Pirouettes and Courage: An Interview with Daniel Duane

by Cody Leutgens

Daniel Duane is the author of seven books, including the surf memoir Caught Inside, A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast. His journalism, appearing in Men’s Journal, The New York Times Magazine,  Bon Appetit, GQ, and Esquire, has won a National Magazine Award and received a nomination for a James Beard Award. His latest book, How To Cook Like A Man, A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession, was recently published by Bloomsbury. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters.

We were really excited that Daniel agreed to be interviewed by us, and we’re even more excited to have Cody Leutgens, a student at Chatham who happens to be an avid surfer, available to conduct it.

The Fourth River: After rising in the morning, what is your day-to-day like, and how is your writing routine incorporated?

Daniel Duane: I have young children, so I like to get them ready and out the door for school. I take a lot of pleasure out of making bacon and pancakes for my daughters; it’s a really nice way to start the day.  Plus, my wife is a fulltime writer and also works from home, so we share.

The thing is, I really love my work. I like to write in the mornings—wake up early, get a big cup of coffee, get a bunch of writing done in the first few hours. Getting started is a mixture of reading and playing guitar. I usually have some song I’m working out the melody for and trying to get it just right, so sometimes it’s about sitting down for five or ten minutes to tweak whatever song I’m trying to work on to get the mind clear. I’m often working on a book, which is really for pleasure, a sort of labor of love project, and I’ll work on that for a couple of hours. I’ll usually have a book I’m reading, that’s not related to my work, purely for prose. Same goes for The New Yorker—it’s so beautifully written. It’s about getting my brain into good sentences.

FR: Do you have a writing space?

DD: I do have a space. I have an attic loft. We live right in the city of San Francisco in a small wooden house that we bought about ten years ago and I converted the unfinished attic. I climb my little ladder-stair into my writing loft. It has a window, a nice view of some mountains. The house quiets down and the kids are gone and I can really sit down and write.

FR: What is your approach to magazine articles and how does that differ from a book-length project?

DD: When you publish a book, it’s sort of understood that it’s your voice and your book and your project. The editor is there to try and make certain changes because they want the book to be received well and achieve sales, but the understanding is there—it’s your project. Magazines are very different, it’s more collaborative. Well, not before you turn it in, because that deals with just writing the thing, but say, when I write this piece about oysters for Bon Appétit, I have read their travel pieces before [and] I have a feeling for the voice of the magazine. I have to think about that voice for the magazine, the readership of the magazine. A writer who writes to please his own sensibility is going have a hard time with journalism because mags have formal constraints. But formal constraints can be great for writing—sonnets have formal constraints—you use them as your starting point for conceptualizing and executing the article.

The best advice I could give to any young, aspiring magazine writers is to subscribe to every magazine they would ever want to write for. I did this for years. Then your mailbox, every day, will be flooded with magazines and your job is to flip through every single one.  Then you ask yourself, “Okay, here’s Outside magazine. I’ve got five copies of it, let me flip through all the articles. What are the contents?” If you do that and do it carefully, you’ll very quickly get a sense of what article might or might not work that particular publication.

Then there are book writers who ask themselves, “What is a book project I think I can sell? What is a good nonfiction story I could write to get an advance for?” That’s a totally honorable way to operate and I wish I were better at that [laughs]. That’s just not really who I am as a book writer. Book writing, for me, comes from the earliest source of my writing energy, which was to use prose to think through the world and think through my own life. I would even do that as a kid using a pencil and paper to make sense of what was in my head. The grown up version of that is asking what I am most personally fascinated by and most personally preoccupied by, and that’s what leads me towards book projects. But sometimes there are pieces of those personal preoccupations that turn into magazine articles and sometimes those can dovetail pretty nicely.

FR: You’ve written surfing-related stories for mainstream, more literary magazines such as The New York Times Magazine. What is different about constructing pieces for the non-surfing masses?

DD: It depends on the specific story. I profiled Laird Hamilton about ten years ago for Men’s Journal. And Laird was such an outside personality, such a larger than life character. There were all these superlatives in his life that I could build it around. He had this supermodel wife and the whole Jaws era was pretty fresh [“Jaws” is a notorious surfing location in Hawaii where some of the largest waves on earth break in the winter months. Laird Hamilton was one of the pioneers of big wave surfing and one of the first to surf Jaws using jet skis and towropes to whip into the massive swells.] I could explain the whole tow-in concept to readers and how he was Mr. Giant Wave Surfer. So in that project there was kind of an easy element.

Then I did a Kelly Slater piece in Time and that was more about the competitive scene. There were these interesting things I tried to explain about professional surfing and competitive surfing to the lay reader, which was a fun project. And again there was a character study there, actually trying to explain Kelly’s character. He’s a really intriguing subject because he actually has things to say [laughs]. He actually talks to you and he’s a thoughtful guy and a particular guy in terms of giving you content. He’s a great subject. And the world of professional surfing is such a weird one if you actually try to explain how it works. It has more in common with figure skating than MMA or basketball or something. I do my little twirls and pirouettes, then you do your little twirls and pirouettes and we’ll see whose twirls and pirouettes were the best. It’s not always like that. When it gets to gnarlier waves [in] Teahupoo, [a stop on the World Tour of surfing in Tahiti where possibly the most dangerous wave in the world breaks] or Pipe or some of the heavier spots, then it’s not that way, then you’re really seeing the valor of it. Then it becomes a sort of courage competition and that’s interesting.

First-person surf writing adds very different challenges, I think, because there’s this problem with writing about surfing. The things that thrill us about a wave, I don’t think [they] translate very well. They’re hard to translate to the page, because they have to do with really positive feelings. One of the leading researchers and theorists on happiness and what makes human beings happy has this idea of flow, being sort of lost in the present tense with your experiences. I think surfing provides that in an incredibly powerful way. I know I’ve had the experience of a great wave, or I know I’ve had the experience where I’m on an unreal wave and I ride the whole thing and I pull out the back and I’m paddling back out and I think, “Oh my god! That was my best wave of the year,” yet, I kind of can’t even remember it already. I’ll try to picture the moment of dropping-in and I kind of just can’t. It’s all in this experience of flow. It’s so intense that you can’t remember it.

You have to be careful of telling the reader, “then I did this thing and it felt really good to me,” like, who cares, you know, good for you! [laughs]. There’s not a lot of narrative tension in it. So you end up writing about other aspects of traveling, about the hunt, the pursuit. You have to work pretty hard to evoke the natural beauty of being out in the water at beautiful times of day, the things we see out there. You end up dancing round it a lot. It’s kind of like writing about a love affair, or like I’m actually writing an Erotica [reallylaughs]. You really have to focus on everything else, the courting and what she looks like and the dialogue leading up to and drawing the curtains the next morning.

FR: So clearly, when you write for a surfing audience, they already know what you’re talking about. With other magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, you may have to rely on more interesting subjects or fascinating characters, or a more universal idea for the non-surfing masses?

DD: That’s probably right. Yeah, that’s right.

There’s also this thing about describing waves. As surfers, we have this strange surf lingo. Even the word “gnarly” has a real meaning to surfers. There are all these weird terms we use to describe waves—sucking, dredging, kegging, mushy—that are evocative to us, but I think it’s very hard to communicate what those things mean. You have to spend a lot of time studying waves. There can be a real pleasure in explaining those things to readers, but you really have to do some work.

FR: As surfers, we deal with a lot of stereotypes. Yet as surfing professionals, it’s fair to say we enjoy, or attempt to break those molded stereotypes, as far as being surfers in a professional world. On your website you list a few words to define you as a person—why is “surfer” the first word in that list?

DD: Hmm.

That’s interesting, why did I do that?

Surfing is something that gives us… Gosh, I don’t know.

Having surfing as a regular part of your life provides a stability and emotional connective in a life that is blessedly separate and disconnected from all these things like anxiety and work and tension. It gives you an anchor to the seasons, it gives you an anchor to a place, it gives you an anchor to friends, and to this eternally conscious physical experience. It’s inevitably reassuring. There’s this “I’ll always have surfing” feeling. It can be a defining element or pillar of a life. I guess that’s what I meant by it.

FR: No, that’s a completely legitimate answer. The idea of an anchor within surfing is unique, it makes perfect sense, but it’s not something I’ve actually rationalized or considered. That definitely describes surfing to you as an individual. How would you say surfing is incorporated in your life as a writer?

DD: For awhile it was surf articles, it was the book, and articles about pro surfers. My writing isn’t much about surfing anymore. But I’m still very much an active surfer and surfing still matters to me. The way that it informs my writing, or plays a role in my writing these days is that, well…Writing is so… cerebral and sedentary. I spend my whole day in it, indoors, locked in my head, and surfing pulls me out of that like nothing else. I do exercise in other ways: I run, swim in a pool, ride a bike, and other things to stay fit, but none of those are like surfing. I enjoy them, it keeps me healthy and helps to clear my head, keep my mind strong. But if the surf is good and I knock off work at 2, hop in the truck and drive down to the beach, I feel this wave of excitement come over me every. Single. Time. This “Wooo! HALLELUJAH, man!!” feeling. The whole time I am on my way to go surfing, actually surfing or just in the water, I am living right now. This is not something I am doing in pursuit of a different goal. I’m not doing it for money, I’m not doing it for fitness, I’m not doing it to advance my career. It’s not about differed gratification in any way. It’s just 100%, I enjoy the moment.

I’m not an old man, but I’m 45 now. I have duties and I have kids. I am old enough now where I don’t get out as much as I should. This year, I had some really good days…

I remember a really, really good evening session at Ocean Beach. In Ocean Beach, typically you sit way out in the water and it’s a strange position in the water, relative to the city. There was this cool moment when the sun was dipping into the ocean in the west and it’s already starting to get a little dark in the water. Then, all these windows in the houses along the beachfront, all of a sudden, these little panes of glass light up with red or gold, and at the same time, just moments after that, you’ll start to see the headlights of cars way up on the hills of San Francisco in the dark. And you’re still just sitting in the ocean. I came in from that and I remember standing there, changing out of my wetsuit on the sidewalk, thinking, This is as good as it gets, right here. I don’t need anything better in life. The way it relates to my writing is that… writing is a wonderful way to live, but it’s a fairly high anxiety, high-wire act of a career, or more of a tightrope act [laughs]. Yet it’s very cerebral.

Surfing takes me out of that like nothing else. It reassures me that I’m living well, that I’m living the right way.

Cody Leutgens is a CNF writer from the sands of eastern North Carolina. His work revolves around the sea and the waves that break on his home shore. He teaches CRW in jails, writes for a NC travel guide, as well as various surfing publications, while serving as the Editor-At-Large for Local-Sessions magazine. No matter where his swells of travel lead him, his heart and mind will remain engrained on Topsail Island.