Interview with writer Lew Watts

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

My pleasure, thanks so much for being
here today!

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