INTERVIEW by by Kat Dawes

NWR Issue 98

Tom Anderson

Tom Anderson is from Porthcawl, south Wales, and has written three travelogues based on his all-consuming passion, surfing. His first book Riding the Magic Carpet took readers on a glorious trip around the world in search of the elusive perfect ride. Tom runs creative writing workshops, often in conjunction with Literature Wales, who awarded him a bursary to help him write Chasing Dean, a semi-autobiographical tale of following a hurricane around the US’ eastern seaboard. Tom’s latest book is Grey Skies, Green Waves, a UK surf trip which reveals a surfing lifestyle far from the typically glamorous media portrayal — here, the waves are cold and that’s how the surfers like it. Tom is now working on a novel, as well as more ways to fund surf trips at home and abroad.

NWR: What makes surfing such a great subject to write about?

TA: It lends itself to metaphor very well. You can relate life or someone’s personal story to the waves and swells that come along. On a bigger scale, you can even tie swells and ocean movements to the very condition of a country or its people. I also like the lingo and jargon that you get in surfing, which I don't think readers necessarily need to understand to enjoy. I’ve always said how I enjoy listening to cricket commentary without fully understanding it, or business news on the radio — it’s kind of cool to just get lost in lingo. Plus, surfers are the best raconteurs on earth. Seriously, I know many writers and broadcasters, but none of them will spin a yarn like some of the surf bums I’ve met.

NWR: What do you think about the state of surfing literature?

TA: It’s on its way somewhere, at last. Surfing and surf culture have always been in the background or on the periphery of great novels, from those of Jack London to our own John Williams, but it hasn’t tended yet to successfully take the main stage in a storyline. That’s changing though — and I don’t just mean the obvious ones, like Breath by Tim Winton, which, even if it disappoints a few of my readers, I’m going to have to say I didn’t rate at all.

NWR: Why do you think there are so few surfing narratives from the UK in particular, despite surfing’s popularity here, and especially so in Wales?

TA: We’re a bit lost in the UK when it comes to defining our surf culture. The UK surf media has often tried to pretend this place is like California or Oz — as if we have waves year round, can wear t-shirts in winter and surf in clear water and without gloves and hats in winter. One UK surf mag even used to have a no-gloves rule for its picture sections! Half the struggle is recognising UK surfing’s identity as something unique and to be celebrated. That’s why I started off Riding the Magic Carpet with a Scotland section, even though I now know it puts some readers off. It was the first bit I wrote of the whole thing. That stripping back of all the traditional images associated with surfing was what first inspired me to write about it — castles and seals, dark northern skies and empty, perfect waves. I can remember the moment, in the Outer Orkneys, when the light bulb lit, and I realised this was going to be my unique take on an already-trodden literary road.
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NWR: Each of your books contains a thread which holds it together — in Riding the Magic Carpet, it was the desire to finally ride the legendary waves at J-Bay in South Africa; in Chasing Dean, it was the quest for transitory hurricane swells and the idea of reconciling your passion with the force of nature that in this particular case did a lot of damage to other people’s lives. In Grey Skies, Green Waves, it was the idea of a reconnection with surfing in the UK after so many trips abroad. Do you think that this pursuit of a quest preoccupies much travel and/or surfing non-fiction? In your case was it unconscious or did it serve to unite the stories within the books?

TA: OK, I have to admit, it was partly an editor’s demands in order to get a deal in the first place! But that first editor was right. In travel writing, you do have an automatic narrative vehicle in that the story moves forward with the physical movement — be it in a car, bus, plane, train or on foot. But for the story to successfully end up somewhere rewarding, it still needs the same sense of purpose as any other writing genre, and that is basically some sort of emotional or personal investment in the journey and narrative. I stand by that now, and wouldn’t now write a book-length travelogue without that element.

NWR: How much surfing do you think the non-surfing reader can take? Do you find it hard to choose how much pure surfing description to put in?

TA: It is a bit of a balancing act, but as I said, I think it’s fine within reason to throw unexplained lingo at a lay reader, as long as it’s sufficiently sonorous. I remember the poet Sheenagh Pugh telling me she loves Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky because you don’t need to know the vocabulary to recognise the meaning. She reviewed Chasing Dean and praised how I didn’t explain terminology. That made my year! Because Sheenagh was the very person who’d given me the idea that you could just hammer away at the lingo without really needing to explain it, getting praised by her for doing just that was extra special. That said, my publisher still insisted on a glossary in the back of my first book. That was fine, though. A book deal’s a book deal!

NWR: Who are some of your favourite surf writers, and why?

TA: Right, I’m gonna stick ’em in two categories here — the biographical ones, and the pure novelists. For the former it’s Andy Martin. Stealing the Wave is an absolute work of art. It’s like a surfing version of Capote’s In Cold Blood. He had the guts to get inside a controversial life-and-death chain of events and to then write it up like a racy page-turner. As with Capote’s use of the infamous Clutter killings, we read on knowing Mark Foo dies at Mavericks after going there with Ken Bradshaw. There’s no mystery to unlock — it was a story the whole surfing world had watched unfold. So the hook is the withholding of all the fine details of exactly how and why those fateful events rolled out the way they did. Then in fiction my pick is Kem Nunn. Tapping the Source does it all: it’s sinister, exploring the vicious, evil sides of the hedonistic lifestyle, and yet what holds the story together is the ocean’s role as something pure and all-knowing. Read it whether you surf or not. In fact, do the same for Andy Martin too!
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[NWR:] And what about non-surfing writers; which travel writers have inspired you and how?

TA: Well, first of all, I’d argue that the work of Tolkein, CS Lewis or even Terry Pratchett can count as travel writing. But the first earth-based travel writing I ever really got a buzz from was much less in the literary mould. It was John Simpson. His clear love of the exotic, and desire to understand the places he visits makes his prose so engaging. My favourite travel writer now though is probably Jonathan Raban, who I talk about all the time. Hunting Mr Heartbreak is superb {hear hear! ED}, because he paints so vivid a picture, and has such a sense of adventure in everything he does, even if it’s checking in to a motel or talking to someone with no particular story in a bar. He manages to find a narrative anyway.

NWR: Your blog talks about your current book project, a novel. Can you tell us a bit about it?

TA: Well, at the moment, it’s quite dark. I worked for over three years for a private investigations firm — no lie — and saw some pretty hairy stuff during that time. One of the cases I worked had a real macabre aspect to it, and we palmed it off to another firm, so I never found out the ending. The obvious thing to do, therefore, was to write what I’d like the ending to have been. That said, my version draws on elements of the occult too, as well as having a narrator who surfs. The plan is to take some of the stuff that I’ve done before, where the sea almost becomes this sort of living entity that controls the lives around it. This time, though, I’ve enjoyed throwing out the restraints of non-fiction, inflating that stuff up to draw on a lot more imagination. Trouble is, when you open the imagination, as much dark comes out as light. So there are dead bodies this time, and fear — I suppose that’s the short version of what I’m trying to say.

KD: What stage are you at?

TA: I’ve drafted about two thirds. I need to fix up the ending a bit and ask myself some probing questions about the narration and just how much the reader should and shouldn’t be told. I hope to finish this winter, after which I have no plan at all. That’s the best way to really focus on something — to not see much beyond it.
NWR: What work do you have in mind for after that?

TA: I suppose there are some ‘sort-of plans’. I’m passionate about the Welsh language, which I’ve been learning for a few years now, and about getting young people enthused with literature. Realistically, I’m never going to write in Welsh, but I did do my first ever Welsh-language event at the Dinefwr Festival this summer and I’ve played around with ideas for some kind of Dave Gorman-style stunt to get people debating the future and identity of the language, as well as learning it themselves. What that might be, if anything, is not clear yet. As for young people in literature, I do a lot of events and workshops with teenagers, so I might try to write something for a younger audience to support that. Again, what that may be, who knows?

NWR: Now you have conquered and surfed J-Bay, your ideal wave, chased hurricane swells and rediscovered the magic of surfing in the British Isles, what other surfing ambitions have you yet to fulfil?

TA: Ha, a tough one! Well, I suppose doing surf contests still means I’ll always hit that wall. I’ve actually had more success as a competitor in the last few years than when I was young and taking it seriously! My sense of being competitive is a trait I’ll never be able to eradicate when it comes to things I care about deeply. What is left for me to do more of in surfing is riding the tube. It’s so rare in Wales to get a lot of practice tube-riding, so when the right wave comes, the chance feels even more special. I had a tube in Mexico a few years ago that reminded me why I surf, and I’m still looking for the next one like it. That quest will never be satisfied.


previous interview: Stevie Davies
next interview: Niall Griffths


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