Tag Archives: autism

Just Add Water: Where autism, surfing, and a world-class athlete meet

On Tuesday, July 14, the book I wrote on autistic surfing great Clay Marzo, Just Add Water, releases to bookstores, surf shops and online booksellers.JUST ADD WATER by Clay Marzo and Robert Yehling copy

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Just Add Water culminates a 2 ½-year process of Clay’s story evolving from a dinner table idea to release. We’re also launching the first leg of our signing tour beginning Wednesday night (July 15) at Barnes & Noble in Lahaina, Maui, Clay’s hometown. We’ll then be in my stomping grounds, Southern California, for a week of signings (see schedule below blog), including an appearance at Jack’s Surfboards during the U.S. Open of Surfing July 30 in Huntington Beach.

Stay tuned to www.wordjourneys.com or to www.claymarzo.com for more details, as the signing schedule will grow over the next 6-8 weeks.

Just Add Water was incredible to write. I’d promoted the ASP World Championship Tour (of surfing), along with many U.S. events. I also wrote for all of the major surfing magazines at one point or another. It was a blast to put pen to paper again about the lifestyle I love, as expressed by one exceptional surfer.

However, that’s not what makes this book unique among the 17 I’ve written or ghostwritten. The experience did. Since readers rarely hear the ‘genesis’ stories of books, I want to share ours.

It began with a dinner napkin in Encinitas, CA, similar to how John Keats created his immortal poem “The Nightingale”. Only, we were at a Mexican restaurant in October 2012, not a Dublin pub in the 1790s. My longtime friend and Clay’s manager, Mitch Varnes, met with A Taste of Eternity author Martha Halda and I. While catching up, Mitch asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Clay. Before I said ‘yes,’ Martha brought up the opportunity the book would present  to showcase a family’s deeper struggles with an autistic member.

That did it. YES.clayday-960x340

I also had a feeling… an autistic world-class athlete? A household name to virtually every surfer under 35? With several million YouTube views on his channel? Add that up, and I formed one conclusion: Huge potential readership. I scribbled notes on a napkin, paid the bill, and Martha and I headed home. Quickly. Then Martha had to endure one of my all-night creative blasts. She knew what to do: close the door behind her and let the Energizer bunny write  until he ran out of batteries.

A few days later, my agent, Dana Newman, jumped in. In April 2013, we sold the book to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through acquisition editor Susan Canavan. By happenstance, Susan, whose office is in Boston, had seen the mainstream media frenzy that followed Clay after his Asperger diagnosis in 2007. She loved it. She also published Temple Grandin, the world’s most-read author on autism (and autistic herself) — another serendipitous notch in our belt.

On a very personal note, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offices are located on Boylston Street — the finishing stretch of the Boston Marathon, which I know a bit about. Did I say ‘serendipitous?’marzo-tube

Time to go to work. I met with Clay’s mother, Jill, who gave me open access to everyone and everything — as well as some of the most poignant comments in the book. Then, I spoke with childhood friends Gary and Teresa Manguso about their son, who, like Clay, is a surfer living with Asperger’s. They provided invaluable insight on Aspies’ difficulties reading social situations or facial cues, especially subtler emotional cues. I also spoke with Sarah Brookhart, Martha’s niece, whose young son is autistic. Sarah’s anxiety over her son’s future gave me a direct look at the silent anguish parents face. Which stitched in Martha’s dinner idea.

In October 2013 — one year after we had our pow-wow — I flew to Maui to spend a few weeks with Clay. What followed was among the most enjoyable and challenging periods of my career. What could be more fun than sitting in the water, dining at Kaanapali and Kapalua Resort restaurants, cruising Maui with a lifelong local, surface diving off the coast of Lanai, or hanging out at a hot, semi-secluded break like Windmills — for research? Work?

I’ve seen Clay in countless videos and magazine photos, but there’s nothing like being in the water with him. He made crappy between-season Maui surf look classic with his gravity-defying moves and ability to find wrinkles in the waves that sure looked invisible to me. “Most surfers paddle out to catch waves; Clay paddles out to be the wave. He has to; it’s a part of him,” his behavioral therapist and lifelong friend, Carolyn Jackson, said.2013-09-29 21.49.15

Now to the flip side: we had to develop enough material from Clay’s comments to write the book. Some days, we spent eight hours on the book, with bursts of conversation separated by 30 to 60 minutes of silence… interesting tapes to re-listen to. Some days, he didn’t speak — at all. On those days, the key was to sit quietly, communicate non-verbally, watch him surf or shoot photos of his food (an obsession), and wait until tomorrow. When I did, ‘tomorrow’ was always productive.

I also learned the four ice-breaking topics that get Clay talking … the L.A. Lakers, Western Australia (where he and his girlfriend live part-time), food … and surfing. If you ever hear him elaborate on wave and bottom conditions, and the weather, you’ll think you’re talking to a NOAA meteorologist or oceanographer. He’s brilliant in the subjects that occupy him. “Those with Asperger syndrome have the potential to be among the best in the world at the one thing that occupies them, because it occupies them entirely. They feel they can’t live without it,” Asperger syndrome expert Dr. Tony Attwood said. That fit Clay perfectly.

I spent many long hours wondering how we’d get enough for a book; after all, Clay has never spoken at length in any interview. I used every interviewing trick I’ve learned in 40 years as a journalist to develop and piece together solid commentary from Clay, some of it deeply insightful.

Still, it wasn’t enough for an as-told-to memoir. Midway through my Maui trip, I called Susan Canavan to tell her the original conception wouldn’t work. We mulled over our options and arrived at a biography in structure and style, but with comments reflecting the emotional depth and contemplation of memoir. Given the early reviews, we pulled it off.Photo 2

Without Jill and Gino Marzo, we would have stalled in place. They offered raw, honest accounts of the good, bad and hopeful of raising an autistic son who surfs like he and God are riding tandem. Jill and Gino are divorced, so their perspectives often clashed. Thanks to their graciousness and willingness to bare it all, we saw the deep familial side of this autism issue that is so rarely presented publicly. img014

We also received big assists from Carolyn Jackson; Clay’s girlfriend, Jade Barton; his brother, Cheyne Magnusson, and sister, Gina; the sixth-grade schoolteacher, Mary Anna Waldrop Enriquez, who first saw the hidden gifts in Clay’s mind well before medical experts in Hawaii knew how to diagnose autism; several surfing friends; Just Add Water film documentary creators Jamie Tierney and Strider Wasilewski (Jamie was the first to make a direct correlation between Clay’s idiosyncrasies and Asperger syndrome); my long-time friends Alan Gibby (who made surfing a fixture on ESPN in the ‘80s and ‘90s) and 1976 world champion Peter Townend; and Mitch Varnes. From my writing community, author and retired teacher (of autistic kids, in part) Claudia Whitsitt, and Marla Miller offered great advice during the Southern California Writers Conference at which we all taught workshops in 2013.

When I got home, it was time to write. After four months, we turned in the manuscript and then worked with the publisher for over a year on the other side of publishing —editing, marketing, promotion, publicity, and more editing. Finally, we landed on the date that is finally here: July 14, 2015.

It’s been an incredible journey. Please review us on Amazon.com and Goodreads, tell your friends, Share posts on Facebook, and send me comments on what you think. Be sure to buy the book on Tuesday, July 14, to drive up ratings both online and on bestseller lists. We have that potential, for sure. If you’re around, come to one of our signings.

Then jump into the ocean if you’re near one — and try to be the waves. That will give you an entry point into Clay Marzo’s world


(through August 13)

July 15 — Barnes & Noble, Lahaina, HI, 7 p.m.

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.

(NOTE: Check www.wordjourneys.com, www.claymarzo.com and the Clay Marzo—Just Add Water Facebook page for continuous signing updates.)Photo 9

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Episodes: A Truly Special Memoir Reading

Just when I thought I’d written, read or heard about all of the different ways to write a memoir, in comes a completely unique structure — with a truly heartwarming author backstory.

The other night, I traveled to Fallbrook for part of a weeklong celebration of the opening of its new library. What a celebration — seven nights, eight readings by Pulitzer prizewinners, National Book Award winners, and bestselling novelists, journalists and memoirists with ties to the San Diego County community.

However, one particular reading intrigued me: a double reading by novelist-memoirist Debra Ginsberg and her son, Blaze. Several years ago, Debra wrote Raising Blaze, a memoir about shepherding her autistic son through the world while trying to understand the wiring of his mind. Now Debra was back with her newest novel, The Neighbors Are Watching, set during the devastating Witch Fire of 2007 in San Diego County. While this novel certainly has its characters, plot, pathos and resolution, she was essentially (and gladly, judging from the smile on her face) the warm-up act.

When Debra was finished, she introduced a large crowd at Cafe del Artistes to Blaze, whose memoir, Episodes: My Life As I See It was published by Roaring Book Press (an imprint of Macmillan) in 2009. First of all, the fact any 23-year-old man is publishing prose and reading at public events is impressive, especially when you consider that the vast majority of 23-year-old men won’t touch a book these days if their lives depend on it. Secondly, Blaze is a highest-functioning autistic.

The beauty of Episodes begins with its structure. Blaze explained that he views his world as episodes, so he crafted the book into 28 “series”, each with its episodes, framed on his love of TV shows, movies and movie trivia (one of his favorite websites is the Internet Movie Database). As he read two episodes, one from a “series”  focusing on his long-time crush on Hillary Duff, I marveled at how he transferred the story onto paper in a way that showed the inner workings of his mind. Memoirists are notorious for writing and writing on how their minds process whatever central event created the basis for their books, but Blaze’s delivery was a huge breath of fresh air: He laid it down, and let us see for ourselves. He broke down each episode (mini-chapter) into a summary, notes, quotes, trivia, and soundtrack listings — and zoomed in on them with voice and raw emotion more customary of poetry readings. He fed us the pace and energy of not only his story, but also his world. It was one of the most directly honest and entertaining prose readings I have attended in a long time. A quick example from his book:

Episode 9

title: SUMMERTIME SILLINESS air date: JUNE 12, 2003


It’s the last day of school. There is a field trip to Fifteenth Street beach. On the bus before we leave it is somewhat chaotic. Lucinda (the girl I had lunch with when she was visiting Surrey and who is now a student there) gets her toes smashed (as in stepped on). Courtney ends up crashing on my shoulder (fake sleeping), which she is not supposed to do. Later on there is a commotion (which has become a recurring theme with our trio): Courtney and Amber want me to take my shirt off. They end up pulling it off for me. I play cool with it and put it back on later. We run over to Powerhouse Park, but it is closed. So we go back down to the beach.


From there, he takes it deeper through notes, trivia, quotes and soundtrack listing — the tunes he listened to that day (Madonna, Hillary Duff, Dusty Springfield).

Later, as I read Debra Ginsberg’s introduction to Episodes, I further appreciated this unheard-of memoir structure. She opens the introduction by recalling an event when Blaze was 10, one of the first times he successfully conveyed to his mom how his mind worked. He told her that different colored wires control all of our various functions (hearing, walking, seeing, emotions, etc.). In his case, the “yellow” wire — hearing — had been snapped. To him, that’s where the problem lay, as he was particularly sensitive to sounds. “His theory was a very direct—and very visual—way of explaining that he was wired differently,” Debra wrote. “It was surprising to me that he was able, at least at that moment, to articulate it so clearly.”

Blaze began writing in earnest. Eight years later, at 18, he began writing Episodes, which took 3 1/2 years from inception to publishing.

Now, he’s on his way — and has shown us an incredible new memoir structure in the process. I can’t wait to see his next book, which will be his own unique variation on gods and goddesses.

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