BOOKS / Moments when the pain begins to tell: Tom Shone meets Paul Watkins, a youthful novelist with an unflinching view of hardship

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The Independent Culture
IF YOUR pain threshold is anywhere even remotely near that of The Beano's Walter the Softie, steer clear of Paul Watkins. He has a killer handshake, a real knuckle-buncher. On the plus side, he was nominated for a Booker Prize for his first novel; he's just finished his fourth, aged 28; and on occasion he can outpace even Hemingway when it comes to adrenalinised descriptions of high-pressure situations. But he's an interview novice: once inflicted in greeting, the handshake leaves you dreading having to take your leave.

He writes well about pain as well as inflicting it. His new novel, The Promise of Light (pounds 14.99), set during the Black and Tan war, climaxes with one of the best descriptions of being beaten up ever written. His first novel, set during the Second World War, ended vith a similar bout of thoroughly meaningful violence. His work otherwise embodies an almost miraculous ability to fine-tune itself to events and eras not the author's own, and it seems unfair to have this particular area authenticated by his own experience. But Watkins picked the short straw when it came to biographical proof. He got Pain.

'I had my jaw bust and teeth all knocked out on a fishing boat off New England,' he remembers cheerily. 'I spat out these white crumbs and realised they were my teeth. And I was stabbed through the hand in Morocco.' He shows me the scar. 'Went in there, came out there.' My hand starts to hurt less. He also came close to being shot during a cadet training exercise at Eton. 'I honestly thought I'd been shot. All I remember was people shining torches in my face, saying 'Watkins has been shot] Watkins has been shot]' '

If this makes him sound like some militarist bonzo with Panzer chassis diagrams tacked to his bedroom wall, he isn't. If it makes his biography sound odd then, well, it is. His parents came from Wales, but he was born in California; aged six, he 'started a transatlantic commute six times a year' to various private schools in Britain - the Dragon, Eton. 'It was a real Huckleberry Finn existence. I'd be going around in my blue corduroy uniform at school, coming back, wandering around barefoot, no TV, spending more time in the water than out of it.'

His speech is a quite bizarre salad of 'aye's and 'Jeez's; he now has dual nationality and lives with his American wife in upstate New York. 'For a while I grappled with whether I was American or English,' he says. 'I couldn't claim allegiance to either place. It felt like being governor of some mid-Atlantic island with a population of one.'

'Governor of one' pretty much describes his position on the literary map, too. Though they might collectively be described as intelligent adventure novels, each of his books follows its own brave path. They have a geographic and temporal boldness which takes them, if not where no writer has gone before - Jack London, Conrad and Hemingway have all cleared away some of the undergrowth before him - then certainly where few writers dare to venture today.

While our homegrown gang of litterateurs have only just got around to writing about the Second World War, Watkins got it under his belt - and from a German point of view - in his first novel, Night Over Day Over Night. He was 21. His next, about deep-sea fishing, won the Encore second novel award. His third, In the Blue Light of African Dreams, concerned the attempt by a pair of exiled aviators to make the first transatlantic crossing, and is currently being made into a film.

'One of the greatest skills in writing is the ability to become obsessed with different topics,' he says, staring fixedly at the table in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel. 'Sometimes it's as much a surprise to me what I'm writing about. You want to lose yourself. I remember an interview with some writer saying, I'm not going to write about pig-farming in

Botswana because I'm not a pig-farmer in Botswana, and I thought, 'Damn you, get on a plane to Botswana and become a pig-farmer] Then write about it.'

'For me the latest novel is the closest I've come to writing on home territory.' When a 27-year-old writer starts talking about Ireland during the 1920s as the nearest he's got to an autobiographical novel, you know you're onto a strange sort of talent.

The Promise of Dreams is an account of a young man's search for his father amid the random, ramshackle violence of the Black and Tan war. 'It's about one man's attempt to find an identity at a time when a country is trying to find its identity,' he says, with the clarity of an A-level passnote. 'I don't want to get drawn into a conversation about who was right, or who was to blame. The only true impression I got was of a thousand bonfires with everybody haggling locally. The conflict could be Israeli-Palestinian, Cypriot-Turkish. For me this story has all the urgency of me trying to figure out where I belong.'

He looks slightly ill at ease when I suggest that there might be a more direct connection: both this and his first novel concern sons looking for their fathers. His own father died when he was 12, he admits: 'It's the sort of thing that creeps in but I hope that I'll be able to gradually work it out.'

It is a strange talent, to lose oneself to the dramas of history, with positive embarrassment at the thought of any autobiographical seepage. 'Sometimes I think, Jeez, instead of progressing forward I'm hurtling further and further back into the past like some bogus timelord,' says Watkins, 'and yet there are certain times, and you can't expect them to be in your own lifetime, when the world is on a hinge, when things are in the balance, emotions heightened. I don't want to sound pompous, but certain emotions echo across the millennia.'

This sort of writing could easily wear its research on its sleeve, but the historical detail in his books pipes up only when spoken to: he may have spent months in second-hand clothes shops in Ireland to find out what clothes they wore in the Twenties, but the information enters with immaculate timing. When somebody is seized in the rain, his jacket's 'black dye squeezed out and bled across his fingers'. It wonderfully conveys the thick, damp threat of worse things just around the corner.

Watkins's style is as bold and brutal as a power drill. He doesn't get much time for reading other writers; his books are not in the habit of looking over their shoulder to see what tricks others are getting up to. 'Anywhere you go there'll be a community of people who huddle together; Good Lord, they used to huddle here' - he waves an arm at the empty Algonquin bar - 'bandying bons mots back and forth, clogging the air with that stuff. It doesn't appeal. You end up with nothing but style. Listen to how the average person tells a story. It's urgent. That's what I find lacking.'

His prose, like Hemingway's, maintains the same even keel in a tight situation, but he also has an eye for a simile. I name my favourite in the new novel: someone is shot, and his body, rushing to identify the source of pain, starts 'humming the way a sewing machine does before the needle jabs'. 'When I think about the times when I've been terrified, it's only afterwards that you assemble the information in your head,' Watkins explains. 'It's like the oxygen debt when you're running. Your mind takes in a lot more than you register at the time. . .'

With memories of that handshake returning to me in just such a flood, I consider my options. Going to the toilet and sneaking out. Or simply bolting for it. In the end I just clench my teeth and endure it. Watkins would have been proud of me.

In this extract from The Promise of Light, the hero revisits an old nightmare:

My mother once told me about a famous knight in Ireland. This knight had spent his life saving the kingdom from invaders. When he saw that his work was done, he took fifty of his best men, all of them strapped into armour plated with gold, and he led them to a mountain cave which overlooked the kingdom.

He made them all lie down and one by one he sprinkled sleeping dust into their eyes. They fell into the deepest, calmest dreams.

Then the knight hung a bell from the roof of the cave. He sealed off the cave's entrance with a boulder and lay down like the others. If the kingdom was ever in danger again, the bell would ring and wake them. Until then, they would sleep, safe in the promise that one day they would return into the light.

Nobody knew where the cave was. No one would ever find it.

One night after she had told me the story, I surfaced from the black of my sleep into the strange light of my dreams and found myself inside the cave. An oil lamp was burning on a shelf dug into the rock, as if I'd been expected. I saw the knights stretched out on the dusty ground. The lamp bounced light off their gold armour. Their faces were calm. I heard the creak of the armour's leather bindings as the knights breathed deeply.

I could find no way out of the cave. A boulder blocked the entrance and a bell hung from the ceiling.

I was only there a moment. Then I sank back down into the river of my sleep and woke with the dream still clear in my head.

This was not the nightmare. That came a few days later, when I returned to the cave.

This time, no light was burning. I stood in the indian-ink darkness and heard only the breathing of the knights. I was afraid to move, in case I stumbled and woke the knights. I knew they would kill me before I had a chance to explain. I could feel their breath around me. The shine of their gold had been extinguished in the black. I waited for the dream to end, to fall away and wake up in my bed. But the dream wouldn't end, and panic was closing around me.

When I did wake up, I found myself smothered in blankets and unable to move. For a while, I couldn't breathe or open my eyes.

(Photograph omitted)