Paul Watkins: On a precipice with the Devil

When he's not teaching in a preppie American college, novelist Paul Watkins is trekking through the Sahara or traversing the Nordic glaciers as research for his literary thrillers. Christian House finds out what's driving him on
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The Independent Culture

There's something cartoonish about Paul Watkins. Driving in from Princeton Junction, where he meets me in his battered Volvo estate, the novelist and memoirist is all animated zeal - like Tintin, only on the cusp of middle age.

We are heading for the private grounds of the Peddie School, where Watkins teaches First and Second World War history, and as the snow-streaked fields, monster shopping malls and deliberately-aged lecturers' homes buzz by, he laughs: "I hope you're not too traumatised by New Jersey. It can have that effect on people. It certainly did on me when I first arrived."

Watkins was born in 1964 to Welsh parents who relocated to the US and then sent him to boarding school in the UK. As a result the nomadic life has become second nature. "I've always straddled these two countries. I never felt at home in England and I also feel strange here." Writing fiction has proven to be both a salve to, and sanctuary from, this ever-shifting existence. "It's a solid ground. The place where I'm not a fish out of water. First of all I felt like I couldn't do without it and then I realised I didn't want to do without it."

Back in his classroom, with his feet up on the desk and a view out of an arched window to the snowy playing fields beyond, he suddenly appears to be in his natural habitat. It's like stepping into The Secret History. Watkins is no stranger to such exclusivity. In Stand Before Your God, he painfully and honestly chronicled his school days, first at Oxford's Dragon School and later at Eton, detailing the privileges and pains inherent in an English public school education. "I swear, I thought I was going to a party," he wrote. "I had a new suit made of blue corduroy and new black shoes that came with a free pack of playing cards. I was seven years old. My father drove me to a house that I had never seen before. Mother refused to come with us. The last I saw of her was a tear-blotchy face looking down from our room at the Randolph Hotel." His parents flew back to America the following day.

These were hardly the best years of his life but they have clearly had a lingering influence. "I was going to school in a uniform that was designed in 1840 or something and living with this feeling that we were being prepared for a world that no longer existed. We'd joke that the only jobs we could have would be to be extras on Masterpiece Theatre." Though troubled by his return to private education, albeit at the front of the class, and the closeted life that it could afford, he is keen to point out that Peddie couldn't be further from the backward-gazing institutions on this side of the Atlantic.

"This one in particular is different because of the whole co-ed thing. And it is one of those in-between places where you can immerse yourself for a while in the great ideals. Wealth can come down to time. I used to feel difficult about it and now I just feel grateful. I love the balance that it makes between the world of solitude and my work, and the very thorough and humbling connection with the outside world."

His latest novel, The Ice Soldier, draws on his time both at the blackboard and trekking to the "beam ends" of the earth. As with most of Watkins' work, it is written in the first person. It tells the tale of William Bromley, a once successful mountaineer now holed up in self-enforced exile teaching at a rural boys school. William is haunted by his time during the Second World War when he led a mission to install a radio beacon on one of the peaks of the Italian Alps: a trip that cost the lives of several of his friends in addition to his confidence as a climber. In the romantic Boys' Own tradition of Geoffrey Household, Erskine Childers and John Buchan, there is, of course, the opportunity for a manly shot at redemption. I tell Watkins that I read it as a heady mix of the James Hilton classics Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon.

"I'll have to read those and see what territory I'm trespassing on," he smirks. But he acknowledges the shared themes: "There are many ghosts that needed to be spoken to for the main character before he could actually return and become a whole human being rather than this fractured thing."

The same transition could also be said of its author. Throughout much of his work, and the trajectory of his own life story, the understanding of roots and the creation of a workable future are sought in equal measure. Not least when focused on the strained bonds between fathers and sons, a theme which runs like a dark seam through his backlist and is once again prevalent in The Ice Soldier. Watkins' own father was a professor of plate tectonics who had thrown javelin for the Welsh team in the Commonwealth Games. Just how well did he know him? "Not very well at all," he admits. "Which is generous for the reinterpretation process that comes from book to book. I think he pretty much worked himself to death. He died when he was 43 and treated himself with such physical disrespect that looking back it seems inevitable that that happened." He is adamant that no such disconnection will pass on to his own children. "My father was very conscious of that whole glass ceiling thing at work and I think he conceived this necessary cruelty in basically depriving himself, and my mum too of course, of the chance to spend as much time with their children. I look at my son and think of myself back then flying from London to Boston three times a year and I couldn't do it."

In 1988 Watkins found himself fresh out of Syracuse University, where he was tutored by Raymond Carver, and his debut novel, Night over day over night was garnering heaps of critical praise. He was 21 and suddenly heralded as the poster boy for a new breed of Hemingway-esque male novelists. The harsh, gripping account of a German boy caught up in the spiralling madness of an SS unit was to launch a consistent fascination with morally troubled characters squeezed into the tight spots of 20th-century conflicts. However, the adoration of the press, buoyed by his good looks and a style that flew in the face of the prevailing literary wind (this was in the heyday of the whizz-bang pyrotechnics of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie) was to be a major stumbling block. "I think it's very easy to spend your life trying to live up to the expectations of people around you rather than your own. Things happening that are extremely good can be as disorienting as things happening that are extremely bad. The object when the dust settles is to be back at your desk and to be able to work," he observes. It wasn't to be and it took him years to realise that he needed to follow his own principles. He suddenly felt like he was "standing on a precipice with the devil, with his arm around your shoulder". And trying to fulfil others' visions of how his work should progress found him hammering out dud prose as if he was "writing on a bastard xylophone".

Salvation came from perfecting a diligent, all-consuming, writing process - one embedded in a manic love of research. This is, he believes, especially important when cutting out a particular niche in the field of literary thrillers: verisimilitude is all. "You need to be highly obsessive in nature to cover that depth of immersion. You get to this point where you tinker with this idea and all of a sudden it's like watching a Tsunami wave building up and you've either got to shut it down now and get out of the way or you've got to let it wash over you. To me there would be no point embarking on these journeys if you weren't becoming as close as you actually could to being in them. Nothing irritates me personally more than the laziness of borrowed revelations. Particularly in fiction." His basement, he claims, is full of boxes, each holding the ephemera accumulated in the search for good material: buckles, vintage cigarette packets, letters, helmets etc. The various paths to his stories have led him to the Sahara, the Nordic ice floes and the scaly decks of sea-bound New England trawlers.

Considering Watkins' conflicted feelings towards academia it's surprising to see what a natural teacher he is. During the interview he leaps back and forth from his desk to the pull-down maps of Europe, Africa and the Far East, retracing his past routes with his finger and then dashing over to rummage though his bag for a memento from his travels. All to underpin a story. It might sound cringingly like Dead Poets Society, but his enthusiasm is undeniably infectious. He bangs down a pair of mountain boots in front of me, their ends kinked as if they'd belonged to a hiking-obsessed genie. "So what are those?" he asks. I look suitably puzzled. They turn out to be ski shoes used by Finnish commandos in the 1940s, acquired from an old mystical lady while on a European camping trip, unhooked from her barn wall and offered after Watkins' own were stolen. It's not the kind of lesson you get in an average inner-city comprehensive. Teaching history is, he asserts, "simply telling stories". His students, who are caught in what he describes as "the mercurial age" of their late teenage years, must form a rapt audience.

Even with the security of imagined worlds and the womb of campus life there's still something of the lost boy branded onto Watkins' character. The introspection evident in The Ice Soldier is set to continue with his next book, a follow-up to Stand Before Your God. "It's set partly just before and then after that book and is really about the whole idea of what getting involved with the profession of writing means, what you think it's going to be like and then what it really is like. Sounds a bit dry, but I think it's one of the spinal, arterial flows within me," he grins and looks up and there's that expression again, one Hergé could have penned: the enthused glee of the intrepid cub reporter sending despatches from distant climes.

'The Ice Soldier' by Paul Watkins is published on 19 January by Faber (£12.99)