Stab Reads: Clay Marzo, Just Add Water (A Biography)
Story by Jamie Tierney I’m proudly not objective about Clay Marzo. I’ve known him for 10 years, we’ve travelled all over the world. He’s a likeable cat in the water. And, is one of the most unconventional and inform surfers today. He piques interest. If you’ve ever had the fortune of surfing with him you were […]
Story by Jamie Tierney
I’m proudly not objective about Clay Marzo. I’ve known him for 10 years, we’ve travelled all over the world. He’s a likeable cat in the water. And, is one of the most unconventional and inform surfers today. He piques interest. If you’ve ever had the fortune of surfing with him you were probably at some funky, shallow slab with no name. It was just you and Clay. He was sitting 50 feet deeper than you and gifting you any wave you pleased. That’s because he’d be taking off on waves never thought makeable, with his knife so far under the lip that you start questioning the laws of physics.
He’s one of those obscenely talented, anti–hero, elusive types that surfers have gravitated towards since the days of Miki Dora, Michael Peterson, Tom Curren, Andy and Bruce Irons. The kid’s hard to hate; quiet and aloof. He lets his surfing talk for him.
The folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hired Bob Yehling to write a book about Clay’s story as young pro surfer dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome: Just Add Water. It’s the same name as the documentary I directed about Clay in 2008. But, the biography is a separate entity. “The book is way more detailed than the movie,” says Clay, who told me he’s stoked on the project. “Bob came over to Maui. We hung out. He got to know me and my family. Then he went back home and started writing.”
The issue here, was that the publishers wanted the book to echo Mr Marzo’s voice. Anyone who knows Clay is well aware of his aversion to talking about himself. So how do you get an incredibly shy, soft-spoken and famously inarticulate person to tell his story? I dug into Bob, to find out.
Stab: What did you know about Clay before writing this book?
Bob Yehling: I’ve been following Clay, off and on since he won the NSSA Men’s Nationals in 2005 with a perfect score. Clay always stood out to me because of his incredible surfing ability, his originality, and the way he didn’t march to anyone else’s beat. Like everyone else, I heard of the Asperger’s diagnosis when I watched the documentary Just Add Water.
How’d he strike you initially? I met Clay in Fall 2012, when we got underway with the book. My impression was that he was quiet and very much to himself. He’s great to hang with as long as it’s either about surfing, food, or basketball. He’s funnier than hell when he gets going. He has a very calm and gentle side, and that came out often during our time together.
Clay is definitely a man of few words. To write the story in Clay’s voice in itself is a crux! Were you afraid you couldn’t pull it off? Thanks for reminding me of the three weeks of cold sweats in Maui! (laughs) This was the most challenging work with a subject I’ve done in my almost 40 years as a professional writer. We had to convince a man who doesn’t speak much to take us through his life’s events, feelings, plusses and minuses. Yes, I was worried. Some days, Clay would be quite talkative. On others, he wouldn’t say a word… at all.
So, I wrote it as a biography and quoted Clay liberally with his own insight at the start of each chapter. His intelligence is keen and astute. I’ll never forget him driving me around Maui’s north shore. Rapping for a solid two hours about wave directions and preferences, bottom conditions, wind pockets, currents. It was broken down from cove to cove, point to beach. He’s like a lifelong oceanographer, with far greater wave knowledge.
Stalls like this only make so much sense… Photo: Brent Bielmann
What were some of the interviewing tricks you used to get him to open up? The first time we met at his house. He had on the Lakers’ channel, which happen to be my favorite team. Then he put on the Quiksilver Pro from France, and we went back and forth for an hour. Dissecting the surfers and their strategies. We established a good rapport instantly, something I later learned does not happen with Clay often.
As for interviewing tricks, I always talked about something other than surfing first, then food, or the Lakers. If we were off to the surf and it was good, then I sat quietly and watched him amp up, his idiosyncrasies when he’s excited: rubbing hands, pounding the window while driving, etc. were sometimes better than words. If he was quiet, I was quiet. If he talked, I engaged in conversation and we rolled tape. I also left behind a second recorder, and Clay would go into his bedroom and talk into it. Since he’s so comfortable being alone, the material from his self-taping was a lot of the time better.
Clay’s story branches beyond the realm of surfing. Why? I think it’s the fact that he’s a world-class athlete who is on the autism spectrum, the highest-functioning end, but still on the spectrum. Also, millions of people were exposed to Clay through Just Add Water (the documentary) and the media blitz that followed the movie and his Asperger diagnosis. His story is deeply inspiring.
What are you doing to promote the book and how will Clay be involved? We’re going full-throttle. Clay opened our signing tour July 15 in Lahaina, and we’re signing in Carlsbad, Encinitas, Santa Monica and Huntington Beach July 25-30. He’s also handling phone interviews and on-site press, with me backing him up. So he’s very involved. While he’s in Western Australia with his girlfriend, Jade, I will be signing at bookstores, surf shops and other venues coast-to-coast for the next several months. Clay will jump in again for a limited tour later in the winter.
Clay’s been through a lot over the last few years. How has he come through it? Where do you think he’s at in his life and career right now and where do you think he’s headed? As Clay has gotten older, his ability to deal with crowds of any kind; in the lineup, a tournament, a public event, keeps shrinking. He’s not wired at all for regular social engagement. On the very positive side, Clay has been in a wonderful relationship with his girlfriend, Jade Barton, for several years. He is very happy in his personal life.
I think Just Add Water is going to reawaken some eyes in the industry who will remember what a valuable asset he is to any company as a freestyle surfer who goes his own way, has his very distinctive personality and traits, and puts his entire soul into every wave. I see his sponsorships increasing, and even going a little more mainstream.
I also think this biography will make him an even bigger spokesperson for how much people on the high-functioning end of the spectrum can achieve. I think Clay might find himself with a much greater profile in the autism community. One he’s already helping by giving lessons to autistic kids in Surfer’s Healing events, which Israel Paskowitz runs.
Just Add Water Signing Schedule
July 25 — Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines, Carlsbad, CA, 10 a.m.
July 25 — Barnes & Noble, Encinitas, CA, 2 p.m.
July 28 — Rock Star promotion, Huntington Beach, CA, 1 p.m.
July 28 – Barnes & Noble, Santa Monica, CA, 7 p.m.
July 30 — Jack’s Surfboards, Huntington Beach, CA, 11 a.m.
August 10 — Tattered Cover Books, Denver, CO, 7 p.m.
August 12 — Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO, 7 p.m.
You can purchase Clay’s biography, here.
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