Great Neck native Fred Waitzkin is best known for the first book he published. "Searching for Bobby Fischer," a memoir about raising his chess prodigy son, Josh, has been on the bestseller list for 33 years.
"My editor Joe Fox said to me, 'Fred, don't expect too much from this. It's a sweet little book you've written, but not many people are going to read it,' " Waitzkin, 77, recalled in a Zoom interview from his home in Manhattan. "I wish he was still alive, so I could tell him that it was No. 1 on Amazon in three different categories last week."
Joe Fox appears briefly as a character in Waitzkin's artful new novel "Strange Love" (Open Road Media, $15.99) as the former editor of the unnamed narrator. So, is this book, which tells of a love affair between a 60-something novelist and a young Costa Rican bartender named Rachel, autobiographical?
"It's one of my core beliefs that there's really no such thing as fiction. Look at any great book, the roots are in the author's life," Waitzkin says. "Like me, my narrator wrote a very successful book when he was a young man; like me, he was edited by Joe Fox. But unlike me, he then dried up and had nothing left to say, so became an exterminator.
"I've never been an exterminator," he continues. "But my office on 28th Street is next door to one, and I've made some great friends there."
In the acknowledgments of "Strange Love," Waitzkin thanks his friend Joel Grassi, a man with three graduate degrees, for sharing the harrowing and hilarious stories of dispatching vermin recounted by his narrator.
Waitzkin calls Long Island "the cradle of my fiction." He considers his father, a lighting salesman, and his mother — a painter and a natural storyteller — to be his original literary influences. As a devoted fisherman who got his first boat at age 11 and has spent innumerable hours fishing off Montauk and in the Sound at Great Neck Estates Park, Waitzkin set much of his previous memoir, "The Last Marlin," on the Island.Fishing is a major theme in "Strange Love" as well. Set in a fictional seaside village named Fragata that even the locals describe as something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Waitzkin was inspired to write the book during the six months he spent in Central America at the beginning of the pandemic. Waitzkin's son and his family had moved there years ago; when New York went into quarantine in the spring of 2020, he flew down to join them.
"Strange Love" is shot through with storytelling -- the stories Rachel and other townspeople tell the inspiration-starved narrator, who eagerly drinks them in, hoping to use them in his fiction. One such storyteller is Miguel, an old fisherman, who recalls several epic adventures at sea. It turns out that Waitzkin's grandson, Jack, had a major influence on Miguel's plot arc.
"Jack has always had great love of animals and fish," says Waitzkin, "and before he even turned 6 years old, the idea of eating animals and pulling fish from the sea caused him such distress that he became a vegetarian.
"When I was writing the character Miguel, I was thinking of Jack. When he [Miguel] catches a huge marlin in a sequence that mirrors the Old Man and the Sea, he ends up feeling not victorious but guilty. Then later, he cuts his line and lets a big grouper swim away."
As much as Waitzkin's narrator is fascinated by the stories of the villagers, he has a few stories of his own. One of them involves a movie star he meets in a bar. Is this also autobiographical?
"Well," says Waitzkin, "It wasn't quite the way I have it in the novel, which I don't want to give away. The real story is that about 50 years ago, I was in a little bar in the Bahamas, drinking a beer by myself. I noticed a very skinny Black man sitting in a corner, looking out the window, seeming forlorn. After about 20 minutes, I recognized that it was Sammy Davis Jr. I kept thinking, Geez, I should go over and talk to him, but while I was thinking about it, he got up and left and I never saw him again.
"In writing the book, I decided I wouldn't miss the opportunity again."
Where real life ends and imagination begins, in a broken-down bar in a forgotten place — that is where you'll find Fred Waitzkin, fishing for stories.