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From Chess to Dreams: Interview on the Creative Writing Process with Fred Waitzkin

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In 1984, Fred Waitzkin published Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of three years in the lives of Fred and his chess prodigy son, Josh Waitzkin. The book became an internationally acclaimed bestseller. Five years later, Paramount released the movie version of Searching for Bobby Fischer, which has become a cult classic. Waitzkin also wrote Mortal Games (1993), a biography of world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. Waitzkin has also been a blue water fisherman since childhood and has frequently written about fishing in short fiction, magazine pieces and his memoir, The Last Marlin (2000), which was selected by The New York Times as “a best book of the year.”

Nearly thirty years after Searching, Waitzkin has just published his debut novel, The Dream Merchant. This exciting novel is about a gifted salesman named Jim who can sell anything to anyone. Jim is charming, charismatic and driven, and uses his skills to lure people into investing in his financial scams to realize their dreams. Just as quickly as he achieves wealth and tremendous business success, however, he loses everything, leaving wives, lovers, friends and customers ruined and abandoned in his wake. To escape his past and make it back to the top, he leaves the country and operates a lawless and violent gold mining operation in the Brazilian rainforest. Late in his life he falls in love with Mara, a beautiful Israeli woman fifty years younger. In their unlikely relationship, the woman is erotically charged by Jim and his past glory. Make no doubt: Jim does truly terrible things– he is entirely unimpeded by moral restraint. And yet, oddly enough, throughout the book he remains winsome and charming as though immune to the cost of mortal sin.

I loved this novel. I found it powerful, sexy, unusual, captivatingly dark, and gripping. A few years back, I had the pleasure of interviewing his son Josh, and now, I thankfully was able to interview Fred about his novel and creative writing process.

What inspired you to write a novel?

When I was a young man struggling to write short fiction, I believed that the novel was the heavy weight championship of writing. Maybe I got this macho idea from Hemingway or Mailer. Or maybe from my mother who was a great painter and sculptress and also a terrific storyteller. She wanted me to be a novelist. Even when I was writing pieces for The Times Magazine or Esquire, she was telling me to get serious and write a novel. But really, for as far back as I can remember, I wanted to write a novel. For years it nagged me that I hadn’t. I didn’t feel quite complete as a writer.

The Dream Merchant is your first work of fiction, and it took you ten years to write it. Do you consider yourself a late bloomer in fiction writing?

Maybe. My earliest stories were all about my moods and they were usually dark. I had this misguided idea that the best writing needed to be about angst. I was drawn to darkness in writing. But then to make a living I started writing feature pieces for magazines. All of a sudden the mandate was to write stories about real people who had adventures and lived exciting lives. This was a great training ground for me. I learned the importance of story in a “story.” I was writing outside myself. I learned the importance of researching a story so that you knew it and felt it deeply. Journalism was a great training ground for the novelist in Fred.

Was there a benefit to taking ten years to write Dream Merchant? How would the book have been different if you rushed the process?

I wasted some time, but it was my first novel and I was learning. For example, I spent the first two years writing it from an omniscient point of view. But my central character had a chilliness that I didn’t want. Jim does some VERY bad things but he is also endearing and charismatic. Eventually I realized that he needed a close friend to trail him in his dark adventures, to love him and also to be troubled by him.  That’s when I introduced a narrator and the novel began to percolate. Also, there was a lot of research I needed to do. For one thing, I had to go to Brazil.


Why Brazil?

I wanted the novel to shift gears. For me this was the home run idea—to take an American saga and suddenly turn it on its side, tell the story from an entirely different, even shocking perspective. Paul Bowles does something like this in The Sheltering Sky when he kills off his central character two thirds through—and then the novel takes off. I knew that I wanted to take this Canadian-American super salesman to a different world once his own fell apart– that he would once more re-cast himself but this time in very unlikely circumstances. That he would do whatever it took, cross ANY line to get back to the top.

Eventually, my Jim would become a kind of slave master in the Amazon. To pull it off, I needed to understand the environment perfectly or the novel would fall on its face. So I flew to Manaus with my son Josh (Josh is always up for adventure, and besides, he sees one of his roles in life as protecting his dad whenever I travel toward danger). We explored the city, visited fancy steak restaurants where Jim would eat, the brothels where he hired gorgeous sad-eyed young girls. We went to gun shops and poor shacks on the riverbanks where Jim hired his little army of gunmen. Then Josh and I travelled to a remote area of the jungle. We slept nights in hammocks—like my character Jim—listening to the growl of hunting jaguars.

It wouldn’t have been the same novel without going to Brazil. I spent a lot of time learning about my subjects. I spent years. I researched characters in various ways to know them deeply. It wouldn’t have been the same book without the research.

While your novel tells Jim’s whole story from when he was a young boy, in many sections of the book the readers see him as an old man involved with a much younger woman, who seems to be using him just as he did with people all his life. What is the message you hope to convey here?

I don’t ever think about leaving a reader with an explicit message. As I see it, Jim’s need for young lovers is neither righteous nor reprehensible. It is an aspect of sexuality that doesn’t often make it into good writing. Marquez looks at it in Love in the Time of Cholera and less explicitly, and less successfully, I think, in Memories of my Melancholy Whores.

But why did you decide to explore the taboo subject of love and sexuality between a man and a woman less than half his age?

Many wealthy powerful old men indulge the fantasy of marrying or becoming involved with a much younger woman, George Soros, Rupert Murdoch, Tony Bennett, to name a few. Probably most seniors share the fantasy but don’t act on it for a variety of reasons—most of them wholesome and obvious.  But Jim isn’t one to be impeded by social taboos. He makes his own rules and he understands what makes him come alive, his “hot buttons,” as he might say.  During the course of an unusual life Jim has a need to shed his skin and start from scratch several times. For Jim, younger women have a catalytic effect; they are a part of his transformations.

But you take us up close into their little bedroom.

Jim is a lusty guy. Sex drives him, redeems and transforms him and I needed to show that part. But to your question, Jim and Mara are greatly attracted to one another although for very different reasons. Their physical relationship is a part of who they are. Actually, in an earlier draft I took out much of their sex and I felt that it took a lot of the life out of the book. They had become deadened and were no longer making sense as a couple… So I put their lovemaking back in. I like the book much more this way.

I can understand Jim wanted to have a younger woman but isn’t it unusual for a much younger woman to be attracted to a much older man?

Not so unusual as you might think. Several years ago, when I was writing these sections of the novel, I asked many younger women about how they would feel about having an older man as a lover—scores of women, friends of my kids, women that worked in my office building or who worked in a sandwich shop I frequent. I got some nasty looks along the way but many girls were interested and willing to talk. About half of them had either had such a relationship or were open to the possibility. The other half wouldn’t think of it and some were repelled by the idea of a lover twice their age.

For Mara, in The Dream Merchant, love and manipulation and power and latent violence are very tangled. She is Jim’s match in this respect. But in the process of their unlikely life together Mara finds herself increasingly turned on by the old man. In fact their age difference, and his profligate history of success and money, and even his proximity to death create an urgency that is erotically charged.

How much of yourself do you see in Jim?

I think there is some of Fred in all of my characters. I got into their skin while they got into mine. It is hard to break this down into percentages–how much of Fred in this one or that, and even if I could, I wouldn’t–but for sure there was a flow back and forth.

Does writing a novel allow you to live out in your mind aspects of yourself you wish you expressed more freely in the real world?

For sure. Living the lives of characters is a tremendous ride. It’s one of the side benefits. From time to time I found myself thinking about the world like Jim. Same for Lenny Bruce who also is a character in my novel.  To write him well I had to crawl deep inside the hilarity and blackness of Lenny.  I studied books about him and listened to his routines.  For weeks I felt more like him than me.

***


How much of your son Josh’s early progress at chess do you think was a result of you and your wife’s parenting, and how much came from within Josh?

Wow. How can you ever know? But here are a few impressions. Josh was the complete package. He had a passion to play the game. It was what he wanted to do. He didn’t need to be forced to play after school games in the park. He was a great competitor. He was and still is driven to try his hardest to win. But on the other hand a little kid needs to be brought to great teachers, needs to be brought to tournaments or to piano recitals or to ice skating lessons. He or she needs to be reminded to study or practice. A little kid can’t do it by himself. I think we were a great team of three. Josh was the player—a one in a million talent. He and I spurred one another ahead. We had such fun. We loved our lives in the chess wars. Bonnie loved Josh’s chess greatly but also she brought some sanity to the table. If I pushed him too hard, she pushed back at me. She mothered him. It was a wonderful ride for all three of us. I still can’t believe it is long in the past.

Josh left chess at the top of his game due, in part, to external pressures from the film version of Searching for Bobby Fischer. In an earlier interview, Josh told me he felt as though he lost touch his “natural voice as an artist”. How did the movie affect you and your own writing progress?

It threw me way off of my game. For years I had been a writer living quietly in a room, comporting with my thoughts, putting scenes on paper. All of a sudden I was giving one interview after the next. I was on literally dozens of televisions shows. So many people were complimenting me on my work and some of it wasn’t mine–because the movie and the book were often conflated. Eventually I found myself addicted to praise. If there was a moment without it, I craved it, like an addict. It took me months to get back to my writing studio, to grow comfortable again with silence and the company of my musings.

I noticed that both you Josh have mastered the art of learning, always on the lookout for connections between prior experiences and present initiatives. How has your nonfiction writing experience helped you in your fiction writing?

In my early writing I was mostly focused on my moods and they were often dark. In my twenties my stories were about angst. To make a living I began writing feature journalism for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, New York Magazine and a few others. All of a sudden the mandate of my writing life was to compose stories about people that were living exciting lives, experiencing adventures. In my years as a journalist I learned the power of research but mainly I learned the importance of “story” in writing a story. In The Dream Merchant the plot is unusual, it’s sexy and exciting and it covers a large canvas. When I was a young man I would never have dreamed of writing a novel with such a story. I wouldn’t have thought of it and I couldn’t have managed it.

***

Do you think your depression while writing Searching for Bobby Fischer helped you in any way with the final product?

I think that a seasoned writer understands how to harvest his energy and to direct it wherever it is needed. For me, inspiration is largely energy. If I feel energy I can usually write the scene and make it work. If I feel dead to myself, then I don’t have a chance. Moods, even dark ones are a kind of energy. I think of depression like a river moving slowly in one direction. Ecstasy is another kind of river. A writer learns how to turn a river, get it to flow and irrigate where he wants. During periods of despondency I have been able to write very funny sections of books. Movement is the big thing. For a writer, feeling depression is much better than feeling nothing. Movement begets movement.

What role does intuition play in your writing process?

It’s huge. This is a complicated and deep question that one could write a book about. Let me just say a few things here. The term “creative writing” is often used but rarely considered deeply. I am sometimes asked, before you write an essay do you have a complete outline? The answer to this is no. I write some notes on a yellow pad, and begin. I have a few ideas in mind but I leave a lot of empty space for invention. When I look back on a days writing or a month’s writing what delights me is the surprises—the insights, sorrows, and even characters that emerge from the writing process itself—the visitors that I never expected.

How do you get there?

I like to think about it as growing friendly with one’s unconscious. When I haven’t been writing for a while I need to get in touch with my dreams. I put a pad on my nightstand behind my bed and in the morning I reach for it before I’m fully awake. I write before I am fully awake. The dreams give me important messages but even more, they provide a door to walk through to meet the unconscious.

When I am working on a book, at the end of a writing day I never entirely finish what I am intending to write. I leave a little for “tomorrow.” I leave my office with the paragraph in mind or slightly in mind. I ride home along the river on my bike, thinking about the Knicks or the Jets, but also at some level I am thinking about my paragraph. It is percolating somewhere below the surface. But often something rises to the top—this always feels a little thrilling, this message from a hard working place that we don’t know too much about. Then I’ll stop my bike and jot this gift insight on a little note pad before it drifts away. When I’m on a writing roll I give my unconscious little writing assignments every day. I always carry a pad in my pocket because the answers arrive at unexpected moments. Perhaps this sounds mystical but for me it is very concrete. This dialogue with myself is key in my creative process.

What time of the day do you think is best for writing?

In the morning, when you are closest to your dreams and furthest from the clutter of a busy day.

How important is flow for your writing process?

When you are in a flow, don’t stop. Please! I mean don’t take more than one day off. Being in a flow is precious. Sometimes it is so hard to get back there. It can take months.

Do you have any advice for aspiring fiction writers who may be older, or are thinking of switching careers?

Don’t do it unless writing possesses you with missionary zeal. Don’t do it unless it is a very big passion. It takes so long to get really good. And then it is very very hard to make a professional success. Many good writers are ignored for years and struggle to write their novels and poems while burdened with broken hearts. But if you must write then you are in for a wild heedless love affair filled with surprise, delight and sorrow—there is nothing else quite like it that I know.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dubina 2:39 am 04/3/2013

    Joan Didion (Excerpts from Why I Write, 1976): Of course I stole the title from this talk from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
    I
    I
    I
    In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. Its an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writers sensibility on the readers most private space.
    I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested,” for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with abstract.
    In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.
    I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas–I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in “The Portrait of a Lady” as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention–but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of “Paradise Lost,” to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in “Paradise Lost,” the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
    Which was a writer.
    By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

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