Thursday, November 2, 2017

Interview with writer Lew Watts

Writer Lew Watts is here today to chat with me about his new work of literary fiction, Marcel Malone.

Born in Wales, Lew Watts grew up in the onomatopoeic district of Splott in Cardiff. After earning a PhD in geology, he managed to escape and began a career that took him to The Netherlands, Norway, Oman, and Nigeria before moving to the US in 2002. During his business career, his secret passion was writing poetry, and he finally ‘came out’ to his ex-colleagues in 2011 when his first poetry collection, Lessons for Tangueros, appeared. The collection resulted from another secret—he spent several years learning to dance Argentinian tango when his wife was working overseas.

Besides writing, Lew will go anywhere, at any time, to fly fish. He is also passionate about climate change and is a member of the governing board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that provides an annual assessment of nuclear and climate risks through its Doomsday Clock. His two sons live in London, and he has two gorgeous little granddaughters that believe he lives behind an iPad screen. Lew lives in Chicago and Santa Fe with his wife, Roxanne Decyk.

Welcome, Lew. Please tell us about your current release:
My one-line description would read, “A psychologist uses poetry to help a patient unlock his past and then has to confront her own.”

The novel, set largely in Washington, DC, is told through the journal of psychotherapist, Vera Lewis, whose patient (Marcel) is sinking into serious depression as a result of multiple layers of rejection—family, friends, colleagues, and even the appalling sonnets he submits to poetry journals. Marcel also speaks in an odd way, and immerses himself in heavy beat music.

Desperate for a breakthrough, Vera tries a radical technique that has some success. She also begins to study poetry as a way to connect with Marcel, and introduces it in her sessions with him. Here is someone who finally cares for Marcel, and slowly and patiently Vera is able to unlock deeply buried secrets from his past. But poetry does something else. With Marcel on his journey of recovery, Vera’s life and marriage begin to spiral out of control, and she is forced to confront the demons of her own past. She is saved, as many of us are, by poetry.

Excerpt from Marcel Malone:
It is Thursday. I am at the entrance to a drinks reception at The Willard hotel, savoring minutes of quiet independence before I become an appendage. Soon, my husband will escort me to a client’s spouse before he discards me—so elegantly, my love—and moves to the next suspecting prey. I will take morsels from the passing plates, waiting for the question, “Are you Raymond’s wife? How wonderful.”

A drink tray approaches, and I wait until the largest white wine is facing me. The river-sounds of chatter rise and fall, and I wonder what secrets lie beneath the surface of these shallow conversations. How many here have torrid lives and seek their solace in private acts, or live with a veneer of contentment, burying pasts and feelings? Do the prim act out their whims in wayward ways? Do the brash bullies later cower beneath batons of self-doubt?

There is Christopher Evans, taller than his suit, forever bending forward giving the impression that he listens and cares, which he doesn’t. Darren Carter has a different problem—he simply cannot find a place for his spare hand and cups his glass in both as though holding a chalice for a priest. How many priests have held you, dear Darren? Georgina Tuft is one who just stays put, rooted to her island in the river, sexless and staid tonight as always, except when she has captured some sweaty worker in her apartment. And then the diminutive Mrs. Iris Parker, picking at her nails in the shade of her husband, she who hosts perfect dinner parties in her perfect house, and who dreads the hours afterwards—all those trinkets, coasters, and candles slightly out of place. She and Raymond have a lot in common.

“Ah, there you are! Lots of people!” This is my husband—Raymond, with his uniform of dark suit, pale blue shirt with a white collar, and broad-striped tie. “Let’s go, there’s someone I want you to meet,” and, leading me by the elbow, he places and introduces me within a circle, then abandons me.

“So you’re Raymond’s wife,” someone says, looking past my shoulder. And it is reassuring that the script is being followed.

What inspired you to write this book?
My closest friend, who is a psychotherapist, was talking about “paradoxical intervention” one day. It’s a technique that aims to desentitize people—like progressively applying stings to people allergic to bees—by making them do the opposite of what they would expect. Could this be applied to someone who suffered from constant rejection, and how could this be done? I eventually came up with the idea of a therapist setting such a patient a target, of going on thirty blind dates in two months. It was intriguing and potentially funny, and I initially thought of writing it as a one-act play (I have written several plays).

As always, I started working on the character of this patient, his life history, and passions. I quickly realized that he had to be extremely fragile, with some deep hidden trauma in his past that made him so sensitive to rejection. My friend one day suggested he could be a (rejected) poet, and hearing her say this made me realize that my therapist had to be a woman, and that she should narrate the story. By this stage I knew it was a novel and that poetry would be at its core.
Paradoxial intervention is still within the novel, and I’d like to think Marcel’s descriptions of his failed dates (that, of course, he writes as sonnets), are tragically funny. But the central character is Vera, the therapist, and how she discovers herself through poetry.

Of the various reviews of “Marcel Malone,” the one I am the most proud of said the novel should appeal to “readers interested in feminist causes.” As a male writer, I was deeply honored.

What exciting story are you working on next?
Now this may sound a bit of a downer, but I am working on a novel about a man who, as a child, witnessed a parent go insane, who now lives and works in Nigeria in the years leading up to the Biafran War, a time when, many people believe, a country went insane. The novel has been in my mind for some time…

I lived and worked in Nigeria for five years in the early 90s and, since I had Nigerian friends who fought on both sides, I decided to read everything I could about those tragic years. I remember studying one account of the build-up to the war—the seemingly chaotic shift of mood and allegiances, the incomprehensible actions of politicians, the whispered voices—and suddenly buried memories of my mentally ill mother came flooding back. I decided to try to write about the parallels I’d observed, and I developed a rough draft several years ago. I am currently half way through a complete rewrite—taking a very personal (and cathartic) semi-autobiographical story and converting it into what I hope will be a novel. Because the accounts of the man’s childhood are still painful to write, I have used various devices to “distance” myself—for example, the novel is narrated by the man’s wife.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve always considered myself a poet, at least I’ve always thought poetically. Bloody hell, that sounds pretentious! Let me explain…

When I was a boy in Wales, each school day started with a poem that was recited by a teacher. Many poems were in Welsh, but one in English hit me like a train. I was seven years old when I first heard Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill, and I was absolutely mezmerized. I didn’t understand the poem and, to be honest, I still don’t fully, but the musicality and sound was like a wave washing over me.

Like many people, I started writing poetry in college. I still have some, and they are all terrible— full of sentimentality and despair—but I began to get some publishing successes in my early thirties. Despite this, I never thought of myself as a poet until I received a letter telling me I had won second place in the Ledbury Poetry Prize. This is one of the largest literary festivals in the UK, and I was quite frankly astonished. From then on, I became more serious about my writing.

I retired early, in 2010, and I realized that what I had been doing for most of my life was working to support my writing. In my last working years, I was CEO of an international company, and I literally had to squeeze out time to write on flights and in hotel rooms. In 2010, I decided it was time to change, that writing was my work. I first considered myself a writer the day I converted my business website to an author site—it was terrifying.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I write most days, usually in the afternoons—I sit on two Norwegian company boards and, because of the time difference, my mornings tend to be tied up. I’m not sure whether I’m unusual, but I sometimes long for writer’s block. You see, when I am immersed in writing prose, as I am currently, I find it impossible to write poetry—I simply can’t get into the rhythm. The only poetic form that I can handle is haiku because the essence is to capture “a moment.” And so most evenings, when I’m finished with my novel, I write haiku or haibun (a prose poem containing one of more haiku), usually with a large martini and, if I’m good, a cigar—the quality of haiku diminishes towards the olives.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I am very visual and so always have to have a “map” of sorts. With poetry, this can be simply the outline rhyme or line sequence as vertical markers down a page, but with novels it’s more complex. I take a large (and I mean large!) sheet of graph paper and label the columns something like “main plot thread,” “subplot 1”, “subplot 2” (etc), and the main characters. The rows become the first-draft chapters. By the time I’m finished, the graph paper is covered in lines and arrows showing links and hooks.

With my graph, and after posting character profiles of my main characters around my office walls, I start to write. By the time I get to the second or third chapter, I’m already deviating from my original graphed map and it’s time for an update or a new one. With “Marcel Malone,” I think I progressed through seven or eight maps, and sixteen major edits of the text.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was born and brought up in a slum and so expectations were pretty low. The first time I ever thought about what I wanted to be was after I was beat up badly and was in hospital for a couple of months—I wanted to be a brain surgeon. But on a happier note, a friend introduced me to caving when I was fifteen, and from then on I knew I wanted to be a geologist. I still love rocks.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I would just like to thank all those who have read my work and you, Lisa, for hosting this wonderful site.


My pleasure, thanks so much for being here today!

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