Interview with Fred Waitzkin

I had the incredible opportunity to interview Fred Waitzkin, author of Deep Water Blues, which I reviewed last week. When I started The Plucky Reader, I never expected it to go anywhere. Never in my wildest imaginings did I believe people would read the words I wrote or send me books to review. And I definitely did not expect to have the opportunity to interview authors.

Real talk, between you and me, I didn’t even know what to ask in an author interview. I’m both ashamed and not ashamed to admit that if you look at search history, you will absolutely see multiple searches of “how to interview an author” and “interview questions for authors.” Let’s just call it resourcefulness? Please?

In any case, I’m excited to share my interview with you all, today. He offered valuable insight into the world of writing, and a peek into his own life as a writer. I am very grateful for this opportunity.


Mr. Waitzkin, thank you for taking time to answer some questions about yourself, the writing process, and, specifically, Deep Water Blues.

First off, could you tell us a little about yourself? What drew you to writing? Was it something you always dreamed of pursuing, or was it something you just fell into?

My mother, Stella Waitzkin, was a great painter-sculptress and also she was an artist with words.  She read stories to me throughout my childhood and sometimes she made them up. When I was thirteen she gave me a copy of Life Magazine with Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. While witnessing the death struggle between a larger-than-life blue marlin and an old man, I became intoxicated by the rhythm of Hemingway’s short sentences, and some strange fusion took place deep inside me –– great writing and fishing became bonded. I knew then that I wanted to fish and write stories. But also, I was interested in Afro-Cuban drumming and selling lighting fixtures, which was my dad’s field. It took me a while to sort it out.

Where did you get the idea to write Deep Water Blues? What inspired you to tell this particular story?

I visited Rum Cay numerous times over many years. I knew first hand the beauty, pain and violence of the story I wanted to write. 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 challenge was how to best approach this material. In my early drafts the momentum and power of the story was impeded by longish carefully wrought paragraphs. At one point I put the novel aside to work on a screenplay and that gave me the key to this book. I needed to tell the story fast and violent — particularly the scenes on the island — with no flashbacks, mostly taut bold scenes moving forward as in a riveting film.

Deep Water Blues has this wonderful alternating perspective throughout; when you set out to write this book, was this how you envisioned it, or did it evolve along the way?

No, it was something I just fell into. I liked the juxtaposition of the cruise south, at times lazy and reflective, with the violence of the tale I was pointing toward; although, to be sure, there is portent of the danger ahead on the boat trip.

Did you work with an outline, or did you just write? Is this your usual process?

I have a general idea of the story I want to tell, but I never write an outline per se. Usually, I jot notes on a three by five card or on a page in a little notebook I keep in my shirt pocket and let my paragraphs grow from these ideas. For me, too much planning impedes the flow that I’m looking for. When I get stuck I pace around or ride my bike looking for the next idea that will push me ahead into more pages.

What was your favorite chapter to write in Deep Water Blues?

The first chapter was so dark, excruciating and bloody. It sounds almost sick to say that it was my favorite but it was a great challenge to get it right, and when I finished I thought it’d caught the true spirit of that terrible event.

Which work from your career are you most proud of? Why that work?

When I finish, each of them feels like my favorite — it’s terrible for me, to send a book off. I cannot let them go. That’s at least in part why it takes me such a long time to go from one book to the next. If I try to write something new right after I finish, I find myself writing the last book all over again.

What is the toughest criticism you’ve ever received as a writer? How did that impact your writing, if at all?

Many years ago I was friends with the great American poet, Mark Strand. I showed him one of my early stories, quite short as I remember, and he said, “I don’t know if it works.” I was a young unpublished author and I found that remark from Strand crushing…. I didn’t think he was right, but for sure he rattled me. But also I think Mark’s criticism hardened my resolution to keep at it.

What is the best compliment you’ve received as a writer?

I’ve been lucky enough to have had wonderful readings from authors and critics, although remarks from friends I love have had a greater impact. When my wife Bonnie and my boy Josh relate powerfully to my work, that’s the best, not even close.

What part of the writing and publishing process would most surprise somebody pursuing writing?

Most young writers are crazy with concerns about getting published. I hear this all the time. How do I get published? What if I can’t get published? I understand – when I was young the rejection slips piled into my mailbox. It was so bad that my wife would open the box so I didn’t have to feel the pain … but now, looking at the process across a sea of many years, I know that what makes me come alive as a writer is paragraphs flowing out of me, almost without thought as if I am an instrument guiding a vision. Just writing sentences on this page makes me feel alive.  

But a life as a novelist means being comfortable spending thousands of hours alone in a room trying to get the pages right, along with other days when pages won’t come at all. Can you deal with long stretches of silence? Years of it. Can you learn to relish the process entirely apart from any ideas of glory or treasure down the road? You need to feel the endeavor as a calling; or probably you should choose another path.

Have you written a book that you love that you have not been able to get published?

Thankfully, no, although when I finish a manuscript I might think, what if no one likes it? What if all these paragraphs that I’ve labored over and loved have no appeal beyond their appeal to me? Curiously, I never think this way when I’m actually working on a book.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

You need to discover the magic of carrying a small writing pad, something that can fit into a shirt pocket. When you’re stuck and the pages won’t come, forget about them. Go to a ball game, ride your bike. Go hear some music. You will be amazed how the ideas will come when you are not looking directly at them. Give ideas room to gestate and grow. Sometimes they are shy. When they come, jot them onto the pad, quickly before they disappear. Just having the pad seems to engender ideas. At least it does for me.

Thank you for taking time to talk with me today; I have enjoyed your work and am excited at the upcoming release of Deep Water Blues. It is a wonderful book.

Fred fishing

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