‘A force of nature’: Stephanie Powell Watts finds success with first novel

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Stephanie Powell Watts, a professor of English at Lehigh, released her first novel “No one is coming to save us” on April 4 2017. The novel is a loose retelling of “The Great Gatsby” set in a North Carolina factory town. (Courtesy of Lehigh University website)

Amid the soft conversations between strangers in a coffee shop or the rumbling of squeaky grocery carts created by customers rushing through Wegmans, Stephanie Powell Watts types away at her computer. The surrounding ambient noise does not disturb but instead stimulates her as she works.

She has two quiet offices, one located on the third floor of Lehigh’s Drown Hall and another in her Allentown home, but these exist only for the mundane tasks of grading assignments and paying bills.

It was anywhere but in those offices that Watts found herself writing the novel Sarah Jessica Parker would select as the first book for her national book club.

After roughly seven years of writing, the Lehigh English professor released her first novel, “No One Is Coming to Save Us,” on April 4. But the book’s release wasn’t the end for Watts or this project.

Grabbing the attention of newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times, and magazines including Elle and W Magazine, Watts now travels to cities across the country like Chicago, Austin and New York on her own book tour. She hosts readings, sits on panels and gives keynote addresses.

Watts said this feels like a dream.

But she wasn’t seeking the praises from renowned publications when she began the project. Instead, her biggest goal was simply to sign a book contract and relish every achievement like completing chapters to the book itself along the way.

“Just being able to have the contract was enough, and I feel like at every stage of the novel, I’ve tried to think of it like that,” she said. “So then at every point, you’re celebrating instead of lamenting, because in this business, it’s really easy to feel like you’re never doing enough.”

Through “No One Is Coming to Save Us,” which she describes as a “very loose retelling of ‘The Great Gatsby,’” Watts delves into the lives of African Americans in a small factory town suffering from economic unrest, similar to her rural hometown of Lenoir, North Carolina.

North Carolina is Watts’ home. It’s where she lived until moving to pursue her doctorate. It’s also where she met her husband, fellow writer and now colleague, Bob Watts.

Her husband tells others they met because he lived in a dry county, which prohibited the sale of alcohol.

He’d often make the drive from Alexander County to Wilkesboro, the next town in the next county, to the restaurant and bar where he had made himself a regular. Watts, just about to begin her undergraduate career, worked there as a waitress.

The two have been together since, marrying 21 years ago in the middle of her undergraduate education. She transferred from North Carolina State University after about two years to the University of North Carolina in Charlotte to finish her studies and live with her new husband.

Soon, they would move out of the state for the first time in both their lives in order to pursue their doctoral degrees together at the University of Missouri. Since then, the two have had to spend only one year apart because of their jobs, and Bob said they’re extremely fortunate in that aspect.

“Academia is very difficult to get jobs together,” he said.

The pair has worked in Lehigh’s English department for the past 14 years. She, now the director of the creative writing program that was started 10 years ago, teaches fiction and nonfiction writing. He specializes in poetry.

Watts’ notability exists outside Lehigh’s English department and her writing. Her friends in other departments around campus like Deborah Sacarakis, the artistic director of Zoellner Arts Center, and Holona Ochs, an associate professor of political science, call her “warm,” “brilliant” and “a force of nature.”

Ochs said Watts is like a sister to her.

“In our friend group, she’s the one we all look to,” Ochs said. “We would always consult with Stephanie, so she’s sort of the moral compass for a lot of people I think.”

Ochs remembers Watts’ first reading of “No One is Coming to Save Us,” which drew a crowd that filled the Barnes and Noble in Easton.

She said readings like this are typically not heavily attended, and the number of people Watts attracted was a testament to how many friends she has and how many people in the community know her talent as a writer.

On top of traveling for her book tour, teaching two courses or working on her newest project, Watts is also a mother to her 7-year-old son, Auden.

As the son of two writers, Auden already expresses an interest in writing. He’s created his own series of stories titled “Mono and Auden,” detailing adventures he and Mono — Spanish for monkey — take together.

As Watts continues her book tour travels, Auden and Bob accompany her whenever their three schedules allow for it.

“(Auden’s) been to more states at 7 than I had been by the time I was probably 30,” Bob said. “He’s a small world traveler.”

It was around the time of Auden’s birth that Watts was beginning the earliest workings of “No One Is Coming to Save Us.” She navigated her life as a new mother and novel author by learning to write in short sets of time, wherever she could find a place to write.

“A friend of mine told me that you have to learn how to write in 10-minute increments, and I really think that’s true,” she said. “Because very seldom is your life set up where you have these six-hour windows where you can go sit in your lovely light-filled office and write.”

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