Monday, October 7, 2019

Fred Waitzkin (GSAS ’68), Author of “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” the Best-Selling Book that Became a Movie

Fred writingFred Waitzkin has written feature journalism, personal essays and reviews for numerous magazines including Esquire, Forbes, Outside Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review.

In 1984, Fred published Searching for Bobby Fischer, chronicling three years in his life with his chess prodigy son, Josh Waitzkin. The book became an internationally acclaimed best seller. In 1993 the movie version was released by Paramount and that same year was nominated for an Academy Award.

Fred is now a fiction writer and avid fishing captain. His wife, Bonnie, is an NYU alumna and attended Washington Square College while Fred completed his graduate work in English at GSAS.

Fred Waitzkin: his story continues

Fred and Bonnie in Paris during their NYU years
Photo credit: John Clemans (GSAS ’68). Fred (GSAS’ 68) and Bonnie (WSC ’68) visiting Paris during their NYU years.

Your novel Deep Water Blues was recently published. What is it about?

I’ve been a fishing captain my whole life, as well as a writer. I own an old boat and since I was a kid I’ve had a fascination with blue-water fishing. I travel regularly to the Bahamas and I fish off remote islands. About twenty-five years ago I was traveling in the southern Bahamas and discovered Rum Cay, a gorgeous, pristine island with terrific fishing just offshore and a tiny marina on the south end. I loved going there with my family. Then about ten years ago a terrible accident took place in waters right beside the island.

Deep Water Blues describes a gruesome disaster that takes place to a little island civilization – an island once gorgeous, and peaceful, almost Eden like, and in the aftermath, the island becomes decimated by greed, out-of-control ambition, violence and murder. The novel begins, “Many times, I’ve made the long ocean voyage to Rum Cay to troll off the southeast corner of the island. But my fishing ardor has often been dwarfed by surprises onshore, where breezy sensuous nights plunge me back into the yearnings of a younger man and where I’ve met maimed and beautiful people on the dock and a few that were evil beyond redemption.”

In my writing I’m attracted to the proximity of opposites. My heros often have a dark side and “bad guys” in my books usually have redemptive qualities. The accident that took place near Rum Cay seemed to curse the island. It changed the entire environment - physically, emotionally and morally. It became a place where terrible things were regularly taking place, as if the island were cursed. I had loved this place so when I saw the way it changed, I knew it was something I needed to write about.

Fred and his grandson on a fishing boat
Fred and his grandson

Can you talk about your other books?

Searching for Bobby Fischer was my first book. My second book was Mortal Games, a biography of world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. I wrote a family memoir called The Last Marlin that was selected by The New York Times as “a best book of the year” in 2000. Now I’ve written two novels, The Dream Merchant, and Deep Water Blues and a screenplay. I’ve lived a writer’s life.

I’ve always thought of myself as a novelist even during years when I was doing journalism. The first writing I did after I graduated with my master’s from NYU was fiction, but I wasn’t very successful. I spent twelve years writing pieces for numerous magazines including Esquire, Forbes, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review, and I learned about the importance of plot and having a great story. As a journalist I learned how to find stories. When I was a younger writer I thought that fiction meant that you were creating stories, pulling them from the sky like fairy tales. Now I know that there are stories everywhere. You can run across them in the subway or in conversation with a neighbor in the elevator. Once I learned how to find stories, I was able to write the kinds of books I’d always wanted to write.

What was your experience writing the book Searching for Bobby Fischer?

I had written an essay for New York Magazine about chess players in Washington Square Park. Joe Fox, a senior editor at Random House who’d previously worked with Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth, reached out to me in response to the piece about the possibility of writing a book. In our conversation, I told him about my six-year-old son’s chess talent. I was so enthusiastic talking about my son, Josh, that Joe suggested that I focus the book on him.

I was writing it in real time for three and a half years as the events were happening. Josh practiced in Washington Square Park, then he started playing and winning scholastic tournaments. When he got a little older he started playing in youth world championships. We traveled the world together to different tournaments for about twelve years. That was a great period in my life. Living the chess life with Josh was like having my own sports team.

Three years after the book came out I was approached by a producer at Paramount about transforming it into a movie. The movie came out when Josh was sixteen. It was a very cool experience and it changed our lives in many respects. But it made Josh’s pursuit of chess more complicated. He would have 200 spectators watching his games when he was still young. He was precocious and he was a young master, but he wasn’t a grandmaster. It was difficult having so much of a spotlight on him. He retired from playing competitively when he was twenty.

You wrote a biography of Garry Kasparov, Mortal Games. What was your process?

He and I became very close friends as I was writing his biography. We were together day and night, staying in the same hotels, sharing meals, taking afternoon walks in the park. I traveled around the world with him for three-and-a-half years. I was in France with him for a month when he was playing the World Chess Championship against Anatoly Karpov. I visited him in Russia three times and he visited New York frequently. I was probably his closest friend in the West for that period of time. He is a brilliant, intense person, a deep thinker. He was living a dangerous political life in Russia at the time and he now lives in New York.

I wrote a cover piece in the New York Times Magazine called “King Kasparov.” It was the perfect title for it. When he would show up somewhere he would be trailed by reporters – it would be an event. In those days he was a bit of an autocrat. Garry called the shots. He didn’t like to be crossed. He seems to have softened a bit with age.

Fred writingWhat challenges have you faced as a journalist?

I was a freelancer and I had several editors at the New York Times Magazine who I worked with over the years. Writing pieces for them was very demanding. When I wrote for the magazine it wasn’t unusual to write a 7,000 word piece. It was almost like writing a book - compiling pages and pages of interviews and notes. I would meet with my editor from time to time and brainstorm ideas until we settled on what I would write next.

I was writing in the first person which was very unusual for journalists then for the Times. I was a journalist in the spirit of Truman Capote or Norman Mailer. I’ve always been suspicious about the idea of “objective journalism.” I always included my ideas in my pieces. I’ve long believed that the idea of impartial journalism is something of an illusion and in my pieces I used stylistic elements more usually employed in novels. I wrote for a number of magazines, and I only wrote about topics that were close to my heart and that deeply intrigued me.

What advice would you share with current NYU students?

I recently wrote a piece for Writer’s Digest (link below) about how the line between fiction and non-fiction writing is less distinct than people think. The key element is having a good story and the importance of hunting for good stories changed my life as a writer.

Read Fred’s Writer’s Digest piece on writing:

Fred driving a fishing boat


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