A Conversation with Fred Waitzkin

Fred Waitzkin —Courtesy Bonnie Waitzkin

Fred Waitzkin’s latest novel, Deep Water Blues, was released on May 28. Laura Roosevelt spoke with him about the book, his writing process, and the overlapping of memoir and fiction. Waitzkin lives seasonally on Martha’s Vineyard, in a house his mother, Stella Waitzkin, bought on Music Street. 

LR Deep Water Blues is really two stories in one. There’s the story of you and your crew on the Ebb Tide, fishing and making your way toward Rum Cay, and then there’s the story of what happened on Rum Cay. The first story feels like memoir, the second more like fiction. You’ve written memoirs in the past, and you’ve written fiction. Have you combined the two in this book?

FW In my early 20s, I thought fiction meant that you had to make everything up. I was writing short stories based on my dreams, and they were depressing, because my dreams were depressing. I placed a few of them in literary journals, but I had virtually no success. Then, for a long time, I wrote for magazines. The New York Times Magazine allowed me to write in the first person, which was unusual, so in a way, I was combining journalism and memoir. When you’re writing for the New York Times Magazine, you have to have good stories, and I found great ones. I realized that there were great stories all around me, everywhere I looked. They were true, but they could all make great novels.
Then I wrote a memoir about my dysfunctional parents, The Last Marlin. There were some things that I knew for sure, but others that I wasn’t so certain about. Some of my memories were very powerful; they were like buoys in the ocean, like markers. But sometimes I wouldn’t know how to get from one marker to the next. Then I’d have a sort of spiritual revelation, and I’d know how to proceed … but really, I think I may have just made it up. At first I didn’t remember, and then I did, and I’ll never know if it really happened like that, or if I made it up. 


LR You’re saying that there’s often fiction in our memories.


FW Exactly, and also, our memories, our own lives, make for good fiction. All good writers know this. When you read Jack Kerouac’s novels, you’re basically reading memoirs. He’s just changed people’s names and some facts, and called it fiction. It took me a long time to figure this out, but when I did, the possibilities for myself as a novelist expanded exponentially. 


LR So, how much of the Rum Cay story is true?


FW I knew the general outlines of the story because I traveled to Rum Cay on my boat for 20 years. The story was evolving during that time, and I was hearing about it. There are real people in the book, including me and my crew. Some of the characters on Rum Cay are real, and others are invented. I wanted to know what would happen if I took real characters, like myself and my friends, and brought them into a world that was somewhat fictive. Some of the story on the island is true, and some is my own improvisation. 


Fred Waitzken with his father, Abe, and brother Billy. —Courtesy Fred Waitzken


LR Your parents appear in the beginning of the book, but only briefly. 


FW It anchored me to put them in. 


LR You’ve talked about your mother pointing out the beauty of the juxtaposition of a pile of garbage and the beautiful beach and the ocean on Bimini — the beauty of the yin/yang in things. 


FW Very often, those kinds of yin/yang juxtapositions are at the basis of my writing. In my work, you’ll find that the heroes are always deeply flawed, and usually the bad guys have good sides. My father was arguably a terrible man, but the portrait I drew of him in The Last Marlin showed him to be a wonderful man, even though he did terrible things. If your characters are all total saints and total devils, it’s boring. 


LR This book is very different stylistically from some of your others. 


FW I think the rhythm of my prose is consistent from book to book, but there are stylistic differences. A book’s subject dictates the stylistic choices I make.
I tried writing this book a couple of times several years ago, and I didn’t like the way it was coming out. I took a hiatus of 3½ years and wrote a screenplay. I got some coaching from a screenwriter, and learned the basics. Then, when I returned to writing this book, I realized that what had been hurting me before was long, involved paragraphs and sentences. The Rum Cay story was such a violent, intense, desperate story — it needed to be written like a screenplay, written sparsely, with sentence fragments, scenes that move quickly. Writing the screenplay opened the door for me stylistically to write this book successfully.


LR Can you describe your writing process?


FW I have an office across from Penn Station. It’s very quiet, kind of my cocoon. When I’m writing a book, I spend most of my waking hours there, six days a week. I write for a couple of hours in the morning, then I have lunch and take a nap. When I wake up, I have a coffee and write for a couple more hours. But it’s not always that easy; sometimes it’s a bumpy road. Sometimes I can’t write, when I don’t know where to go next with a story.
One piece of advice I’ve given other writers is to always carry a little writing pad in your pocket. I find that most of my great breakthroughs, when I’m stuck, take place when I’m riding my bicycle home from the office, or walking around the city, or having a conversation with a friend. And it’s very important to write them down right away, because you can forget them.
I find that when you get to a point in a story where you don’t know what to do next, sometimes you have to take your eye off the story. Sometimes an idea is a little shy, and if you’re looking directly at it, it won’t come. But if you look aside, put the story out of your mind, an idea will arrive and surprise you. I know this is superstitious, but I believe that if I have that notebook in my pocket, ideas will come to me when I’m not expecting them. 


LR It doesn’t sound as though you write from an outline.


FW I don’t. I have a sense of the book I want to write and the story I want to tell. I work away at it, and when I get stuck, I rely on the pad in my pocket, and when I get a breakthrough, I write away some more. A critical point for me is when I figure out the ending for the book — then I can write toward it. But I never know the ending when I start out.
One of the great pleasures of writing for me is discovering things I didn’t know I had inside me. Beginning writers sometimes think that if you have an outline, and you follow it and complete it, you’ve done a great job. But that’s not true. You have to allow for the magic, for things to come out like a miracle. That can only happen if you’re not so tight. Writing is like dancing; you have to be relaxed to do it well. 


LR Do you think we write to try to make sense of our lives? 


FW I wouldn’t put it that way. I write because it’s familiar to me, and it’s what I do best. I write because writing moves me, the way music moves a musician. I would feel empty if I didn’t have writing. 


Laura D. Roosevelt is a writer, poet, and photographer. She lives in West Tisbury.

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