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.