The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Patricia Watkins

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Patricia Watkins


Summary: Sue thoroughly enjoyed The Wayward Gentleman: John Theophilus Potter and the Town of Haverfordwest and she was delighted when author Patricia Watkins popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 2 February 2013
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue thoroughly enjoyed The Wayward Gentleman: John Theophilus Potter and the Town of Haverfordwest and she was delighted when author Patricia Watkins popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Patricia Watkins: I was told recently that one should always know one's audience. This startled me, because, when I write my novels, I do so to please myself, never considering anyone else. I think, even, that were I to try to please others, or to aim my writing at any particular kind of reader, my pen would stall, the stories would not flow, my writing would become stilted and my characters contrived, so that in the end, I would please no-one, including myself. It would take much of the pleasure out of writing too. I'm delighted, of course, when others also enjoy what I've written, so now -- trying to imagine those reading my story about Theo -- I see first those who like to become immersed in a good, solid 18th century family saga, with all its joys, sorrows, loves and drama, regardless of where that family lived, or who they were. Others would be those interested in our local history, and perhaps those researching their own ancestors. For my other, purely fictional historical adventure novels, I would see different readers, of course -- those who enjoy what have been described in reviews as being original, wildly exciting, dynamic and powerful.

  • BB: What inspired you to write The Wayward Gentleman: John Theophilus Potter and the Town of Haverfordwest?

PW: I had been researching my family history for a number of years, and while going back over my father's side of the family, discovered 'Theo'. He proved to be an extraordinarily interesting person, described at the time as a man of engaging manners, amiable disposition, considerable ability, industrial energy, and full of wit and humour. Once in Haverfordwest, he made influential friends very quickly, and was also believed to be the grandson of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Potter.

All this encouraged me to find out more about not only Theo, but about the society and times in which he lived, because, for me there is a need to know how my ancestors lived, why they did what they did, and the circumstances under which they did it. After all, unless we are descended from the mighty and the famous, the bare-bone names of most of our ancestors can make pretty boring reading.

Having ferreted out the details. I then felt the additional need to make him real to me, as I would love to have known him, so it just made sense to put together, in the form of a saga, everything I had learnt.

  • BB: I was particularly impressed by the way that you'd gathered information about Theo Potter and then gave it to us in the form of an excellent story, but with very little in the way of obvious exposition. That's a skill which few people - even authors - have. Is there a professional background which has honed this skill?

PW: By the time I sat down to write Theo's story, I knew all the basic facts of his life, their political and historical context, the real-life people who surrounded him, and his character. What I asked myself then was: given all these variables, what plausible stories surrounded the facts? How did he meet Elizabeth? How was he able to achieve what he did in so short a period? What sort of sheriff was he? How would he have reacted to all the situations that would have arisen in his business, political and personal life? And how could I sew all these pieces together without the seams showing? In other words, create a story that could be read and enjoyed like any novel, but which would also have to take into account the known facts at the same time. I've never had any formal training in creative writing, nor any previous experience in writing biographical fiction, so It was rather like laying out all the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and putting them together to create a picture.

The only professional background I have is a master's degree in library and information science, along with years of experience using that knowledge in both academic institutions, international aid organizations, and in my own business; and while this helped me with the research, I'm not sure what enabled me to carry out the rest, unless, maybe, I have an analytical mind, helped by years spent working with, and getting to know people.

  • BB: From which of Theo Potter's children are you descended? Did you find it difficult to write a fictionalised history about a family member? Did the relationship constrain you in any way?

PW: I'm descended from Theo's youngest son, Thomas, who was an artist, but went blind at some point -- an affliction common to quite a few of Theo's descendants. Poor little Thomas was only five when his mother died, and while his older male siblings went on to be significant achievers -- the Potters being referred to in the 19th century as 'the literary Potters' -- I have the feeling that he may have lost his way somehow -- perhaps resenting his father's re-marriage to Susanna, and becoming rebellious -- although I have no proof of that. It could also be that he lost his sight rather early in life, as he eventually was reduced to hawking nuts in Anglesey, where he had probably gone to live originally to do his painting.

I did find some difficulty in writing a fictionalised history of Theo. The problem was in dealing with the constraints demanded by the biographical aspects. This required that I keep the time sequence correct -- for example: fitting in the births and deaths of his children with all the other things going on in his life at the same time, both politically and historically, and knowing, for example, that I couldn't have him socializing with real-life members of the gentry if they weren't there at the time! That took a considerable amount of organizing. The biographical aspects also meant that I couldn't let my imagination run totally free, as would have been the case if I were writing a saga about a purely fictional family.

On the other hand, that Theo was related to me did not constrain me at all. I loved writing about him and watching him come to life as I set him down in situations I know he would have very likely encountered, and saw him respond according to his character. This I found immensely stimulating and satisfying.

  • BB: As I read The Wayward Gentleman it struck me that you were someone who was compelled to write. Where and how do you do it and how have you found the time in what is obviously a busy life?

PW: It's true, I am compelled to write, and I do it because I love it. However, until recently when I began to receive encouraging feedback from those who have read my novels, there was always the unnerving fear that I might actually be wasting my time -- and time is too precious to waste, especially when celebrating one's eightieth year on the planet as I am this year.

It's true too; I have had a busy life -- still busy, when I come to think of it. It is also a life that has brought with it quite a few offbeat experiences, such as having a .22 rifle aimed at my stomach in the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah; living in an isolated log cabin on an island in the middle of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where I sailed my Lazer; the ship in which I was crossing the Atlantic, hitting an ice floe, to name but a few. Much of this I can bring to my writing in some form or another, of course.

As to where I do it, officially retired now, I have the pleasure of sitting with my laptop in what my sons like to refer to as my 'command module' -- a very comfortable recliner chair -- looking out over the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast, and across Cardigan Bay towards Snowdon mountain, which I can see on clear days; it has snow on it right now. Here I either reminisce in articles I write for Pembrokeshire Life magazine, prepare my landscape photos for sale at local galleries, or live vicarious lives through the characters I create in my novels. Between times, I walk my much-loved Tibetan Terrier, Millie, along our famous Coastal Path, or meet up with the many friends I've made since returning to Pembrokeshire from the States ten years ago.

  • BB: I know that you spent many years in the USA. You've an obvious love of Tenby: how could you leave and what brought you back?

PW: My husband, Norman David Watkins, DSc., a geophysicist involved in the discovery of plate tectonics, was offered a job with Shell Oil, exploring for oil in the Northwest Territories. This required that we emigrate to Edmonton, Alberta, right after our marriage in Tenby, where I grew up. Later, he entered the academic world, and his rise up the academic ladder took us to various universities throughout the United States, including Stanford, California, where I worked as a research assistant. His final post was at the Graduate School of Oceanography, in Rhode Island, where he was professor of oceanography, but here, at the age of forty-two, he developed cancer, and died.

I stayed on, raising my two sons, and keeping the financial boat afloat by working in various fields related to information science, owning my own company where I designed in-house, searchable databases for organizations, and by buying up and renovating old houses, then selling them on. I also ran a B & B for twelve years, and am, happily, still in regular contact with some of my visitors.

People often ask me why I came back. This I did because I was tired of coping with 35C summers with 100% humidity, and -25C winters, with ice everywhere, and regularly needing to shovel twelve or more inches of snow before I could get out of my driveway. The balmy, if wet and windy Pembrokeshire weather is in my genes and, one way and another, I had seen enough hot sun to last me a lifetime. On top of that, my sons and their families were not nearby, one having gone to live in Europe. All in all, much as I love America, and still feel American (I am a citizen), it just seemed time to come back to my roots, and I have no regrets, as I feel I have achieved much more here than I would have if I'd have remained in the States, and, for whatever reason, it is still important to me to go to bed at night having achieved at least something during the day.

  • BB: As well as being an author, you're a photographer. Where are you and your camera happiest?

PW: If you live in Pembrokeshire, it's hard not to be happy with a camera anywhere; it is so spectacularly beautiful! Apart from the scenery and wonderful beaches, There is also something about the lighting, a feature that draws many artists to Pembrokeshire -- and the skies, especially in winter, are amazing. For these reasons I love to go out to the Strumble Head lighthouse at dawn or dusk, or when there's a storm, or to walk up nearby Dinas Mountain, and take in the breathtaking 360-degree view. My pictures can be seen on my website.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment? Which book do you feel has influenced you most and if you could only take one book to a desert island, which one would it be?

PW: Perhaps it's odd for someone who writes novels, but since starting to write my own a number of years ago, I rarely read anything but non-fiction. When writing my sort of historical novels, there is always background research to be done, so I generally don't have time to read anything, unless it contains information I can put to good use somewhere, and my library consists almost exclusively of reference books. At the moment I am reading Boswell's London Journal, 1762 - 1763. Heinemann, 1950.

I'm so glad you asked me which book has influenced me the most, and hope that I'm allowed to expand on this a bit, because when I considered this question, I experienced a revelation. There are two books that have occupied my memory with equal intensity over the years, both read when I was a teenager. Until now, though, I have never given any thought as to why I remember them in particular, even though I have but a sketchy memory of the stories. Re-thinking their subject matter today, however, I realise they have to have been the cause of my lifetime of angst about man's inhumanity to man. They are Richard H. Dana's Two Years Before The Mast, and Charles Reade's It's Never Too Late To Mend.

The book that has had, I think, the greatest influence on my writing is Pride and Prejudice, and as I can read it over and over without ever tiring of it, that would be the one I'd take to a desert island.

  • BB: You've got one wish: what's it to be?

PW: That I am able, for as long as I have the desire to do so, to have the pleasure of writing novels that others also will enjoy reading.

  • BB: What's next for Patricia Watkins?

PW: Having written two novels about my young Irish actor, Connell O'Keeffe: TRICK OF FATE: Connell O'Keeffe & The Pen Caer Legacy, and its sequel: DYFED ODYSSEY: Connell O'Keeffe & The Spider's Web, I have developed a great affection for him, as have my readers -- I'm happy to discover -- who want me to write more about him. As I myself am not yet ready to say goodbye to him either, therefore, I have now started working on a third adventure for him.

  • BB: That's great news Pat - and we hope that you'll be writing many more books for our enjoyment.

You can read more about Patricia Watkins here.

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