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INTERVIEW

WbdsEamonn 0 N€itt

Photogr.pb Chds Btott

ln the US he's a literary

legend: an action hero in

themoutdof Hemingw

Buttake PaulWatltin

on a journeybackto Eton

and he's a tittte boylost

-, &rl Watkine rsrely retums to EtonlT

nasno rcarrsaa(m ur. AsaDwer-

-rie

f/ i.t he ca" al*ays }aul out a Etre.ftL

I ol meDories and sca.n ttrem. Anc

I anvwav. he lnows the bricks-end-

--tsr r€aliti, wil never match tbe version be's

conshucted in hs Psycbe.

But be s naldng an srcsPtion todaY.

His train Dulb iDto Win&or C€oh-al station

at Dr€cbelv i.Ogpo- It's s su@y sft€rnooD snd

a ;ash of ]ape.nese tourists llov.ls by him.

follovinq a womar with a kince William

mbrella-held doft. As Watkins stides hv h€

do€sn't @tice s@e oftho toutists daDriDgback

al hirD; nor does he see a Fetty weitress at a

cofte shop do the same; end he doesl sPot a

vounq Ambican corple state sfraigbt sthim as

irc chlcks tbe time on hls experuive It lian

Dilot's watch. NoDe of them lorw who he is,

i,et tfqlre aeerb inriguea- Dre$ed i! abbak

T-shn and kbalis, wearing a gre€n Gqe-'Ibx

mou.otaileet's iacket and carrying a black

rudcack he loc,l(s lil€ a 6ft 4in teDned visitG

from anorher plenet. He's one ofthose rare

peopt wno sinrply fitt a +oce bgger than th€to

This isnt tf,e first tiEe I've wimessed Paul

waikins'e unerrhg ability- to make.such an

enrsnce. PrBs reve$e and spm bacft grmost

Paut l[atkin5'3 relu.bnce to sFak about hb t.l.

ha5 ser€d onty !o meke him mole of an enigma

months: I'm sittiDg in tho foyer of a hotel

neer Pdnc€ton Univ€rsity b New Jeh€y. At

€ectlv the allosedtiEe cfz@, \ttetlins sEide,

into tf,e bbby. '?l€a!ed to-meet yorl" he says

inaorriorg niixcfAnericao, V/€bh md dtped

Eidirh acc€nts.

'Not 1ate, am I?' Behind him

a "L'fRl""line oftird businesmeo md wrmen

waitine it receotion swivel their collective

b"rd" io "o "fri'" wuekiog. Tley eye up the

sleepingnracava Ho'dhkedthaeldetkt"g

a b,resk ftm cto$-roEotiDg te,o boob, one

e novel the othen a u'evelogue, bo{h ofq,hich

sre s€t iallelY in Norwrv.

pinninq-a6t"n tlig l+year-old novelist for

m interview is e miDor diracle. Wbile sctrn€

authcs s€ ettrected to put licitv like Botb! to

tiqhts, Werkins is entir€ly the rwerse. ltis

eltittrde hsg sddd crrious leyen to hb bacl


INTERVIEW

> was ttre fiIst subje€t he'd met lvto "spoke in

DroDer. comDlete setrtences . It was a

'otsir"ati.n.

Precise

attlougb UAs a successfrrl novelist

whose sales easily Eatch tiose ot hrs us

contemDoraries Bret Easton Ellis and Jay

Mclneriev, WatJcins bas a day job too - he is a

writerin-residence and history teacher at a

wealtbv orivate high scbool ne3r Princeton in

New Jeriey, where his wife Cath teaches art

When I ask him why he chooses to keeP

teachilg even thougb he csn a.fford to write iul

tim€. he-asain ctoses bis e)€s "Because iPs pan

ofmv ovr'D-wav ofmaidaining l be ell-imPortatrt

En--.-pi" buir""" t qui*d to ke€p doing *t|ar

t do. he sa1s. He sounds like som€one spe€king

from a lonq distance away possibly eveD

semrared bv tine - uatil be blinls hs eyes open

aeiin a-od iuddenly he s back in 2004 Snall

winder another litaery com.Bentator bas sajd

"paul Watkins is a man ofbis times aI righl

it's just tbat his times are late 19th century."

en Dinutes laler we're sddingup the

narrow, winding main streetowards-

Eton Colleqe itseu. A scattering oi

llln€ Etotr 6ots lope by in tbeh white

collars eld tails uniforms.

'"Ihat was

me 20 years ago," muttels watkins- As be-says

this he screws his hce up no doubt recaEng

the weiqht of the Russian greaicoat he wore

then, thJ rub of the collar against his neck and

the awk*€rd Anslo-American seLt-awareoess

he displaved whm he was tbe same age'

'u4iatt

it like comlng back her€? I probe.

''Ob" odd - but oK he answers somewbat

trn.-otrvincinslv 'l'm more fearfrrl ofbumpirg

into people l'krow thal an)'thing else Y-ou

k otv ho* it l" "'tt* yo" .uo into someom alter

a bunch of yeers and tiey latew you wheo you

were vounqer ald it seems like you're not the

same ircnon aay more? You alrnost become thi'

apologist for your own-past t emg b-ad( nere

todav iust reinJorces lor me why lor some

oeooli th. me-ory of the place is more

imoortant tban the realig"

l'susoect he s ta.lkingabout himselfbere llis

own realiw is irdeed somewhere else: New

York is where he does most ofhis literary

business and where his formidable Iiterary

reDutation Dr€cedes him, and yet moven and

shilers in &at world have stated many times

that they've sirnply nevet met him --even at

his own book launches. He is a literary

shost. WheD chellenged about this. he smiles

inscmtablv. "well, ihaue images ofmvself

arrivingin iJew Yodc pulliagup ina cahoutside

a particulerly Iiterary gathering. teung the

calbie to wait, then t walk in and I do what

thev ca 'takine French f,eave'. which is you

*ik into the -"m, you make this great figure

o{eight. sav bello to as many people as you

ca-n, ind rhin you get back i.n the cab ard vou

leave. So somerimes t feel as fictional as the

characters T am detiverj.ng to the offices ofthe

publishing conpany. '

such an attitude has eemed wau0ns a

oenonarvtich is smewLere b€tween HeEiDg-

;y and lD Salinger' In hct, T was warned by

on; wel-meadns U$b€sed colleague to make

sure I was meetiig the real Paul Watkins and

oot some loony cioppelganger. Appar:otly

intemet sites have recorded nrmours ot tall.

handsooe, well-spoken wa&ins impostors

occasionally poppiDg uP in u.nlikely locatioos

He s also had hs share offemale $ouPies

altbouqb todav he blusbes at ihe mere meDtion

"Ihanldrlly

ofthe s'rbiect *d st *met":

I seem

to have hiked irto tbe footbills of less desirabiliw

recendv. '

D;DiF the bsgeage that bas b€en attacbed

to him by people who ve mostb never even met

hi-. in ;"i.d h" i" erd€-ely polita as opposed

to being mamered or peculiar. At times hrs

need to dose his eyes as he answers a quesbon,

or rest lus head on his hands, suggests more

of the shv scboolbov who habitually stered at

his feet in the oresince of adu-tts - wbich he

confesses he oice was - thau anything else

watkins's last book, The Forger' was a

sensatioo, gamerjng greet reviews and selling

bv $e truclload. Set in Pais dufingtie s€coDd

\irorld War, it follos/s a young American

character called Halifrx who gets caught up in

a messive art scam to stop valuable paintings

6llhd i.Dto Nazi hsnds. "Afterwards I almost

felt aiifit was too easy o write." says Watbls.

"I used to tose daysjust sitting there et tbe

kevboerd as this tale wmte itself '

ilis new book, Tbunder God, is as much of

a deoarture as is possible: e brillialt, sweePing

tale set in Vikine times wluch suggests the

NorsemeD migtrt ba!€ s€t fmt in Soudr Anerica

before the S;aniards atrd which charts the

su-uggle oftli old papn order against the-new

incoming sweep ofcbdstisnity. In tyPiql loll

he went to deat exhemes when r$earchrng rt;

in &cL Nationsl G.ograPhi" asked \iT to-write

a non-fictron travelogue about this back'

siound work. Called Fellowship ofcbosts i

is being published simultaneously in tbe U K

with his novel.

Ctockwise from toPl

Past Watkins on a

schootouting fiom

Eton,eqed 17t

working on a fishing

boat to pay his way

thmugh Yate, an

emerience that

nearty kiled him

land provid€d the

inspirdtion tor his

s€cond novell; aged

seven at th€ Dragon

prep schoot in Oxfordi

and Jennifer Beals,

the Ftashdance star

he dated at Yaie

Wa*ins has always had aEPutation for going

to sucb great often dangerous - extreme-slo

osearch his -ate.lul. H"'s ah€ a.otithesis ot the

pallid writer chaiued to a keyboard smoking

;d drinking" waiting for the muse to appear'

To res€arch his Morocco-based sbry rn tne

Blue ugbt of Africrn Drcam-s. he botn- lNed In

the countrv and l€arned to fly an old blplane;

for his disiurbing spy tale The Story of My

Disaooearance, which features a Russian agent

marjinedin the US called. waitforit I'aul

wa&ins, be delved into esPionage tradecratt

Lo such an extent that be reckons one live-radio

interview to which b€ was subjected was

orobablv set up by someone iD Washingtol

i'orried about the sheer depth ofhis intricare

Iaxowledqe of Soviet burst-radio sets

As we ivalk amund Eton it seems likely thal

beinq schooled in the equi\aletrt ofa museum

musiaccor.ut for his loue ofhistory end.keen'

ness to search out extr_emes in his novels tte

agrees: IfT had to find connective. t issue

between tbese two new book-s it wolll-d be tnc

idea of writj-og a5 a m€anc ol escaPe trom mn

rigidity ofthe school sysLem And in a \ /ay the

trirel menof becg.me abor'rt Ge more physical

side ofihe escaPe.

For the natt 20 minutes we stroll amuDd tne

shadowed main cor.rtyard ofthe scbool examininE

the ancietrt grafrti oD the *zlls A group

oftturists is being led amuDd oearby lD silencc

we walk tbrough tbe arcb€s' seeing plaque aJter

plaque to generations of G-crilies whose sons

attended t-his place and tben died in nuddy

Eenches for th; British empiIe. For Watlans.

the bis oroblem at Eton was his Amencan

nationlliw. whieb ensured he never became

pan ofue;ld*dool-tie Delwod{ Bul" in-a-twisl

Lis bmisinq memoir ofbis Eton schooldays Is

now on thl school s curriculum Bv dcfauJt'

Watkins, like Ian Flemi4 and George Orwcll

is now a star Old Etonian ail€r all

Would he send his own son here?

''Ilrere was a time I {lirted with $at ide€. bul

now I doubt it."

Whv did bis parents send him here?

-Thev t-bought it was the best educatioD

,uailabie. Or Jome sort ofweird revenge

is father was Norman Watkins, a

good-loohr:_g, talented athlete ari

Drolessor ot geophyslcs ongmauy

irorn Glaoorean irn Wales His

mother Patricia's family were from

Pembrokeshire. Paul watldns binuelfwas born

ir n€dwood City, Calfomia" and, until the age

of seven, had a bTic€l Amerjcan upbring!)g

Then. in the mid-1970s. his parnts decided to

send him to the Diagon plep school rD u)cord,

and tlen otrto Eton The oPening Line ot Sland

Befor€ YouI c'od bas already p*ssed into legenc

for the concise wav it captures dre forlom state

of the seven-vear-old Witki-os as he was abouL

to be disDatched on a decadeJong journey

tbrouEb ihe cagerns of a rypicallv English

'I

boardins-school education swear l thought

I was Eoinq to a Dartv," explai-os the narratorial

""i". ;f th; stif betilderid older author.

'"I'hat was mv mom up there." says Watkins

ooi:ofrns to a slrltll window oo tie grim second

'No

hoor ofa.n Eton buildlng sun jn summcr

and fieezinq in whter."

His breetLbrcuch book was a nwel he swted

at the Drecociouaase of 16 That work Nigbl

over 6ay over Night, told the story ofa vormg

Nazi who undereoes Eaining in the lead-un to

a tuaJ bloody bitde towards rbe cnd of the

Semnd World war. Watkins came up with the

Dlot aner b,'avelling to Germany while stiJl at

bton. An old ma:: -ho was part oIa fardly he

staved with had, it tumed out been in tbe SS.

Watkins sat on Ge manuscripl for a number of

vears while he attended Yale University - a

deliberate choice outwith the UK because, he

sa\ls. "l wanted io be somewhere where being

anold Etonianwssntsuchabigdeal'Tliked


that breathin{ space." But his struggle ae a

-orrU-fe a,rtlo iatinued atlble Dircouagementnorelv

*rved to fuelhis dot€tniDationesoecially

whm one bllow stud€nt said he'd

gil ana Jnd "p

"Aeeping in hs hassn€ne.

"I decided aiter tlat rtmark I'd rarhen dio in

a ditch than necl in the writing" he 3ay8.

a.fter gradueting from Y-ale he atteaded

Svrasls€ UDiv€[siW 93 a lsllow, @ a d€strve

;ritilq cours€ ov€rs€€n tt Tobias wolfi' the

b€€tsejliDs An€,ricsn ad[or ofThis Bds Lift.

A few m;Ddts into bir flst tero at Syrecue'

Watkins handed the manusoipt ofNiglt Oven

Dav over Niqht to woLff. witlin montls b€'d

secirred an aqmt and publisher. He wss bar€ly

into his twdties but-the novel was suddenly

beinc nominated for the Booker Prize - a fe-gl

be'd-pu.lled ofr by being rutrlessly foo.reed on

his q;tine to tle poiDt $sr his Glow studots

ar yate baib registercd his presence tlerebat

bllowed was a senselion

ofthe kiad raeb achieved in

u€r'sdlandcputlisbbgcrlqq

bv anv new ar,anor, nevttr EInc

oie in his earh twentie3. The

reviews wele Eafrc*toPPin$ *4 th" qft hg

wss haDdsoms in a square-jawed way didnt

do bis marketabilig ary hdn at rll Neith€r'

of couree, did the iact he was quietly datiDg

fr ow Yale sh.ldont Jmilbr Beals, th€ std of

Flashdance and ooe of Hollywood s hottest

' vor.rtrc o4h€sses et the time

raier tlis imaqe was boosted by what one

reviewer has referfied m ineiguingly as the

''stufoflereodl - an old-hohioned ist.figlt

between fatkins aod a Yale student wbo d

dared double-cross him over something on

which he refuses to be drawn EscaPades like

thaf elongwith his tougb masclline plots. bat'e

bmueht inevitable coEperisons with Hedingway."sd

his telse style is inde€d rembfucent

ofib,e Nobel Prize-vdnn€r, but WalkiDs ia wuy

ofthe comoarison, and ofthe tol tlatlivingup

to the self-inade, alcoholdriven nac.ho inagB

trxrk on the late author,

"I can assneyou I hsve

b€coDe verv, verv Eotective ald oftem very

ab€ert of*$ I a; Frtri"ed to be" he srvB iD

lcn' ton€s. It's one of the f€w times during olf

f,eeting that he sto'Fs Milingand-revegls a hDt

of surDrbi.D4 metal undemestb. lor e sput

second I glimpse the imageof a gelf-nade,

deeDlv Eivate man who could carry a crlrEon

,-aofoir"rl tb"t "i-pty oid: "Dctn't mess-."

Flm the odsel this det€(EiDAtion to blow

his own oarh showed tle! rmlike his flashi€,r

contemobraries, Watking refirsed - and still

refirses I to associsre with New Ycdcs &ug ad

bodze-fu€lled literary set Forget rcstaurants

mnarties: vou're mort likelv to tra.k him down

p.i"iog ouldo* g"rt - t"si*rching old plenes

i! an obscl.se librsry. EveD e3 a young erthor

he {ot stuck into novel numb€r two, Calm at

Su;et. Cdn at Dsvta rarher tlsn rest on hrs

laurels. A fictional account of his real-life

adventurcs as a student workbg on deepsea

fisbinq boarr, it won &e Encor€ Prize br ab*t

second novel. He bad become a Gehermanot

tliDlrd doice, hlt to pay his wry tbroug! Yala

'Lrv morber basicalv nade it howD to me tbrt

I hid to "ttr-p up s6t" "ae\" he says' toohng

wnrilv erould tIe Eton st€st dowtr wtich w€

are vialkins towerds tbe Thaaes. "Ther€'s

oeoole wafiinE amrmd weariitg clothes tbsl

i""t as mud asl eernea U two weel(s wding

otr e fuhng boat. The Fic€ youpy wdkiDg in

an €Dviroinent like tlat is bieb and Fu teDd

Eot to easily frrget it "

He alnost Deid for the €xpsi€trce with hrs

life. An onbo;rd a4cid€mt prilped his jaw and

he barely made it to-port - 4"9-ptqq

S+

eroeri€nces iDfuse all lrB work ]16 dllms ule

triumph of surviving the harsher aeP€c'ts of

F.dli;h subliHctroollift lends itrelfto m olda"Ei""il

- i"a""a atoiotty stoic - view of

life. and beleves such experieDc€sre often

'Myparcnts

thoughtEton

wasthebest

education

available.0r

somesortof

weirdrevenge'

the crain ofsaad that eventually produces a

pentl

_reluctantly e"a pe"tl" let cot"i"ty produced he

confirmg that Tom Cruise has

oDtioned 6ne ofbis boolg and that Miranax

bas paid calh ftr lte ForSer.

"Ilst'ing s@etli:ic

oDtioned is tbe aear€st thing to bebg

mad-e ii the Mafia for e writer," he says,

Ia lhins" "It'd b€ qeet ifsithg came oE but

fn-rot-holdilg my br€arh br ary pnmiaes."

ln mo.t of Ubtkin6S n@ls, the centrai mate

datacter frc€s a momeot v,h€n he cstr either

take an easv shdtcut or alongpr, more &frcult

hruiriEd;nv .GlinqDdL ihis "vou ere whd

vou do' cr€Ao iB ceDtr;.I to the authods belief

;vsto- He hced a sinibr crtuis shonty tft€r

his ardval d EtoD, when h€ wss coDioated

with the news that htu frther had died ftom

cancer. aged iust,O. Wa*ins had hown his

aaa w.rs ieri iudv in - "I rcmember ny frther

liftinl up his shirt ard showing me these

scan ftoir opersti(Ds that loo&ed as ifhe d beeo

ataclcd bvi lioo." he savs - but the eftct of

his death


INTERVIEW

> MaiDe. Literarv success has allovved him to

bw " .'ast uact of land up there - but he still

lns-ists on drivinc his battir€d old silver Volvo

on the lonc iou;ev.

oo"e enlionc.din M^i"e - fi and PC ftee

- he's efiectivelv out oftouch witb the modern

world and lives simpty. Eech morni4 he rises

earlv and heads for his little o$ce $frere etcienl

njlitarv rucksacks lir:e the *alls. Old sepia

pbotos a-od Eemorabilia he has collected fot

iesearch frIl tbe shelves. HatrdwritteD notes

thrt serveas m€nt l triFbaDm-ers are PiDned

neatlv evervwlrere, A snap ot bls hardsome

Ami *atclo -,er tri-. fffua*i* tites auri"g

his rnarathoD writing spells he crasbes in a

nearby mi[tarfstyle bunl that's every bit as

bard as it looks.

As we Dart in Windsor the i.ntewiew seems

to have exhausted him. He's kee! to retreaL

inside himselfagain. Eslentia.lly be's a private

man. He trulv oDlv reveals himsell a bit at a

time, in b;s noveb. rus ethics od prirra(y come

from a more serene, thoughtArl era. Maybe

thafs why be is regarded as being speciel and

a litde bit mysterious.

\4tben he hops onto his trein after we ve said

our rushed g6odbyes, I turn my back: then

suddenh recall one 6r:al question. I tum and

atempt"to follow him. bui T simply can't 6lrd

him- fi the mhutes that follow I searcb tbe

carriages e!'en noting tbet tbe solitary loo is

bmkeu and tap€d sh'rt - ]et I cannot iocale him

I'm Ieft nemlixed ad a little bit ratded. The

sinsular m;n who'd deirned he was the real

paul w.tlins ba" nsnished into thin an I

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