An Author Drawn to Moments That Define One's Character

Paul Watkins's fiction takes place in a world where honor and morality are prized

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

"Literature," wrote Vladimir Nabokov, "was born not the day when a boy crying 'wolf, wolf,' came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying 'wolf, wolf,' and there was no wolf behind him."

Storytelling stems from a desire to enchant those huddled around the campfire. Such enchantment runs through Paul Watkins's five novels.

"The responsibility of the fiction writer is to tell a good story," says Mr. Watkins in a recent interview in Boston.

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"And if you push the pursuit beyond the absolute necessity to engage the reader, you find yourself on extremely shaky ground."

Watkins has been engaging readers for almost a decade since his grand entrance in the world of letters at age 23.

His first novel, "Night Over Day Over Night," which was nominated for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize, announced an author drawn to the near-mythic moments that define one's character.

"I place my characters in worlds where words such as honor and morality are not sneered at," says Watkins, expressing a measure of earnestness and humility.

"I inhabit an Old Testament world inside my head when I am writing," he continues. "My characters are forced to make moral decisions, and the punishment for those who buckle or give in is absolute.

"And when I emerge from that world into the true chaos of everything around me, I am able to navigate my way ever so slightly better."

Such an approach to the novel places Watkins's work outside of the "ennui-we-trust," or "I-put-the-I in solipsism" brands of fiction purveyed by many young writers today.

He acknowledges imagination and experience as inextricably interwoven, before suggesting that there exist in fiction higher goals than verisimilitude.

"The arena in which the world of our imagination plays itself out does not care if a story is real or not," Watkins says. "When we are being told a story, we're thinking in pictures. We're not playing a truth-or-lies game.

"I honestly think that our generation is going to get pigeonholed as the generation that sought out not truth, but the perception of truth."

Evidence of fiction as truth's enticing veil arrived early in Watkins's writing life.

"After the publication of my first book, which dealt with a young man's experiences in Hitler's army, I received a letter from a former member of the SS. He said, 'I think it's clever to use an English pseudonym. Who are you really? Who was your unit commander?'" says Watkins, whose time spent in Germany as an exchange student provided the moment that inspired the novel.

"I can trace every book I've written back to a single [mental] image or an idea that won't go away," Watkins says, before defining fiction as "a process of organized obsession."

The moment that engendered his latest novel, "Arch Angel," began a process of writing that lasted three-plus years.

Time spent in Maine opened Watkins's eyes to what he says is the systematic destruction of the environment taking place somewhat clandestinely.

"In parts of Maine certain 'cosmetic zones' are maintained to preserve particularly idyllic views," Watkins explains. "But a short walk in another direction reveals the true devastation. I recall stepping through ... wildlife into an area that looked like it had been hammered by artillery. The shock would not leave me. And at that moment I felt true outrage.

"But then the anger that zooms out boomerangs back against yourself, because you realize that you are a part of the destruction."

Full of incident and intrigue, "Arch Angel," not unlike the story of the boy who cried wolf, captivates and cautions its reader by making apparent the far-reaching consequences of even the smallest gesture.

"I am always looking for an environment in which people are forced to define themselves through actions rather than words," Watkins says. "And to create that environment necessitates something semi-mythic or larger-than-life."

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