Education Chat

The Teaching Novelist: Fact and Fiction

Novelist Paul Watkins discusses his writing and teaching careers, his methods for inspiring today's students, and what it takes to avoid becoming, as he says, “indecently proficient” (or bored with your job) as a teacher.

The Teaching Novelist: Fact and Fiction (June 8, 2005)

GUEST: Paul Watkins

Rich Shea (Moderator):
Welcome to Teacher’s live chat. I’m Rich Shea, executive editor of the magazine, and today we’re chatting with Paul Watkins, author of eight novels and two memoirs and teacher of history and creative writing at Peddie, a private high school in New Jersey. Watkins attended British boarding schools as a youth, then went on to Yale and the graduate creative writing program at Syracuse University. His first novel, “Night Over Day Over Night” (about a teenage German soldier fighting in the Battle of the Bulge), was published when he was 23 and earned him a Booker Prize nomination in England.

The 41-year-old Watkins has been teaching one class per semester at Peddie for 16 years. He began with a creative writing workshop, but now teaches World War I and II history as well. He lives with his wife, Cath (an art teacher at Peddie), and their two children on campus. In “Historical Figure,” the story I wrote for the May/June issue, we see both an inspiring storyteller and a “hands-on” teacher who shares with his students the artifacts and experiences he’s accumulated while researching his novels. We’re happy he’s with us today, so let’s get started.

Question from Michelle Reese, freelance writer, parent:
I’d love to know which writers influenced Watkins and at what age he was influenced by them. What authors does he recommend to his students?

Paul Watkins:
At high school in England, by the time you are a senior, you are specializing in three subjects. For me, those subjects were French, German and English. This meant that I read a lot of Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliere and Balzac. After I left high school, I did a lot more reading on my own, which included Tolstoy, Chekov, Conrad, Isaac Babel, Arthur Koestler, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Nowadays, with my own students, I like to bring in stories by Cheever, Carver, Katherine Anne Porter, Kafka and Hemingway. I also use a fair amount of non-fiction, as well as film clips, which can sometimes drive more rapidly to the heart of a subject (eg - Archetype) than fiction.

Question from Johanna Fisher, professor, Buffalo State College:
I am presently teaching a creative non fiction course. One of my greatest challenges is creating prompts to help students in defining what it is they are most committed to writing about. What suggestions do you have for facilitating the creativeness in the student?

Paul Watkins:
Bearing in mind that I do not teach non-fiction, I would suggest not assigning specific topics to the students. I try to tell my own students in the fiction class that the thing all agents, editors, publishers and readers look for, more than subject matter, is a sense of urgency. This is why, for example, a book about the history of the pencil became a best seller in the UK a few years ago - it was passionately written. If you remove yourself from the process of defining what they write about, the burden falls on them and they will, I think, direct themselves to what they care most about. I tell them to write what they would like to read, not what they think I want to read.

Question from Linda Gillot, 4th grade teacher, Sycamore ES, Sugar Hill, GA:
I’m always curious about the thought processes of novel-writers. When beginning stories other than historical fiction, do you know precisely how the story is going to end or does the character ever lead you to a conclusion you didn’t originally anticipate?

Paul Watkins:
I have never sat down to write a novel with anything more than a fragmentary knowlege of how it is going to go. Usually, I don’t have much more than a concept in mind. The thing is - whenever I have tried to pin down the course of a novel before I get started on it, I find that this restricts rather than helps the actual writing of it. I like the idea that the novel wanders out on its own path - that feeling of taking dictation from something that is unfolding in your head, but seemingly without your conscious help. I hope that makes sense. If you have a concept - if you can sum up a story in a few sentences - the voyage of writing the novel becomes one of filling in the blanks from day to day - not sticking to a set course. I like that part of it. That is the part which feels like magic.

Question from Dr Mike Currier, Springtown (TX) Intermediate School:
To what extent do we need to make a big issue to today’s 5th/6th graders about the revelation of the identity of “Deep Throat?” Where is the line between contemporary relevance and teaching kids about Watergate snitches 30 years ago?

Paul Watkins:
I don’t think time-frame is the main concern in the telling of a story, whether in a history class or a fiction class. The concern, for me, is the relevance of the act in the universal frame of human concerns. The story of deep-throat, far from being without historical precedent, lights up similar events like a kind of chain of Christmas lights back into the ancient past. I find that when students can be made aware of that kind of connective tissue, the study of history is no longer a static concern - and the passing of years becomes almost an afterthought when we see the consistencies of human greatness, as well as human frailty.

Question from Katherine Savige, parent:
Would you send your children to British public schools, given the opportunity? How do you think that your education at British schools has either benefited or harmed you?

Paul Watkins:
That is a good question, which I am not sure I can fully answer. Since I only had the one experience of schooling, I don’t really know how differently I might have turned out. I don’t regret having gone away to school - in fact I think it was necessary for me to be sent away at such a young age (7) because the eccentricities of those ancient British boarding schools are so profound that if I had had a frame of reference, I might never have been able to fit in. Better to go as raw material and be shaped by that strange and difficult world. As to whether I would send my own kds ( I have a son and a daughter), I think because I live in the states and because I think there are many fantastic schools over here - including the public (in the American sense) school my daughter now attends in New Jersey - that the upheaval of sending a child so far away is not necessary. If I lived in Britain, I’m sure I might think differently. My father and mother had a very specific agenda when they sent me away - they were British but living in the US and had very fixed ideas on how I should be raised even though they themselves had not been raised that way- and I don’t have that same agenda. Besides, my wife would kill me.

Question from Rebecca Sleight, student, Buffalo State College:
When writing memoirs how do you decide what is excessive background information and what is necessary to tell the story?

Paul Watkins:
Good question. The most important thing, I think, about memoir writing is to recognize that memoir and autobiography are different things. Autobiography is the past as it was. Memoir is the past as you recall it - in effect the celebration of the faultiness of memory. That blurring of perspective which happens to all of us becomes part of the art form. The litmus test for what parts of that faulty memory are necessary to the story is to ask yourself - how little can I write and still have the story make sense to the reader. And what needs to make sense? The theme of that anecdote - how it changed you - it must be a pivotal moment, something that altered your life and made you how you are now - or it does not belong in the piece.

Question from Kira Fix, Student, Buffalo State College:
How do you stay abreast in the field of education? Any suggestions on how to avoid becoming, as you say, “indecently proficient” as a teacher?

Paul Watkins:
Staying abreast of any field can be overwhelming and, I think, also a dangerous diversion from the most important parts of teaching - which I would, perhaps over-simply, identify as the ability to captivate the students. New technology is not always what’s needed, nor new text books even, unless they are found to be inaccurate. My students respond to urgency - they always remember the human adventures - and around this I am then able to insert the raw data of geography and time. The segue between this and the danger of indecent proficiency is to make sure those stories do not grow stale in your own head. So I sometimes have to vary them, even when I am reluctant to do so. I know that when teachers get together to describe what they do and how they do it, a great deal can be learned. But I think there is something internal, this kind of inner propulsion, which conveys the urgency that gets them to remember the material - and that is a struggle with one’s self, rather than the outside world.

Question from Ranae Beyerlein, Teacher, Grosse Pointe South High School:
How do you manage the time commitment to two careers simultaneously and do them both well? What personal sacrifices do you make to be able to do it and what regrets do you have about those?

Paul Watkins:
I am not a full time teacher. I am only part time. Seeing how hard my colleagues work, including my wife, who also teaches, I am fairly certain that I could not maintain a post as a full-time teacher and a writer. I might try to write during the summers, and that might work out to some degree - but the goal I set myself was to write every day - not to lose momentum - and the post I hold now allows me to do that. I used to think that I should only write, and that anything I did which was not writing was somehow a cop-out - but I spent too much time with people I’d invented and not enough time with people who are real - I knew I had to find some kind of conduit to the world outside, and the teaching sort of fell into my lap by accident. I never expected to like it. I could not imagine myself doing it, and now, 16 years later, I can’t imagine doing without it. The only personal sacrfice I have made is the fact that I live, at least for part of the year, in a part of the world which is not very beautiful. At least, not beautiful compared to where I spend my summers, or many other places where I could be because when you are a writer, you can be almost anywhere. But I think that what you do is more important than where you do it, and living a stone’s throw from the NJ Turnpike seems a small price to pay for doing what I love to do.

Question from James Laney, HS Teacher, Raytown, Missouri:
You mentioned some writers you’ve enjoyed reading over the years; who are some writers of historical fiction you’ve admired and enjoyed?

Paul Watkins:
I must admit I have not read much historical fiction. When I read the question, I immediately fond myself scrambling for an answer - and the answer is, really, that because I spend most of my time writing historical fiction, the last thing I can do at the end of the day is curl up with a good historical novel. I don’t read much fiction of any kind - what I read most are books that inform me about the novel I want to do next, whatever that is. I read a lot - and each year become a font of otherwise useless information - much to the chagrin of my wife, who has to listen to me going on about the flying techniques of WWI biplanes or the functioning of Soviet Cold War burst transmittors.

Question from Melissa Leopard, Teacher, Teacher Tapestry School,:
This will be my first year teaching. I want to start the year off in a creative and meaningful way. Do you have any suggestions?

Paul Watkins:
The teachers I remember best from my own student days, and the ones I see best-loved at the place where I now work, are those who seem to be of unfailing optimism about the subjects they teach. They have bad days, just like their students, but there is something they project - a sense of purpose - which lets people know they have found what they are put on earth to do. No one ever has to ask them why they teach. It is so obvious that the question would never come up. So the most meaningful thing to start off a teaching career is that thing - that sense of purpose - which is not only present at the outset of a career but present all the time.

Question from Walt Gardner taught English for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.:
I respect Mr. Watkins’s accomplishments, but I would question the practicality of his comments about teaching in the context of public schools, where classes are composed of 40 students, who come from varying socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. The Peddie School hardly represents the typical inner-city English class.

Paul Watkins:
This is an excellent point, and I must not only concede my lack of experience in the public school sector but express my admiration for Mr. Gardner and anyone else who handles classes of such size. I don’t think a fiction class, at least the way I teach it, would function very well with more than 20 people - the most I’ve ever taught in one room is 22. The reason for this is simply that the core of the class is the discussion of each student’s work and given the time constraints, not to mention the marking involved, I don’t know if everyone would get a fair shot. As it is, I have to line-edit over 350 pages per week and write over 20 pages of notes in order to give the students I do teach decent feedback. But the history class - that could work with 40 kids. I regularly lecture to the combined classes of my colleagues in the history department, on subjects such as trench warfare or war in the Pacific - things which intersect with what they happen to be teaching at the time. Those classes are fine - they are mostly lecture-based and the weekly quizzes don’t take long to correct. The practicality with regard to history is already in place. I would like to think that, with a little creative engineering, the same level of practicality could be brought to bear upon an English class. However, if we’re talking about students who don’t want to learn, as opposed to class size, I think that the private school sector has its share of those as well and they present the same kinds of concern no matter where they’re being taught.

Question from John Thacker, Education and Outreach Program Leader, LIGO Livingston Observatory:
Was there one memorable event or situation along your “journey to get published” that informs your teaching & learning methods?

Paul Watkins:
In my final days of university, I remember overhearing a friend - who did not know I could hear him - saying that when I was finished with my ‘writing experiment’ I could come and live in his basement. At first I just wanted to break something over his head, but then I realized I should thank him - because from then on, I decided, I would die in a ditch before I gave up and came to live in his basement. There is nothing more difficult to be than an aspiring writer. You have no credibility, the way you do when you are a med student or a law student - the only way you get credibility is by being published. So you have to make it a life or death proposition - you have to build up barricades against the people who tell you to get a real job, get a life, stop dreaming etc. And this is where it informs the teaching. I think about a quote from the poet Friedrich Schiller (which I am now probably going to misquote) - Hold Fast to the Dreams of Your Youth. The reason I enjoy working with high school students is that they are at a stage in their lives - so brief and so transient that it is over before they even know what it is - when those dreams can take shape. And who we are, and who we become, depends a lot on whether we have lived up to those dreams. It does me good to be in daily close proximity to people whose dreams are still forming and have not been damaged or diluted by the world outside the school.

Rich Shea (Moderator):
We’ve had so many good questions sent to us that Paul has agreed to continue for another 10 to 15 minutes. So please stick with us.

Question from Craig Stone, online editor:
Paul, can you talk about the importance of good writing and critical thinking skills across the school curricula. I was educated in England but went to college here in the U.S. and was surprised at the dearth of these skills in many college freshman.

Paul Watkins:
Of course, these things are vital. Good writing in terms of good essay writing was never my strength. I found that it seemed to use a different part of my brain than the skills I needed for writing fiction. As far as critical thinking, my sense is that this was not taught to me as its own thing in England, but more as a facet of the essays I wrote on Shakespeare, Goethe or Balzac. No one ever sat me down and said - This is how to write a good critical essay. They told me how to write a better one based on the essays I handed in and that was how I learned. I did have grammar and spelling as its own subject, and as a teacher I do sometimes see students who have a lot of trouble with that, even in their advanced stages of a high school career. Some of them, of course, have learning disabilities, which was not properly understood when I was at school. That changes the way things are approached. The focuses are indeed different between here and the UK - the US students, I found, were more advanced in maths and the sciences, for example.

Question from Monica Eppinger, Librarian, New Brunswick Public Library:
Did you have any idea, when you were in high school, what your career might be? Have you got any suggestions for students who have creative writing talent and who are worried that they may not be able to support themselves by writing?

Paul Watkins:
I had pretty much made up my mind to write by the time I was sixteen. I can remember having my 16th birthday and someone buying me a pen to ‘write my first book with’. It was a Parker 61, and I did write the first draft of my first book with that pen. As far as worrying about making a living - I would say that this worry is perhaps the most dangerous thing at the outset of a writer’s career. The writer will worry, but the people around the writer will worry a lot more - and they will try to dissuade you. They will be afraid for the future on your behalf. And I would say to tell them, as politely as possible, to get the hell out of the way. The worst thing an educational system can do is to train young people to need things they do not really want - the security of wealth in the form of certain jobs, certain cars, certain social stature. We all want things we don’t need, but to be made to need something we don’t want is far worse. And you can do without a lot and still get by. Wealth, to a writer, is time not money. Every writer has a different way of making that equation but that is the equation they must make. If they understand that going into it, then the fear that accompanies all careers can be used to advantage, rather than submitted to. Ask the students - if you know you want to be a writer, how will you feel years from now knowing that you were to afraid to take it on?

Question from Carl VanLeuven, teacher, Provo High School:
How many drafts of a book might you write before you reach the final version?

Paul Watkins:
I am down to about three drafts per book, plus about three exchanges of the manuscript with my editor. Each stage takes less time than the previous one. Each stage is easier than the last. The hardest part is the blank page at the beginning.

Question from Alicia Young, English teacher, Yuma High School:
As a teacher and writer myself, what can I do to nurture my spirit of writing, while remaining enthuastic about writing with low level learners?

Paul Watkins:
Some days I think that if I have to read one more story about ‘Guido The Killer Vampire’ or ‘How My Heart Got Broken and How I Am The Saddest Person In The World’ I will go nuts. With people just starting out in their writing, the repetition of certain themes is inevitable because to tackle these themes, and often in the same way, is a rite of passage. I find myself looking less for content than I do for the urgency with which a story is told. I have written this in earlier questions, but it is true in this context as well. The more I get to know the students, the better I am able to see what is driving them on - sometimes, and inevitably, better than they can see it themselves. I don’t find that this is a drain on my own writing. I kind of separate the two. The student work doesn’t infect what I am doing myself.

Question from Paul Burt, President, Pen & Publish:
What impact did publishing your first book at 23 have on you, and what value do you see in K-12 students publishing a piece in a school anthology?

Paul Watkins:
Publishing a book at 23 seems a lot more significant to me now than it did when I was 23. Back then, I felt as if it had taken forever to get published. The world has forced more patience on me since then, in the form not only of my students but my own children as well. I think to be published in an anthology is a terrific boost - there is something about seeing your own words in print that separates them from you - gives them their own life - and gives you your first sense of completion.

Question from Kathy Holahan, Curriculum Coordinator, Annandale Publi Schools:
I like the idea of each teacher looking to your own sense of urgency. How can the average teacher become a better storyteller?

Paul Watkins:
You know how it is when someone runs into the room and says - You’ll never believe what just happened. Everyone stops what they are doing and listens. That is the easy part of the story. The hard part is to maintain their interest. The way you do that is with pacing. You have to lead them on - to tell them that something extraordinary has happened but not to tell them everything at once. For example, in the WWII history class I tell the story of Wade McClusky, who was a pilot who found the Japanese fleet at Midway and was in part responsible for winning that battle. But of course, I don’t tell them that first. First I tell them how the Japanese fleet is poised for victory. How hopeless the American situation appears. Then I tell the students about the indecision of the Japanese commander. How they lay themselves open for attack, but only if it comes at just the right time and in just the right way. And then I tell them about McCluskey, and how the the American planes can’t find the japanese fleet and how he almost accidently spots a ship heading towards the Japanese. And then he spots them, and he dives - 350 miles an hour - and five minutes later four Japanese aircraft carriers are in ruins. I apologize for going on like this -the best way to talk about story telling is to tell a story. If what you want to tell is important to you, you don’t get tired of telling it. And the way you know if it is mportant to you is that you learn something new, not just about the subject but about yourself, every time you tell it. And every time is different because every time the students are different. I think that’s what keeps me teaching. I love this job. I love this way of life.

Rich Shea (Moderator):
Well, that’s it folks. We’ve run out of time. I want to thank Paul Watkins for participating, and all you out there who checked in with us and/or sent in questions. If you want to read samples of Watkins’ work, there’s a link to his official Web site in my “Historical Figure” story on our web site. A transcript of this chat will be available shortly at

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