In The Poet’s Secret, Elia Aloundra, a young lit student, sees the reclusive poet Cameron Beck recite a poem at a campus pub before he vanishes—for a second time. Ten years earlier, Beck had dropped from the public eye, leaving only an acclaimed collection of odes to an anonymous muse and a decade of speculation over his disappearance.
Elia sets off in search of Beck, longing to know the man whose words have moved her so, hoping perhaps the ghost poet will unveil the secret to eternal love. What she doesn’t know is that as her quest begins, Beck is perched atop a cliff on a remote Caribbean island and about to attempt suicide. As Elia faces off with Beck’s protective circle on the exotic island hideaway, the same island where decades earlier a Spanish shipwreck entombing mystical Aztec relics was found, she finds herself swept up in the mystery of the muse. What Elia cannot fathom is that Beck’s secret will change both their lives forever.
Zak conceived of his debut novel, The Poet’s Secret, in a mountaintop village on the Greek isle of Crete while on a threeyear sabbatical
An avid surfer and free diver, Zak continued to work on his manuscript and poetry in Bali, Mexico, Costa Rica, Thailand, Cambodia and South America
The Poet’s Secret was selected as a Golden Heart® Award finalist in romantic suspense by Romance Writers of America
What inspired you to write The Poet’s Secret?
At the time I wrote The Poet’s Secret, I was on a personal pilgrimage. I essentially took a threeyear sabbatical, sort of an adult “time out,” and embarked on a new path. I dedicated myself to explore the meaning of life and love and particularly the arc of passion. I became consumed by the idea of living in the present, honoring the “now” as the only real moment in time, the only authentic eternity, which allowed me to both disconnect and connect like never before and let go of the constructs of past and future as fictions created by the mind. I gained a new appreciation for relatively brief moments and encounters as having potentially profound effects. I was living abroad, reading, writing, surfing and slowing down my existence.
The tale that became The Poet’s Secret was conceived in a hovel perched atop a onetable taverna in the hillside village of Avdou, just a scooter ride from the blue waters of the Aegean Sea on the island of Crete. I was sequestered alone, halfway around the world from my home, and recovering from a life, and a relationship, that had left me hollow, or at least I thought at the time. But it turned out words kept flowing out of me, first in raw, chunky verse that faintly resembled poetry and then in images and scenes that bore an even fainter resemblance to a novel. For months I wrote, swam in healing waters and disappeared into this remote, antiquated Greek village. I had never done anything like that before, but at the time it was the only existence that made any sense.
So many miracles happened during those months. I experienced a cleansing, a healing and an awakening, and I began to perceive light and water and imagery and words and the souls around me like never before. I eventually returned to California, and then traveled to Bali, Mexico, Costa Rica, Thailand, Cambodia and South America, following the sea and surf with laptop in hand and continuing to write. The backstory to writing The Poet’s Secret is a story in itself.
How did you select the locations for the novel?
It was tempting to set the bulk of the novel in Greece, a country I adore. However, as the story evolved the compass for the island setting spun toward the West Indies, and the story’s life raft washed ashore on the fictional island of Mataki. I was fortunate to spend a good part of my sabbatical on tropical islands and coastal villages that certainly informed the setting. As for the early campus setting, I based it on a fictionalized version of my beloved alma mater, The Ohio State University.
What was your particular process in terms of plot, outlining and character?
I essentially began the novel with two scenes that were haunting me. First, I had a reclusive poet on a remote island cliff about to attempt suicide. Second, I had a bookish young woman captured within the confines of the great romances of literature. I really had no idea about their connection, if any, but those two images would not let go of me. As I began to write, the concept of the woman yearning for what nearly kills the poet began to take hold.
The process was fairly organic. I let the characters breathe and lead me into the story. I wasn’t even sure whose story it was until shortly after the first draft. Once the closing scene appeared to me I realized that it was really Elia’s story. I then just had to navigate getting there. While I did not develop any formal outline, I downloaded scenes as they appeared, stockpiled them and later wove them in when they seemed to make sense. It was a bit like swimming across a sea, not sure which direction land might be but hoping that if I kept going I would eventually find my way.
Stumbling, a bit blindly, through this creative process was both exasperating and exhilarating. As I was working on revisions, I attended several writers’ conferences that stressed the necessity of thorough plotting, which made me feel a tad vulnerable. I later read an interview about Michael Ondaatje’s process in writing The English Patient and realized I was in good company.
The novel is filled with excerpts of poetry, which came first, the poetry or the narrative arc?
Most of the poetry was written before any narrative took form. The poetry came in often painful and soulsearching flourishes, and then was revised over time. There is a line in The Poet’s Secret where Dean Baltutis refers to the poet’s inspiration being “survival.” That is precisely how it felt at times. I also wanted to combine both poetry and prose into one novel and attempt to slow down the reader a bit at the beginning of each chapter to contemplate and absorb the poetry, to be in that moment so to speak, before continuing on the narrative journey.
What in particular surprised you about the process of writing The Poet’s Secret?
I didn’t want to force plot twists or preconceived outcomes. I let the characters find the story. I let go of expectations and trusted the story to evolve. Tapping into this creative process was freeing, exhilarating and challenging, sort of like jumping off a cliff into the sea for the first time. I had never done anything quite like it, but this particular process for me felt authentic. I certainly was surprised how well the early drafts of the poetry and manuscript were received, which bolstered my confidence to pursue the project through publication.
Excerpted from The Poet’s Secret by Kenneth Zak, copyright 2015. Used with permission of Penju Publishing.
Stop the bells from ringing
Hush the infant’s cry
Lovers lower your gaze
For one moment of respite
I am among you no more.
Wind be calm
Birds keep your roosts
Clear the sky
If only for an instant
Because I need this.
Quell the tides
Let the sea fall placid
Quiet the ancient whale’s song
For there is but one honu now
And he is lost.
Elia huddled beside Dean Baltutis. The two of them were tucked away in a turreted alcove in Orton Hall. Massive blocks of native stone belted the fortress, stacked in the same stratified layers found in the underlying bedrock. It was as if the three-story building had sprouted from the earth’s crust. Arched bay windows, a gargoyle bell tower and a steep pitched roof gave the structure the look and feel of a castle. Ashen, columned walls and oak floors dominated its corridors.
The century-old bastion cradled the most rare books at the university, esoteric tomes ignored by most. But Elia found sanctuary within its musty corridors. She often wandered amongst forgotten titles and ran her fingers along crumbly, gold-leafed bindings older than the building itself, and nearly as ornate. She felt safe here. This stock house of words felt like a home.
What had lured them here, however, was the university’s extensive collection of maps. An atlas was spread across the table between them. Dean Baltutis scrawled his finger over a section of the map and circled a splash of baby blue, nothing more than a nondescript speck on a grand piece of glossy parchment. But within that imaginary circle lay a very real place.
“There’s nothing there,” Elia said.
She scooted forward. Her chair’s leg stuck in a crack between the floorboards and caused her to jerk forward. She felt herself blush, but the Dean didn’t seem to notice, or at least pretended not to.
“Hardly a blip on the radar,” he said.
He pointed at a barely legible word. Undeterred by the stubborn chair, she slid forward on the worn seat and squinted at lettering finer than an ant’s leg.
“I’ve never heard of it,” she said.
She felt her cheeks flush again. Of course she hadn’t. The mapmaker had barely spared it a droplet of ink.
“Few have. It’s due east of an old Spanish shipping route from the 1600s,” he explained. With his index finger he traced along an imaginary line just south of the West Indies.
She stared at the map. Scaled distances vitiated. She wondered whether squinting might transform time as well, like those nights when her eyelids succumbed and she drifted asleep still transported off within the open pages on her nightstand.
She looked up at Dean Baltutis.
“But you know it?” she asked.
“I spent about a month there,” he said and nodded, “twenty years ago.”
She knew that was why he had brought her here, but she wanted to hear it just the same. She noticed crow’s feet creased his temple. Twenty years ago those lines likely weren’t there. She had never imagined the Dean in his youth. She brushed her fingertips against the skin alongside her own eyes, still smooth.
“Sort of. He was writing up in this mountain hut. I was pining away over a lost love. Heartbreak—I think that’s what finally prompted my island invite. It was the one time Cam shared his getaway with me, but even then he never allowed me up to that hut. That was off limits.”
A hazy watercolor of the island started to take form. She envisioned sand and warm, teal-blue water and palms trees. She began to contemplate how she would get there.
Steps approached. The two fell silent. A backpacked co-ed with a black, braided ponytail peeked into the alcove but found the hideaway occupied. The Dean pushed his glasses back up his nose and stared at the intruder. She glanced at Elia and the Dean, sighed and walked away. Elia wondered if their coupling looked odd.
“I never saw him during the day. But every couple of nights or so he came down to the village. We’d plop down in this shed of a seaside bar and thrash out life, love and eventually his writing.”
“Eventually?” she asked.
She had always assumed a writer spoke of nothing else.
“Yeah, we talked sometimes ’til dawn, the cantina long empty, just me and him and a bottle or two of wine, always red. Like a couple of candles burning into the night.”
He flashed a yellowed grin. She lifted her chair over the floor crack and felt the table press into her stomach.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It was strange. I would listen to him ramble, but he just knew.”
“What? What did he know?”
She heard a book thud down the corridor. She barely flinched. Instead she stared at the tiny speck on the map while he spoke.
“Everything I was feeling. One night Cam shared with me a few of his poems. I was sitting there, half past drunk, and listening to what became Secrets. I still remember the full moon flooding through the window. It lit him up like a spirit.”
She’d have to fly through Miami.
“Right then I knew. He was the real deal, a poet dancing naked. The stuff everyone else bullshits about. He had nailed it. And I began to tear up.”
She gave him some room to deflate.
“Cam looked at me, like what the hell is wrong, but those words hit me like they were my own. He had tapped into something I thought only I felt, but couldn’t describe, and had transformed it into something more.”
He glanced toward her and sighed. “That’s one humbling awakening.”
MY BOOK REVIEW FOR THIS BOOK WILL BE UP SOON.