Patricia Watts Reflects on Her Writing Career
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- Published: Thursday, 29 March 2018 23:37
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Patricia Watts Reflects on Her Writing Career
(Interviewed by Aura Martin)
Patricia Watts, author of The Frayer, said that there have been times when she’s written for fourteen hours straight. “You get leg cramps when you’ve been writing that long,” Watts laughed. She’d write for longer stretches when she had extra time and felt such an explosion of ideas that she could hardly get them on the page fast enough. “Because I am in kind of a creative frenzy at those times, my adrenaline pumps much like an athlete playing in a big game. I have an agonizingly tough time going to sleep after a day-long writing session—not beneficial to my health but the creative benefits are great.”
Watts rotates between writing and rewriting, and if she writes for twelve to fourteen hours straight, she could generally produce about 30 pages of new material. She rarely writes that much these days, she says, but she typically writes from three to seven hours a day.
Before she became a novelist, Patricia Watts was a journalist for over twenty years, and a human rights investigator for over a decade. As a reporter and editor for the Fairbanks, Alaska Daily Miner, her primary responsibilities included “gathering facts and preventing errors.” After her years in Fairbanks, she moved to Anchorage, took up the investigative work, and started writing novels: Ever Rose, set among the descendents of Alaskan gold rush miners, came out in 2011, and her first crime drama, Watchdogs: A Novel, in 2013. Her newest book, a steamy noir titled The Frayer, was just published last month by Golden Antelope Press. “Writing books has given me the opportunity to explore my creative side and stretch my imagination,” she said. Already she is busy prepping for the release of her first collaboration, The Big Empty, co-written with Stan Jones as part of his Nathan Active detective series. And she’s starting work on two more projects.
After graduating in journalism from California’s Humbolt University, young Patricia Watts started her journalism career in Honolulu, living and working there for two years. “I also had my first child there, so it was a big time of my life,” she says. She then moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, where she served as copy editor and reporter, then as arts and entertainment editor at Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Her experiences at the newspaper played a role in The Frayer, especially with the character of Hattie McGee, whose columns regularly influenced public opinion. Though Hattie was a minor character in the novel, she was based on Mary Beth Smetzer, a journalist who had been community news editor for many years when Watts arrived. Smetzer has since retired, but Watts characterizes her as a tireless interviewer who went out into the local community to gather stories, and built emotion into her stories to make readers see others as human beings. Watts made sure that the fictional Hattie’s columns in The Frayer were also local-oriented, since “newspapers need to serve their communities.”
The Frayer is set in downtown Fairbanks. Watts says she chose that as the setting because Fairbanks is a quirky town with a mix of historical and contemporary, with rustic cabins standing next to tall, modern buildings. She also chose Fairbanks because during her fourteen years there, she’d become interested in the architecture of the town. She admits that some of Fairbanks’ landmarks may be "somewhat ugly. . . . But they’re interesting, which makes them beautiful.” For instance, the Masonic Temple has a facade with Ionic pillars in a style referred to as “eclectic Renaissance Revival.” The Key Bank Building until recently had bright orange window frames whose garish paint could not be easily removed. The building that she worked in, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner building, was also interesting. “It has narrow, horizontal windows around the second floor where the newsroom is located. The windows make the building look like a bunker; these windows are like the openings in a fort where soldiers would point their guns out,” she says.
Watts found one building, the Polaris, so fascinating that she personified it as Big Blue, a major character in The Frayer. At eleven stories, the Polaris is still the tallest building in Fairbanks. Built in 1952 as an apartment building, it later prospered as a hotel. Over the years, Watts read stories of people who used to live in it. The ‘70s in Fairbanks, for example, “was a very rowdy time” because a pipeline was being built and there was an influx of young men who would drink and party when they were off work. There were a lot of bars and whorehouses downtown at this time. When the pipeline was completed, things settled down. “So Fairbanks has gone through several evolutions, like the buildings.” But the trend for the Polaris, she said, was downward. By 2010, the building was foreclosed, boarded up, and abandoned. Individuals and companies came forward with renovation plans, and in 2011 the Polaris was the focus of a huge public arts project titled “Looking for Love Again.” (Check out the Daily Miner’s coverage of that project at http://commonspace-ak.org/fairbanks/photos/.) In 2012 the Polaris was officially condemned. “But it would cost too much to tear down,” Watts said. “So it’s still there in all of its ugly glory because the city can’t afford to demolish it.” The Polaris is now a decrepit, eye-sore in the middle of downtown Fairbanks.
Watts’ novel offers a happier fate for the old building. In fact, Big Blue narrates the story of a pernicious and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to destroy both himself and his occupants. Since he is able to read minds, Blue gives readers something like an omniscient view of owner and tenants as they are “frayed” by an uncanny Louisiana bayou man named Angelo Fallen. Watts considers setting important in any story. In The Frayer, she strives to make Blue feel like the character who essentially defines the story, much as Canadian director James Cameron did with the ship in The Titanic. However, she says she would most likely not attempt to write from a building’s perspective again. “I think that that is a unique presentation--but I don’t want to do it again just because it’s different.” Rather, she’ll find “a different type of originality.”
Newspaper writing has played others roles in Watts’ fiction: she has years of experience in writing concisely. Journalism has also made her more of a disciplined fact-checker. “Historic events are sometimes mentioned in my stories, so I make sure those are correct,” she says. She finds it enjoyable to conduct research, especially if she’s writing about something that she may not have expertise in. As long-time editor of the News-Miner’s weekly Sunday magazine section, “Heartland,” Watts chose the writers, stories, and photos, and oversaw publication each week. The stories were usually feature-oriented and often focused on details of Native crafts such as beading or bead work--thus quietly equipping her to collaborate with Stan Jones in the Nathan Active series. A prolific reader, her tastes range widely, from gritty to magical to subtly lyrical tales. Her favorite writers include Walter Mosley, Tana French, Toni Morrison, Colum McCann, and Alice Hoffman.
In 2005, Watts moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska, where she worked as a paralegal for a couple of years before becoming a human rights investigator, eventually specializing in discrimination cases. Her job was to see if the cases were supported by evidence; thus she did a lot of interviews and document analysis. She would then discuss her findings with the human rights agency and help decide what needed to be done to remedy bad situations, whether by the owner of the hotel or the governor. Watts wrote her first three novels while working in Anchorage. She retired from the regular work force last year when she moved to San Diego. “Writer” has become her official title.
The Frayer was released in February, and she had five book events in Anchorage in March. “It was a great experience to share my work with an Alaska community and to participate in presentations and signings with other writers,” she said. The crowds were modest and not a lot of books were sold, but it was a good experience for Watts, she said, and it helped build her confidence. She admitted that giving speeches was still a nerve-racking experience for her, and said she practiced often beforehand. “There were a couple of days when I lost my voice because I would practice giving these talks over and over until I got comfortable,” she said. But such promotional speeches are part of being a professional novelist, a role whose rewards she mostly enjoys.
One of her five book events this month was a public conversation with her new writing partner, Stan Jones, principal author of the Nathan Active series. (Active is a crime-solving state trooper posted to an Inupiat village north of Fairbanks.) The Big Empty is her first collaborative novel. It all began when Jones invited her to work with him. She admitted that she was intimidated when asked to collaborate, and she didn’t know if they were going to work well together. She finally agreed to do it, partly to get her name out there to other writers and readers, partly to stretch her writing abilities because she’d never written a mystery before, and partly because she thought it would be fun to work together. She said that it worked out very well. They started with a barebones outline and an opening scene with a plane crash and two young people dying under mysterious circumstances. Watts did most of the writing, though she needed to adhere to the rules of Jones’ fictional world. She had the freedom to do pretty much what she wanted, so long as she fell in line with expectations for the characters and setting. “And after a while, I did start to get into the flow of things where I knew the characters and the Inupiat village. I felt comfortable with going ahead with whatever I wanted to do.” Early on, she made one of the main characters pregnant, an unexpected turn that was going to have repercussions for the second part of the story. Jones read the first chapters and liked what she was doing, so Watts continued writing. She said that she didn’t have any major disputes with Jones, but when they did differ, they were able to work it out. They had signed a contract even before starting the book so they would not have to worry about issues such as how the profits would be split, copyright handled, and the names appear on the book. The first draft of The Big Empty was ready within a year, and nine months later, Soho Press picked it up. The Big Empty will be published by the end of this year. It was a big accomplishment for Watts and she thought it was successful for both of them as writers and friends. In fact, they are planning to write a second book together as a continuation of the series.
Watts is also working on another solo novel, which she says is about a third of the way done. Her untitled new book is a dark suspense novel about a man and a woman who used to be high school friends but are now in their forties, jobless, and alone. With nothing to lose, they decide to take off together in a car, travelling all over the country and doing odd jobs. It is not going to be a happy journey, Watts said. “They have their own failings that they have to work with and paths they have to deal with, and of course there’s been a lot of time between high school and now. It’s hard for them to relate to each other, and it’s complicated,” she said.
For aspiring writers, Watts advised staying true to yourself and don’t try to be somebody else. An aspiring writer needed to study and learn what makes good writing, and apply it to their own work. She also said that you shouldn’t take all the advice you get from more successful writers, and that it’s important to take what works for you. The most important part of any writing is to tell the story, and to approach your own work as though you were the reader. She would also advise reading a lot to help get ideas and get creative juices flowing. Find a way to discipline yourself and practice it daily. “It’s a work in progress, but try to be true to yourself. Take what you can from others and learn from others who may know more--but you should be yourself,” Watts said.