Friday, October 9, 2015

Meet Kenneth Zak

Currently on blog tour: Kenneth Zak, author of The Poet's Secret.

Coming with both a nomination for the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart award, and an endorsement from Dirk Cussler--co-author of the more recent Dirk Pitt novels with his father Clive--it looks to be a blend of elements not ordinarily combined, as indicated by the following description:

In The Poet's Secret, Elia Aloundra, a young lit student, sees the reclusive poet Cameron Beck recite a poem at a campus pub before he vanishes--for a second time. Ten years earlier, Beck had dropped from the public eye, leaving only an acclaimed collection of odes to an anonymous muse and a decade of speculation over his disappearance.

Elia sets off in search of Beck, longing to know the man whose words have moved her so, hoping perhaps the ghost poet will unveil the secret to eternal love. What she doesn't know is that as her quest begins, Beck is perched atop a cliff on a remote Caribbean island and about to attempt suicide. As Elia faces off with Beck's protective circle on the exotic island hideaway, the same island where decades earlier a Spanish shipwreck entombing mystical Aztec relics was found, she finds herself swept up in the mystery of the muse. What Elia cannot fathom is that Beck’s secret will change both their lives forever.

A "book trailer" for The Poet's Secret is up on Youtube.

You can also check out an excerpt of the novel, and a Q & A with the author, below.


Excerpted from The Poet's Secret by Kenneth Zak, copyright 2015. Used with permission of Penju Publishing.
Stop the bells from ringing
Hush the infant's cry
Lovers lower your gaze
For one moment of respite
I am among you no more.

Wind be calm

Birds keep your roosts
Clear the sky

If only for an instant
Because I need this.

Quell the tides

Let the sea fall placid

Quiet the ancient whale's song
For there is but one honu now
And he is lost.

Elia huddled beside Dean Baltutis. The two of them were tucked away in a turreted alcove in Orton Hall. Massive blocks of native stone belted the fortress, stacked in the same stratified layers found in the underlying bedrock. It was as if the three-story building had sprouted from the earth's crust. Arched bay windows, a gargoyle bell tower and a steep pitched roof gave the structure the look and feel of a castle. Ashen, columned walls and oak floors dominated its corridors.

The century-old bastion cradled the most rare books at the university, esoteric tomes ignored by most. But Elia found sanctuary within its musty corridors. She often wandered amongst forgotten titles and ran her fingers along crumbly, gold-leafed bindings older than the building itself, and nearly as ornate. She felt safe here. This stock house of words felt like a home.

What had lured them here, however, was the university's extensive collection of maps. An atlas was spread across the table between them. Dean Baltutis scrawled his finger over a section of the map and circled a splash of baby blue, nothing more than a nondescript speck on a grand piece of glossy parchment. But within that imaginary circle lay a very real place.

"There's nothing there," Elia said.

She scooted forward. Her chair's leg stuck in a crack between the floorboards and caused her to jerk forward. She felt herself blush, but the Dean didn't seem to notice, or at least pretended not to.

"Hardly a blip on the radar," he said.

He pointed at a barely legible word. Undeterred by the stubborn chair, she slid forward on the worn seat and squinted at lettering finer than an ant's leg.

"I've never heard of it," she said.

She felt her cheeks flush again. Of course she hadn't. The mapmaker had barely spared it a droplet of ink.

"Few have. It's due east of an old Spanish shipping route from the 1600s," he explained. With his index finger he traced along an imaginary line just south of the West Indies.

She stared at the map. Scaled distances vitiated. She wondered whether squinting might transform time as well, like those nights when her eyelids succumbed and she drifted asleep still transported off within the open pages on her nightstand.

She looked up at Dean Baltutis.

"But you know it?" she asked.

"I spent about a month there," he said and nodded, "twenty years ago."

"With Beck?"

She knew that was why he had brought her here, but she wanted to hear it just the same. She noticed crow's feet creased his temple. Twenty years ago those lines likely weren't there. She had never imagined the Dean in his youth. She brushed her fingertips against the skin alongside her own eyes, still smooth.

"Sort of. He was writing up in this mountain hut. I was pining away over a lost love. Heartbreak—I think that's what finally prompted my island invite. It was the one time Cam shared his getaway with me, but even then he never allowed me up to that hut. That was off limits."

A hazy watercolor of the island started to take form. She envisioned sand and warm, teal-blue water and palms trees. She began to contemplate how she would get there.

Steps approached. The two fell silent. A backpacked co-ed with a black, braided ponytail peeked into the alcove but found the hideaway occupied. The Dean pushed his glasses back up his nose and stared at the intruder. She glanced at Elia and the Dean, sighed and walked away. Elia wondered if their coupling looked odd.

"I never saw him during the day. But every couple of nights or so he came down to the village. We'd plop down in this shed of a seaside bar and thrash out life, love and eventually his writing."

"Eventually?" she asked.

She had always assumed a writer spoke of nothing else.

"Yeah, we talked sometimes 'til dawn, the cantina long empty, just me and him and a bottle or two of wine, always red. Like a couple of candles burning into the night."

He flashed a yellowed grin. She lifted her chair over the floor crack and felt the table press into her stomach.

"What is it?" she asked.

"It was strange. I would listen to him ramble, but he just knew."

"What? What did he know?"

She heard a book thud down the corridor. She barely flinched. Instead she stared at the tiny speck on the map while he spoke.

"Everything I was feeling. One night Cam shared with me a few of his poems. I was sitting there, half past drunk, and listening to what became Secrets. I still remember the full moon flooding through the window. It lit him up like a spirit."

She'd have to fly through Miami.

"Right then I knew. He was the real deal, a poet dancing naked. The stuff everyone else bullshits about. He had nailed it. And I began to tear up."

She gave him some room to deflate.

"Cam looked at me, like what the hell is wrong, but those words hit me like they were my own. He had tapped into something I thought only I felt, but couldn't describe, and had transformed it into something more."

He glanced toward her and sighed. "That's one humbling awakening."

A Q&A with Kenneth Zak, author of The Poet’s Secret

What inspired you to write The Poet’s Secret?

At the time I wrote The Poet’s Secret, I was on a personal pilgrimage. I essentially took a three-­year sabbatical, sort of an adult “time out,” and embarked on a new path. I dedicated myself to explore the meaning of life and love and particularly the arc of passion. I became consumed by the idea of living in the present, honoring the "now" as the only real moment in time, the only authentic eternity, which allowed me to both disconnect and connect like never before and let go of the constructs of past and future as fictions created by the mind. I gained a new appreciation for relatively brief moments and encounters as having potentially profound effects. I was living abroad, reading, writing, surfing and slowing down my existence.

The tale that became The Poet’s Secret was conceived in a hovel perched atop a one­-table taverna in the hillside village of Avdou, just a scooter ride from the blue waters of the Aegean Sea on the island of Crete. I was sequestered alone, halfway around the world from my home, and recovering from a life, and a relationship, that had left me hollow, or at least I thought at the time. But it turned out words kept flowing out of me, first in raw, chunky verse that faintly resembled poetry and then in images and scenes that bore an even fainter resemblance to a novel. For months I wrote, swam in healing waters and disappeared into this remote, antiquated Greek village. I had never done anything like that before, but at the time it was the only existence that made any sense.

So many miracles happened during those months. I experienced a cleansing, a healing and an awakening, and I began to perceive light and water and imagery and words and the souls around me like never before. I eventually returned to California, and then traveled to Bali, Mexico, Costa Rica, Thailand, Cambodia and South America, following the sea and surf with laptop in hand and continuing to write. The backstory to writing The Poet’s Secret is a story in itself.

How did you select the locations for the novel?

It was tempting to set the bulk of the novel in Greece, a country I adore. However, as the story evolved the compass for the island setting spun toward the West Indies, and the story’s life raft washed ashore on the fictional island of Mataki. I was fortunate to spend a good part of my sabbatical on tropical islands and coastal villages that certainly informed the setting. As for the early campus setting, I based it on a fictionalized version of my beloved alma mater, the Ohio State University.

What was your particular process in terms of plot, outlining and character?

I essentially began the novel with two scenes that were haunting me. First, I had a reclusive poet on a remote island cliff about to attempt suicide. Second, I had a bookish young woman captured within the confines of the great romances of literature. I really had no idea about their connection, if any, but those two images would not let go of me. As I began to write, the concept of the woman yearning for what nearly kills the poet began to take hold.

The process was fairly organic. I let the characters breathe and lead me into the story. I wasn’t even sure whose story it was until shortly after the first draft. Once the closing scene appeared to me I realized that it was really Elia's story. I then just had to navigate getting there. While I did not develop any formal outline, I downloaded scenes as they appeared, stockpiled them and later wove them in when they seemed to make sense. It was a bit like swimming across a sea, not sure which direction land might be but hoping that if I kept going I would eventually find my way.

Stumbling, a bit blindly, through this creative process was both exasperating and exhilarating. As I was working on revisions, I attended several writers' conferences that stressed the necessity of thorough plotting, which made me feel a tad vulnerable. I later read an interview about Michael Ondaatje's process in writing The English Patient and realized I was in good company.

The novel is filled with excerpts of poetry, which came first, the poetry or the narrative arc?

Most of the poetry was written before any narrative took form. The poetry came in often painful and soul­-searching flourishes, and then was revised over time. There is a line in The Poet’s Secret where Dean Baltutis refers to the poet’s inspiration being "survival." That is precisely how it felt at times. I also wanted to combine both poetry and prose into one novel and attempt to slow down the reader a bit at the beginning of each chapter to contemplate and absorb the poetry, to be in that moment so to speak, before continuing on the narrative journey.

What in particular surprised you about the process of writing The Poet’s Secret?

I didn’t want to force plot twists or preconceived outcomes. I let the characters find the story. I let go of expectations and trusted the story to evolve. Tapping into this creative process was freeing, exhilarating and challenging, sort of like jumping off a cliff into the sea for the first time. I had never done anything quite like it, but this particular process for me felt authentic. I certainly was surprised how well the early drafts of the poetry and manuscript were received, which bolstered my confidence to pursue the project through publication.

Water imagery is abundant throughout the novel, what is the particular connection for you with water and particularly with respect to this novel?

I was thrown onto a swim team at age 8 even before I passed beginners swim lessons (I was terrible at the back float). But water soon became my life and in many ways my salvation. Throughout my youth I swam, played water polo, lifeguarded and hung around Lake Erie in northeastern Ohio. Somehow, I didn’t even see an ocean until I was 18. But I recall climbing out of the backseat of a Datsun 210 hatchback (or what they claimed to be a backseat) after driving for twenty­-two hours to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break and telling my college buddies to just pick me up in a few hours. I was mesmerized. I sprinted into the Atlantic Ocean and swam and bodysurfed until dark. Today, I surf or swim almost every day. I feel like I am about eighty percent water, the remaining twenty percent made up mostly of curiosity and mischief.

Much of the water in the universe is said to be a byproduct of star formation. I'm no scientist, but I like the way that sounds. Because when I look up at the night stars it feels a lot like gazing west an hour before the sun dips into the sea, at least at my secret little spot by the water. Flickering diamonds scatter everywhere along the surface, and if I squint just right, I forget the sea is even there. Instead, it looks like a galaxy of stars shimmering right into me, washing across my heart, reflecting off my smile and filling me with the belief that I can just float away into the universe. So I often do.

Spiritually, water often represents purification and healing. To me, water represents so many things, perhaps most importantly love and life and the sacred feminine. I once nearly died underwater while surfing in Uluwatu, a place few have ever heard of and even fewer have visited. But I know on so many occasions water has saved me, water has healed me, and water has reset my compass when I have been spinning in some uncontrollable vortex. So for me, my life and my love seem to be tied to returning to the great aquatic source, again and again, maybe just to fill the chasm that still exists in me, and maybe to some degree still exists in all of us.

I have been fortunate to swim with sea turtles and dolphins in the wild on many occasions. When I stare into the eyes of a sea turtle or a dolphin I cannot help but believe that they understand this great aquatic connection, a connection beyond humanity, beyond species, beyond even the stars. So when I am writing about passion, heartbreak, healing, life and love, it is only natural for me to write in a particularly aquatic language and style.

Where is your favorite place to write?

My favorite place to write is on that squeaky metal spring cot in that hovel above Mihalis' taverna in Avdou, Crete. After that, any place as long as I have my noise cancellation headphones. I’ve written and revised all over from kitchen tables to airplanes.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing over thirty years now in one form or another. I wrote a bit of poetry in high school and then did a bunch of required writing in my legal profession. It was sometime after law school that I penned my first novel (unpublished), and then about ten years ago when the idea for The Poet’s Secret first took flight. I also have some published short fiction and poetry.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Paulo Coehlo, Milan Kundera, John Steinbeck, Michael Ondaatje, Jorge Luis Borges, Rumi, A.S. Byatt, Carl Safina, Tom Spanbauer and so many more.

How did those authors influence your work?

My favorite authors inspire, entertain, challenge and provoke me. I don’t try to write or emulate any particular style. But when I read the opening of Cannery Row time stops.

How did you become affiliated with the Romance Writers of America?

Someone recommended I send an early draft of The Poet's Secret to the RWA. While The Poet’s Secret is by no means a traditional genre romance, it was selected an RWA Golden Heart Finalist in romantic suspense. I was the only male nominated that year (attending the national conference and award ceremony is another story altogether). When my face went up on the Jumbotron in front of thousands of mostly female authors at the award ceremony it was a bit unnerving. Writing anything can be fraught with self-­doubt. The RWA could not have been more welcoming and supportive and certainly gave me a bolt of confidence to continue writing and revising, as did the nominee class from that year, the appropriately named Unsinkables.

How did your professional career as an attorney influence your writing and how do you balance the two careers?

I think practicing law actually spurred my interest in creative writing. While I was in private practice, I felt constrained by the form restrictions requisite within the legal profession. I also felt a lot of legal writing often served more to obfuscate than illuminate and writing poetry and fiction allowed me the freedom to explore and express myself in a different medium. The Poet’s Secret is not "another lawyer’s courtroom thriller" in any respect, nor am I particularly drawn to that genre since I've lived it. Nonetheless, my legal career (now as General Counsel for a large private brokerage company) is both fascinating and challenging. I draw some inspiration from the poet Wallace Stevens who for years continued his vibrant writing career while an executive for an insurance company. As far as balance goes, my evenings and weekends are spent around the keyboard as much as possible.

Tell us about your involvement with 1% for the Planet and The Surfrider Foundation.

Perhaps only a poet would give away money before it is even earned, but that is what I felt compelled to do given my love of the ocean and conservation causes. In addition to ocean swimming, free diving and water polo, I have been an avid surfer for nearly two decades and have surfed around the world. Subtle conservation themes are laced through The Poet’s Secret, but my love of the ocean and our planet is anything but subtle. I hope to leave this world and particularly our oceans better than I found them. Penju Publishing's membership with 1% For the Planet and my pledged donations to The Surfrider Foundation are an effort to spread awareness, give back and pay it forward.

For more about the author please visit

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: How Fiction Works, by James Wood

New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008, pp. 288.

First things first--the book's title will strike many as a misnomer. In the strictest sense, How Fiction Works is not a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts manual to reading or writing fiction, but rather an exposition of a number of ideas about literary technique, and in particular various aspects of narration and characterization.

Some may see these as all one really needs to know about "how fiction works"--particularly if they incline toward the conventional ideas about what "serious" writers and readers should concern themselves with as a given. Wood most certainly does, in his analysis stressing form and character over, for example, plot, action or idea. (Indeed, there are no chapters on those things.) Additionally, where the issues he discusses are concerned, he tends toward the usual, "respectable" positions, both on what makes writing good, and who exemplifies this--the writers he cites the most canonical of the canonical.

In the process How Fiction Works treats of basics of the field that even the experts themselves tend to abide by unthinkingly. For the most part, it explains them lucidly, and illustrates its explanations with compelling examples, making it perfectly clear just what the techniques Wood describes really do for fiction--and why those writers who most fully and expertly utilize them are so revered. (Anyone unsure as to Flaubert's place in Western literature, for example, need look no further.)

In short, it is the kind of work that can only be written by an expert among experts, so much at home with these matters that he can explain them in concise and straightforward fashion.

Yet, being so steeped in a field can also be a liability. Much as Wood excels at explaining the received wisdom of the field, he gives little thought to the limitations of the modes the critics typically exalt, let alone the possibility of valid alternatives. (Only in a defense of the value of "flat" characters does he challenge the prevailing opinion.) Still less is he inclined to consider the presumptions underlying these ideas (for example, readily accepting the view that omniscient narration is "obsolete"). It might be noted, too, that not only does he stress the most canonical of the canonical, but that his literary imagination seems painfully rarefied at times, John le Carré's Smiley's People as "lowbrow" as Wood dares to go (!), with even the reference to that work unfavorable, and even patronizing. ("Nice writing for sure . . . by the standards of contemporary thrillers . . . magnificent," but ultimately a "coffin of dead conventions" is all that this work of "commercial realism" offers--which will come as a shock to all those who have struggled with his work.)

The result (as a survey of the Customer Reviews on a site like Amazon demonstrates) is that many a reader will regard Wood's concerns as limited, minor, obscure, or simply "snobbish," and for any and all of these reasons simply not relevant to how fiction actually works for them. Even those who are interested in the book's narrower range of concerns may wish it contained a more critical attitude toward its material--a thing for which they would have to go elsewhere. Still, even as one who has been appreciative of the case made for other standards (such as H.G. Wells so skillfully offered), in this book Wood excels at the task he set himself, and in the process renders the student of literature a considerable service, one which made me wish I had encountered the work much earlier than I did.

Our Literary Friends . . .

Graham Greene once wrote,
How seldom in the literary life do we pause to pay a debt of gratitude except to the great or the fashionable, who are like those friends that we feel do us credit. Conrad, Dostoyevsky, James, yes, but we are too ready to forget . . . all who enchanted us when we were young.
The writer who had enchanted him above all others was H. Rider Haggard, the author of classics like King Solomon's Mines, and She.

I was glad he wrote that. This was not only because I've found Haggard worthwhile (like Alexandre Dumas, he's one of those nineteenth century adventure writers who remain highly readable as entertainment), but also because of his challenge to the literary snobbery of which there is always far too much about. And especially that absurd form of which in which people claim an attachment to a Great Name from some very early age--that they breathlessly ate up the complete works of Shakespeare when they were four years old, or somesuch.

Ironically, Greene himself became the kind of friend to which people pay a debt of gratitude, because he does them credit, while those writers who enchanted them when they were young go unmentioned. Ian Fleming was among them. He was much more given to identifying his aspirations and influences with Greene (or Maugham, or Ambler, or Hammett), while slighting the pulpier writers (the Sappers and others) without whom I cannot imagine James Bond having taken the shape that he did. Still, in Fleming's defense, his affection for those friends he was happy to mention was genuine, however little it may have helped get him taken seriously by the upmarket critics.

Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on James Bond

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon