In 2003 Graham Watkins and his wife sold their Marine Engineering business and escaped to the country by purchasing a small-holding in the Brecon Beacons. His first venture into publishing was a “how to” book based on the experience, entitled ‘Exit Strategy’. I began our ‘date’ by asking him about his Welsh hill farm.
“My hobby farm is six acres. When we first moved here 15 years ago a neighbour asked, with a knowing smile, if the animals had started arriving yet? I had no idea what she meant at the time. Since then they have, including dogs, chickens, ducks, Welsh Black cattle and sheep together with foxes, polecats, buzzards and red kites proving we are, ‘red in tooth and claw.’ I’m actually an apprentice farmer under instruction from friends who know what they are doing. There’s no money involved but our freezer is well stocked and we eat honest food.”
The couple enjoy walking and this inspired Graham’s next publishing venture.
“Welsh Legends and Myths started as a walking book containing sixteen walks each associated with a local legend in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. It was an excuse to get out and explore. The project grew into five walking books ‘Walking with Welsh Legends’ covering the entire country and took four years to complete. Since then I’ve republished all eighty legends in one volume ‘Welsh Legends and Myths’ as a paperback, eBook and an audio book.”
The couple’s interest in travel and exploration is not limited to Wales, however, and in 2016 led them into unanticipated danger:
“I’ve always enjoyed travelling and started my working life as a marine engineer visiting the far east, South America and other far flung places. Since retiring we have continued to travel to other countries including, America, China, Africa and New Zealand – We were whale watching in Kaikoura in 2016 when the 7.8 scale earthquake struck.
The quake hit just after midnight obliterating much of the town and cutting it off from the rest of the world. All roads were destroyed. Marooned, we spent three days sleeping in our hire car, living on marmalade sandwiches, before being rescued by military helicopter.
Our next adventure is a month long road trip in Canada later this year.”
Graham also writes historical fiction. That requires a good deal of research and I wondered if he enjoys that aspect of the genre.
“For me, research is part of the joy of writing. I have a family connection to Merthyr and it was great fun delving into the history behind my book ‘The Iron Masters’. The timeline I produced for the novel contained a wealth of facts which I found fascinating, in some cases, almost stranger than the fiction I was creating.
‘A White Man’s War’ my South African novel was inspired by a tour of the Zulu and Boer War battlefields and a book written by Thomas Packenham containing the photograph of a young African man stood at attention in front of a group of army officers.
He looked terrified and with good reason; he’d just been sentenced to death for stealing a goat.
The title for the book came from a letter Boer General Cronje wrote to a Colonel Baden-Powell – that’s a name you might be familiar with.
It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingoes and Baralongs against us – in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness…reconsider the matter, even if it cost you the loss of Mafeking… disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.”
With Graham having written about the Napoleonic period in European history it should come as no surprise that David Howard is high on his list of favourite authors.
“His treatment of Napoleonic history is breathtaking. Another is Daniel Yergin. Who would think a book about the history of the oil industry would be a page turner? Perhaps the most inspirational is Jean-Dominique Bauby. His book ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ was superb. It reduced me to tears. I’m currently reading ‘Popski’s Private Army’ by Vladimir Peniakoff. I once worked with a friend, long since dead, who was one of Popski’s men. It’s an incredible story of heroism and endurance.”
He has been published by traditional publishers but now prefers to be independent.
“The publishing landscape is changing at a rapid pace. I’ve published with traditional publishers but more recently as an indie author. Why? Because
I like to keep control of my work and unless you’re a J.K. Rowling or a ‘Celebrity’ there’s no advantage in being with a traditional publisher.
Either way, the author ends up doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing.”
Asked about his writing process he begins by referring to Enid Blyton.
“I read somewhere that Enid Blyton wrote at the rate of 6000 words a day. Mind you, she was writing about Noddy. My limit is about 1000 words which I write in the morning. After that my eyes glaze over and it’s time to go and do something else, mow the lawn, paint the house or perhaps walk on the mountain.”
Graham is an accomplished public speaker, a skill about which he is characteristically modest.
“I’m told I like the sound of my own voice which must be true because I’m sometimes invited to give talks to different audiences. How good I am is debatable and I confess I once put a listener to sleep at a black tie Rotary event where I was the after dinner speaker. The poor chap almost fell off his chair. It might have been what I was saying but I suspect his wine consumption was the real culprit.”