Philosopher, author, and lecturer Alan Watts (1915–1973) popularized Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies for the counterculture of the 1960s. Today, new generations are finding his writings and lectures online, while faithful followers worldwide continue to be enlightened by his teachings. Now available in paperback, The Collected Letters of Alan Watts reveals the remarkable arc of Watts’s colorful and controversial life.
His engaging letters cover a vast range of subject matter, with recipients ranging from High Church clergy to high priests of psychedelics, government officials, publishers, critics, family, and fans. Watts’s letters were curated by two of his daughters, Joan Watts and Anne Watts, who have added rich, behind-the-scenes biographical commentary that is included throughout the book. We hope you’ll enjoy this interview with Joan and Anne, as they discuss the creation of this important collection of letters.
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What was the driving force to put this book together?
Joan Watts: Since Alan’s widow’s death in 1992, a two-drawer file cabinet has been occupying my office with original book and essay manuscripts, correspondence, contracts and royalty statements, and other mysterious papers. Occasionally, I would enter into one of the drawers to look up some pertinent information for an agent or publisher and was aware that there were many letters. Busy with other things in my life, I really didn’t think about it much until I retired at age seventy-five. My sister and I met with Jason Gardner [executive editor] at New World Library regarding the publication of out-of-print books by Alan, and I happened to mention the letters. He was very excited. I told him I thought Anne and I could pull together a book of the letters and write commentary. A contract was drawn up for a 300-page book.
What was the editing process like?
Joan Watts: It was very arduous. Anne visited me in my home in Montana in July of 2015. We spent a week going through almost every file, filled with carbons of letters sent to all sorts of people, including original letters sent to his parents — lovingly saved — from 1928 through 1968. We speculate that those letters to his parents were given to him when he was writing his autobiography, In My Own Way. We found over 350 letters, worthy of publication, many of them two to three pages, single spaced, all typewritten. The challenge was to get them into Word format, suitable for the publisher. Most of the letters, if readable, were scanned and digitized into Word but had to be carefully proofed and edited for misreads in the program. Some letters came out as garbage when digitized and had to be individually retyped. I did most of this work as Anne travels quite a bit. Initially, I had help from my daughter, Laura (an IT person), and a hired secretary/editor. It took until March 2017 to organize the letters, add additional ones that were found in other file corners, and write commentary. Reading the letters was fascinating. Alan was an incredible letter writer, entertaining, thoughtful, and informative. It was nearly impossible to think of deleting parts of letters. When the manuscript was delivered to the publisher, it was 600 pages — twice the amount agreed on in the contract. Jason couldn’t come up with much to delete either!
Anne Watts: In a word, intense! There are so many letters! He was a prolific writer. The letters were amazing to read, and we found it difficult to choose letters that we would not include. Joan took on the huge task of typing it all into the computer to facilitate the editing process. Luckily, she got help to make it more manageable. Once we had done our part of choosing which letters to include and what we should edit out, it was given to a professional copyeditor. We were assured that this would make the book more readable. They are probably right, and, truly, the essence of Alan is all there.
How did your father’s spiritual and intellectual journey affect your own? How have you felt influenced by his writings and ideas?
Joan Watts: I feel fortunate to have been exposed to different religions and beliefs. I think his philosophies have molded my understanding of what I believe to be true. While I’m not sure I would consider myself an intellectual, an academic, or a scholar, I’ve absorbed much from around me, especially in my travels abroad. My interpretation of the world was definitely influenced by my upbringing.
Anne Watts: I was never a reader of Alan’s books; I could never get past the first few pages! However, I listened to his lectures and informal talks a great deal from a very early age. I think I took in much of his philosophy by osmosis. Given what I do in the world today [see Anne’s bio below], I think I inherited his kindness and compassionate nature. My love of different cultures, ethnicities, and foods was greatly influenced by my upbringing. My love of music, art, dancing, and the beauty of nature was also nurtured by my father. I am grateful for so much, including the hardships of my life, which I believe have made me a more compassionate human being.
Do you have a favorite story or letter from the book?
Joan Watts: Written when he was thirteen, his first saved letter to his father was charming, wishing him a happy birthday and wishing that he could be with him. In his absence, Alan proclaimed that his father should have a birthday procession and drew in the letter, in pen and ink, a charming group of rabbits, dressed in armor, carrying a litter with the head rabbit, Oberon. Very clever and sweet. The expressions on the rabbits’ faces show their rank and interest (or lack thereof) in the procession. I also love the letter about my birth and how young and inexperienced Alan was in matters of fatherhood. Another favorite is a letter to a restaurant in Sausalito, California, berating the management for their stuffy dress code, not allowing Alan and friends in for dinner because they were wearing sandals!
What was it like to read letters written by your father from before you were born?
Joan Watts: It was astonishing to realize the level of both his scholastic ability and his artistic ability. It was apparent that both sides of his brain were equally developed. I wish I could have inherited some of his scholastic ability — his knowledge of Greek, Latin, French, and Chinese, especially as read, was exceptional. In school, he became so well read that he could communicate with adults on an intellectual level, to the point of people being astonished that he was a teenager — not a thirty-year-old.
Anne Watts: It was fun and touching to read the letters that he wrote to his parents as a schoolboy. I loved the illustrations that he added to his letters and am delighted that we were able to include most of those in the book. His love and close connection with his parents (especially his father) over the years is clear.
What was it like to read letters about you that you had never seen before?
Joan Watts: I was actually embarrassed and felt badly for my sister who wasn’t so eloquently described. He mentioned me often and generally in glowing terms. There was a phase when he was uncertain about my intellectual development, which I felt was a bit unfair, given that he actually spent so little time with me during my teen and adult years. I don’t know if this might have been a bit of “first-child syndrome”? He only very occasionally mentioned his other children in his letters, except for one whom he never mentioned at all.
Anne Watts: The letters of my childhood were confirming. My memories of how I was treated as a child were described by him as I remembered them. What’s sad to me is that he observed what was happening to me, but never stepped in to be my ally. Conversations with my sister further confirmed my painful experiences. I learned a lot more about how she did her best to be my ally whenever she was at home. What I didn’t know, and which surprised me, was how positively Alan saw me as an adult.
In reading these letters and putting the book together, have any of your feelings about your father changed or shifted?
Joan Watts: I realized how incredibly complex his life was. He tried to do it all — teaching, writing, lecturing, radio and TV, family, love life, travel — and pretty much succeeded, except that, along with his consumption of tobacco and alcohol, he burned himself out! Poof! At age fifty-eight. Too young for such a brilliant mind.
Anne Watts: I experienced his brilliance as a writer from a young age. I had to keep stopping and figuring out, “How old was he when he wrote this?!” It was amazing to me. I was struck by how when he wrote to his elders — Christmas Humphries, Sokei-an Sasaki, Carl Jung, and others — he wrote as a peer, completely equal. His letters are entertaining, beautifully descriptive, as though he were painting with his words, full of news, and often profoundly philosophical. He was such a complex man — wise, playful, a bon vivant, multitalented, kind, hardworking, and driven by his demons all at once. He died way too soon. His work is a legacy that continues to positively influence the lives of people all over the world. For this I am grateful.
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Joan Watts is Alan Watts’s firstborn child and coeditor of The Collected Letters of Alan Watts. In addition to her art career, she spent twenty-five years as a successful fund-raiser in the nonprofit world. After retiring, she began, along with her sister Anne, editing her father’s letters for publication and resumed her painting. She lives in Livingston, Montana, with her husband, Johnny (Montana) Hale, a musician, songwriter, and retired motion picture–industry technician. Most of her life decisions have been influenced in one way or another by her father, Alan Watts.
Anne Watts is Alan Watts’s second-born child and coeditor of The Collected Letters of Alan Watts. Her philosophies were strongly shaped by her experience as the daughter of Alan Watts. Anne is a certified hypnotherapist and an educator and counselor in the areas of human sexuality, sexual abuse, family stress, self-esteem, healing the inner child, and financial and aging issues. She lives in Santa Rosa, California, in a deeply loving relationship with her husband, Mark Kupke, who has been her partner since 1984. Find her work online at www.annewatts.com.
This interview is in celebration of the paperback edition of The Collected Letters of Alan Watts. Copyright © 2018 by Joan Watts and Anne Watts.