Fred Waitzkin Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Fred Waitzkin
Photo: Bonnie Waitzkin

Fred Waitzkin

Fred Waitzkin: WAITZ-kin

An interview with Fred Waitzkin

  1. Q: In your novel you explore some of the same subjects in your memoirs that parallel your own life: the complex father/son relationship as it relates to your father, who was a successful salesman and avid fisherman like your protagonist Jim, as well as the nature of competition. Why do these themes resonate with you?
    A: Clearly, my father got deeply into me. Abe was charming, driven, ruthless and sickly, often going into the hospital or coming out a hero after surviving another grim operation. He would do anything to close a deal. Abe ruined men who crossed him over lighting deals, put them out of business. But so what? In his time, he lit most of the new office buildings in Manhattan. He made the city skyline glow, which moved the hell out of me as a kid. I worshipped the ground he walked on. He took me to fancy steak restaurants where we never had to wait for a table. Tammany Hall politicians waved from across the room and he grinned back at them—he had them in his pocket. Abe Waitzkin was on top and I was his son. I still can't get free of him, not that I want to. He always gets into my books.
  2. Q: Jim is a charismatic, yet flawed salesman who wins women and countless people over through his charms and schemes, just as quickly as he loses his fortunes and leaves people ruined in his wake. Why did you want to write this character?
    A: So many of my family members were salesmen. The pitch of a great salesman is still music to me. It may be that some readers dismiss Jim as a con artist, but I hope some will share my fascination. Look, Jim is everywhere today. He is the big player of our time. Jim is Bernie Madoff. Jim is Rudy Giuliani and Cardinal Dolan. Jim is even Barack Obama. Of course they are all very different, but they share a talent for the big promise, and more, for the art of the promise. Think about Obama this way for just a moment. Even those of us who love him greatly—and I am high on this list-—we know or should know that his promises or at least most of them won't pay off for one reason or another. But we love him anyway. He mesmerizes us with hope and how much is that worth on a shitty day or in a life that has gone bad? My character is the minister of hope. He makes thousands of men and women happy with his promises and vision of the good life. People believe him, at least for a time they believe him.
  3. Q: Part of your novel takes place in the Brazilian jungle when Jim flees his country in disgrace and stakes his fortunes in the gold mines of Brazil. You actually traveled to this part of South America with your son Josh as part of your research. What can you tell us about the trip?
    A: 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.

    I knew that to write about Jim as a kind of slave master in the Amazon, I needed to understand the environment deeply or the novel would fall on its face. So I flew to Manaus with my son Josh. 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 hiked for many miles in the rain forest. We explored distant villages, tiny rivers and abandoned gold mines. We met garimpeiros and learned how they prospected for gold. We spent some nights in hammocks slung between Acai trees.

    One night it was impossible to sleep with the humidity and heat. It was so dark you couldn't see your own hand. And the jungle was roaring with insects and screaming parrots and monkeys and also the snoring of our two faithful guides. Then at one point it became eerie quiet except for the the growl of a hunting jaguar that seemed to be closing in on us. We called out to the guides and they woke up long enough to tell us not to worry. They were keeping vigil with their old rifles. We'd brought pointy sticks in our hammocks so we'd have a fighting chance if the cats jumped us—some fighting chance. In the morning our guides wanted to show us how accurate they were with their rifles. They pointed the guns to the trees but their trusted weapons wouldn't shoot—they were rusted and jammed! The Amazon was exciting and a little frightening. We met some very great people.
  4. Q: While your novel tells Jim's whole story from when he was a young boy, through most of the book he's an old man involved with a much younger woman who seems to be using him just as he did with people all his life. Why did you want to write about love and sexuality between a man and a woman less than half his age?
    A: Many wealthy powerful old men indulge the fantasy of marrying or becoming involved with a much younger woman – George Soros, Rupert Murdoch, Tony Bennett, Justice William O. Douglas, to name a few. Probably most seniors share the fantasy but don't act on it for a variety of reasons. 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 his 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 living with Mara—the last of his young lovers-- Jim is stricken with love, with desiring her day and night—it is an old man's fever. He constantly worries that she will leave him for a younger guy. He is convinced that her youth and beauty and their sex have become his fountain of youth. More, Jim believes that the girl keeps him alive like food. Maybe this is true. For Mara, love and manipulation and power 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 fifty-year age difference and his profligate history of success and money, and even his proximity to death, create an urgency that is erotically charged. When finally she indicates to him that their days together are limited, he will do anything to keep her. I knew early on that Jim and Mara would be something like this, but I needed to research the dynamic of spring-winter relationships.

    So I spoke to many younger women about how they would feel about loving an older man—scores of women, friends of my kids, women who 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 repulsed by the idea of a lover twice their age.
  5. Q: You have continued your father's legacy with family fishing trips for marlin off Bimini Island in the Bahamas, the captivating opening setting of your novel. What can you tell us about those trips?
    A: When I was a young man, my wife and I took a nineteen-foot outboard across the Gulf Stream to Bimini. We didn't know what we were doing. We didn't understand anything about navigation, got lost and were lucky to find the small island before we ran out of fuel. We rented a little shack and fished every day for marlin, mahi mahi and tuna. We learned on the run. We might have died at sea, came close, but we survived. In those years I was so unhappy and confused about my life. I wanted to be a writer but couldn't figure out what to write. My paragraphs weren't quite right. I got many rejection letters. I felt thwarted and afraid that I had made "the big mistake" as Bonnie would say, namely that the writing life would turn out to be a terrible failure.

    But during those summers on the big water in the open boat my thwarted ambitions felt trivial, laughable. We were in love and battling blue marlin. What could be grander than this? We were living our own novel. Today, trolling lures with my wife and grown kids is just as captivating. At any moment some enormous dream-like fish can rise up from the white water behind the transom. On our old boat, the Ebb Tide, we troll across the years, we have great conversations, we eat Bonnie's wonderful food, listen to jazz at night anchored out in the lee of some remote rocky atoll. Our family grows incredibly close on these trips. The pressures of the shore, family disputes, even mortality feel manageable sipping a beer and listening to Brubeck or Errol Garner at sunset on the Ebb Tide.
    1. Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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