Neal Rabin is the co-founder of Miramar Systems, a Santa Barbara-based global software company, of which he was CEO for 15 years. Before that, Rabin graduated from UCLA; worked for Club Med as a tennis and surf instructor; stocked refrigerators; and served as a “fetch” for Time Life Films. Now, Rabin is an instrument pilot who divides his time between mentoring tech start-ups, writing, surfing, volleyball, and tennis. He lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, two daughters, and a flock of chickens.
A conversation with Neal Rabin,
Author of 23 Degrees South
23 Degrees South: A Tropical Tale of Changing Whether is the story of Hart and Simon, two childhood best friends who go on a wild adventure together, to the chagrin of Hart, who never expected to find himself in the remote jungles of Brazil. What motivated you to write this story? How did you come up with the title?
After completing my first book, Barefoot in the Boardroom, chronicling the life cycle of my tech company Miramar Systems, my former literary agent, Loretta Barrett, essentially commanded me to write her a novel.
Casting about for inspiration and a decent storyline, I thought about one of my favorite books Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Hesse structured the evolution to Buddha tale as an archetypal Hero’s journey, but it is also a classic story about deep, lifetime friendships that we hopefully all have. Siddhartha and Govinda were childhood pals after all. Their paths may diverge but their lives remained intertwined. I also love old “buddy” films – cheesy and classical – from Laurel & Hardy, to Hope & Crosby to Martin & Lewis, even to Farrell & Wahlberg. As a former comedy writer, I know that humor is one of the most powerful pathways into the human heart. The combination of both thematic elements became a rich opportunity to create an entertaining mix of inadvertent hero’s journey sprinkled with enough humor to make the inevitable misadventures both entertaining and relevant.
When I work with younger entrepreneurs, or really any business people that seek my advice from time to time a common questions is: ‘am I on the right road, or what’s the right decision at this juncture?’ That dovetails into a life question around the same issue. Have I chosen the ‘right’ path? Siddhartha asks that same question constantly and it’s a rich theme for my own life as well. That’s a long-winded route to answer the title question. The working title for the novel was In Search of Siddhartha, which quite literally helped me maintain my compass in terms of storyline, structure, and intention. After a time, it seemed a touch too esoteric; definitely not playful enough for me by the end. The city of Sao Paulo in Brazil is located smack dab on the 23 degree south latitude line, so…
Before you became a writer, you were the founder and CEO of Miramar Systems, a software company. What made you decide to switch careers? Did you ever write stories instead of working when you were in the office?
To me, it was never a career switch. Starting a company is essentially another incarnation of a ‘blank page.’ Yes, it is more collaborative than hunkering down alone at my desk prying a novel out of myself, but no less creatively fulfilling. Together with a growing bank of contributors I wrote the story of Miramar and got to act it out as well to a perfectly orchestrated dream denouement!
Hart is a very interesting first name; how did you come up with his name and character?
I didn’t have to think too hard about character names, especially the two protagonists Hart and Simon. Hart is a homonym. His name embodies his challenge and his search.
Hart and Simon are not the only ones with issues; Lazarus, a religious figure with a following, and Carlos, a gangster, are brothers with extremely different views but are ultimately working towards the same goal. Why did you decide to investigate these brotherly relationships?
I enjoy books that grab hold of me on multiple levels – characters I can either relate to or who are original and engaging, a story line that moves forward at pace, and a level of emotional subtext that emerges over the course of the book which touches and connects with me on that deeper level. As a writer, I think successful subtext is the happiest accident of the craft of writing. For me the act of writing is an adventure in discovery. I’m often as curious to see what happens as the reader. Not every plot point needs to be mapped out. I leave plenty of mystery space when writing to be surprised. A true journey is no fun if you know where it’s headed every single second.
To answer the question more succinctly about brothers, I view the brother relationships as secondary to a more overriding theme relating to fathers. There are two sets of brothers in the book as I see it – literal in Lazarus and Carlos, but Hart and Simon are also in a brotherly relationship. The larger focus explores the role a father – present or absent – plays in our lives. Fathers influence and impact our direction. They either point the way, support a choice already made, or more disastrously, play a negative and darker judgment role on our path through life. Now this isn’t going to be the place where I lay bare my tortured childhood because I didn’t have one. The exploration of fatherhood that runs through the novel emerged as an unconscious by-product of the writing. Once I spotted it however, I realized what a rich subtle texture it created and did my best to enhance it.
At the end of the novel, the relationship between Hart and Simon is left open-ended but optimistic. What do you believe happens to them? Do they return to the states, or do they stay long enough for Rio’s 2016 Olympics?
That could turn in any direction. Maybe they get great seats for the riveting Ribbon Dancing competition, even though they were angling for the Archery competition. Maybe they spent the entire fortnight of the Olympics washing Nike clothing on behalf of Maytag..
You’ve been to Brazil several times before. Where would you recommend travelers and vacationers visit?
Brazil is a vast country with so many different aspects. Besides Rio, which is a well worn road to travel I suggest visiting the musical soul of Brazil in Salvador/Bahia. Also the very old town in northern Brazil of Belem is a great window into the history of Brazils rubber boom and bust. In the heart of Brazil lies Manaus, located in the center of the Amazon jungle at the nexus of the two main rivers, which make up the famous Amazon. There’s a fantastic sight where the distinctive waters of both the Rio Amazonas and the Rio Negro come together tossing and heaving themselves about before intermixing into one giant Amazon river. There are tons of great surf spots all along the east coast, but we don’t talk about those!
Do you have another novel in the works? Will we see Hart, Simon, Carlos, and Carmen in the future?
I’m not so sure about the current cast of characters. I am currently at work on another novel taking place in the 1520’s called FLAT. It is about that brief moment in time when some people believed we’d either fall off the edge of the known world into the cosmic abyss or find our way around the unknown. At least I think that’s what it’s about for now.