Prep vs. Public School: A Chat with Author Paul Watkins
Sarah O'Neill

When taking Advanced Rhetorical Analysis, particularly at the AP Language level, Tilton School students are asked to analyze devices of discourse. Given many are just beginning their own prep school journey, Darren Redman, the English Department Chair, has his students read Stand Before Your God: An American Schoolboy in England, a memoir written by Paul Watkins.

Though he initially grew up in the United States, Watkins began his boarding school experience at the Dragon School in Oxford at the age of seven. “I swear I thought I was going to a party,” Watkins writes. The personal narrative offers insights into English public schools from Dragon to Eton. After returning home and graduating from Yale, Watkins became a fiction writer with titles under his own name and the pseudonym Sam Eastland. Watkins is also a husband, father, teacher, and Writer in Residence at the Peddie School. He and Redman have been pen pals for over twenty-five years, and through this relationship Tilton School students were given the chance to ask Watkins questions about school, writing, and life.

When asked what habits he encountered at Dragon and Eton and perhaps continues to embrace, Watkins replied, “I learned quickly to appreciate punctuality. If I had been late for something as a student, I had to wake up at 4 a.m. the next day and stand in front of the Head’s cottage and await his instructions.” Watkins eventually learned not to be afraid of failure, something he experienced often at an early age. He explained, “When you are surrounded by people with expectations of excellence, you will undoubtedly fail from time to time. The trick is to know perfection is impossible, but excellence is achievable. Writing teaches you this.”

When addressing how his writing has evolved, Watkins reflected, “You quickly learn the difference between reality and illusion. As an author it’s a challenge to move away from the romance of writing, but it’s necessary. Time crushes you like butterfly wings. It takes me at least nine months to go from an idea to publication. I’ve learned to ignore reviews, both good and bad. I get up every morning, and I write, trying not to care too much about the gently falling meteor shower slamming into my skull.”

Watkins continues to travel, but now calls Hightstown, NJ home. Tilton students asked him how he uses different environments in his writing. Watkins responded, “While I have lived in England, now live in New Jersey, and enjoy summers in Maine, the setting of a story is a matter of perspective, a place in the mind. I try to immerse myself in a location for my research, but then I go away and write about it. It’s hard to write about a place when you’re constantly experiencing it. I use my memory as inspiration, rather than an actual physical space.”

Watkins wrote his first book, Night over Day over Night, when he was sixteen. Watkins’ memoir of boarding school life was published twelve years later. He adopted the pseudonym Sam Eastland and began writing a series of mystery novels with Inspector Pekkala, a famous Russian detective, as his protagonist when Watkins turned forty-five. Tilton School students wanted to know the differences in Watkins’ writing. He replied, 

“Memoirs are about the path you remember, while biographies must give examples of how a story happened. When I do research, I enjoy the empathy of feeling for somebody else, getting inside head and their emotions. Though I worked diligently to change all the names in Stand Before Your God, I was still sued by an Eton College alum who was never a part of my own story. Using a different name like Sam Eastland gives me some legal and writing freedom. Some of the Pekkala events refer to potential national secrets, so I again changed as much as I could. This became a challenge at book events because I carried separate business cards and felt compelled to converse as separate Eastland/Watkins personalities. Overall, it’s been best to keep the two authors apart.”

As Tilton School boarding, particularly international, students noted in his memoir, Watkins initially struggled to merge his American and English lives. From Stand Before Your God, Watkins writes, “As the summer moved ahead, I found my old place among them, but each year the place became harder to find and in the end I gave up trying to fit into America, just as I had given up trying to fit into England” (206 0f 240).

In explaining how he eventually found balance, Watkins responded, “In America, everyone is from someplace else. Duality of being from elsewhere creates a feeling of displacement and brings nervous energy. The minute you arrive in America, a part of this displacement belongs to you. The British have so many codes by which they live. It’s almost impossible to get in as an outsider. For example, I learned British gentlemen lace their shoes in a very particular way. Once you understand there are such social codes and a natural sense of displacement, you can see both countries and yourself in a whole new way.”

Julia Fiske '20, a student in Redman's AP Advanced Rhetorical Analysis class, this conversation with Watkins proved beneficial and inspirational. 

"As a student who loves to write, hearing from an author about their experience in the literature world helped me to understand different literary concepts. It was interesting to hear about Paul Watkins’ life, especially after having just read about it. He took time to listen to each one of our questions and explain them thoroughly. The most interesting part to me was how he explained that he uses writing as an escape from reality, as I and so many other young authors can attest to. Overall the interview was incredible, and getting to speak to a well published author really gave all of us more experience in our own literature journeys. "

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