is that what makes sense to them isn’t necessarily going to make sense to the rest of us. The logic by which they pursue their goals, and the goals themselves, necessitates a departure from what normal people would consider reality. What are you going to do if you go after someone for a crime you think they committed and then you find out that the person you were hunting is innocent? A normal person would simply admit they were wrong and call a halt to their private crusade. But what if the need for vengeance has become so much a part of who you are that it is the only thing that makes sense to you anymore? What kind of lies do we tell ourselves in order to justify the things we do, even when we know they are lies? These were the kind of questions I had to answer as I was piecing together the Frankenstein monster that Pekkala must face in this book.
I am just finishing up the next book in the series. My desk is strewn with post-it notes and red-lined manuscript. It will be out this time next year, and I hope you will enjoy that one as well.

But I promise to write more of this blog before then.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A quick update to let you know that Book # 5 is now finished and will be published in February of 2014. It is titled 'The Beast in the Red Forest' and follows the disappearance of Inspector Pekkala at the end of Book 4 (The Red Moth). I am now hard at work on Book 6. As I have mentioned before, these days I seem to spending more time with people I have invented than with people who are real, although that is not always a bad thing. The number of foreign translations of the Pekkala series continues to grow. I believe the number is up to 23 now, with more expected very soon. I apologize to my American readers for the fact that The Red Moth did not appear in hard back, although it is readily available through Kindle (or any other e-book form) as well as Hard back printing of the series should begin again very soon in the US.
I continue to enjoy the work very much. After the initial strangeness of writing a series, as well as working under a pseudonym, wore off, I find that the effect of working so concentratedly and for such extended periods of time in one head space is of inhabiting two parallel worlds, the world of the fiction and the world in which I actually live. When I am deep down in the mines of a new book, it seems as if every conscious thought is matched by details of the world I am creating on the computer screen. By the way, I use a Getac B300. Somebody asked me about that the other day. Whenever I am sitting quietly, in meetings or on trains or taxi cabs, my mind drifts away into this alternate universe. I am constantly transcribing these details into a small, leather bound notebook made by a company called Arte e Cuoio, which I bought at the airport in Brussels years ago and have managed, through sheer luck, not to lose. Written on the leather inside of the notebook are places I have been with that notebook - everywhere from Honolulu, to Narvik to Tulum to Cardiff station.
After finishing Book 5, I tried to take some time off from writing, but I found it very difficult and quite depressing. For me, not working is much harder than working and I am very glad to be chipping away at the rock face of another book. Without that anchoring to my days, that method of escape, my brain flutters around in my head like a bird trapped in a cage.
As I write this, I am sitting in my study in New Jersey, getting ready to head up to my summer place in northern Maine. I don't know how easy it will be for me to write over the summer. The internet where I live up there is very patchy.
I'm sorry I haven't written more in this blog over the past few months. I have been so busy with finishing one book and beginning another, not to mention teaching my class at the Peddie School, which one of the great pleasures of my life, that I haven't had the inclination to sit down and write.
I am very happy with the way the latest book turned out, and I hope you will be too.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

This is from an interview I did recently with a newspaper in Finland -

1.         Inspector Pekkala is quite a fascinating character. Was it easy to create him? What kind of research you did? How many real-life Finns do you know?
Inspector Pekkala is based on two people.
The first is a man named AT Vassileyev, who was the last serving director of the Tsar’s Okhrana prior to the Revolution. He escaped from Russia and made his way to Paris, where he lived in poverty until his death in the mid 1930’s. During this time, he wrote a book about his experiences, which was titled, simply, The Okhrana. The book was translated into English in 1932, I think, and very few copies were printed. I stumbled upon the book in an antique shop in Princeton, New Jersey, which is where I live and work. The book was in very bad condition. The pages were crumbling in my hands as I turned them. but it was as if Vassileyev himself was speaking the words inside my head. I was shocked at how many things he predicted for the future of Russia. Some of them appeared so outrageous that the translator felt obliged to write, in her foreword to the book, that these were obviously the ramblings of an unstable mind. But every one of them had come true by the time I read the book.
The second person is my grandfather, who served as a detective with the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) from the 1930’s until the late 1950’s. He ran away from his home in Wales at the age of 16 and joined the police in London. One day, when he was chasing down a criminal, the suspect’s dog attacked him. He was taken to the hospital and ended up marrying the nurse who treated him that day. From my father, I heard many stories of my grandfather’s adventures in Scotland Yard. I was always very nervous around my grandfather. He was a tall man – 6’6” – and I do not remember him smiling very much. I still have the truncheon he carried during his early days in the police and also the whistle, with its distinctive sound, carried by all policemen in those days.
I suppose I should include a third person, and that is myself. As a writer, you cannot escape writing about yourself, no matter how many masks you wear. The way Pekkala speaks, the way he acts, the things he thinks about – that is all me – for better or worse.

2.       The biggest question for Finnish readers is: Why does Pekkala stay in Russia?

(There were a lot of Finns in Czar Nicholas’s service, but the majority of them returned to homeland after our declaration of Independence, December 6th 1917. Just the hard-lined Finnish communists / bolseviks stayed – and most of them were excecuted in Stalin´s purges at late Thirties.)
Initially, Pekkala does try to leave Russia. He sends his fiancĂ© to Paris, with a promise to meet her there as soon as he can. Later, as he tries to escape through Finland, he is arrested by Red Militia at the border. From there, he is transported back to Russia and eventually sent to the notorious gulag known as Borodok. There, against all odds, he manages to survive until Stalin himself recalls him to duty. The question which Pekkala (and I as well) must grapple with is – why would he work for a man like Stalin? Why would he serve someone who condemned him to a slow death in the gulag? Equally, one could ask – why would Stalin choose to work with a man who was once the favorite of the Tsar? The answer is that, in spite of their differences, these two men have one thing in common, which is to ensure the survival of their country. The result is an uneasy truce between Stalin and Pekkala. I love writing about this. The complex equation of their loyalty to each other, and to Russia, comes into a different perspective with every book. When I am writing, and trying to understand this character I have created, I ask myself – What does a good man do when his country is governed by a tyrant? Does he simply run away, or does he find some way to continue doing what he believes is right? This is why Pekkala does not leave.

3.       What kind of future will Pekkala have?

I am just finishing up the fifth book in the series, which takes place in the year 1944. I will be handing it to my editor in London and then will immediately begin work on the sixth book. These days, I think, I send more time with Inspector Pekkala than I do with anyone else, living or not. Stalin is constantly losing his temper with Pekkala and threatening him with all kinds of punishments. But he needs Pekkala. No one else can do what he does. In spite of his frustration with the Inspector, Stalin is in awe of Pekkala, just as theTsar once was, and that is one of the main reasons why Pekkala stays alive. For anyone who is interested, details of the books can be found on the website –
As for Pekkala’s future, I think he will have a long and colorful career.

4.       What kind of CV do you have? And as a successful writer – how did you end up writing this kind of quality-crime-fiction?

            As some people have discovered by now, my real name is not Sam Eastland. It’s Paul Watkins, and I have been writing under my real name for many years now. I attended the Dragon School and Eton, both in England, and then went to America, to study at Yale University. I live in the United States now, and divide my time between Princeton, which is just outside New York City, and my cabin in the forest of northern Maine. I published my first book when I was 22 and have been writing ever since. For anyone who is interested, there is a website devoted to the books I have written under my own name –
I never intended to write under a pseudonym! The way it came about was that I had written a book in which the main character just happened to be a detective – Inspector Pekkala. My British editor convinced me to turn it into a series and, so that it did not disrupt my career as a ‘literary’ author, encouraged me to write the series under a different name. I almost didn’t do it. I didn’t know whether I would enjoy writing about the same characters and the same time in history in multiple books. But I’m very glad I did. I have grown to know the characters so well, the good and the bad, that they seem completely alive to me. It has also been very gratifying to see how well the books have done. The series has been translated into more than 20 languages now, but I was particularly pleased when I learned that the stories would be translated into Finnish! I have traveled quite a bit in Finland, from the southern island of Korpo, north to Rovaniemi and to Lappeenranta in the east. I am a huge fan of your beautiful country, your history and your people.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

I try not to think about the last scenes of the book until the time comes to actually write them. The reason for this is that the finale of the story is always slightly different than the one I imagined when I sat down to begin the novel. If I keep too strictly to the plot I laid out in the beginning, the natural flow of the story is hobbled. It's much better to keep things maleable until as late in the game as possible. When the time comes to set those scenes, they all seem to fall into place at the same time, and usually at really inconvenient moments. I have a note book. It is made by an Italian company called 'Arte e Cuoio' and I purchased it at the airport in Brussels after I had written a story for the London Times about traveling through the Ardennes Forest. It has been with me on my travels ever since, and I have written down the places on the inside of the leather cover - Tulum, Fishguard, Krossbu, Drake Bay, Vik, l'Anse aux Meadows. But I can't always carry it, and sometimes, when the ideas come in, my notebook is tucked away some place where I can't get to it. I was once at a funeral when I figured out exactly how a book should end. I wrote the scenes down on the memorial card we had been given at the start of the service. I have scenes written down on Moroccan Dirham notes, scribbled down one night as I sat in the windowsill of my room at the Hotel Smara in Essaouira, having run out of writing paper earlier in the evening. But this most recent episode beats all the others. It happened this past Sunday, when I was out bicycling in the farmland south of the town where I live.  I ride about on a bicycle called a Guv'nor, which is made by the British company Pashley. It only has one speed and I love the simplicity of its design. The crops are being harvested now - soybeans and corn left to harden on the stalk, which is used to feed cattle in the winter. I was cycling behind one truck which was completely filled with dried corn. Thousands of kernels were flying out of the back of the truck, crackling off my helmet and striking my arms like bee stings. In the middle of this, I suddenly realized exactly how the latest book should end. But I had nothing with which to write or anything to write on. The trouble with these sudden influx of ideas is that they completely fill up your mind all at the same time. It feels a little like when your computer is suddenly inundated with pop-up screens. You can't keep them all in perfect focus in your mind and if you are't careful, some of them will disappear if you don't write them down immediately. I managed to find the stub of a pencil on the side of the road, which solved half of the problem. But I still had nothing on which to write. Eventually, I walked out into a recently harvested corn field and picked up a few dried corn husks. And I wrote the scenes down on them . My cycling jersey has three pockets built into the back and this is the first time I have ever used them. As soon as I got home, I transcribed everything onto a nice clean sheet of white paper. but I pinned the corn husk on my wall to remind myself never to leave home without pencil and paper, no matter where I'm going.