Chas Watkins says he wrote To Hold the Sun, his first novel, for his three children, ages 12-18, after asking himself, contemplating their imminent departure from the nest, “Have I finished telling them everything yet?” The book is set on Roatan and makes frequent references to familiar places on the island, but it is more philosophical novel than travelogue, in the vein of Zen and the Art of Motrocycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values.
The book relates a series of conversations between the anonymous narrator, a magazine writer and SCUBA enthusiast, and a self-help guru named Paul, whom he has been sent to Roatan to interview. Think of Paul as the “most interesting man in the world” from the Dos Equis commercials, only bald and without the beard or the Spanish accent, and with a psychology degree.
Over the course of a week, Paul shares his techniques for conditioning the mind to make the decisions that will lead us to become the person we aspire to be. He begins by helping the narrator overcome the embarrassment of a minor social faux pas at a cocktail party. He ends by giving him a homework assignment for the rest of his life.
Watkins uses Paul as a mouthpiece to “download” the information he has accumulated over a lifetime as a salesman, publishing consultant, .com entrepreneur and avid reader of neuro-science and behavioral economics, as well at the odd trashy self-help book. “It’s like a huge dam burst,” he said.
In a deeper sense, the conversations represent the “internal dialogue” that, as Paul explains, takes place within our minds as our “inner voice” narrates and interprets our lives for us. “It’s me talking to me,” Watkins said. The supremely “self-aware” Paul is also the ideal Watkins aims to “travel towards.”
Paul’s daily regimen includes handstand pushups on pilings over the water, thus the novel’s sub-title: Handstands and Happiness on Roatan. Think Daniel Larusso and the crane technique in Karate Kid, only upside-down.
Watkins admits that aspect of Paul’s character is autobiographical. His friend Vern taught him to do a handstand at his 45th birthday party, after doing one with one arm while drinking a beer upside down, which Watkins found “very impressive.”
“It got me thinking afterwards that I really wanted to be fit,” he said. He began walking daily, then running, then took up body exercises. “Now I do handstands every day,” he said, and like Paul, he hopes to master the one-armed version by his 50th birthday.
Watkins, now 48, was born and raised in England, graduated from university there in electronics, then spent several years in Australia and the US before moving to Roatan with his family in 2005. Here he has mostly sold real estate. But he says he “got burned out on sales a long time ago.” To Hold the Sun is mostly the product of his leisure pursuits.
“I’ve always been interested in the mind and how it works,” he said. He claims all the concepts in the book are based on actual research. In fact, after he completed the draft, he says a new study confirmed a key premise of Paul’s approach: that our decisions precede our awareness of them, and thus “You don’t know what’s going to come out of your mouth until you say it.” As a noted social scientist and philosopher put it, our conscious self is like a man riding an elephant – “The elephant’s doing the deciding, and you’re just basically on the back telling everyone what the elephant’s doing.” Watkins says he differs slightly, though, believing we can “choose to take the elephant down a certain path.”
Watkins says he has already started working on a second book, but he won’t say what it’s about.