Sometimes as an interviewer you have to follow your gut. The “gut” is the number one source of advice you could ever hope for. You can hear it churning away if you listen carefully. It will tell you what will work. It will tell you what won’t work. It will let you in on secrets, it’s your best friend. So… When I met Robert J. Watson, I knew I had to interview him.
Robert is a man of the sea. That’s what drew me to him. He has lived his life on the sea, his father was a fisherman, he was a merchant seaman. He is at one with the sea. What more could an interviewer ask for? A man with a long love affair with a cruel mistress.
What made my stomach hit me with that notion? Well, I can’t exactly tell you WHY… But, I know we connected and here’s what happened…
Q) Evening, Robert. Are you ready to be grilled alive?
A) Take your best shot, mate.
Q) Okay, let me start with this–why are you so fascinated by the sea?
A) I think you have to see it, please excuse the pun, and then be on it. The sea has a beauty about it and an anger that cannot be matched. If you see it at night when a bow wave is rolling back and that wave is white and emerald green you just stand there and smile and go, “Oh wow!”
Q) What word would you use to describe it?
A) Just that, “WOW!”
Q) You were born into a fishing environment, correct? What are your earliest recollections of the sea?
A) Yes. My earliest recollection? I nearly drowned in a little place called Glasson Dock on the Northwest coast of England. I walked on a jetty after being told not to, and I went between the boat and the quayside. Then, spending my summers on my godfather’s fishing boat with him my dad.
Q) Summers spent fishing? Can you describe that scene for us?
A) Flat calm waters in Morecambe bay. A coal fired boiler heating sea water ready for the shrimp nets to be hauled in. I can see porpoise swimming about a mile off the boat. Then, later, sitting on a coil of rope eating hot fresh shrimps as they come out of the boiler. Finally, falling asleep in the bow of the boat after a long, hard day working.
Q) So, let me ask you something. Back then, did you ever believe for a second that you would become a writer? A published writer?
A) No, never, Nick. As far as I was concerned, I was going to be a sailor, and that was it for me. I got into writing just to prove a point to myself, really.
Q) What was the point?
A) The point, Nick, was that I could write a book and have it published.
Q) Let me ask you, Robert. Why did you need to prove that point?
A) I had been told that I would never be able to do that. It was the wrong thing to say to me, really. I always rise to the challenge of proving a point worth my time proving.
Q) When did you first realise that you couldn’t handle being told that you couldn’t achieve something? I wonder if that was a childhood thing?
A) If I am honest, I was not the best scholar in the world. My English teacher saw something in my work. That aside, school and I did not get along. I am so stubborn, and I have to prove things to myself each day. I also have to achieve a certain level in my work. That’s how I have always been. That’s part of Robert J. Watson.
Q) Storytelling is also a part of Robert J. Watson. You have written several books, and I have one question for you. What do you need to write a novel?
A) The most important tool any writer has is imagination. Imagination and the ability to see each word, not just think each word. I try to write my work as a reader would see it. They cannot see what I’m thinking so I try to use my imagination to help them along. I am not sure if it works or not, but that’s the way I do it.
Q) Here’s a curveball of a question. What is imagination, really?
A) I think it is the ability to see something in your own mind and show it in whatever way you wish.
Q) When did you first discover that you had an imagination?
A) (Laughs) that was when I discovered I could do my English homework in ten minutes flat.
Q) What do you think of professional proofreaders? You have quite the talent for the English language—do you use a proofreader?
A) My last novel “The Secret of the Sarah M” was proofread professionally. Before that, I let my wife proof my work for me. Let me tell you, that is not always the best thing to do.
Q) You have written five books already, and you are working on the sixth. What did you originally want to write about?
A) I wanted to tell the story of a young boy who went to sea, and then the imagination took over. If I am honest, yes, there was a part of me in the character. I had no plan for the book; I had no preconceptions. I just sat down and wrote. The book that I held in my hands was called “Seasoned with Salt”. It was my first baby and, just like a first born child, I still love it. Of all the books I have written, it is still my favourite.
Q) When you sat down to write at first, what came out?
A) I noticed early on that it was a half decent story line. I still work the same way now. It all comes down to me and my computer rattling down a story, then I read it back. Let me give you a synopsis. The character followed his local river, the river Lune, to the sea. Once there, he joined a sailing ship called the STEMSI and ended up doing slave runs from the Middle East to the United States and got involved in the Civil War. I still wonder how I got all that down.
Q) How did you go about researching that one?
A) I did it all back to front really. The research was done after I had written the book. I ended up re-writing huge chunks of it.
Q) How did it feel to have a publisher accept your work?
A) I won’t deny it. I shed a tear because that book really deserved it.
Q) I was wondering, just now. What has been your most emotional moment as a man?
A) There have been many, Nick. I think personally–losing two of my brothers and my dad. Professionally, I think thatmoment was when I nearly had my nursing career ended by a schizophrenic patient. [Robert was a psychiatric nurse for several years after his career in the Merchant Navy.]
Q) What happened with the patient?
A) The short version of the story is that he had been admitted the day before. Nobody had told us of his past. I went into the male dormand he just attacked me. He knocked me across the dorm room and slammed me into a metal bed frame. He was looking directly at me, and I was thinking, “Oh shit, this is going to hurt.”
Q) I guess a male nurse in that environment has to take on an element of the work a prison warden is trained to do. Is that correct?
A) You are right in some ways. We were nursing staff and did not have the same back up or training as prison guards. When things kicked off, and that was pretty often really, every male member of staff from other wards would come to ours to help out. It would literally be a case of restraining the patient and getting them into a locked secure room. A hypo in the bum and lights out.
This is the first part of a four-part series Novel Ideas is conducing with Robert J. Watson. Watch for additional instalments soon!