Alex Wilson – On Surfing

On assignment in Morocco, Alex Wilson read an email from Scott Hulet about possibly joining the team at The Surfer’s Journal. Wilson booked a flight to California as fast as he possibly could to sit down with Hulet, the pen and paper left in Morocco. Two and a half years later, Wilson says it’s the best job he’s ever had. Wilson’s a writer of fiction and non-fiction, East-Coaster, literary nerd, and one of the most thoughtful, generous, and helpful editors that I have had the pleasure to work with. For a long time, Wilson worked at SURFER magazine as an editor before joining TSJ as their deputy editor. In between, he moved back East for his MFA at the New School in New York City. Then, he’d push back and forth from the east end of Long Island to the city, surfing here and there, wandering the city at night, and reading and writing like all hell. Now, he lives up in the hollows of Central California with his wife, daughter, and gang of animals. He’s currently churning out stories for TSJ, honing the work of others, working on a collection of short stories, and a novel. We don’t have enough real estate to list his accolades, but you can find his fiction in Story Quarterly, the Southwest Review, and the anthology, New Stories from the Southwest from the University of New Mexico; and look for his non-fiction in Byliner, Surfer, Surfing, TSJ, and the San Diego Union Tribune among others. Recently, Wilson received honorable mention from The Best American Travel Writing series.

Can you describe one of the most challenging aspects of surfing to you?

I think you can answer this question from two different perspectives. You can focus on what’s challenging about the act of surfing itself, or you can focus on what’s difficult about being a surfer—more in a sense of how that aspect of your personality affects your overall life. In terms of just the act of surfing, of riding waves, I would say the most challenging thing is just the changeability of the ocean. No wave is the same, so no paddle-in is the same, so no bottom turn is the same, so no top turn is the same. You’re constantly adapting to this dynamic medium. And that’s only once you’re standing. This is sort of overlooked in surf media, especially in film, but sometimes it can be hard to just stay in the right position. It can be hard to catch a wave, period. Between the tide changing, rips popping up, whatever, you can be out there literally lost at sea. And what you saw from shore doesn’t always translate to what you’re experiencing. But that’s also one of the best parts about surfing. It’s a cerebral experience. You have to read the environment and interpret how to react to it. Unless you’re into other outdoor sports, or lifestyles or whatever, most modern people don’t have a chance to interact with the environment at that level. It’s kind of something that I think fires parts of our brains that humans used all day, everyday, when life depended on hunting and gathering. Part of me thinks that’s why tracking down a wave, “catching” a wave, and catching a fish produce similar little spurts of endorphins. Or at least they do for me.

There’s something atavistic about being challenged like that and being forced to read nature for information and respond to it. As for the other side of the question, how surfing sort of bleeds across into everyday life, that part is also difficult. There are all the restrictive parts about needing to live close to a coastline, and all the ripple effects that go with that choice to live in the same places as nearly everyone else, competing for the same jobs, the same apartments, the same parking spots, the same resources. But I guess, for me personally, the most overriding challenge is just finding time for it. Riding waves was literally the most important, and defining, aspect of life for me for a long time. It was literally my daily, everyday, number-one priority. “What can I do today, within reason and resources, to get the best waves possible?” But now that I have a family, and I have to juggle that with work, and I write on the side too, and I have a house and pets and all the rest of it, I’ve found that it can be tough to stay as committed, or even as tuned into the conditions, as I used to be. It’s funny how fast things can pile up ahead of something, even something you love, when it slides down a peg or two. There’s nothing novel about this observation, obviously. We run a lot of pieces in The Surfer’s Journal about surfers from past eras and this line of thought seems to pop up, literally or thematically, in almost every one of them. Some pieces are about guys who’ve hustled to stay ahead of it, some are about surfers who’ve accepted it and successfully adapted their lives around it, and some are about surfers who’ve given up and succumbed to it. It’s something every surfer, at some point in their lives, probably deals with. How you find enough time can pretty much be applied to anything, from family, to professional ambitions, to wave riding.

What is one of the most redemptive or rewarding parts of surfing?

Maybe just the way it teaches you to accept circumstances. It’s a lesson that life drives home over and over and over again, just in the nature of the world itself, but surfing sort of primes you to be aware that, you’re not always going to get exactly what you’d like at exactly the moment you want it. I think the other clichéd byproducts, like traveling and interacting with other cultures, and how it also brings us closer to the environment (which I just clichéd the hell out of above) can be redemptive. I sort of feel like real redemption needs to go beyond just the personal level. And anything that can get people out into the world, interacting with other cultures on a global scale, while also looking at the environment from a pretty close-to-nature level, is a good thing. It’s funny, though, because the personal rewards are pretty rooted—if you look at them on a micro plane, with just a slightly different squint—in a point of view that’s purely self-interested. What I mean by that is, if you asked me what’s the most rewarding part about surfing right after I’d had the best session of my life, the answer would be completely and totally internalized. I’d say the most rewarding part about surfing was related only to what I, in that moment, was feeling about the waves I’d ridden.

What has surfing afforded you in your life?

A lot more than I anticipated, actually. And more than I usually give it credit for. When I was young, and searching for my identity, it gave me something that defined me. When I got a little older, and I was still searching for my identity, it gave me a safe place to hide from the other aspects of my life that scared the shit out of me. When I decided I wanted to be a writer it gave me my first real subject. And as an extension it’s given me a career writing for and editing magazines. And when I initially got tired of writing about surfing, I realized it had taught me enough about the rest of the world, and fear, and all the man-versus-nature-versus-man-versus-self stuff that I needed to keep writing. Everyone seems to need a tent pole that props up the rest of their life and, in a lot of ways, surfing has always been exactly that for me. It’s sort of always there, at the center of things, showing me who I am and helping me decode the world around me. It’s like having a whole second life, at sea, that lends perspective to whatever’s going on that’s land-based.

How long can you go without surfing?

I can actually go a pretty long time without surfing. I spent most of last winter focused on a project I had going, and I think I went about three months without breaking a sweat. I grew up on the East Coast, so I can fall back into feast and famine mode pretty easily. It’s weird because I find the less I surf, the less I feel like surfing. I sort of get set into a pattern where I can find other ways to fill my time. Or I say to myself, “Well, you didn’t surf yesterday, and you didn’t surf last week, and you didn’t surf the week before that, so why change things?” And part of that mindset is I know, that if I haven’t surfed in a while, it’s going to be at least a few sessions before things start clicking. At this point in my life, it almost feels like I need a session for every week I spent out of the water. So if I go six weeks without surfing, it’s like I’m going to need six sessions to get my bearings back and, most of all, recover my timing. And getting over that curve can act as a barrier to getting back in the water. But the opposite is true for me too—if I’m surfing a lot it also becomes self-perpetuating. The more I go, the more I want to be in the water. And I haven’t really found a replacement for whatever it is that surfing feeds in me. I can fill up my life with other things but they all feed different parts of my personality. And they’re each in their own way satisfying and stimulating but none of them address the exact part of me that’s addressed by surfing. And that’s to be expected, I guess. It’s not because surfing is the only thing in my life that’s special, or the only thing I’m passionate about. It’s just that only surfing can check the box on my list-of-needs that says “surfing.”

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

My dad was a bodyboarder and he also moonlighted as a commercial clam digger so I was always around the water. And he and one of our neighbors, Kenny Cangelosi, were kind of buddies. Kenny was a local legend—he had a photo that ran in Surfing from, I think, the “Perfect Storm” swell, that 1991 Nor’easter. If I remember it right, it was on the wall in his living room, him standing in this windblown, beachbreak barrel. He was a ripper and pretty high in the local pecking order and I, obviously, was interested so they just took me to the beach one day. And my first session was on this kneeboard that my dad had had shaped with handles in the deck, and this crazy quad setup, which he never really rode, so I just sort of inherited the thing. It would probably fit right into a modern quiver, if you cut off the handles, but I took endless abuse for running around with it. I remember the first year felt, mostly, like all I did was get my ass handed to me. Short-period swell, lots of paddling, lots of very hollow, shallow beachbreak, cold water—it was more like self abuse than surfing. It wasn’t until a few years later that I think I realized it was going to be a lifer. I’d graduated to a “real” shortboard by then and could sort of do some turns and I had a little pack of rats that I ran with. They had older brothers who surfed too and we all kind of fed off each other. You had to cross a bay where we lived to get to the ocean, either by bridge or by boat, and one of my buddies had this beat-to-shit skiff with a banged up Mercury. The difference was you didn’t need a license to drive a boat, really, so I was maybe fourteen and I remember being out on the water, at dawn, in this skiff that would break down like every five seconds. You sort of had to tinker on the engine while it was underway sometimes, just to keep it moving, sort of like the Millennium Falcon, which is what my buddy named it. And it was just us, with no supervision, headed over to surf some little beachbreak. And the freedom of that, and what it said about the way life could feel if you decided to spend it that way, was what did it for me. I think we got skunked that morning.

What’s one of your pre/post-surf rituals you hold dear?

I still like being in transit. I live about 25-minutes inland now, in Central California, and the driving is just sort of an extension of the session for me. It’s quiet if I want it to be, or I do some music, and I just sort of like being alone in the truck, thinking. There’s this part in Nabokov’s Pale Fire that describes how one of his characters, who’s a poet, gets his best ideas while shaving. Driving is kind of my version of that. I keep an eye out for hawks and the vultures or whatever, check out the mustard plant on the hillsides, and then I come down onto the coast and it’s different every time, and then I’m also a little different than I was when I got into the truck that morning.

Check out Alex’s writing on surf-related topics here:

The Surfer’s Journal

/ Interview by Michael Adno, illustration by Matt Titone