Thursday, August 06, 2009

Interview With Tom Anderson

In his first book, Riding the Magic Carpet, Tom Anderson went in search of the perfect wave. In his latest, Chasing Dean, his protagonists set out to ride hurricane surf along the eastern seaboard of the USA. And that means hitting the road in a beat up Ford Escort Estate. A thrilling mix of travelogue, fiction, meteorology and philosophy, Chasing Dean has been one of the literary highlights of the year, thus far. Here Tom answers a few questions on writing, surfing, and his brief career as a private investigator.

The popular perception of your average surfer is of a laid-back, empty-headed, nature boy. How close to the stereotype is Tom Anderson?

Not very, unfortunately. I try my best, and it's there in the background somewhere, but I've never been one for the really hard-core bumming around. A combination of not being selfish enough, and also being too lazy to subject myself to the hardships that the proper dropout has to deal with. I rarely camp, I keep my car clean, like eating out, often wear shoes and can't really claim empty-headedness either. I think nowadays though, for better or not, very few surfers at all actually live up to the stereotype. In a way it is a shame, because I certainly aspired to be like that when I was young - but then I like working and being busy so it hasn't really happened for me. Mind you, a reviewer once called my writing an 'exploration of the drifter and dreamer mentality' - which is without doubt the best comment anyone's ever made about my work. Sadly surfing's quite a yuppy sport now though, with property prices ensuring that only those who can afford to live near a beach can do it at all regularly. I'll never embrace that - because put simply, it sucks.

For the uninitiated, what's the Welsh surfing scene like and where are the best places in Wales to surf?

Well, I'm biased of course, but I do firmly believe Porthcawl - my home town - is the best surf-zone in Wales because of the range of surf spots available in such varied conditions. In two miles there are about ten spots which vary from deadly reef-breaks to playful beach-breaks. Elsewhere, Llantwit has great waves, along with the Gower and some parts of Pembroke. The Welsh surfing scene is a very dedicated one, with people from all sorts of walks of life united by this obsession with riding waves. I suppose that, compared to places like California, it's still a pretty hardcore scene too - fools aren't suffered lightly, and there's a real lack of bullshit when the surf's on (although when it's not, which is often, we do have a lot of talkers too).

In Chasing Dean you track hurricanes along the eastern seaboard of the US. How did the idea for the book come about?

Actually, it was when I was writing a chapter based in Sri Lanka for my other book, Riding the Magic Carpet. The narrator was exploring surfers' selfishness, and his own too, as peace-deals with the Tamils had led to the country getting safer for foreigners and a once deserted surf spots becoming crowded out. While we were philosophising over it all one afternoon, someone said to me 'there's no better example of the way surfers live in their own little world than on the US East Coast in hurricane season'. Immediately I knew there was a novel in that.

Yes, there is that moral dilemma in the book between hoping to ride hurricane surf whilst knowing that these natural phenomena can wreak havoc and even kill people. It's an interesting conflict. So Tom, is it OK for surfers to take hedonistic pleasure from an entity that, elsewhere, may have caused terrible destruction?

Er, I'm not sure actually. We can't change the storms or stop them from happening - at least not as an individual. Perhaps collectively we can tame storms slightly by keeping ocean temperatures down. Essentially though, as Marc says in the book, they're going to do what they're going to do, and if you don't ride those waves someone else will. Hmm, that sounds like a cop-out really, doesn't it? But I needed that moral conflict - that was the whole point of the project for me. I saw it as a metaphor for something bigger - for the way our 'comfortable' countries manage to view the world's events only in their own terms. It reflects the way we opt-out of worrying about others when it suits us. That part of the human condition was something I always wanted to write about. In Chasing Dean the characters don't know what to make of it - although they do at least recognise the problems it presents. But then when the waves of their dreams get dangled in front of them they struggle to keep perspective. I had to submit myself to that dilemma in order to write the book and it is hard, and still unresolved for me.

The meteorological stuff in Chasing Dean is genuinely fascinating. Did you have to do a lot of in-depth research on how hurricanes are formed, or is a fascination for the weather just a natural by-product of being a surfer?

I definitely had the prerequisite obsession from my surfing background, but it did still involve a lot of reading up. The trouble then was managing to thin out all the stuff I'd read so that I could reproduce it in a story. I had to use it all in a way that would be interesting for a reader who hadn't chosen to read science books about hurricanes and tropical storms - not to mention the amount of lit that exists about one storm in particular - Katrina, of course. When you have loads of geeky facts stored up you often feel you have to use them somehow - which can sometimes account for the stuff Marc keeps coming out with. But surfers are lay-weathermen for sure, especially up here in the windier reaches of the Atlantic.

There's a beat sensibility to Chasing Dean (it's as much a road trip as a book about surfing) - have writers like Kerouac been an influence? In fact, who are your literary influences?

I think some of those comments have been because of the jazz scenes in the New Orleans sections, although I did deliberately set out to write something that paid homage to Kerouac and other such American writers - particularly the 'lonely' narrator voices in the country's history. That's why my narrator had to hit Cape Cod in particular on his own, because it's part of the American condition - that absorbtion in your own world, and the Cape seemed to me to the be the place where the mindset of the American monomaniac could be at its strongest, or purest. The other reason I love the Beat writers is that they manage to mix travelogue, which in its modern form for some unknown reason is supposed to be non-fiction, with novel writing. I mean, what is On the Road? It's auto-biography, travelogue and novel, at least. I also love Magical Realists - Salman Rushdie, Gabo and those. Haruki Murakami is my favourite writer of all, while in travel writing I rate Jonathan Raban above all others. My favourite book is Moby-Dick. So I think wanderlust and isolation are big themes in anything I like reading.

Is it really true that you were once a private investigator? Tell us about that.

Yes, I did it for over three years. When I left uni the plan was to go into journalism, but then I had a call from a retired senior detective in the Met asking me if I fancied trying 'something else'. They were looking for journalists, paparazzi, retired policemen and other potential talent to induct into the world of the PI. It seemed interesting so I had a go at a few freelance jobs and then it all snowballed from there. They started me out with confiscating maxed-out cheque guarantee cards, investigating assets and serving legal papers, and then I graduated through the levels until, about a year in to the job, I was getting involved in covert surveillance, tracing people and even de-bugging places. Once or twice I also got to wear body-cameras, which apart from 'pretexting' (pretending to be someone else - going undercover effectively) is the most advanced stuff you can do. There's a hell of an underworld out there, and I loved getting to know it. It was what I lived for at one point. Working on rich people was the best - to finish a job and go surfing, knowing that some arrogant millionaire who thought they could do anything had been caught out and was going to get done because of your work! At the moment I haven't put any of it in to my writing, because I'm waiting for the best chance to use that stuff. But I've got some mental stories waiting to be told, I can assure you.

So far you've written two excellent surfing travelogues - what is your next literary project going to be? Another surfing book or a change of direction?

I've signed to do one more surf travel book, with Summersdale again, although there are actually two of them left in me. The one that's underway already will be a journey around the UK with the same narrator - for release next May. After that there is one more surf travelogue I could write with multiple-destinations, a bit like in Riding the Magic Carpet, but that one will go on the back-burner for as long as it takes to break in to other areas, because it is indeed time to change direction. I'm going to write a novel which at the moment will move through both the surf and punk-rock scenes of Wales and the US, although it could change and go anywhere else too. I'm also going to write a kids' book, because I love running workshops for youngsters and want to have something that they can access. I also have a short-story/novella idea set in the future, and want to write a play-script because I love dialogue, so things could change drastically. I like to think I'll get around to all of them in the end though!

So do we. Cheers Tom.