Fred Waitzkin Circles Back to Fiction

Fred Waitzkin, The Dream Merchant
photo: Bonnie Waitzkin

Fred Waitzkin’s debut novel, The Dream Merchant, “tells the story of a gifted salesman who can sell anything to anyone,” as he described it when he sent his guest essay along. I say “debut novel,” but Waitzkin’s been writing for years; even if you didn’t read his memoir about raising a chess prodigy, Searching for Bobby Fischer, you might’ve seen the movie—and that’s just one of his books. So why, after all this time, a novel? “It’s a layered question,” he wrote, “and for a semi-coherent answer I should start at the beginning.” (Afterwards, if you want to learn more about Waitzkin’s writing process, he spoke at length to Scientific American blogger Scott Barry Kaufman.)

When I was a 13-year-old boy growing up on Long Island, I dreamed of being a salesman like my dad. I worshipped him and wanted to follow in his footsteps selling fluorescent lighting fixtures for new office buildings. He was a great salesman—he landed a lot of big orders, and like my protagonist, he was not restrained by ethics or fear of hell. And I loved his chutzpah. I learned from Abe Waitzkin the language and ecstasy of the big deal, and ultimately I learned from him the tragedy of a salesman.

My mother, an abstract painter, hated the idea of her son being a salesman. She was always reading me poems and stories. When I was 12 or 13, she gave me Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. By then I was already an ardent fisherman and Hemingway’s tale of heroic loss and longing written in short rhythmic sentences burrowed itself into my being. On the pages of my earliest short stories Mother would edit my prose with passionate (India ink) suggestions that looked like de Kooning abstractions. Mother would introduce lush metaphors that I had never imagined were in this world. Also, when I was a teenager, she introduced me to jazz and took me into Manhattan for drumming lessons. To this day I still pound out rhythms on the skins. But more to the point, I’ve refined the Afro-Cuban rhythms of my youth, and they are all through my prose. I write tapping my foot.

My parents disliked each other for as far back as I can remember. They were divorced when I was 16, but this dichotomy between my dad who was a meat and potatoes guy, brilliant but darkly pragmatic, and my mother, who thrived in fantasy and was dedicated to art, created a polarity that has guided my aesthetic life to this day.

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21 April 2013 | guest authors |

Life Stories #30: Beverly Donofrio

Life Stories: Beverly Donofrio
photo: Bill O’Leary

In this episode of Life Stories, the podcast series where I interview memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir, I had a reunion of sorts with Beverly Donofrio to discuss her third memoir, Astonished. When we met a little over a decade ago, I interviewed her about another memoir, Looking for Mary, which discussed the start of her devotion to the Virgin Mary. This time around, Beverly decided she wanted to enter into a monastic retreat—she had already begun the search for a suitable spiritual community when she became the victim of a serial rapist in the small Mexican city where she lived. So, as we discuss, that rape was not the impetus for her retreat, but it profoundly informed the experience.

We talk about how her time in various monasteries brought about a new understanding of her relationship with Jesus, which has taken on vivid dimensions, and about how she decided to approach the act of spiritual withdrawal:

“When I was going off to the monasteries, I made a promise to myself that I would not be taking notes. I would not be taking notes thinking I’m going to write about this. I knew, since I’m a memoirist, I most likely would, but I did not want to compromise the experience. I wanted it really to truly be just about me being close to God, whatever that meant… It’s kind of like the difference between going on a vacation without a camera and going on a vacation with a camera. I can’t help but write, so I would take notes now and then, but I didn’t really start writing about this… for two and a half, almost three years.”

If you enjoyed the previous Life Stories with former nun Mary Johnson, I think you’ll find my conversation with Beverly equally fascinating. (And if you haven’t heard that other episode yet, I encourage you to check it out!)

Listen to Life Stories #30: Beverly Donofrio (MP3 file); or download the file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click).

8 April 2013 | life stories |