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. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Here's another picture of my grandfather. This photo was taken in the 1930's, when he was a young police officer in the London Metropolitan Police. For the last couple of days, I had been wandering around in a haze of indecision about the last quarter of the book I'm working on now, which is the 5th in the Inspector Pekkala series. The 4th, which is called The Red Moth, is already finished and due out early in 2013. In the 5th book, Stalin gives Major Kirov, Pekkala's assistant, the task of tracking down Pekkala, who has gone missing behind the German lines just after the invasion of Russia in 1941. As with the other books, there always seems to be a moment when I am faced either with a multitude of possibilities about how things could go. The writing grinds to a halt as I try to figure out which path is best. It is very disorienting, and I have learned that the only cure is to get away from my desk for a while. Having built up momentum over months of working on a project, it is actually harder not to write than it is to sit down and write every morning. I look out my window and see people heading off to work. I heard the rumble of cars in the distance as people commute into New York City. This is during the school year. For the rest of the time, I am up in Maine and the most I am likely to hear are chainsaws buzzing somewhere in the forest. And not to be working, when everybody else is working, feels strange and sad. The most logical thing to do when I am stuck is to keep writing and to figure out the problem on the page, but I have learned the hard way that this takes a huge amount of time and energy and is less efficient than doing nothing. How can doing nothing be efficient? It sounds like a Zen koan. But I have learned to trust my head to work things out by itself, if only I can step back far enough from the story to let myself see it from a different angle. The answer always appears. And when it does, it seems so simple that my first reaction is to think - how is it possible that I didn't figure this out right at the beginning? The things which appear simplest in the final product are often the most difficult to create while the process is still ongoing. To work by not working has been one of the most complex challenges I have ever faced as a writer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Here is a picture of my grandfather, who was a detective sergeant with the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard). The other people in the picture are my grandmother and my father.

I have a cabin up in Maine, which is where I spend my summers and as much of each winter as I can. It's where I get most of my thinking done. The rest of the year, I teach at a private high school down in New Jersey. I only teach one class a term, which gives me plenty of time for writing, but living in the chaos of central New Jersey is not conducive to the kind of thinking that allows me to map out a book. The Pekkala books, perhaps because they are part of the genre of detective thrillers, need to be planned almost completely even before the first word is written. When I first started writing under my real name, Paul Watkins, my approach was just to have a vague idea in my head and then to attack the blank page, hour after hour, and see what came of it. It was a very energetic way of writing. At the beginning of each day, I rarely knew where I was going to end up. I look back fondly on those times, with the same kind of affection as I look back on my first car, which was always falling apart and required an incredible amount of faith and tinkering to stay in motion. But that form of writing, passionate though it may have been, was very wasteful. I threw away almost as much as I wrote. Now I am more surgical in my approach. I remember a scientist explaining to me once that the great Apex Predators of the world - the Great White, the Grizzly, the Orca - expend a minimum of effort catching their prey, but that when they do strike, they do so with such incredible ferocity that the first attack is nearly always fatal. Now I try to write the way a Great White hunts. Which means I spend a lot of time swimming around in my head, making sure I have everything right before my fingers even touch the keyboard. Some of my friends down here in Jersey ask how I can handle the solitude of living up in the mountains of north western Maine. This thing is, it doesn't feel lonely or solitary, even though there are very few people around and the only ones I see regularly aside from my family are the guy at the gas station or the bear hunters who have camps up the road. When I am plotting out a book, I spend so much time with the characters that it actually starts to feel crowded.
I wasn't able to write much on the blog this summer because the place where I live has no regular internet connection. On the one hand, I am glad not to have the distraction. On the other hand, I feel bad about the time gap in this blog. This blogging does not come naturally to me. One of the reasons I started writing was so that I could keep the world at arm's length, as that I could live between the cracks of the world. That freedom to make my own hours and work at my own pace and go where I want when I want is the great wealth of any writer, I believe. Writing under a pseudonym only increases that distance, which i found very disorienting at first but which I have learned to value greatly in the past few years. The Blog connects me to that world in a way not entirely comfortable to me. At least, right now. Maybe I will get used to it. In the meantime, I hope what I am writing is interesting. If you have any questions, you can contact me via the website, and I would be happy to answer them on the blog. I receive a lot of messages through the site from all over the world and always reply to them as quickly as I can.
I'll post a picture of the place where I live, and where I do my thinking. In my next post, I will write an update of the latest Pekkala book, which is due out early next year, and also the one I'm just finishing up now. I am pleased to report that the series continues to do well, and has now been translated into more than 20 languages, most recently Soviet Georgian and Macedonian.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Here is an excerpt from a book I have just written under my own name, Paul Watkins. The working title is, 'On The Moon Tide'

There is a time, on the coast of New England, when you can almost feel the Gulf Stream flowing northwards, past the lighthouses of Cape Hatteras, the Ferris Wheel at Asbury Park, past the fishing huts of Shinnecock, the dunes of Montauk and on into Block Island Sound.
Spring has ended but summer has not yet begun. The air is cool and soft, smelling of seaweed and honeysuckle, and the neon-pink buds of beach roses glow strangely in the mist. Each morning, you hear the sound of flip flops on the sidewalk and the clink of jewelry against the hollow metal legs of collapsible chairs as people from inland make their way down to the water. With your windows open at night, the sound of the waves is so loud that you dream they’re crashing through the room.
These are the days when teenagers, just loosed from the classroom, go looking for jobs. They have licenses but no cars, so they ride the bus beside old ladies with plastic rain hats and men in torn lumberjack shirts whose fingers twitch because they can’t smoke on public transport anymore. The students fill out forms which ask if they have ever been convicted of a Federal offense and smile at the lousy jokes of their maybe future bosses. They pray their friends won’t see the stupid uniforms they have to wear and wonder if they’ll carry on their skin, like a tattoo, the reek of fish guts, rancid ice cream or swimming pool chlorine. They worry about getting fired to make way for somebody’s cousin who got fired from some other job and if their paychecks will show up on time and if it’s always going to be like this.
In the summer of 1982, one of those teenagers was me.

I grew up in Rhode Island, on the shores of Narragansett Bay.
The place where I lived was called Plum Beach, named after a thicket of brambles in which there were, in fact, a few plum trees planted by the Conanicut Indians, long before white men ever set sail up the bay.
It was a small community, half empty in the winter time, with one gas station and a little restaurant next door. It stood next to the Jamestown Bridge and few of those who drove their cars across bothered to glance back at the gray sand beach littered with mounds of shells from which the Indians once carved their wampum beads.
But this place once marked the center of my universe. Blinded, I could have found my way from rock to rock and through the bristling spartina grass as well as if my eyes could see.
My father and I moved to Plum Beach right after my mom died.
I was 10 years old at the time.
On one side of us was an ancient woman named Mrs. Gilpin, who never came out of her house except to sit on her porch dressed in red rubber boots and a Panama hat.
On the other side was a family called Dalton. They had one son, named Adam, who eventually became my friend.
Adam Dalton was starvation thin, with skin that sagged in a way that reminded me of one of those rare breeds of cat which have no hair. His nose was curved like a hawk’s beak and dripped constantly, so that he began his sentences with a loud liquidy snort. His permanently hard nipples showed through the green Del’s lemonade T-shirt he wore all the time. Like most boys in the neighborhood, he had a flat-top haircut, the righteousness of which was judged by whether a phone book could be laid on top and not fall off.
During my first month in Plum Beach that kid never said a word to me, even though we shared the same bus stop for school.
The first time he made out like I even existed was the day we went on a class field trip to Quantrell Farm.
Quantrell Farm was one of the oldest buildings in our neighborhood and the site of a battle during the Revolutionary War. It stood on a rise overlooking the bay, surrounded by a field planted with corn and another field in which two horses wandered lazily from one clump of grass to another.
The tour guide wore Colonial clothes - white breeches, a thick vest and a tailcoat made from rough brown cloth. His long gray hair was pulled back in a pony tail and he had little round glasses which, I noticed, did not have lenses in them.
The twelve of us in the class shuffled after him, going from room to room in the cramped farm house. The place smelled of beeswax. The floorboards creaked. The windows were made of ripply glass, which made the world outside look drunk. The old Colonial furniture looked impossibly fragile - as if all you had to do was touch one of the spindle-backed rocking chairs by the fireplace, or the copper pans hanging from iron hooks in the kitchen and the whole place would come crashing down on top of you.
Our teacher, Mrs. Halley, accompanied the guide. She had long dark hair, parted down the middle, and freckles on her nose. She quizzed the guide about what they ate back then, how they cleaned their clothes and where kids went to school. The trip to Quantrell Farm was an annual event for my grade, and Mrs. Halley had been leading it for years. I wondered if she asked the same questions every time.
I listened, but not very closely. Instead, I stared out of the wobble-glass windows at the corn, the stalks grown taller than a man, and horses in their stone-walled paddock and the woods beyond, like a green tidal wave flecked with red and yellow maple leaves. I felt a kind of trembling inside, which made me want to run from the house and vanish in that wilderness.
At the end of the tour, the guide gathered us together in front of the big fireplace. From the mantelpiece, he took a long-stemmed clay pipe and packed it with tobacco from a leather pouch he kept in his pocket. After he had lit the pipe, sending a tiny mushroom cloud of smoke towards the ceiling, he smiled at us as much as if to say he knew we were bored out of our minds and, what’s more, he didn’t care.
“I noticed you were studying the cornfield,” he said, and it took me a second to realize he was talking to me.
I felt the blood rush to my face. Oh, God, I thought. What kind of trouble am I in?
“They didn’t eat that corn, you know,” said the guide. “Not usually. Not all of it. Most of their corn was left to dry out in the fields and wouldn’t be harvested until the first frost. Then it would be fed to the animals during the winter.”
Mrs. Halley nodded, a stern look on her face as if to show she knew how hard life was for the colonials.
“You know,” the man continued, “out there is where the battle took place, right out where that corn is standing now.”
I wondered why he hadn’t begun the tour by talking about the battle, instead of going about corn, which he must have known, if he had given the
tour even once to a bunch of school kids, was of no use to us whatsoever. “What battle was it?” I asked.
“If you’ll wait a minute, Sam,” snapped Mrs. Halley, “I’m sure you’re about to be told.” She turned to the guide. “Sam is new here,” she said, as if that might explain my interruption.
“On the morning of August 17th, 1775,” began the guide, “a British ship on its way down from Providence dropped anchor, just out there in the bay.” He aimed the curved stem of his pipe towards the water. “A party of Redcoats rowed ashore, looking for fresh water, which they knew they could probably find if someone had built a farm here. What they didn’t know was that a group of colonial militia were staying here in this very building. A fight broke out. Two of the British soldiers became separated from their comrades and were chased all the way to Plum Beach before being shot and killed by the militia. Those men were buried right in back of the old Wardell House, where a member of the Wardell family still resides.”
“But why would they kill the British soldiers?” asked a girl named Beth Kidder, who had blue eyes the color of a swimming pool. “All they wanted was a drink.”
“It’s hard to say why they were killed,” replied the man. “Perhaps they refused to surrender. Perhaps the Colonials misunderstood the British intentions. In war there is always confusion.”
“I don’t think they should have killed those British soldiers,” said Beth. “I would have given them water.”
The guide smiled. “And that is a very kind thought, but…”
“That’s not the real story,” said a voice.
For a moment, there was total silence. All the students in the class turned to see who had spoken.
It was Adam. He stood against the wall with his arms folded, looking like he was ready for a fight.
“Adam,” said Mrs. Halley.
“The Redcoats were burying gold,” continued Adam.
“Adam!” barked Mrs. Halley.
“No, that’s all right.” The guide spoke in a soothing voice. “I know the legend he’s referring to. It represents a common misconception. What all the stories do agree upon, however, that the British ship which stopped just out there in the Bay was called the HMS Rose, and it had departed earlier that day from the city of Providence, up at the north end of the bay, which is about twelve miles from here. HMS Rose was transporting the soldiers who became involved in the fight with the militia here at Quantrell Farm. But soldiers weren’t the only cargo on that ship. HMS Rose was also transporting a strong box filled with wages for the British Army of Northern New England. And do you know,” he asked the class, “what British soldiers were paid in back then?”
“Corn?” suggested Beth.
“Gold,” said the man. “Golden guineas.”
“Why was the gold on that ship?” asked Beth.
“The answer is that a Colonial Army was advancing on Providence, and the captain of HMS Rose, a man named Ponsonby, had been given the task of moving that strong box to a place of safety. When the Colonials captured the city a few days later, they would also have captured the gold if the British hadn’t first removed it.”
“How much gold was there?” I asked.
“Ah!” He poked the air with the stem of his pipe. “That is a question we historians have been asking ourselves for many years. The truth is, we don’t know. What we do know is that the Army of Northern New England,  which numbered approximately 5000 men under the command of General Packard, had not been paid in quite some time. It was the cause of considerable friction between ordinary British soldiers and their commanding officers. When soldiers fight, they expect to get paid, and on time. It is possible that the strong box contained upwards of twenty thousand guineas, although we may never be sure.”
“How much would that be worth today, sir?” asked Mrs. Halley.
“A quarter of a million dollars, easily.”
A quiet moan of approval came from the people listening.
“But it might as well be a million dollars,” continued the man, “and it might as well be nothing, because no one has ever been able to find that strong box. The reason is quite simple. The HMS Rose was attacked and sunk by a Colonial war ship called The Ranger, under the command of John Paul Jones, not five miles from the mouth of Narragansett Bay. The box went down with the ship and, in spite of several searches over the years, the exact site of the wreck has never been located.”
“The gold did not go down with the ship,” said Adam.
Mrs. Halley whirled around to face him. “Adam, what is wrong with you today?”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Halley,” said the guide. “This young man is just confusing fact with fiction. The story he has no doubt heard is part of a local legend here in South County, that the Redcoats came ashore in order to bury that gold.”
“But why would they do that when they could simply sail away with it?” asked Mrs. Halley, casting an exasperated look at Adam.
“Because they knew that the Ranger was waiting for them out beyond the Bay,” replied Adam. “They buried that gold because they knew they might get sunk.”
“It’s a charming anecdote,” the guide interrupted, “but it’s just not supported by the facts. There’s even a story that the gold has already been found, by some crazy old man who lives in the woods not far from here. They say,” the professor snorted out a laugh, “they say he has it hidden under his house. Now I think if I had thirty thousand guineas, I wouldn’t be living in some shack in the woods. Would you?” He grinned at his audience.
“That old man is my grandfather,” said Adam.
The guide’s smile slid off his face. “Well, as I say, it’s just a story. It’s not true about the gold being landed here, any more than I imagine it’s true that your grandfather is crazy. I was narrating…”
“He is crazy,” said Adam. “He got blown up by the Japanese in World War Two.”
“Yes, I see,” the guide said quickly. He breathed in deeply and addressed the class again. “Well, what we do know is that the Redcoats and the Militia fought an honest to God battle here. And do you know how we know?” He paused and looked out at us, his eyes big and shiny.
We waited in silence for his answer.
Slowly, he moved the stem of his pipe to a mark in the wall above the mantelpiece. It was about the size of a thumb print and had been filled in and painted over. “That,” he said, “is the mark of a British bullet.”
We all moved forward, as if drawn in by a magnet towards the little smudge.
“Now step back,” said Mrs. Halley, holding out her little hands. “Step back all of you!”
Through the blurred glass window, I saw the corn swaying in the breeze, and I imagined the Redcoats crashing through the stalks, muskets held out, charging towards the farmhouse.
“They came here to bury that gold,” said Adam, refusing to drop the subject.
Everybody turned and stared at him again.
I felt my stomach cramp, wondering if Adam might be missing that natural instinct of knowing when grownups want him to keep his mouth shut. I had known kids like this before, back at my other school. I dreaded having them in my class. When they opened their mouths, one way or another, everybody paid for it.
“Excuse me?” asked the guide. The slippery tone of false patience had gone out of his voice. He was smiling but he didn’t look happy any more.
And all of a sudden, it occurred to me how ridiculous he looked in his costume.
“They didn’t need water,” continued Adam. “They had just left Providence and there’s plenty of water up there. Why else would they have stopped except to bury the strong box?”
The guide’s cheeks began to turn red.
Mrs. Halley was staring at Adam, her lips pressed tight and her mouth as straight as a knife cut. If she had been the only grown up in the room, she probably would have just told Adam to keep quiet and that would have been the end of it, but since there was another grown up, and since that grown up was technically the one in charge, it made things difficult, because if she butted in and took over, that would have seemed disrespectful. And since that other grown up was a stranger to us, he kind of had to mind his manners. Otherwise, it would have looked disrespectful to the teacher if he just told Adam to shut up, which was most definitely what he seemed to want to do.
The guide set the end of the pipe in his mouth. It made a clicking sound when his teeth clamped down on the stem. Thoughtfully, he puffed at it, as if to show he did not care. “You seem to have given this a great deal of thought, young man.”
“Some.” Adam was starting to realize there was no way out of this for him. Now, when he spoke, his voice was hesitant, and his gaze began to wander around the room, as if looking for an escape route, just like those Colonials must have been doing when the Redcoats were shooting at them.
The guide breathed a cloud of smoke over our heads. “And I wonder who told you this marvelous story?”
“My grandpa,” said Adam.
Now a different kind of smile, more cruel than amused, appeared on the guide’s face. “The man you say is crazy. Well, fascinating as that story is, I’m afraid you won’t find it in any of the history books. I know because I wrote those history books!” He paused and grinned at Mrs. Halley before turning back to Adam.
He looked like a man I once saw in a boxing match on TV, who had knocked his opponent to the mat. And while the injured fighter struggled to get back on his feet, this man strutted around the ring, raising his gloved fists to the crowd.
“I happen to be a college professor,” continued the guide. “Is your grandfather, by any chance, a college professor?”
“Nope,” replied Adam. “My grandpa didn’t go to college.”
“He didn’t attend?” The guide pretended to look shocked. “Oh, my word, that is a shame. Well, you’ll find as you grow older that people in his position do tend to embellish the truth when they aren’t aware of the facts.”
“Do you know what ‘embellishing’ means, Adam?” asked Mrs. Halley.
“I think it means he’s calling my grandpa a liar.”
“All right class!” Mrs. Halley clapped her hands. “Why don’t you all go out and have your lunch?”
Somebody opened the heavy wooden door leading out into the farm yard and we began to flee the building.
“Adam,” said Mrs. Halley, “why don’t you and I have a little talk?”
I sat on the wall, eating a tuna fish sandwich out of my metal lunch box and thinking how it would smell like tuna fish for the next week at least. In the doorway of the farm house, I could see Mrs. Halley talking to Adam. She was bent down, hands on her knees and her head tilted back so she could talk with Adam face-to-face.
Except Adam wasn’t looking at her. He had his head turned to one side and was scowling.
Mrs. Halley touched one finger to his chin and swiveled his head around until they were looking each other in the eye.
Adam’s chin sank down against his chest.
The guide walked out from behind the house. He was no longer wearing his Colonial outfit. Now he had on a plaid sports jacket and a tie. He got in his car and drove through the farmyard, heading for the main road. He didn’t look at us as he went past.
At the end of the field trip, Adam and I got off at our bus stop.
I started walking down my driveway.
“He was lying!” shouted Adam.
I spun around. ‘What?”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’re thinking it! And those two dead Redcoats he talked about, they’re buried right across the road in the yard of Mr. Wardell’s house!” He pointed to the house opposite from where I lived. “Mr. Wardell can tell us what really happened.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Really, I don’t.”
“It’s too late now,” replied Adam. “You’re coming with me.”
I went along, partly because I wanted Adam to like me, but mostly because I was scared of him.
We knocked at Mr. Wardell’s door but no one answered. Then we went around back, in case he was in his garden.
“There,” said Adam, nodding at two slabs of slate propped up against the garden wall. There was some kind of carving on them but so worn away that I could barely read what it said.
“How come they’re just resting there like that?” I asked.
“They must have dug up the bodies when they built the house.”
Then the back door opened and Mr. Wardell came out, wearing worn-out chino pants done up with a piece of string and some slippers that looked like old lady shoes to me.  Mr. Wardell used to be a teacher at Hamilton Elementary, and it seemed like after years of schooling kids like me and Adam, he now wanted nothing to do with children for the rest of his life. “What do you want?” he shouted.
“We came to ask about the Redcoats,” said Adam.
“Rain coats?” shouted Mr. Wardell. “What is this? Some kind of fund raiser?”
“No,” I tried to explain. “Not rain coats. Redcoats.”
“I already have a rain coat!” he yelled at us and shut the door in our faces.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Adam, as we walked back across the road. “I’m telling you the truth is all.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Here are a few pictures of me when I was doing research in arctic Norway for Archive 17/Siberian Red.
Here are two questions I enjoyed answering in a recent on-line piece, even though I didn't exactly answer the questions...

The book I’ve written which I feel has come closest to what I wanted to achieve was...That's like trying to choose between my children! Each book evolves in its own way, adding layers and eccentricities to characters who have already appeared in the series. At the same time, the continued presence of those characters, and the consistency of the world they inhabit, provides a kind of gyroscopic balance which I find very comforting as I sit down to write each day. But each book represents an evolution.  If I honestly thought that any book was less effective than the one before it, I would never allow it to go to print. 

The writers who have inspired me include...For fiction, I grew up reading Tolstoy, Chekov, Conrad, Koestler and St Exupery. These days, I have to read so much for research that I have very little time for fiction any more, and no time at all to read crime fiction. When you work with it all day, every day, reading the same genre is like jogging all day and then going out for a jog to relax. Whenever there is a crime show on the television and I happen to be watching it with my kids, they get very annoyed that I can always figure out what's going to happen in the first few minutes of the show. I have friends in the film industry who say the same thing. It's like having unwanted x-ray vision.You can't surrender the disbelief. You become too aware of the artifice.The books I get caught up in now are most often obscure memoirs, most of them long out of print, written by people who were actually doing the things I want to write about. Trolling through those dusty, fragile pages (the one I'm reading right now was published, just once, in 1933 - the pages come loose in my hands as I turn them) is like panning for gold. And finding it. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Here's a picture of me when I was working on the boats.
Every summer and winter, during the years I was at university, I worked on deep sea fishing boats off the coast of New England. Shortly afterwards, I wrote a book about it called 'Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn'. The book was originally published by Houghton Mifflin in the US and by Hutchinson in the UK. Later, it came out in paperback with Faber & Faber in London and St Martin's Press in New York. About five or six years after the book first appeared, it was turned into a film by Hallmark Hall of Fame and starred Peter Facinelli, Kate Nelligan and Michael Moriarty. Recently, the British publisher Daunt picked up the rights to the novel and are due to re-release it in tandem with the next Sam Eastland book in February of 2013. Daunt asked me to write a short piece about how it feels now to be looking back on those years as a fisherman. I thought about that for a while, and then decided to write the story of the last fishing trip I ever took, which was probably the closest I ever came to getting killed on the deep sea boats.
I was very happy to hear that Daunt will be releasing the book. They have been great to work with.
Here's the story -

When I wrote Calm at Sunset Calm at Dawn, I had only just finished working on the
deep sea boats. A lot of the wounds I had suffered in the previous years were still
healing, and I was still awakened several nights a week by dreams of sharks and
shipwrecks – mostly things which almost happened but didn’t – that now played out like
a film projected against the inside of my skull.
I was 24 years old, and had no real sense of whether those experiences had
made me into someone different than I’d been before I went to sea.
They did change me. I know that now. But the nature of those changes was
something I could never have predicted at the time.

One of the hardest parts about working on the boats was returning to university at the
end of the fishing season. Following months of discomfort and danger, I found it hard to
take seriously the wagging fingers of my professors and the men on my hall who wept
when they received A- grades instead of A’s.
Out on the ocean, the stakes were huge. Lose your footing and be washed
overboard or vanish in a storm when a rogue wave swamps your vessel. Back on
land, my friends wrangled over things so trivial that, for a long time after getting back
to school, I would feel a wall between us, isolating me from the obsessions which
governed their minds. Eventually, I would slide back into the rhythm of student life
and the fretting of my classmates would become my anxieties as well. Until that
transformation was complete, however, the sense of separation seemed a heavy price
to pay for the time I’d spent away from land.
It wasn’t until my final voyage that I began to realise this might be, in fact, a gift,
rather than some kind of penalty, and one more valuable than any of the wages I had
On the day after Christmas, I shipped out of Parascondolo’s Dock in Newport,
Rhode Island. The boat was an old scallop dragger with a bad reputation for accidents
and fights breaking out among the crew. It was the kind of ship that fishermen refer
to as a ‘slab’, but it was the only boat with an empty berth and so I had to take it. The
weather had been rough that winter. As I stood on the ice-covered dock with my duffle
bag slung over my shoulder, waiting to climb on board, I had a bad feeling about it, but I
was hoping that this one trip would earn enough to see me through to graduation, which
was only a few months away. So I went against my instincts, a thing I have never done
About sixty miles off the coast, we were hit by the worst storm I’d ever been
in. It is the sounds I remember more clearly than anything else. The terrible shriek of
the props as they cleared the waves. The incessant and demented moaning of the
wind through the steel cables of the rigging. The clang of the metal baseball bat we
used night and day to knock away the ice that built up on the surface of the boat. In
the pitching sea, the winch men would often misjudge the precise moment when the

dredges, each one as big as a car, would be hoisted on board. Instead of coming down
smoothly, they would skid across the plates, smashing into the metal apron on the other
side. For a deck hand like me, there was no place to hide. All you could do was try not
to be in the way.
Down in the crew’s quarters, we strapped ourselves into our bunks, listening to
the sucking gasp of the bow as it rose from the water and feeling the shudder, all along
the keel, as we charged into the next roller.
I wondered how much more of this the boat could take. I knew that if we
foundered, I would never get out of the boat before we sank. And even if I did get out,
I had no survival suit and would only last a few minutes in the waters of the Labrador
After two days of this, the mate and two senior crewmen did something I had
never seen happen before. They asked the captain to go in. I remember how quiet it
became in the galley, even with the storm outside.
The captain refused, in language so exotically obscene that I, who thought he
had heard everything, was left stunned when he got up from the galley table and locked
himself in the wheelhouse. In the days that followed, while the storm grew worse and
worse, he remained by the wheel, sleeping on the floor beside it even when the mate
stood his watch, as if he was afraid that we might mutiny.
Which, eventually, we did.
I didn’t find out until the plan was already underway. The first I saw of it was
when the captain burst out of the wheelhouse, staggered through the galley and out
onto the deck, where he leaned over the side and vomited. For a long time, he hung
there, gripping the cables while he roared his guts into the waves. Within an hour, he
was back on the floor of the wheelhouse, too sick to stay on his feet.
The cook had poisoned the captain’s food, not enough to kill him, but enough to
make him think he might be dying. Finally, he gave the order to come about and head
for port.
By then, it was New Year’s Eve. I sat in the galley with the rest of the crew,
watching the festivities on a little television set. We were tuned into a Connecticut
station, which was covering a party taking place among ice sculptures on the New
Haven Green. There, through a haze of poor reception, I saw classmates of mine from
Yale, wearing tuxedoes and dancing in a conga line. I knew that within a few days, I
would be back in class among them.
Nobody else on the boat knew where I went to university, or even that I was in
school. I kept that to myself and no one asked. The only past you ever learned about
the fishermen with whom you worked was what they chose to tell you.
We reached Newport at three in morning on New Year’s Day. The snow was
knee-deep in the streets. After carrying the captain to his bunk, the rest of us took a
walk down Thames Street, through the pooled and yellow light of street lamps. We

peered into shop windows, threw snowballs at each other and lay in the middle of the
road, sweeping our arms and legs back and forth to make snow angels.
Everything I saw and touched and smelled that night seemed conjured out of
some fantastic dream. There was even a moment when I wondered if it really was an
illusion, and whether, at this very moment, I might be drowning at the bottom of the sea.
Later that day, after unloading the catch, I collected my pay and went home
on the bus. As we rode over the Newport Bridge, I wiped away the condensation on
the window and stared out at the gray sea in the distance. In that moment, I suddenly
realised that I’d made my last trip. I had used up all the luck I had coming to me as a
crewman on a deep sea boat.

Now I am exactly twice the age I was when I sat down to write Calm at Sunset.
If I look at my hands, I can see the white lines of old knife cuts from those times
when I misjudged the butchering of Monk Fish out on Block Island Sound. Running my
tongue over my back teeth, I feel the porcelain and gold which took the place of the
molars which got smashed when I was hit by the dredge while climbing out of the ice
room hatch during my first summer as a fisherman.
Those are the physical things I will always carry with me.
But there are also memories.
I still have dreams of being on the ocean, but none of them are as clear to me as
the recollection of that night I walked down Thames Street in the snow. Everything that’s
happened to me in all the years since then has been balanced against that memory.
I no longer worry about the little things, the way I often did before that night. Of the
changes I have undergone as a result of those years as a fisherman, that is the one
which matters to me most.
Once you become aware of the luxury of drawing in breath, even the most
ordinary day becomes a miracle.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Here are some more questions and answers from a recent interview -

1. Describe yourself with three words.
 Restless. Loyal. Stubborn.
2. What puts you in a bad mood? Traffic. And what puts you in a good mood? Swimming in the ocean
3. If you could take breakfast, lunch and dinner at three different places in the
world - where would you go? 
Breakfast - Krossbu Lodge, Jotunheimein Mountains, Norway.
Lunch - Cafe de France, Essaouira, Morocco
Dinner - Maya Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico.
4. Tea or coffee? Tea
5. What makes a day a perfect day? Write for 6 hours. Jog 3 miles. Take a nap. 
6. How do you come up with ideas for your novels? Each book begins with an anecdote I have heard or some small detail I have read. Then it grows in my head like a pearl inside an oyster. Eventually, my head becomes so full with ideas that I have to start writing or I will go crazy. The writing itself becomes like an exorcism of the phantoms who have taken up residence in my mind. 
7. Do you work as a full-time writer – and if so, what would have been an
alternative to writing? I write most of the time, but I also teach at a school just outside New York City. I only teach one class for each of the three terms - The First World War, The Second World War and the History of Exploration. I teach at the High School level and enjoy the work very much. I don't think it's a good idea for a writer to spend all his time writing. You end up spending too much time with people you have invented and not enough with people who are real.
8. Do you have a favourite author? If so: Who and why?
I don't read much for pleasure anymore. That is not to say I don't read. I read all the time, but mostly it has to do with research on the books I am writing. What this means is that I don't often focus on a single author but I do focus on specific topics. When I was younger, I read a lot of Conrad, Chekov, Tolstoy, Grass, Boll and St. Exupery. 
9. Which book did you read lately?
Right now I am reading the memoir of Anatoli Sudoplatov, which is titled 'Special Tasks'. Sudoplatov was a Soviet Intelligence officer during the Stalinist period. 
10. Which book would you recommend to everybody?
Blood Meridien by Cormac McCarthy
11. Which person from a novel, a film or the public life would you like to meet?
And what would you say to them?
I would like to meet Professor Moriarty, the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes. I would like to know about his early life and what it was that made him the villain he turned out to be. 
12. Which historical event would you like to have witnessed?
Last year, I drove across America, following the trail of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They set out from the East in 1802 and traveled, by boat and on foot, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They were gone for three years and covered thousands of miles. I would have liked to have been on that expedition, to have seen so many things that no European had ever seen before.
13. If you had those famous three wishes - what would you wish?
1. When I was 7 years old, my parents sent me away to boarding school in England. I attended the Dragon School in Oxford and then Eton. The schools were very strict and I think that a lot of who I am now, for better or worse, was formed during those years. For one of my wishes, I would like to know how I would have turned out if I had not left home so young.
2. I spent several years working on deep sea fishing boats off the coast of New England. On one voyage, I was struck in the face by a chain which had snapped loose. It broke some of my teeth and my jaw and the injuries still cause me problems, even though it was a long time ago. For my second wish, I wish I could have ducked and have the chain sail harmlessly above my head!
3. For my last wish, I would like to go back in time and meet with myself at the age of 16, which is when I started writing. I would like to tell my younger self not to work so hard. I worked all the time! I know it probably helped my career as a writer, which began when I published my first book at the age of 21, but I think I might have enjoyed myself more if I had not been so impatient. Now I am much more calm when I sit down to work every day. I know how much of my life is beyond my control. I am happy now, and content, and I wish it had not taken me so long to become this way.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Writing a series has turned out to be one of the great pleasures of my career, although not for the reasons I had imagined before I began. I was apprehensive about it, at first. I didn't like the idea that I was writing within a specific genre, which was not something I had done with the books I wrote under my own name (you can see those on this website - I thought it would be too confining, too formulaic. I didn't know how it would be to live with the same character in my head for years on end. Sometimes, in my other books, characters did reappear, more or less as cameos, but the story, and most of the people who inhabited it, became entombed within that one particular novel. When I started a new book, I walked out into a huge, empty space, which then needed to be filled with all the details of whatever historical period it occupied. Then new characters had to be invented. For the first few weeks of writing, they would lurch about like Frankensteins, stitched together from people I knew or had known or had read about. Only in time would those scars fade away, leaving me with fully formed companions for the long journey of seeing the book through to its close. Getting to that point, however, was always exhausting. I would read dozens of books, some of them decades out of print, trolling for details I could use. It also meant a lot of travel, and not always to places that were particularly safe or easy to visit.
The first book of the Inspector Pekkala series was no exception. Russian history, in particular, has so many different versions and involves so much speculation, because the facts were either never known or else have been denied or even fabricated, that you really have to learn several different histories at once. You have to know what kind of person would believe which version. You have to know what even the most fanatical follower of the Soviet system might secretly doubt, although they'd never dare to question it.
The Romanovs, who occupied a considerable portion of this study, seem to be either adored or despised by those who follow their story. I soon discovered that there was very little middle ground. After the book came out, one reviewer slammed the book because I showed the Tsar as human. She wrote that she would personally have liked to shoot the Tsar and his whole family, daughters and son included. Other people wrote to thank me for portraying him humanely. The same was true for Stalin. I had emails thanking me for not making him into a monster and others criticizing me for not making him into a monster.
The intensity of that debate was not something I had expected or encountered in the books I had done under my own name.
It wasn't until I began writing the second book that the real enjoyment of working on a series became clear to me. Now, instead of walking out into an empty space when it came time to begin a new novel, I walked into a world which was fully furnished with the people, places and objects I had worked so hard to create in the first book. Writing about characters with whom you are already acquainted becomes more challenging, but it is also more rewarding, I have found. You get to wander off into the eccentricities that really bring them to life. You become protective of them, villains and heroes alike.
It is a dreary, rainy morning in March of 2012. I can hear wet tires out on the highway, its sound like a river in the distance. These are the days when it is hard to sit alone in my study and type for hours on end, but once I have begun, the writing becomes an escape. Slipping away into the world of Inspector Pekkala feels like jumping out of an aeroplane and daring yourself, as you fall, to wait as long as you can before pulling the ripcord and your chute finally deploys, bringing you back to the real world.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sam Eastland is not my real name. My real name is Paul Watkins and I have published 9 books under my real name. If you are interested, you can find details of those books on the website
So why the pseudonym?
A few years ago, I wrote a book set in Stalinist Russia, in which the main character just happened to be a detective. My publisher in the UK, Faber & Faber, told me that the book should really be part of a series, rather than just a one-off, as all of my previous books had been. They suggested that I adopt a pseudonym for the series. The reason for this is that, if you create a series of books with the same kind of setting and characters, but intersperse that series with other books having nothing to do with the series, it tends to throw off  readers whose reading habits are devoted to the particular genre in which the series is set.
I liked the idea of a pseudonym, and also of expanding the book I had written into what has now become the Inspector Pekkala series.
Choosing the pseudonym turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. I kept going back and forth with Faber about various names. They were really picky! I ended up choosing the name Sam because of Sam Watkins, a soldier from Tennessee who fought in the American Civil War. The book he wrote about his experiences, titled Company H, was quoted many times in that fantastic documentary about the Civil War made by Ken Burns. The way the narrator spoke the name of Sam Watkins was so beautiful than it made me wish my own name had been Sam, instead of Paul. I chose Eastland for a last name because the the main character of the first book I had published, Night Over Day Over Night, was named Westland.
There are some practical reasons for why Faber approved the name. The first is that the name Sam is universally pronouncable. The second is that Eastland, beginning with the letter E, is usually displayed in the center mass of book shelves, which tends to be the first part of the book shelf people see when they go into a book shop.
Of course, I hoped the series would do well, but I had no idea it would do as well as it has done. It is now in more than 15 translations, and I spent at least a portion of each day answering messages from all over the world. I am very grateful for those messages! It means a lot to me that people take the time to write and it provides a real and meaningful link with the outside world, which really matters when I spend so much of my time hunched over the keyboard. I have joked with people that I spend more time with people I've invented than with people who are real, but it's actually not far from the truth.
There has been only one disadvantage. Writing the Sam Eastland books has kept me so busy that, for several years, I had to stop writing books under my own name.
At first, that felt a little depressing. It bothered me that people thought I had stopped writing altogether, especially since, in the beginning, I was not allowed to tell people about the Sam Eastland project. But those feelings didn't last. I was having too much fun to worry about what name went on the books.
Next week, I will write about the experience of bringing Inspector Pekkala to life.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Here are some questions and answers from a recent on-line interview - 

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever been given (and do you follow it)?
      Always leave some part of your writing unfinished at the end of the day, even if it is just the last few lines of a scene. When you sit down at your desk again, knowing your first writing task is a good way to set up momentum for the work that lies ahead.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
The writers I admire most are those who have made a good balance between their work and the lives they lead outside the worlds they must create inside their heads. I have watched a lot of young authors burn out because they lose track of the line between those worlds. You must draw on your own life to create the fiction you write, but you can’t become your own fiction and expect to last long in this line of work.

 Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
I get a lot of emails on the website ( devoted to the series, and this has given me a glimpse into the kind of people who are reading the books. I suppose I could say that I was writing for them before I even knew who they were, but now that I do now, I have a better sense of who my audience really is.

 Where do you write, and why?
I divide my time between the US and the UK. In each of these places, I have little hideaways where I get my writing done. Now, for example, I am up in my cabin in the woods of Maine. The floors have old Navajo rugs on them and the walls are hung with old black and white pictures, snow shoes, my rucksack and a bamboo fishing pole. I write in different places because I do other work besides writing and this sometimes means I have to move around.

      Kirov outranks Pekkala and is more socially adept, but Pekkala is far more worldly wise. Do you see Kirov as a sidekick figure, or is their relationship one between equals?

They did not begin as equals, but I find as I write (I’ve just begun writing the 5th book) that they are becoming that way. Kirov needs Pekkala’s expertise to solve the tasks they are given by Stalin, but Pekkala needs Kirov in order to be able to navigate through the world of Soviet Russia. Kirov is part caretaker, part translator of the past into the present, and part bodyguard. Pekkala’s skills are such that he has been absolved from having to fit in to the world around him. In fact, he has never fitted in and never could. That is why the Tsar chose him to be his personal investigator, because Nicholas II (who also never fitted in, either among his own people or in his role as Tsar) saw a part of himself in Pekkala. The same is true for Stalin, although Pekkala’s relationship with the dictator is more complex and dangerous.

Are there plans to release your books in Russia? And what do you think a Russian audience would make of them?

I believe there are plans to release the books in Russia. I have been both pleased and a little overwhelmed by how many countries have picked up the books for translation. I’ve had a number of emails from Russians. Most of them are very friendly, but I have had a few people quibbling over things as obscure as the colour of boiler suits. On the same day, once, I had someone write to complain that Stalin was not portrayed sympathetically enough and another message from a different person complaining that he had not been portrayed as enough of a monster. My experience from reading Russian history is that there is very little consensus among the Russians themselves about the details of their past. This is, I know, the long term result of a regime which practiced such profound disinformation, not only on the rest of the world but also on its own people, that people continue not to trust what they are told.

       Pekkala is a Finn; was it easier for you, writing as an outsider, to have an outsider as your protagonist, or were there other reasons behind Pekkala's nationality?

It was definitely easier to write from the point of view of an outsider. At the age of 7, I was sent from America, where my parents were living at the time (although they were British), to boarding school in England. I did this for so many years that I ended up feeling like a foreigner in both countries. Although it made life difficult at times, I think it gave me the chance to see two separate cultures in a way that was different from those around me. You reach this point where you just stop trying to fit in. At first, it is frightening, but it’s something you have to do if you want to stay sane. I suppose there is a lot of this in Pekkala. He found, as I did, that by not trying to fit in and to become something you aren’t, you find more acceptance from those around you than you would if you attempted to be one of them. The reason I chose a Finn as a main protagonist is that the Russians have a particular fascination with the Finns. Even though Finland is dwarfed by the vastness of Russia, the Russians have a healthy respect for the Finns, in no small measure due to what the Finns did to the Russians in the Russo-Finnish war of 1940. But it goes deeper than that. In many Russian fairytales, you will find a Finn performing some magic or other. For the Russians, the Finnish culture holds a certain supernatural quality that I found very useful when writing about Pekkala.

There must have been a temptation to paint Stalin as nothing more than a monster, but instead you made him a human being. How did you go about researching his character?

There are a number of fantastic books about Stalin, the best of which were written in the late 1990’s, when the Russians released tons of material which had previously been classified. This opened a window into Soviet culture, and also into the life of Joseph Stalin, that had previously been impossible. Sadly, and yet somehow typical of the ebb and flow of Russian culture, many of those files have now been re-classified as secret. The window has closed. I doubt it will open again in my lifetime.

      Several times you mention the will to self-destruction in the Russian psyche. Do you think this is a Russian twist on something universal, or is there something uniquely self-destructive about the Russian national character?

I do think there is something peculiarly self-destructive about Russian culture. One of my old history teachers once said – Nobody defeats the Russians except the Russians. What he meant by this, I think, was that the Russian capacity for violence against its own people is so extraordinary that it becomes difficult for people to grasp. As Stalin himself once said – One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic. We simply can’t grasp the magnitude of what Russia has endured, at its own hands and at the hands of others. That is what makes it possible. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Beginning February 15th of 2012, I will write something for it every week.

I hope you enjoy the blog. Please write and let me know what you think, by clicking

on the ‘Contact Author’ icon on the website. If you have questions, I will do my best to

answer them.

The question I’ve been asked most often since I began writing the series is how I came

up with the idea for Inspector Pekkala.

Here is the story –

During the mid 1990’s, a friend of mine was present at a construction site in Russia

when a backhoe unearthed the body of a soldier. The dead man was laying spread

eagled on the carcass of a horse which had been buried at the same time. The man

was wearing a long greatcoat, tall boots and had a thick leather belt across his middle.

The clothing and the body had been preserved by the soil so that the man appeared to

be partially mummified. Upon examination of the corpse, it became clear that the rider

had been buried around the time of the First World War. It also seemed clear, from the

fact that he had been laid to rest along with his horse, that the man had probably been

buried on the same spot where he had been killed. The man’s belt buckle, which clearly

showed the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs, identified him as a soldier of the

Tsar’s Army. However, because of the location, which was not on what would have

been the front lines during the Great War, the man must have been buried after, not

during, the war. This would have placed the soldier’s death at some time in the early

days of the Revolution, when soldiers still loyal to the Tsar, known as the Whites, fought

pitched battles with the Bolsheviks, who became known as the Reds.

During the course of the construction, several other bodies were discovered, all of

whom were similarly dressed and, presumably, had been killed during the same battle.

After the bodies had been re-interred, my friend was given one of the belt buckles as a

souvenir. He then passed it on to me, and I still have it.

For every book, there is always some unexpected catalyst that sets everything in

motion. Waiting for these catalysts to take hold is like standing in the path of a gently

falling meteor shower. Ideas will come hurtling past, but they don’t hit you, so eventually

you forget them. But then some image or some anecdote will strike you right between

the eyes. From that point on, the formation of the book becomes like the making of a

pearl inside an oyster. The grain of sand embeds itself inside the oyster. The oyster is

not trying to produce a thing of beauty. It is trying to survive. The pearl is the product of

pain. It is the same with these stories. Once they have snagged like a fishhook in your

brain, you have to find a way to work them loose.

Holding that buckle in my hand made me think of the tens of thousands of people who

were swallowed up in that revolution whose stories have never been told. Russian

history, perhaps more than any other country, is layered with so many lies, denials,

discreditations and rehabilitations that there is no one version of that country’s past. The

only reliable stance to take is that nothing about it is reliable. And yet you know that the

truth is in there somewhere, woven into the fabric of these deceptions.

For months after I began writing The Eye of the Red Tsar, the first book in eth series,

that rider galloped through my dreams. It became an act of self-preservation to conjure

back to life the story of that buckle, and of the man who wore it to his death.