Hobart: We’ve seen each other at the last couple Mission Creek festivals in Iowa City, and it was there that we got to talking this last year a little about your new book, surfing, cross-continental commuting. Let’s start with the obvious: you’re from Reno, right? And live in Portland and Iowa City? I grew up in California (not on the beach, but still). Surfing in much of California is just this present thing—even in the town where I grew up, it’s not uncommon to see boards on roof racks or hanging in garages, overhear people talking about mid-winter conditions at Santa Cruz or Stinson. How does a guy from the desert get into surfing?
Don Waters: I can see how that might surprise you, but it’s been a fairly natural progression, I think. In Reno, I grew up skateboarding. I was an active kid. The skating days came to an end when I launched off a ramp and got rewarded with a broken arm. Later, I got heavily into skiing and snowboarding in the Sierras. And of course, when I moved to San Francisco in my early twenties, I became fascinated by the big-wave surfing competition down the road in Half Moon Bay. Maverick’s is now well known—thanks to films and documentaries—but back then not many people were paying attention. I’d drive down the coast, park at the beach, and trespass in order to catch a view of the waves. Jeff Clark’s surf shop was nearby and I’d always drop in. Around this time I had a friend in southern California who surfed. When I visited, he lent me his wetsuit and board. I thought I’d have no problem, but the water basically beat me up that day. Still, I loved it. It requires an amazing amount of thinking, and not thinking, to catch a wave. It’s the most bodily sport. Years passed and, gradually, I began to find out more about my father, a man I didn’t really know. Before he died, he left me an amateur autobiography in order to connect with me. That’s when I discovered he was at the forefront of the modern surfing movement. He had a surf shop in Santa Barbara. He hung out with a lot of the legends. As you know, I wrote an account about finding out more about my father for Outside. We didn’t have much in common, but we shared a love for a sport. Besides just loving the water, I think I’m involved with surfing in order to stay connected with him. These days I frequent two breaks on the Oregon Coast, and every so often I make it to Hawaii. Someday I hope to paddle out at the Ranch near Santa Barbara, which was my father’s favorite spot.
Hobart: A few months back, Matthew Vollmer and I were doing one of these interviews, and we talked about the connection between sports/physical activity and writing. A lot of writers run, do yoga, bike. I do some of those things and find they play a really vital supporting role to my writing in some ways. What’s the connection for you between surfing and writing, if you see one?
DW: Well, to be honest, if I sit in a chair and look at a computer screen all day, my body feels like shit. Every writer knows what I’m talking about. I’m not here to lobby for the importance of exercise, but I do know I’ve been able to solve problems within stories and think of new ideas while out walking, hiking, swimming, and surfing. For years I was an avid swimmer, and immersing myself in water was always completely meditative. Not to get too West Coast on you, but I really believe in a mind-body connection. Paddling out on my board is grueling physical exercise, and I love it. I love getting knocked around by waves, and I love the fleeting feeling of accomplishment when I finally make it to the lineup. Also, surfing requires a lot of sitting around on your board, watching the swells, and waiting. That’s certainly meditative. Whenever I’m out, it’s as though different parts of my mind light up. It’s important to pay attention when this occurs, and it’s also important to not pay attention and just let the moment happen.
Hobart: That meditative quality is attractive to me too, perhaps especially in the water, but also even just out jogging or biking. The thinking/not thinking thing is spot on. It’s like writing. I think Ron Carlson calls this something like having a tolerance for the unknown. This seems like a similar kind of spiritual (there’s that West Coast thing again—it’s like how accents come back when two expats run across each other away from home) condition. Trusting your body and mind, knowing that the unknown is where you want to be in some ways. I often find this enormously difficult, especially in longer stuff. What’s the planning like for you? Are you a start with an image or sentence guy, or a plan and plot meticulously guy?
DW: Oh, I don’t know. I guess my process can be summed up with this: I try not to worry. If it’s not happening one day, it will happen the next day, or the day after. I mean, take a moment and think about it. If you sit down at your desk and say, Okay, and now I’m going to write a novel, you might freak out. It’s a huge job. For most people, it takes years, and in the end the rewards are miniscule compared with the amount of work involved. So, that’s the first thing—try not to worry—which took me years to understand. Generally, I have a character in mind and some vague idea for the story, and then I baby-step it from there. If the character stays with me long enough, I begin to think what his or her life would be like, his or her problems, desires, and on and on. The story grows out of the character. I try to generate the pages quickly because I know I’ll be going back, again and again, with edits and revisions.
Hobart: Let’s talk about the new novel. Sunland comes out next month. What’s it about (awful questions, I know)? What’s it been like as you get closer to the release date?
DW: Okay, I’ll attempt to describe the book in several sentences: Sunland is the story of a man in his mid-thirties who returns to Tucson, Arizona after a bad break-up and begins paying for his grandmother’s costly assisted living expenses by smuggling cheap medications over the border. It touches on numerous issues: aging, healthcare, race, illegal immigration, family, etc. I also tried to make it funny.
The pre-publication reviews have all been positive. So, that’s great. As you know, writing a book and putting it into the world is always a bit exciting and nerve-wracking. That book took so much work, and my job is pretty much done.
Hobart: Sunland is your second book with a university press. I don’t mean this to sound evaluative at all as there are plenty of great major press books published all the time, but I’m increasingly drawn to university and small press stuff. It seems risky, more exciting, more full of life. What’s your experience been like working with the two presses?
DW: I’ve always been drawn to small press books. And I think you’re right. A lot of books on smaller presses often push conventional boundaries. I have fond memories of browsing the anarchist bookstore in San Francisco, which I used to visit all the time. The shelves were full of titles published by RE/Search, Akashic, Soft Skull, Verso, Feral House, and on and on. It was like an indie press bonanza. Each book was a hidden treasure. At the time it was hard to find any of these titles at the chains. Now the industry has changed, of course. It’s not uncommon to see an Akashic book or a Two Dollar Radio book reviewed in the Times. More and more incredible authors are publishing with smaller presses, and they’re finding an audience—the difference is they’re no longer relegated to the anarchist bookshop. The list is long, and growing. As for my own experiences with academic presses, both have been nothing but positive. They’re all great people who care about books and listen to my opinions and concerns. It’s collaborative, and I enjoy that.
Hobart: Your first book Desert Gothic, which I loved, was a story collection. Here’s the obligatory question: what was that transition like for you? Stories to novel? “Ten beautifully rendered worlds,” as John McNally called the stories in Desert Gothic, to, presumably, a single beautifully rendered world? Having not written a novel myself, I can only guess at it. What’s it been like for you?
DW: Hey, thanks for liking Desert Gothic. Appreciate it. Anyway, I started writing fiction by writing a novel when I was around 21. It clocked in at around 400 pages. Before that, I had only written poems, and I considered myself a burgeoning poet—a bad one, mind you. Around that time I was also heavily into zines, and for several years I published my own. I was much married to the D.I.Y. ethic. In other words: if you want to do something, you just do it. Don’t seek approval, just do it. Then, I read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and my mind ripped open. I wanted to do that. So I sat down, and I wrote a novel. When I finished, I printed it out and put it under my bed, and I began another novel. I kept doing this, again and again. I didn’t know anything about how to go about publishing them—and of course, looking back, I’m glad I didn’t. After years of this, I found myself in a 9-5 day job. Writing a long novel was no longer possible. So I started writing stories instead. Ten of them eventually became Desert Gothic. Anyway, to answer your question, I didn’t transition from writing stories to the novel. I returned to the form I was most familiar with from the beginning.
Hobart: You’re teaching this semester at the University of Iowa, right? You mentioned a 9-5 job, and when we first met, you were finishing up your fellowship at Iowa. Is teaching writing a new pursuit for you? Desert Gothic is a phenomenal book, as I’m sure Sunland is. It seems to me like you were already pretty accomplished as a writer when you got into the classroom, which is maybe different than a lot of us—folks who adjunct while their careers are taking shape, they’re often figuring out some important foundational things about their own writing as they’re instructing others (am I betraying my own insecurities too much here?). I guess what I’m getting at is: what’s the connection between your teaching and your writing?
DW: I’ve now been teaching, off and on, for around four years. Before that, I worked at nonprofits, did some environmental advocacy, worked at a mock jury company, wrote freelance—all sorts of jobs. I began teaching because my partner, Robin, was teaching, and an opportunity came up. After that first semester, I loved it. I loved my students, and loved getting them excited about a piece of writing. I also enjoyed the times they hated a piece of writing. That’s just as interesting. Anyway, helping my students find value in literature and in their own voices is the reason I keep doing it. As for the connection between teaching and writing, I don’t know. Other than the subject—“creative writing”—each requires different parts of your mind, don’t you think? Teaching is collaborative while writing is solitary. I certainly bring my own experiences to the classroom, and I suppose that’s a strong connection, but when I’m in the class I’m really hoping to build that connection between the student and his or her writing.
Hobart: You’ve done some other work in the arts, correct? Some producing and some publishing projects? Do you see a connection between that type of work and writing?
DW: Oh, sure. As I mentioned, I was once heavily into putting out zines, and later trying to figure out how to write novels, and so the next natural step, for me, was to start a small publishing company, which I did with a friend. I like being hands-on. I love taking a pile of pages and seeing them through to a finished book, and to be involved in each step of the process is empowering. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how publishing works, from the writer’s and publisher’s viewpoint. Of course, publishing books requires money, and time. If someone gave me money tomorrow, I’d probably want to start a similar venture. Anyone who starts a press, or involves themselves with other kinds of creative projects, gets my respect. And yes, there’s certainly interconnection between those past projects and the writing I’m doing now. It’s all part of my growth as a person, and as a writer.