By Glenda Winders
SDUN Book Critic
Ken Zak’s novel hasn’t even been published yet, and already it was a finalist in this year’s Golden Heart Awards sponsored by Romance Writers of America. Zak, the only male finalist in the romantic suspense category, didn’t win the prize, but it garnered him the attention of agents and publishers, and the person he has to thank is his son, Cooper, a freshman at the University of California Santa Cruz.
The story of how all this came to be is as compelling as the book itself.
A few years back, Zak was working in his own legal practice and living in a comfortable house in Mission Hills. But despite having an enviable lifestyle, he felt there was something missing.
“I had this story inside that I wanted to write,” he said in an interview. “I had an image of a poet on the side of a cliff about to jump, but I didn’t know why or what had happened to him. And I had a woman searching for real love. I didn’t know yet how they were connected.”
That’s when Cooper suggested that if what his dad wanted to do was write, he should sell the big house and go do it.
“There was no good answer other than, ‘You’re absolutely right!'” Zak said.
He sold the house, cashed out his law practice and headed for Crete, where he lived in a room above a taverna in Avdou. He spent the next three years traveling, reading, surfing and writing.
“It was a reawakening, a rebirth of my own self creatively,” he said. “Now I’m pursuing a more honest life of creativity for me.”
The result of Zak’s sabbatical was “The Poet’s Secret.” The story’s two main characters are Cameron Beck, who becomes famous after dedicating one significant book of poetry to an unnamed muse and drops out of sight, and Elia Aloundra, a graduate student who hopes to write her thesis about him. With the help of her professor, an old friend of the poet’s, she tracks Beck to the remote Caribbean island where he has taken refuge, and their two lives begin to intertwine.
Zak says the setting is a fictional creation based on several islands he has visited, as is the patois spoken by its inhabitants.
“I was trying to draw from the language of the West Indies,” he said. “Not too dialectish but enough to flavor the writing and help it ring true.”
Each of the chapters begins with one of Beck’s love poems, also written by Zak.
“There’s a strong part of me that’s Cameron Beck,” he said, “but there’s also a part of me that’s forever Elia.”
Elia, an orphan, longs for the romance that so far she has found only in books. She believes the answer will lie with Beck, but to find him she must penetrate the circle of colorful island friends who guard his privacy and keep his secret.
Zak said he chose the island setting because of his affinity for water. Besides being a surfer, he’s also a swimmer and a scuba diver, but his favorite activity is free diving.
“I love the simplicity and cleanness of just having goggles and fins,” he said. “I love the feeling of being underwater. If I don’t swim or write every day, it’s like I’m not being honest to myself. I’m just biding my time.”
Other influences on his work are music and books. Zak says until he began this new adventure, he read mostly legal tomes. Now his taste extends to mysticism and art, especially Impressionism. His favorite authors include Joseph Campbell, the poet Rumi, Pablo Neruda (whose home he visited in Chile), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul Cohelo and Milan Kundera—all of whom have led him to new experiences.
“Now I listen to music or read poetry or go to a park and stare up at the trees and try to look at things we all see but we forget,” he said.
An ethereal beam of light that came through the door during his sabbatical and cast a reflection like stained glass gave him the inspiration for his next book, which will also have an island setting.
“It was a watershed moment of slowing down and looking at something differently,” he said. “Almost like an apparition occurred on the wall.”
To flesh out this image, he’s headed back to Crete to take notes and photographs. When he returns to his Mission Hills home in September, he’ll settle down to write in earnest. He works now as general counsel for a brokerage firm, but he plans to spend the evenings at his computer.
“I’ll work all day and write all night,” he said. “Work, write, swim, eat. I’m organic, intuitive. I save up images and scenes and then I start to write. That’s my process.”
Zak, 48, said what keeps him going is the idea of creating ideas that might change someone else’s life.
“I love the magic of writing something from my imagination or something I’ve seen or lived or experienced now that in five or 10 years or a week from now someone else will read and get their own impression that will take them somewhere that moves them or entertains them or makes them think or reminds them of something they’ve experienced,” he said.
His personal philosophy is that “the greatest moment of your life may be in the next five minutes.”
“I believe in convergence,” he said, “that certain elements come together at certain points in time”—such as his meeting the woman in his life in an office copy room.
One thing he knows for sure is that he will never be bored.
“Finding literature was lifesaving to me,” he said. “I’ll never be able to read all the great works of literature. There will always be another good book to read and another book to write. I love the idea of a great web of stories and mine being one little snippet in the great mass of literature.”
Until Zak’s novel is published, follow its progress at kennethzak.com.