A book about family secrets and the adventure of discovering new family connections, especially in Ireland, is surely one to spark the interest of this community of Irish American readers.
Today, I’m delighted to introduce Jeff Wallach’s debut novel, Mr. Wizard. .
Before sharing my interview with Jeff, let’s first take a look at the intriguing storyline. Here’s the summary from the book cover…
Two brothers. One mother. One big question.
“Two days before her death, Jenny Elliot suggests to her fifty-year-old son Phillip that, being half-Irish, he should be more careful about his drinking. Phillip, along with his brother Spencer, has grown up believing they were the fully Jewish-American offspring of Jenny and her late husband who died in the Vietnam War. Was his mother uttering some dementia-inspired fantasy, or was her true character shining through in her last moments to leave the brothers a clue to their real heritage? After her death, Philip decides to take a DNA test.
The brothers set off on a genetic treasure hunt in search of who they really are—and what that might mean. Are they purely products of their genetics; or were they formed more completely by their social interactions and upbringing? Are they merely victims of randomness; or are they some combination of those factors? And who, exactly, is Mr. Wizard?”
Interview with Author, Jeff Wallach:
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.
Jeff 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.
Here are the answers he shared to an online interview with me …
Q: Why did you choose an Irish theme or setting for your book?
Even though I learned late in life that I have a small percentage of Scottish heritage, my many trips to Ireland led me to transform this to Irish heritage in the novel.
I think of the Irish as more mystical and emotional, and they’re also funnier— or at least funny in a different way: less staid, more rollicking. Which struck me as appropriate for this particular story.
Also, since sections of the book take place in New York, Manhattan has a large and boisterous Irish population, as does the town where I grew up on Long Island. The mixtures of Jewish and Irish people and culture were familiar to me from childhood.
I had an old friend from high school reach out to me recently after 40 years to tell me that he’s half Jewish and half Irish— something he said he revealed to very few people growing up. The book really struck a chord for him!
What traits do you think make your main characters typically Irish?
Certainly their ability to emote and their penchant for storytelling. Large families. Strong women. Some level of self-deprecating humor which I also equate with humility.
I think of my characters as people I’d like to have a drink with. Okay, several drinks.
Do you have family ties to Ireland?
No, but as a golf and travel writer I’ve been lucky enough to visit six or eight times over the years and cover some ground. I can’t wait to go back. All invitations considered!
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
In writing Mr. Wizard the first draft of the book basically fell out of me in six months of joyful writing. Pure fun. The revisions grinded on forever.
Honing the story, carving out all that was unnecessary, deepening the themes and connecting things so that they resonate throughout were challenging. Early on, I didn’t even know the answer to one of the central mysteries (nope, I’m not telling— read the book!)— much was revealed in the revision process.
And of course trying to find an agent or publishing a book these days is a nearly impossible endeavor— that was the most difficult part even though it’s not, per se, part of the artistic process.
On the very day that I’m writing this for you I received an email from an agent whom I reached out to over a year ago— sure, she’d consider reading my novel. I took some pleasure in writing back to let her know that it was actually published already. Artists seek to have their work seen: does a novel really exist if the only copy sits in your desk drawer? Or in a pile on an agent’s desk?
What was your most difficult scene in the book to write?
I wrote a scene in which the two brothers are in Dublin and they have a long conversation that consists almost exclusively of the first lines from famous books they’ve read. I spent many hours researching this and manipulating the conversation so that the quotes made sense and resonated with the themes of the novel, particularly as concerned mothers and fathers.
Then my publisher informed me that most of these lines were copyright protected and we couldn’t use them unless the book quoted was more than 75 years old. Sheesh!
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I love the writers museum in Dublin. Even just the idea of it! Any city that would dedicate a museum to writers— especially in such a beautiful building— is my kind of place. And that’s in addition to the Joyce museum.
It’s such a lovely and literary and accessible city that it was easy to set a couple of scenes there. Residents will recognize many locations.
What does literary success look like to you?
I would have answered this differently earlier in life, when it would have been tied to financial reward. I’m nearly 60 now and have earned my living in other ways so I care much less if the book makes any money (very few books do anymore)— although of course I’m not against that happening!
For me, I’d like the book to be read widely and for people to get the jokes and be drawn in by the puzzles and mysteries and consider the questions raised: who are we? How do we even define that?
It was very satisfying to have one reviewer cite the curious chapter titles in a way that showed that she totally got what I was doing with them. True engagement with the book is more important to me than sales figures— but of course your readers should still buy multiple copies for their friends and family!
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I have no idea how anyone ever wrote a novel before the Internet. Particularly during the many revisions I visited hundreds of websites to check facts.
What does McSorley’s, in New York, look like (I hadn’t been there in decades)?
What did it look like in the 1980s, when I set a scene there?
Do they play music in St. Patrick’s Cathedral?
Is there a word for “wizard” in Gaelic?
Then there was interesting fact checking about places I remembered from childhood— there’s a scene that takes place in front of a bank where Jenny, the mother, teaches one of her sons to drive. I describe him nearly crashing through the window of the bank. Then I thought: was there a window? So I went to Google Earth and looked for the bank, which isn’t a bank anymore. But I found the building, and sure enough, no window. So I had to change the text.
Other places where I couldn’t remember the details exactly I changed the name of a place, so that nobody could tell me there wasn’t a restaurant across the street from the library where I grew up, because I changed the name of it and now it’s a “fictitious” library.
I did get one thing wrong— another writer pointed this out to me. A fact that I missed. A dumb error. But I’m not going to tell you what it is. Let that be another treasure hunt for readers, since treasure hunts are sort of the theme of the novel. But anyone who finds it should let me know!
What other writing and publications would you like to share with the Irish American Mom Community?
I’ve written several non-fiction books about golf— one is a Zen golf book that people seem to like pretty well. It’s called Beyond The Fairway.
Where can readers find your books for purchasing?
Open Books is my publisher’s website,and buying there supports a small press and this literary writer best.
Or on my website, www.jeffwallach.com.
But readers can find Mr. Wizard on Amazon and in other obvious locations. And please ask your local bookstore to carry it!
Can readers follow you on social media?
Thank You To Jeff:
Many thanks to Jeff for participating in this online interview to introduce his new book. Wishing him every success with this wonderful publication.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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