Q&A with Jay Nussbaum

As long time readers of this blog know, I am a sucker for short, interesting, and well packaged books. There is just something about small (in size) books that say: “Buy me, you will read and enjoy me immediately.” Recently, I made just such an impulse buy, picking up Blue Road to Atlantis by Jay Nussbaum. It has a cool cover and unique perspective:

Told from the perspective of a remora named Fishmael, who is traveling with his mentor, a wise and beautiful marlin known as the “Old Fish,” BLUE ROAD TO ATLANTIS intertwines a spiritual parable with Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea. The result is a lighthearted yet moving allegory about leading a more fulfilling life. By setting forth the idea that the quest for a higher vision and the acceptance of life’s currents brings true peace and happiness, this contemporary tale becomes a profound meditation that is as entertaining as it is transformational.

Roped in by this description, I picked up the book and immediately began reading. It is a unique and intriguing book and, as is my growing habit these days, I decided an interview with the author would be worth pursuing. Using the magic of the internet and the power of the blogosphere I arranged just such an interview.

Blue Road is Jay Nussbaum’s first published novel. He?s a graduate of Brandeis University and Boston University School of Law and has practiced real estate law in New York City. Not content with clinching million dollar deals in the big city, Jay moved with his wife to Ithaca, NY so she could pursue a degree at the Cornell Veterinary School and he could pursue full time fiction writing. Jay holds a black belt in Karate, has operated his own dojo, and has taught martial arts around the world; including a class at Cornell entitled: Taoism in the Dojo. Below he talks about the ideas in his book, the perils of publishing, and what he is up to next. Enjoy.

You have had an interesting career path. What led you from law and real estate to writing unconventional novels?

Honestly, it was exactly what I write in Blue Road to Atlantis–my current. I never belonged in the world of commercial real estate law to begin with–my heart was always in writing–but I fell under the same financial spell as do many people.

I first tried to get out in 1987, when I quit my job at a law firm and sat down to write my first book. The stakes were low back then. I was young and single, and though I was broke, rent was cheap, I visited my brother and his wife when I needed cooked food, and my old friends from law school sprung for the beer. Unfortunately, after a few years, I blinked. I?d grown tired of having to climb into taxis and say: ?Please take me three dollars and eleven cents north.? So I took another legal job and stayed in the field from 1989 to 1996, always well aware that I didn?t belong.

Then, in 1996, my wife got a scholarship to study at Cornell Veterinary School. She says I was noble to quit my job and leave New York City so she could pursue her dream, but the truth was, I was saving my own skin. We moved to rural, snow-covered Ithaca, where my commercial real estate background was rendered as obsolete as my Miata convertible. Forced to seek other options, I taught a class in Eastern philosophy and martial arts at Cornell, and of course, wrote and wrote and wrote.

If Hemingway’s novella was the inspiration for the plot, what is the inspiration behind the philosophy or world view involved?

The inspiration for a philosophy is a pretty elusive thing, Kevin, likely a combination of parental guidance and miscues, adolescent disenchantment and enchantment, friendships, life?s serendipity, and a bit of magic. Mine, I suppose, involves a little of all those things. But it?s genesis really isn?t as important as where it all leads. And mine leads to this: Every human being has an inner current, which it is their sacred obligation to discover and follow. To swim against it is possible for a while, but inevitably, the arms tire and the body drowns. This isn?t a personal opinion; it?s the nature of life. On the other hand, those who swim with their current, while it doesn?t necessarily lead in linear fashion to their dreams of today, it creates an expression of them that is their highest potential self. And that changes everything: who they are, what they do, who they love, who they meet, what legacy they leave, and so on. It even changes their dreams, because the highest self aspires to things the lower self could never dare to seek.

How has your experience with martial arts influenced your perspective and impacted your writing?

Profoundly. It has introduced me to people, and to aspects of myself, that otherwise I?d have never known. Without martial arts, I would never have known my sensei. Without my sensei, I?d never have started my own dojo. Without my own dojo, I?d have never had the sense of self that allowed me to approach my wife the first time the sight of her spun my head. Had I not met my wife, I?d not have come up with the idea with her to honeymoon in an Iban warrior longhouse in the rainforest of Malaysia. Had I never honeymooned in an Iban warrior longhouse in the rainforest of Malaysia, I?d never have met the tribal chief?s husband, who first started me thinking about inverting Hemingway?s story of The Old Man and the Sea. So, in the end, had I not thrown that first kick, I would have never written Blue Road to Atlantis.

Is the “Circles of Life” metaphor a thought experiment or an actual way of looking at life; i.e. a functional world view?

I don?t have a bit of patience for thought experiments, nor any admiration for philosophies that isolate people on mountaintops. Happiness without harm is the goal as I see it, and I believe that the circles are the way to a happy life. Find your circles to know your current. Follow your current to enable your highest self. It?s very functional, and only gets idealistic when one extrapolates it to the societal level. But it works there too. The only way–the only way–for the world to heal is one person at a time, and the only way for people to heal is from the inside-out. Now, that may be impractical as a short-term solution, but no more so than policy initiatives, wars and laws are futile in the long term. I don?t envy the job of presidents, prime ministers and generals–having to keep a bad engine running a little longer without exploding. But that?s their job. The job of authors, teachers, and other artists is to champion real solutions to human suffering.

Once you have this original idea how do you go about writing it? Do start with an outline? Do you write it out free hand or directly with a computer? Etc.

I always have at least a working outline because I find it liberating. To worry over whether I might be painting myself into a corner is distracting, and it introduces an impurity into what should be a sacred process. But as psychologically important the outline is, it?s more important to know when to ignore it. To cling to preconceptions in the face of a more intriguing choice makes no sense. As a writer, I know that my success depends on my willingness to follow dark paths and to exceed my own upbringing–as Hemingway said, to row away from the shore. It was a major step in my development as a writer when I stopped asking, ?What do I need him to do now?? and started asking, ?What would he do now?? So I outline, then write, then go back and change the outline to accommodate the writing, then repeat that process again and again.

As to your second question, I write mostly onto a computer, again, because I find it liberating. I don?t want my own innate laziness to enter the equation when I?m faced with a mediocre sentence that needs changing. With a computer, I can cut, paste, invert, shift–all with the click of a button. I do write extensive character profiles longhand, as well as certain book passages, but that?s just because inspiration hits me at the least convenient times. I wrote the opening to Blue Road on a curb after a taxi had dropped me at my motel after a dive. I must have sat there writing for an hour, my wetsuit beside me wet and smelling of brine. And it?s funny–with all the edits along the way, I don?t think the opening changed at all.

It took you some time to get this work published. Did you rework the book as you tried to sell it to publishers? What was that time period like for you?

No, I didn?t rework the book because it was just what I wanted. The work was in trying to get an agent to represent it, and a publisher to publish it. And that was an incredibly difficult time in my life.

What are the pluses and minuses of working with characters that are talking fish?

Well, shoot, characters are characters. Blue Road to Atlantis is no more about fish than the parable of Adam and Eve was about snakes and apples, Jonathan Livingston Seagull about birds, or Animal Farm about pigs. That said, when I created each character, I did of course have to know how that species of fish lives, what it eats, and the impact that would all presumably have on its world view. But that?s the same thing I?d do when writing a human character.

What research was involved in preparing to write a book set in the ocean?

I did about a full year?s worth of research before I ever put pen to paper while sitting on that curb. First, I immersed myself in books, magazine articles and websites devoted to marine biology, oceanography and the like. I also interviewed experts and made use of the journals in Cornell Veterinary School?s library to study the biology of billfish, sharks, etc. Next, I decided to dive the waters where Santiago would have fished. I made plans to travel to Cuba and dive the northern coast, but just prior to leaving, one of the experts who had been advising me told me that, due to the northern flow of the current throughout the Gulf Stream, if I wanted to observe the seabed as it would have appeared in 1952–when The Old Man and the Sea was published–I?d have to dive the Florida Keys. I did this several times. (Came disconcertingly close to a reef shark too, by the way.)

How did you go about choosing the type of fish for each character?

Some were obvious. The Old Fish was a marlin because that?s what Hemingway?s fish was. The remora made a natural companion, due to the relationship of two such fish in the wild. The dolphin was an easy choice too. Others required more debate. A Hardheaded Catfish as the evangelical metaphor, or maybe a Holy Mackerel? The one–between the two of us–that was my favorite choice, was the fluke, a character in the book few people ever even mention.

Are publishers reluctant to publish unique fiction like your book? If so, why?

Shamefully so, Kevin, shamefully so. Maybe it?s an unavoidable byproduct of trying to turn an art into a business. Publishers want predictability. They want proven genres, proven writers. But readers want something new, fresh and unique. They don?t want to be taken on the same journey again and again. They want to be transformed, touched, entertained, taught–in ways they might never have imagined on their own.

Because of this chasm, I?m using your website to announce my solution. I propose–and this is purely from a business perspective–that a law be passed banning all celebrity biographies. (Maybe I?d buckle during congressional hearings on this and allow bio?s for celebrities over the age of, say, 50.) But when a publisher has to pony up enormous sums of money to win the right to publish Dennis Rodman?s biography, readers suffer. Readers suffer because that publisher now has very little money leftover to risk on young, talented, but unproven writers. But if Dennis Rodman were prohibited from writing his biography, the publishing house could take that same money and spread it out over 25 or 50 talented, young writers. Don?t you think a few bestsellers would come from that? And it?s just sound business–risk management. What do you think? Can we get a national debate started on this?

What is next for you? Are you going to do something totally different for your next novel?

Other than the celebrity book banning initiative, I?m very busy. Blue Road has been added to the curricula of many colleges and high schools, and I?ve been fortunate enough to be invited to visit and speak to the students. I?ve also finished my next book, which is now with my agent in search of the right publisher. It?s entirely different than Blue Road in the sense that it involves human beings, not fish. But it continues to explore the same unifying themes. And I guess I?d say that, if Blue Road to Atlantis dramatizes the importance of following one?s current, the next book dramatizes the consequences for failing to do so.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).