Why did you write
Match Made in Heaven?
How did you come up with this amazing idea?
When people ask me how long it took me to write Match Made in Heaven, I answer, “a little over fifty years”! In reality, the actual writing took me a little under three months (that’s a long story, mostly having to do with a preposterously tight deadline my publisher gave me because the book was perfect for Father’s Day, and the ms. had to be handed in over a year before that), but the point is that I had been “incubating” the various ideas in the book for the better part of my life.
So when it came to writing the book, I wanted to express my experiences in three distinct areas that all have played a major role in my life: the study of history and the great personalities of the past who have affected me and my intellectual and emotional development; the act of athletic competition and my passion for sports; and the struggle that someone goes through following a major setback such as a life-threatening heart attack and subsequent surgery.
I think that I’m uniquely qualified to write such a book, since I have been lucky (or unlucky!) enough to have experienced all of these: I have a Ph.D. from Harvard in French and Comparative Literature, was a French professor for eleven years, and have studied in depth the fields of art history, music, the classics, religion, history, philosophy, and popular culture; I have been a devoted sports fanatic since I was four, played three sports in college (soccer, squash, tennis), was a teaching tennis pro, and have been crazy about golf for nearly fifty years; and I’ve undergone five heart surgeries, including a quadruple bypass, two angioplasties, and two defibrillator insertions. (I also have only one functioning coronary artery remaining out of the original four—but who’s counting?)
Anyway, I wanted to put all of these experiences into words—a sort of disguised (fictional) memoir dealing with all of them. So I chose this fictional Harvard professor, had him undergo a heart attack, and then I suddenly saw God in the OR challenging him to a golf match so that Elliott Goodman, the protagonist, could save his own life (instead of leaving it to chance). But that obviously wouldn’t be fair, and that’s when I came up with the idea of God’s sending down eighteen “substitutes” in the person of these fabulous historical characters whom I personally have always admired.
What do you think makes Match Made in Heaven so special, so different from other novels?
I’m really glad you asked this question! I guess it’s part of my personality to not be a follower, and to do things that are far from the madding crowd, so to speak. In this case, I don’t find “genre” fiction or “category” fiction appealing, personally, for me as a writer. When I write, I like to choose a topic that is utterly distinctive and that has never been written about before in the history of the world. Such, for example, is the subject matter of Match Made in Heaven.
Who has ever written about a golf match concocted by God, where the main character, who has just had a massive coronary infarction, ends up playing against eighteen fabulous deceased characters—hand-chosen by The Almighty—from the worlds of religion, literature, art, music, politics, philosophy, sports, and entertainment, and all this with his very life at stake?
Also, this is not a typical fiction in the sense that it not only tells a story but is about lots of more “immediate” stuff that most people would certainly be interested in: self-improvement, the importance of resiliency, learning from mistakes, and the meaning of life.
What are you trying to tell your readers? Why would they be interested in your “message,” in what you have to say?
Well, are people interested in questioning the meaning of life? Are they interested in discovering why life is worth living, what each individual life contains that makes it so special? These are the deeper subjects of the book, beneath the story of a golf match.
What I also try to convey in Match Made in Heaven is that there are phenomena in life that have metaphorical significance, a deeper meaning, and are more than they appear to be. In the novel, the two major metaphors are the amazing game of golf and the human heart. Even if you don’t play or follow golf, it is easy to recognize the game’s power and meaning. It can teach us all about who we are in the form of life-lessons: humility, limits, resilience, joy, compassion, integrity, self-reliance, risk, and so on. And in the book, Elliott relearns all these qualities through the vehicle of golf, and with the help of eighteen incredible personalities who each have one of these lessons to share with him.
I also think most people are interested in the fact that we are, all of us, flawed individuals, as Elliott himself is, especially in light of his heart attack and the challenge he faces when he has to play this pressure-filled golf match against God. I think people are interested in how we react to these flaws and do our best to correct them or at least to confront them directly and accept them fully.
The main character in Match Made in Heaven is a Harvard professor who has a near-fatal heart attack and finds himself challenged by God to an eighteen-hole golf match to save his life and ends up playing against a fabulous cast of eighteen substitutes, who happen to be famous deceased writers, philosophers, artists, scientists, etc., and the match forces him to question the value of his life and to perform under great pressure at a game that is extremely difficult, with his life in the balance. I’d like to know if you’re writing all this from personal experience, or just because it makes for a compelling story.
Actually, both. Writers have to write about what they know: That’s a cliché, but it happens to be true. I’ve had the good (or bad) fortune to have some expertise in the three major areas the novel covers: a passion for learning about history, literature, art, music, politics, etc.; a passion for sports; and a history of heart disease and surgery. And, icing on the cake, I think the story of Elliott Goodman, God, the eighteen “substitutes,” and the lessons Elliott learns from them and from golf and how he realizes why his life is worth saving makes for an amazing, compelling story (and a pretty good film, too!).
The eighteen characters in your book are certainly fascinating, but how did you end up choosing them in particular, as opposed to all the other fascinating dead people up there? And how long did you spend doing background research?
To answer the second question first, I actually did very little research. For one thing, I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with facts and details in the lives of these characters, lest the story I’m telling be bogged down with minutiae.
For another, I know a fair amount about each of these characters, enough at least to have them play golf in a manner consistent with their recognizable personae. I’ve been a passionate student of literature, art, music, history, sports, and a few other disciplines for about fifty years, give or take, so I’d better have picked up a thing or two along the way! So what may have appeared as “useless” information stored in the fissures of my gray matter was actually put to use in the writing of this book! And having played the particular golf course in the book (Inwood C.C. in Long Island, N.Y.) many, many times as a kid, I didn’t have to visit it, because even today—about 45 years since I last played it—I still remember every tree, every blade of grass, every dogleg.
Now, as far as how I ended up with these particular characters is concerned, I chose all of them because they played a more or less significant role in my own development (as in Elliott’s). I also spent a good deal of time making sure there was a balance in the book in terms of the characters’ fields of expertise, their nationalities, and their ages. And finally, they all had to be fascinating and complex personalities, and quirky enough to visualize perfectly on a golf course (swinging a club, bantering in the golf cart, and so on).
En route to the final selections, I considered a good number of other fascinating figures, including Cleopatra, Dante, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Newton, Marie Curie, James Joyce, Jack Johnson, and Einstein. But ultimately, I’m very pleased with my final choices of Leonardo da Vinci, W.C. Fields, Moses, John Lennon, Freud, Poe, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Marilyn Monroe, Picasso, Abe Lincoln, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Babe Ruth, Columbus, Gandhi, and Ben Hogan.
What other books would someone who likes your book also enjoy?
That’s hard to say, since I like to think that no one has ever written a story like this in the entire history of the world. So I can’t really compare it as far as style or subject goes to anything that occurs to me. I will say that there have been a handful of “fantastic”golf tales that are vaguely similar and that readers who enjoy Match Made in Heaven would also enjoy. Books like Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom, Steven Pressfield’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Bo Links’s Follow the Wind.
Did the plot of the novel change from when you first conceived it? Did you know how it was going to end? Did you make an outline before you started writing?
No, not really. Because of the eighteen-hole format of a golf match, hole two follows hole one, and so on. A real no-brainer. The ending had to be tinkered with a good deal, but I knew generally how it would end—no, how it had to end—pretty early on.
The challenge was actually to juggle a bunch of things in the air at the same time: telling a compelling story; making sure there was an ebb and flow to the golf match so that there was a certain amount of tension, conflict, and suspense; developing Elliott’s character; portraying the other famous characters in a funny, believable way and also have them play golf in a way that was consistent with their personae; and weaving into the narrative the life-lessons that Elliott learns from the game of golf and from these unforgettable opponents.
Finally, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I always make an outline for the book. Sure, there are things I don’t know will happen, and there should always be a certain amount of suspense and ignorance for a writer, a certain amount of unpredictability, which is part of the fun of writing. But for me, I have to have a modicum of structure and know generally where I’m going. Maybe it’s because in real life I’m pretty disorganized, so when I’m writing, I have to structure a bit so as not to fall into a state of irreparable disorder and chaos!
What’s your next book going to be about? Golf again?
Actually, I’m just finishing a second novel, and I won’t give it away at this point for a number of reasons. But in general, it’s about baseball. I’ve been a dedicated sports fanatic for most of my life, and I’ll probably always include one sport or another in my novels. Baseball is especially rich as a writing topos, with its mythic and metaphorical status and its abundance of strategy, statistics, and suspense. Anyway, the novel is about baseball, and also history—the meaning of history and the possibility of reliving the past (there’s lots of “time travel” in the novel). It’s also a wonderful story about a grandfather-grandson relationship. And that’s all I’ll say for now.
Besides golf, what other sports do you write about? Which sports do you enjoy watching? Playing?
I’m just finishing a novel that has baseball as a major theme. I’ve also written a book of sports poetry (The Heart Has Its Reasons), a book of sports wisdom (The Tao of Sports), and a book of sports essays (How My Mother Accidentally Tossed Out My Entire Baseball-Card Collection), all of which deal with a whole variety of sports.
I’ve followed all major and minor sports (including Australian Rules football and even curling!), in fact, since 1951. I watch all sports, but I must say that in recent years, pro basketball and football have become a lot less exciting than they used to be (I prefer the college version of both). So my favorite sports to watch these days are baseball (caveat: especially if the Red Sox or the Giants are in a pennant race), the NCAA college basketball tournament, tennis (the majors), and golf (especially match play, as in the Ryder Cup, the President’s Cup, the Solheim Cup, the Walker Cup, and the Curtis Cup: I think that’s why I chose match-play golf as the thematic basis of Match Made in Heaven).
My playing days of soccer and squash are long gone, but I play tennis often (I’m a 5.0, but no tournaments anymore), golf occasionally (10 handicap), and I rollerblade (between the Pacific and the mountains) every day of my life.
Who are your favorite pro golfers on the tour today?
On the men’s side, Tiger, of course. And Freddie Couples, Phil Mickelson, John Daly, Sergio, Shigeki Maruyama, and Darren Clarke. On the women’s tour, Annika, of course, and Juli Inkster, Laura Davies, Paula Creamer, and Michelle Wie. Among the Seniors, it’s Tom Watson, Craig Stadler, and Jim Thorpe.