Author Jeff Wallach
By Irish Echo Staff
Being allowed play golf has been one of the signs of a return to something like normality against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But if physical access to the links, or reluctance to venture out on one, has been the case over the last two months there has always been the option of reading about the game, either the real thing or, in the case of a recently released novel, a fictional story with golf as a backdrop.
Jeff Wallach’s “Mr. Wizard” is one such tale.
The story goes like this: Two days before her death, Jenny Elliot off-handedly suggests to her son Phillip that maybe he should be a little more careful about his drinking. Phillip, who along with his brother Stephen has grown up believing they were both the fully Jewish-American offspring of Jenny and her late husband, who died in the Vietnam war, decides to take a DNA test. Was his mother uttering some dementia-inspired fantasy, or was her true character shining through her disease to leave the brothers a clue to their real heritage, at practically the very last moment?
Phillip and Stephen set off on a quirky, irreverent genetic treasure hunt in search of who they really are, and what that even means: are we pure products of genetics; formed more completely by our social interactions and upbringing; victims of randomness; or some combination of these factors. In investigating for further clues to their true identities, the brothers encounter a few major surprises along the way.
“Mr. Wizard” is set in New York, Dublin, and the fictional Irish golf town of Ballydraiocht (which means town, place or land of the wizard in Gaelic).
The book, according to the author, features plenty of windswept Irish links golf, literary references, pub scenes, and a young woman golf champion who also plays drums in a band called Gorsey Park.
Michael Curtis, Fiction Editor Emeritus of The Atlantic, has said of the the book: “The writing is knowing and engaging, wise about its cultural orientations, and driven to discoveries both reassuring and life-enhancing.”
And New York Times bestselling author, Terri Cheney, had this to say: “Jeff Wallach is a prodigiously gifted writer - insightful, funny, and always surprising. Mr. Wizard twists and turns like a double helix. When you finish, you’ll want to go back to the very first page and experience it all over again, just to see how Wallach pulled it off.”
Wallach, a journalist and now author, was recently interviewed and was asked to describe his book in one sentence, to which he responded: “Mr. Wizard is a rollicking genetic treasure hunt in which two middle-aged brothers search for their true father by following clues that may or may not have been left by their mother.
What led him to write it?
“When I was in my early fifties my own mother inadvertently referred to our Scottish ancestry, something we’d never heard mention of before. I took a DNA test and sure enough, Scottish ancestry. This interchange gave me an idea that expanded a bit like a supernova. But an Irish supernova.”
Is there anything that qualifies you to write about Ireland and the Irish?
“Was J.R.R. Tolkien qualified to write about Middle Earth? In my work as a golf and travel journalist I’ve been lucky enough to visit Ireland six or eight times. I hope I’ve captured a bit of what I saw, heard, and experienced in pubs, on golf courses, in small towns, meeting with many Irish people of widely varying professions and backgrounds.”
What was your most impactful Irish travel experience?
“In 2012 I was invited on a golf trip to Ireland in the company of twelve U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who had been injured in action and discovered golf as part of their recovery programs. At Old Head Golf Links I was paired with Tim Lang, a veteran who had lost his leg in an IED explosion. It happened to be the anniversary of the day Tim had been injured and many of his comrades had lost their lives.
“It rained sideways and everyone else on the course that day went in but Tim decided he wanted to celebrate being alive by finishing the round. I was honored to be his partner for what was a very emotional day. I wrote a story about it for the New York Times.”
How long did it take you to write Mr. Wizard?
“The initial draft took only about six months of pure pleasure. The subsequent thirteen drafts took another two years of grinding.”
Do you prefer writing in one genre over another?
“As both a journalist and a novelist I like each form for different reasons. Journalism is easier because you don’t have to make up any of the facts or quotes. Fiction is more fun because you get to make up the facts and the quotes.”
What book most influenced your life?
“I’ve read John Irving’s ‘The World According to Garp’ many times at different stages of my life. It is as close to perfect as any novel I’ve encountered- long and messy and intricate and emotional - and depicts the internal experience of what it’s like to be a writer in thoughtful, accurate, and hilarious ways.”
Where do you write?
“Always at my desk. But I often edit in a reclining position.”
Is there any one thing that especially frustrates you about the writing process?
“Writing itself is mostly a hard-won pleasure but occasionally it’s a magical ride on a rainbow unicorn. The business of writing is nearly always a toothache nightmare.”
Any advice for novice writers?
“At the same time that you’re developing your craft learn everything you can about the business of publishing, which is another kind of skill entirely. And consider other genres than the one you most want to work in - making a living as even another kind of writer is better than most of the alternatives.
“Cultivate relationships with editors, readers, marketers, and others who may prove helpful to you. Never pass up an opportunity to help someone else in their writing career and always be honest, but also relentlessly kind. And don’t be a writer who thinks about writing all the time. Actually sit down and write as often as you can stand it.”
“Learning all the new, modern ways to promote ‘Mr. Wizard,’ pursuing all connections and methods possible now and in the future, reaching out to friends and strangers alike who can be helpful, contacting reviewers, booksellers, and readers, and hoping for a lightning strike. After that, a new novel entitled: ‘In a Workmanlike Manner.’”
Jeff Wallach is the award-winning author of four books of non-fiction as well as nearly 1,000 articles, essays, reviews, and columns in such publications as The New York Times, The Oregonian, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, GOLF Magazine, Men’s Health, Health, Money Magazine, and many others. Wallach holds a Masters Degree in Fiction Writing from Brown University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from Vassar College. He has taught fiction and magazine writing classes in high school, college, and adult education programs, and at several writers conferences.
“Mr. Wizard,” published by Open Books (http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/mr-wizard/order.html) is his first novel.