Nearly four years ago this month, I started work on my current book, “All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora.” It’s an oral biography of the once and forever king of Malibu, and HarperEntertainment will publish it in April 2008, just in the nick of time for the Los Angeles Times Book Fair – in case they’re interested in having me back, this time to talk about a unique and iconic Southern California anti-hero. (Just a word to the wise.)
While I’m in plugging mode ...
The book is based on over 300 interviews with Dora’s friends, enemies, intimates, peers, and family. I also combed through piles of research; traveled the length of California, then to France and the tip of South Africa; phoned/emailed everywhere else there are rideable waves.
Known as “Da Cat,” Dora dominated surfing style and soul during his heyday, and Malibu’s, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, before and after the movie “Gidget” brought the crowds and changed (most say ruined) everything. Although many of his contemporaries were break-the-mold wave-masters in their own right, Dora’s God-given gifts in the water coupled with the living theater of his charismatic, complicated, comic, and non-conformist personality, made him what they could never be: a legend in his own time.
Then, in the early ‘70s, Dora disappeared from Malibu to roam the world on a endless summer sojourn searching for empty, perfect waves – and peace of mind. Yesterday’s rebels had moved on and become the ME Generation. He hated what he saw as First World social and moral corruption – not that he wasn’t infected with a touch of both himself – and he’d had enough of what he considered being trapped in a black hole of celebrity between the soul-sucking consequences of his talent, charm, and mystique, and his belief that nothing in life was more valuable than total personal freedom – no matter what the cost to himself, and often others.
When he died, in early 2002, the London Times eulogized him as “A surfing hedonist who became a hero to a generation of beach bums ... (He) was everything that a surfer ought to be: he was tanned, he was good-looking, and he was trouble. West Coast archetype and antihero, he became the incarnation of surfing for the postwar generation . . . Dora was a Kerouac in board shorts, the soulmate of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A subversive, restless wild man.”
The Surfer’s Journal co-publisher/founder Steve Pezman told the Los Angeles Times, “If you had to pick one surfer that epitomized California surfing in the 20th century, it would be Miki Dora ... Everything that’s wrong with it and everything that’s right with it.”
There’s much more to this great story that's both local and international. (About 500 pages more.) But this much is clear: There will never be another character in surfing like Miki Dora. No one. Not even close.
This kind of story – finally getting to my point – makes finding a follow-up project very anxiety-producing. Time off by the poolside bar is fine, but I hate drinking alone. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell: “The filing cabinet’s too big, the desk too wide.” Book projects are just like serial relationships. All the components are there: romance, sex, friendship, arguments, the break up ... and if you're lucky you've saved something for retirement. The Dora book was great while it lasted; we'll always be friends, but it's time to move on and I haven’t yet found someone new. After such a long relationship, I feel awkard in public. I'm not used to dining at a table for one. I haven’t, well . . . dated in a long time -- but I can still mix metaphors with the best of them.
This is not to say that I haven’t had some good ideas; I just haven't met the right one yet. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a zillion ideas, from the sublime to the ridiculous. One example: "Rocket Juice for the Alien Abductee's Soul." I bet I could find 50 motivational stories about abduction, orifice invasion, and partying with the Grays or the little green men. "My advice," one guy told me, "is to just relax." You get the picture: I have lists and more lists. But just because you recognize a slam-dunk book idea when you get it, doesn’t mean it's actually right for you. No, it means you should have your own publishing imprint and throw the dice with someone else’s money.
My latest inspirations include something with the LAPD, the story of a certain building on the Sunset Strip, something about Malibu. (If I were more specific, you’d end up doing these books!) I got all excited and told my agent.
“Too local,” he said.
“Too local for what?”
“Too local to have national appeal, to make publishers think everyone’s going to want to spend $27.95 on a copy.”
“LAPD, Malibu, Sunset Strip . . . these are names known nationwide.”
“Publishing is in New York.”
So I told him a book idea centered in New York. It’s a quiet little story – very relevant today – about a guy who terrorized the city once upon a time.”
“But it was years ago.”
“New York is the media center of the world, hence what happens here has broader appeal.”
Maybe he’s right – though as a New Yorker he will cheerfully admit to being a bit biased – because he’s the one who has to deal with the editors with the big dollars at hand, to whom he’d like to sell my books. If they have the sensibility of the late Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover illustration of the view of the world from 9th Avenue, what can I do about it?
I’m not saying everyone in publishing is like that. After all, thanks to my very perceptive editor I just spent four years writing about a surfer. But this notion of a story being too local when it emanates from Los Angeles really bothers me. Last I looked we were right up there in the biggest city list. What happens here influences what happens there. We've got more sun-time, but that means more beach-time to relax and read. And there seems to be no lack of interest, at least among big magazines, to read about us. How else do you explain why magazine editors regularly send East Coast reporters out here to decipher our cultural customs for their more civilized readers? If this place is so local, why did everyone move here (and I'm not talking about migration from south of the border.) More than “too local,” I think hereabouts is where much of what’s interesting resides. Maybe we ought to turn the tables and send a reporter back into the snow and humidity to explain to us why they’re so interested in explaining – or mocking – us. I think they're just jealous. Despite the damned traffic, Southern California is an incredible place, with a rich history. So what if we never wore Colonial hats? I've been here 44 years. I still feel like I'm on vacation. (Except for the damned traffic!) There are many great stories here.
At this point I should probably offer a list of great “locally-based” books to prove my point, but I won’t because, as a self-centered writer, all I really care about these days is finding another subject to write about that gives me goose bumps. And why not? When you spend two or more years with the character or topic living in your house, eating at your dinner table, trying to crawl into bed and squeeze between you and your significant other and grab all the passion, it’s no crime think carefully about with you whom you really want to spend your creative time.
So how do you find the next big idea, the next terrific story, the next irresistible character? You’ve got to read, go out, stay open to possibility, check in with your friends back East, examine your long-time personal interests . . . and ask around.
Ok. I'm asking. If anyone knows a great overlooked or undervalued California tale and/or character that begs to be a book, well: the idea mailbox is open and taking all submissions at: themailroom @ tellmeeverything.com. (Remove the spaces before using the email address.)
Please, help me fight for the honor of "local" topics – oh, and keep me out of the pool and off anti-anxiety medication.