BANGOR, Maine — To write about the frigid environment of Siberia, the backdrop for Paul Watkins’ new book, “The Beast in the Red Forest,” the novelist went to Jackman, Maine. Not just to the town though, but to the woods in the winter, off the grid and without modern technology. He wanted to experience the harsh conditions first-hand.
“You can’t Google the experience of crossing a frozen lake in the winter,” Watkins said.
Watkins’ Inspector Pekkala suspense series was written under the pseudonym Sam Eastland. “The Beast in the Red Forest,” the newest in the series, to be released by Opus Media Group on August 27, is the first book where his true identity as an author will be revealed. Watkins has also published 10 other books including memoirs and and literary novels under his birth-given name, Paul Watkins.
Keeping readers interested through a series planned for seven books is part of what Watkins calls a three-dimensional experience, which he strives for, by placing himself in position of the characters he constructs.
“If you want people to stick with you, you have to let them know you bled a little, you can’t just sit at a desk,” Watkins said.
Watkins also used three-dimensional experiential learning to teach history for the past 25 years at Peddie School in New Jersey. By having students try on his grandfather’s wool war uniforms, for example, Watkins connects them to World War I in ways a computer never could.
And for Watkins, it’s all about that visceral understanding.
While wearing similar outdoor wool apparel and using 1920s and 1930s equipment or replicas of it, Watkins puts himself through various tests in the wilderness in Jackman. Like military training, he has climbed up mountains in the snow with wooden snowshoes and a wool smock for a jacket. This helps place himself in Siberia as the main character of his series, Inspector Pekkala.
Without these tests Watkins wouldn’t know the smell wool makes once wet, what having your water packs freeze feels like or that it is much quieter in the wilderness without modern cold weather clothes which, “rustle like a big garbage bag,” according to Watkins.
Despite his intentionality while going into the Maine backcountry, Watkins ended up in Jackman by chance.
In 1985 he traveled to the family lodge of his then-fiance (she’s now his wife), where he felt he, “was being tested by more than just the elements.” Especially by his wife’s father, whose family has been visiting Jackman since 1905.
Watkins and his wife Catherine Watkins, the art department chair at Peddie School, now own a home in the small town. They spend summer vacations there with their two children — Emma, age 18 and Oliver, age 15.
“[Paul is] always the consummate storyteller,” Catherine Watkins said. “Paul can spin a yarn out of just about anything. Although now that the kids are older, they’ve become a bit more skillful at discerning fact from fiction.”
In Jackman the landscape, which Paul Watkins refers to as a character, not a backdrop for his most recent book, translates on to the page as Siberia.
“Everybody has a place, which for want of a better word, they can call sacred ground,” Paul Watkins said. “And the way you know it is sacred is that you feel [a] kind of gyroscopic balance when you’re there.”
For Paul Watkins, Maine is that place. It’s the area he can’t get out of his mind, even in the shadow of New York City in Hightstown, N.J.
Characters and stories come to Paul Watkins in the same way. Once a thought, person, place, even a tiny detail like a piece of jewelry, enters his mind, it won’t leave until he writes about it.
The inspiration for characters in his suspense novels range from his grandfather, a member of Scotland Yard’s famous “Ghost Squad,” to his host father while studying abroad, a German soldier in the Battle of the Bulge.
Born to Welsh parents in America, Paul Watkins attended boarding school at the Dragon School and Eton College in England. He received his first book deal at age 21, after graduating from Yale. Two years later his book, “Night Over Day Over Night,” was published. That was 1988.
“The only way to do it is to not have a plan B,” Paul Watkins said of choosing writing as a career. “That’s a very heroic way to go into things but it’s also a little suicidal.”
For Catherine Watkins the lack of an alternative plan propelled her husband. She recalls one of her earliest memories of him sitting at a desk at Yale writing stories with a fountain pen.
“He has always applied himself with singular focus to his fiction writing,” she said. “Despite the naysayers who argued that one couldn’t make a living as an author. I have tremendous respect for his work ethic, dedication and bravery in making this choice.”
Publishing 10 literary fiction and memoir books as Paul Watkins, the novelist wanted to make a shift, writing in a different genre — the suspense novel. At the advice of his publishers, took on the pseudonym Sam Eastland, to avoid interfering with his writing in other genres. His first book of the series, “Eye of the Red Tsar” was published in 2011.
“To work so hard to get on the radar — to get off feels like dying,” Paul Watkins said.
“The Beast in the Red Forest” is his first book with a shared byline — allowing Paul Watkins to bridge the gap between reality and the fictional world he entrenches himself in.
“When you spend more time with people you’ve invented than people who are real you end up in this bizarre hall of mirrors,” Paul Watkins said.
In “Out of the Shadow,” a special introduction to his new book, Paul Watkins writes, “I decided it was time to take off the mask, however comfortable it has become to wear.”
Paul Watkins said, under his pseudonym, ironically, “The fake me soon began outselling the real me by a considerable margin.”
The “Beast in the Red Forest” is set in Siberia and a world of Soviet espionage. Stalin’s Inspector Pekkala, the centerpiece of the series, goes missing. The book follows the letters of an American protagonist seeking asylum with his family in Soviet Russia.
The fourth book in the series, “The Red Moth” will be released in September 2015, out of order due to different publishing cycles in Europe. The sixth, untitled book, is written and set to be released in fall 2016.
“Eye of the Red Tsar” and “Shadow Pass,” the first two books in the series, have been translated into 17 languages.
But for the rest of the summer Paul Watkins will stay where he knows best — Jackman.
“The privacy of our tiny home in Jackman is a refuge from the twenty-four-seven demands of boarding school life,” Catherine Watkins said. “Almost every day includes a trip out on the Attean Lake, swimming off our favorite rock or gathering blueberries on Sally Mountain.”
Paul Watkins said constantly having the Maine landscape around him, “has been one of the best things that has ever happened to [him].”
With autumn around the corner he is anticipating the stark transition between his rural life in Jackman as a writer and his bustling city life as a teacher in New Jersey.
The backwoods of Maine won’t leave his mind though, especially when he opens textbooks he’s planned history lessons in over the summer — noticing, when he turns the page, a few pine needles fall out.