Fred Waitzkin, whose memoir Searching for Bobby Fischer inspired the movie by the same name, has been waiting his whole life to write a novel. A seasoned journalist and seasonal resident of the Vineyard, Mr. Waitzkin said that his nonfiction books had progressively begun to resemble novels. He finally decided it was now or never.
The Dream Merchant follows Jim, a ruthless and enterprising salesman, as he experiences riches and ruin and a trek into the heart of the Brazilian Amazon to mine for gold and exorcise his demons. The novel is narrated by Jim’s friend who gives both the details of Jim’s story and the character’s emotional journey.
Mr. Waitzkin said he was first inspired to write the story in 1984 when he read an article in Time Magazine about illegal gold mining in the rainforest. He said he was entranced by the tale of a native mineworker who worked hard to save money for his family only to spend it all at the mine’s brothel. In a broader sense, Mr. Waitzkin said he wanted to write a story about good men who did bad things. Jim would come to embody this theme.
“[Jim] is very congenial, he’s the best you’ll ever have for awhile until he screws you,” Mr. Waitzkin said. “He goes to some very, very bad places.”
Mr. Waitzkin will talk about his new book in conjunction with a screening of Searching for Bobby Fischer at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Tuesday, August 20. The presentation will also feature a discussion moderated by Island psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Silberstein.
Although inspiration struck in the early 1980s, it would be a long time before Mr. Waitzkin could get started on the novel. At the time he was just beginning to write Searching for Bobby Fischer, which he called a work of “introspective journalism.” When his son Joshua was about six years old, they discovered that he had a natural talent for chess. Joshua would play and beat adults in New York city’s Washington Square Park and he won a national chess championship at nine years old.
“It is one thing to be Joshua’s coach, but it is altogether another thing to be coaching him while writing a book about it,” Mr. Waitzkin said. “It imposed a different level of pressure on the enterprise.”
Writing the book also put an interesting twist on the typical father-son dynamic, Mr. Waitzkin said. Although he feared putting too much pressure on his son, Joshua handled it gracefully, he said. Although he was personally invested in his son’s success, Mr. Waitzkin said he tried to distance himself from the writing by recording the process and writing honestly about the feelings involved with it. He called this process “being his own journalist.”
Mr. Waitzkin said he tried to approach The Dream Merchant with the same kind of honesty and straightforwardness that he used with his memoir. To gain a better understanding of the underground world of illegal gold mining, he and his son traveled to the Amazon to experience Jim’s journey firsthand. Mr. Waitzkin said that they spent weeks braving the jungle to visit abandoned gold mines — active mines were heavily guarded and therefore off-limits. The hardship of life in the jungle helped underscore the theme of Jim’s determination to escape the poverty in which he was raised. “Jim is imprinted by poverty,” Mr. Waitzkin said. “Some people are willing to bet the whole game on a big payoff.” Mr. Waitzkin said he believes that Dr. Silberstein is the perfect moderator for the panel discussion because both books present important psychological questions about their characters. Both Jim and Joshua are highly motivated individuals, but for entirely different reasons. Jim fights to escape the memory of poverty whereas Joshua was motivated by his love of chess and, in part, by his father.
“Searching for Bobby Fischer stirred much interest in the psychological community,” Mr. Waitzkin said. “It asked the question, how much pressure can you put on a kid? How much is too much?”
A family member also played a part in the The Dream Merchant. Mr. Waitzkin’s grandfather was a coal truck driver hit hard by the Great Depression and his experience with poverty inspired Jim’s character. Evidence that even in fiction, real life plays a part.
Fred Waitzkin and his son Joshua will speak on Tuesday, August 20, at a screening of Searching for Bobby Fischer at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center at the Tisbury Marketplace. The film begins at 7:30 p.m. and the discussion will be moderated by Dr. Charles Silberstein.