For author Watt Key, everything hinges on work. It’s obvious.
Does “work” mean his perseverance, his diligence, his lauded novels or his day job? Yes.
Key credits his ownership of a software business — “custom stuff, business software, financial-type stuff” — for his flexibility to pursue literary passions. Not surprising since he was a computer science major at Birmingham-Southern.
His novels are no secret. His debut work, “Alabama Moon,” snagged 20-plus awards, was tagged as one the 100 Greatest Young Adult Books of All Time by Time magazine and spawned a film.
Key’s latest, “Deep Water,” is his seventh overall, the sixth to be marketed toward middle school-aged readers. It’s already received high praise from the Wall Street Journal and could be his most suspenseful story to date.
It follows 12-year-old Julie Sims, who heads out into the Gulf with her father and two of his scuba diving clients, a reckless father and son pair. When Julie’s dad falls ill, she must lead the guest duo under the waves where they ignore her directions until one is injured and trailing blood. Once up top, they can’t find the boat and start to drift.
Its inspiration was a diving ordeal during Key’s adolescence — “I came up, the boat was gone and we were about nine miles out.” A passing craft rescued him shortly but his “Deep Water” characters aren’t so fortunate.
Key’s research began not long after his teenaged son began scuba lessons. Through development, the author dropped by Gulf Coast Diving with technical questions about injuries and so forth.
“I took a copy of the book by the dive shop a couple of days ago and they were all reading it. They were surprised. I don’t know that they thought I was very legit,” Key laughed.
It bears similarities to his previous stories. Modern tech such as cellphones and video games aren’t present. His chief character has to rely on what they’ve learned from their parents, employ some imagination and develop survival skills against nature.
“You see my characters go through decisions. Some are bad and some are good and they learn to make the good ones,” Key said.
His books’ appeal to kids wasn’t an overriding design. Key recalls the books he enjoyed most, how they influenced him, and sees similarities. He writes stories with no strong language or sexual situations, and the publisher aimed at the young adult market.
“I guess back when Mark Twain wrote a book nobody was thinking about it like that. He just wrote a book, you know? Nowadays it’s all classified into categories,” Key said.
That means Key doesn’t do a lot of book tours. He speaks at educational facilities, libraries and the like.
Key was always bound to be a storyteller. It began in his youth and he continued to write through high school. Entirely self-taught, he only took English 101 in college but kept honing his stories and submitting.
“It took me about 15 years and I think it was about my tenth book that I sold,” Key said.
He doesn’t consider himself lucky, but determined. He believes it’s like any other artistic endeavor: practice builds skill.
“But you’ve got to like it enough to do it anyway. It’s a lot of work,” Key said.
So is his process. Book ideas are committed to about 10 pages of preliminary work then filed away. Every tale gets sole focus during development so, as each is completed, Key goes through his backlog and selects the next project.
He said “Deep Water” was one of those. It wasn’t chosen for fleshing out until the last year or so.
Trial and error has shown the method’s wisdom to serve the story and characters best. Key won’t talk about what’s in the hopper right now.
“It kind of messes me up, but all I’ll say is I try to have a book coming out every year,” Key said.
He’s disciplined enough to carve out two hours for writing in his home office every morning, whether he wants to or not. If it goes well, he might return for a bit in the evening but that’s not regular.
“Because it’s not always fun. Some days I can’t wait to sit down and get to it, and other days I just don’t want to be there,” Key said.
Mostly, the dread is worse than reality. With discipline, the reluctance passes.
“When you’re writing something and you think it’s not that good, the next day when you read it, it’s not as bad as you think,” Key said.