“Let’s face it, your writing isn’t what’s going to sell this book. Kelly’s eyes on the cover are what’s going to sell this book to 12-year-old girls.” These words, flying into my ear at 3800 mph (five times the normal speed of sound) from the mouth of Kelly Slater’s manager across the country in Los Angeles, struck my temporal lobe and knocked me off my chair. He was probably right, and the bargaining technique his ancestors developed through centuries of bullshitting was probably effective, but I wasn’t having it.
“Look,” Mister Hollywood Manager Guy added, “there are three other people on our list, so if you don’t want to do this, we’ll move on to the next guy.” Not that I’d be stupid enough to pass on an opportunity to write the life story of the greatest surfer, arguably the greatest athlete, of forever, just because of a couple grand and some royalties. I would’ve taken the gig pro bono, but I wasn’t going to let some silver-tongued douchebag talk me into a corner. I hung up and called Kelly.
Lucky for me, Kelly had been hearing the “your manager is an asshole” line for so long that he knew his manager was…well, if you don’t have anything nice to say. I’d known Kelly since we were ESA groms, and he’d been humbled by a piece I wrote about him for Surfer’s “Most Influential Surfers of the 20th Century.” We weren’t bosom buddies, but the powers that be figured a fellow East Coaster from the same generation could best tell Kelly’s story. Manager Man was bypassed, and royalties were added to the contract. I had a job. A good one.
The timing of the project couldn’t be better for me. I’d recently lost my Surfline position in a final slash of the editorial staff, and had I still worked there I wouldn’t have had six months to dedicate to the book. Oh, and Kelly was in Hawaii for the Pipe Masters, so I had to bail on Va Beach in December and fly to meet him on the North Shore. Duty calls.
For two weeks, I slept on a sofa or under my friend Cab Spates’ dining room table, the whole night alternating between battling mutant mosquitos and sweating inside my boardbag. Don’t feel sorry for me. I spent the rest of the trip surfing the seven-mile-miracle, watching the event at Pipe, and swimming through the head of a waveriding genius nonpareil.
I learned a few things about the champ in the process:
–He’s late. We set up a time to meet every day, and every day I sat around waiting for Kelly to show up. His tardiness is not due to rudeness but negotiating an endless parade of people asking for his attention. It’s a wonder he makes it anywhere, ever.
-He’s patient. That endlesss parade of hangers on would be enough to break any lesser man. Kelly, lemme get a photo. Kelly, sign my vagina. Kelly, gimme some free clothes. Kelly, tell your manager to stick his offer up his ass. Slater understands that invasions of privacy comes with the territory and never loses his cool.
-He’s sensitive. You might think the best water-walker in 2000 years (if you believe the gospels’ accounts) would have thick skin, but the guy is human. I mentioned Kelly’s receding hairline in an article, and he reacted by calling and telling me it was a surf mag, not a hair mag. He was being serious.
-He’s generous. Kelly didn’t hesitate when I asked him to give up a piece of his royalties. When the book was complete, he also offered me two custom boards from Channel Islands. (I didn’t need any boards at the time so I grabbed one of his personal sticks as a raffle prize for a local fundraiser and gave the other to Steve Hawk for helping my career.)
-I wouldn’t want to be in his flip flops. People see Kelly’s magic and think, I’d love to be him. I beg to differ. In addition to being pulled in fifty directions, hounded by fans, and belittled by wannabe journalists, imagine the pressure he faces every time he paddles for a wave. Kinda tough to have fun when every pair of eyes expects you to surf like Kelly Slater. I have mad respect for the way he handles his stardom.
All in all, the experience was invaluable. I wrote the book, convinced the publisher to abandon the kooky sea animal images they wanted at the start of every chapter, and handpicked the title, the cover, and the photos (many of which I plucked from digging through Kelly’s closets). As Slater made the late night TV circuit and signing tour after the release, Pipe Dreams peaked at #29 on the NY Times bestseller list for hardcover non-fiction.
The weirdest thing about the process, which makes perfect sense, was that after six months of writing Kelly’s story in the first person, I felt like I was inside his head looking out. Seeing the world through his eyes made me hyper-aware of my surroundings, especially when I was surfing. Things made more sense, except I couldn’t figure out why so many 12-year-old girls were staring at me.