What: Author and co-author of sixteen books, seven of them New York Times bestsellers. They include: ALL FOR A FEW PERFECT WAVES, the oral/narrative biography of legendary rebel surfer Miki Dora; THE MAILROOM, an oral history of what it’s like to start at the bottom in show business reaching for the top, and DEVIL AT MY HEELS and DON’T GIVE UP, DON’T GIVE IN—both with Louis Zamperini.
Where: Ventura, CA
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Your oral history of Miki Dora’s life, ALL FOR A FEW PERFECT WAVES, is the definitive portrait of the legendary surfer. How would you explain Miki Dora to somebody who has never heard of him before? How did your opinion of him change researching and writing the book?
Miki Dora personified the rebel heart of surfing. He was king of Malibu when that break was queen in the 50s and 60s. When the book and movie, Gidget, popularized surfing, Malibu was overrun with newbies leaving Dora and his contemporaries pissed off at the crowds. He never got over it, and so spent his life searching for empty waves worldwide.
He was also an artistic kid from a troubled home who valued personal freedom above all else—even if he had to rip-off your surfboard or wallet to finance his desire to never have a job so that he could always surf.
His good looks and charming performative personality plus his domination in the water let him get away with being an outlier, the first surfer who knew how to manipulate his celebrity. He was unique.
My opinion only changed to the extent that I took what he predicted about corporate commercialism and the sellout surf culture more seriously at 50 than when I’d read his occasional screeds in the surf press as a teenager. With the years I could see more in his apocalyptic pronouncements. But then and now, my take on Dora was romantic and sober.
How did ALL FOR A FEW PERFECT WAVES come about? How do you feel about the book six years later?
I grew up surfing in Southern California is the mid-60s to early 70s. Dora was a fixture in the surf press. He was compelling and unusual and a great surfer. He disappeared in 1974 and like many I wondered what had happened to him. Rumors flew: he was a lawyer in Century City. He lived with Nazi fugitives in Argentina. He was in jail.
In 1982 I proposed to California Magazine to find him. Few would talk about him either because they were Dora’s friend and respected his request “don’t sell me out,” or because they feared some form of retribution, or because they thought he gave surfing a bad name and didn’t want to contribute to the legend. Still, I found him: just after he got out of jail. I pursued him for four months for an interview and he finally agreed. The story appeared on the cover of the August 1983 issue of California Magazine. Dora hated it, when he didn’t love it, and suggested we turn it into a movie.
In 2003, fresh off a few books, I wanted to find my next topic. I hit on Dora, who had recently died at 67 from pancreatic cancer. His being gone freed up hundreds of people to talk about him—since he rarely talked about himself. I got his father’s cooperation, and the estate’s—but they did not have any control. I traveled the world talking to 300 people who knew him, loved him, hated him, had romantic relationships with him, surfed with him, had business dealings with him, were ripped off by him (a badge of honor, believe it or not), who fostered grudges, and who idolized him. And I had my own interview with him.
Six years later I feel great about the book. Most everyone seems to love it because it’s about a unique (but hardly perfect) man, told honestly and without being salacious or, most important, judgmental. It’s neither a whitewash nor dancing on his grave. It’s about an American icon and the development of modern surf culture—which has found its way into all aspects of pop culture.
I also feel it should have gotten much more attention—what author doesn’t. But surfing books are tough to quantify. Jamie Brisick’s “Becoming Westerly” is a terrific book, as is the new William Finnegan. I shouldn’t complain. I’ve gotten lots of love for my book.
Favorite Miki Dora quote?
“I do not recognize anyone’s right to pilfer one minute of my life, nor to any achievement of mine, no matter who makes the claim, how large their number, or how great their need.”
He stole it from Ayn Rand. And, typical Dora, didn’t give her credit.
Dora’s spirit is alive in every incidence of localism—he regularly tossed people off their boards at Malibu if they got in his way; and it’s also alive in the passion of people who just want to surf and commune with nature and the waves.
In addition to ALL FOR A FEW PERFECT WAVES, you have also co-written several other books including two with Louis Zamperini. What was it like to work with him on those projects? What can readers learn about the man who isn’t represented in UNBROKEN?
Working with Louie was a special privilege. He had an uncanny memory. He was energetic and enthusiastic until the end. He was able to forgive the most horrendous things done to him during WWII, and he committed his life to helping others.
We knew each other for sixteen years, before UNBROKEN and afterward. In fact, when we had finished his autobiography (DEVIL AT MY HEELS), he got a letter from Laura Hillenbrand (who did UNBROKEN), asking if she could write her book. He said no. He’d just finished his book. We wrote her a thanks but no thanks letter. But we all stayed in touch and a year or so later she convinced him to cooperate. Good thing. Louie deserved all the recognition he could get.
Oddly, I came to Louie because his wife told me to watch his story on 48 Hours. I called her and asked who was writing the obvious book. I got the job. She had been a good friend to Miki Dora at Malibu in the 50s. Louie also knew Miki. When I tried to write about Miki for California Magazine I called his dad, who told Miki, who sent Louie’s wife—Cynthia Applegate—to investigate me and negotiate the terms. We became friends.
Readers can learn about Louie’s “broken” years post-war. His PTSD. How he fell apart while living the high hero’s life as a public figure in Los Angeles. They can learn how he hit bottom and turned to street corner tent preacher for salvation—and helped put Billy Graham on the map in 1949. They can learn about his camp for wayward boys that saved many, as well as his lifetime of service. And his wicked sense of humor.
There’s really no trick. My success lies in my personality, which happens to work well in these situations. I like people, I’m curious, non-judgmental, listen.
I just tell everyone to “tell me everything,” because that’s the route to a good book. Nothing is easier to spot or more disappointing than someone obviously holding back. When I know what I have to work with it’s much better. And we don’t have to use it all by any means. After all, in a collaboration about someone else’s life, they control what sees print. I suggest, they decide.
Have you ever considered writing fiction?
I can’t sustain my imagination for long enough to write fiction. In all my non-fiction books there may be some fiction, though. But I didn’t do it on purpose.
What advice do you have for newer writers interested in co-writing? What pitfalls would you advise them to avoid?
Yikes. Got a few days? Keep your eyes open. Have a collaboration agreement. Make sure you and the subject get along. Ask why they want to do the book—it reveals much including that they shouldn’t. Don’t be afraid to have opinions, but remember you are not the star. Have no ego. Read this short piece I wrote for LA Observed.com.
What are your publishing plans for the rest of 2015 and 2016?
I’m currently working on the memoir of a young woman who somehow slipped between the cracks of the old boys network to become the only female fixed wing (not helicopter) pilot in Afghanistan and West Africa between 2007 and 2011 working for the notorious (and now defunct) Blackwater Security. It’s a funny, crazy, refreshingly honest story about her life as and with the civilian aviation gypsies who fly where the military won’t tread. Think Jennifer Lawrence in Air America.
S.W. Lauden’s short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published by Rare Bird Books in October 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.