Encyclopedia Blue

Matt Warshaw discusses making the ultimate surfing reference book

From Maverick's to maneuvers, when it comes to surfing, bigger is always better. Now brace yourself for the leviathan of surf literature, an 816-page reference book called The Encyclopedia of Surfing. Master surf journalist Matt Warshaw spent three years completing his mega-work, enlisting the help of two other researchers and the world's most thorough database of surfing media. According to Warshaw, "I burned through two printers printing out the final copy." It may have been hell to build, but this is one eight-pound project you can't put down. Filled with heroes, waves, contests—including every event's champions—plus famous movements, moments and terms, the encyclopedia's 1,500 entries are an eye-opening cross-section of the sport. Like all encyclopedias, it's enlightening even as a casual read, as the wild variety and combinations of info offer strange new revelations into surfing's vast reach.In honor of this much-needed wave-riding Webster's, we sat down with the author to see how he managed to cram the entire sport into a single work.

OC Weekly:This is one hell of a reference book. How many craps do you think it would take to get through this whole thing?Matt Warshaw: [laughs] I don't know. It might actually be too heavy to have with you on the throne; it might put you into full muscle seizure lifting the thing. Seriously, it is big. But I think people do want information. And I tried really hard not to make it dry. It wants to be a little bit more than that. I didn't want to editorialize, but if someone else can say it, that's where you can have fun. Like the Jeff Hakman quote about [1960s big-wave rider] Jock Sutherland: "He could smoke more pot than all of us, drop more acid than all of us, then go out and still surf better than all of us." A lot of the color in the book comes from those things. Even in a book this big, there's no way you could include everyone and everything. Are you preparing yourself for some serious backlash?

Any time you put something together that's somewhat selective, you'll get people saying, "Looks great except for so-and-so" or, "What are you doing putting this guy in there?" So a while back, I said to Nathan Myers—who helped me research it, along with Marcus Sanders—I said, "We've got to figure out a standard response." And he said, "Just tell 'em to write their own fucking encyclopedia." Of course, I have to be a little more politic than that.

So you're not worried.

Maybe. I suppose. I didn't throw anything in there that wasn't known. I didn't publish anything that hadn't been published. If someone's out as a lesbian, it's in there; if not, it's not. I had no scores to settle. It's just who these people are in 250 words or less.

There's a lot of fascinating stuff, and it's pretty varied—everything from "A-frame" toFast Times. What was the selection process like?

Well, it was four years ago when I sold the book to Harcourt. I was thrilled. I had a big, fat check—at the time—and the whole thing was ahead of me. And two numbers came up right away: the first was 1,500 entries, and the second was a half-million words. And then it was this long process of how to fill that space, and how do you distribute across the sport in terms of people, terms and other subjects—and then gender, occupation, country? So I set up these endless quotas that I met; I mean, I was making lists for months. It sounds incredibly boring. But just so you know, I wasn't pulling stuff out of the air. The first six months of the project was nothing more than deciding who's in or who's out.

What's the longest entry?

The longest entry is for Gidget because Gidget was a real person, and it was a series of books and movies, TV shows—it was even a comic book. So four or five entries ended up going in one entry.

So who do you foresee reading the damn thing?

There's a thousand surfing books out there that are all heavily illustrated—all these beautiful surfing books—but there's zero reference books. So I think it's going to be the book that every aunt, grandparent and uncle will buy for their surfing relatives for birthdays or Christmas. Eight hundred sixteen pages is huge, but it's actually pretty tiny when you think of trying to cover a whole history of surfing.

The pacing's really nice, too. For example, you go from Kimo Hollinger to "hollow" to "hollowboard," which are all very different.

Well, the language was really important to me from the very beginning. I wanted to bring all that flavor. As I was going through this thing, the surfers almost became less interesting—what are you going to say, "he surfed really well and had a great cutback"? But I really enjoyed things like "dog surfing," in which guys took dogs out on their boards, or the roots of words. Like cowabunga was a word surfers picked up on from The Howdy Doody Show. Stoke was spelled "stok" originally and was a Norse word. So that ended up being a lot more fun than the latest top-16 guy.

You know what's funny: I'm looking at "M" right now, and next to "martyr," there's this picture of you. [laughs] Yeah, I know. I complained a lot during the making of it, and I stressed a lot, but week to week, I was always glad to be waking up and working on it. I never, ever lost interest in the project. It's like I'm still, nearly four years later, tweaking it and changing photos. I'm still interested in surfing as much as I ever was. And it feels good in that it reinforces the feelings I have for surfing itself.

The Encyclopedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw; Harcourt. Hardcover, 816 pages, $40.

 
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