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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

JUST ADD WATER SIGNING SCHEDULE

(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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Talking Story & Bidding Aloha to Every Surfer’s Great Friend, Donald Takayama

EXPANDED PHOTO ALBUM OF THE SERVICE

The surfing ohana gathered en masse Saturday at Junior Seau Pier Amphitheater in Oceanside to exchange warm greetings, crack jokes, catch up, and share a tribal rite from the beach bonfire days, and before — talking story. They came to celebrate a man who touched them and countless others deeply: Donald Takayama.

More than 1,000 turned up on a blustery morning to honor Takayama, who died October 22 of complications following heart surgery. He would have turned 69 on Friday (Nov. 16). Some of the greatest characters of surfing’s past 60 years turned up from as far away as Australia to say goodbye to one of the greatest surfers (1966 and 1967 U.S. Surfing Championships runner-up) and board shapers. That’s just the surface description of Takayama, a 5-foot-3 giant of a man whose infectious personality, endless charm, constant generosity, sharp humor, deep caring and horizon-to-horizon smile beamed down in one perfect picture stretching across the amphitheater stage. The fact there were also ceremonies in Hawaii, Japan and Europe speaks to the love the surfing world had for him.

A wonderful collection of stories, laughter, tears, memories and treasured moments filled the morning. Emcee Hunter Joslin, a friend of mine since he announced the Stubbies Surf Pros that I promoted in the 1980s, was brilliant. Hunter and Donald were best buddies , and to my mind, kindred spirits from opposite coasts: both wise, often hilarious men who lived to surf and practiced perfection and strong business sense when it came to Donald’s Hawaiian Pro Designs boards, and Hunter’s IndoBoard balance trainer. With esteemed speakers behind him, and the riveting opening prayer just complete — “The Lord’s Prayer,” recited in Hawaiian by Dave Hansen — Hunter opened with a beautiful gesture: he asked everyone to turn to the person next to him or her, and tell a story of his or her first introduction to Donald. Instantly, 1,000 stories were shared. Donald always did like talking story.

I turned to 1976 world champion Peter Townend, one of surfing’s greatest ambassadors, who’d also met Donald in the early 1980s. When I finished sharing how I met Donald (below), I told PT, “You, a couple of others and Donald schooled me on surfing lore 30 years ago. You took me through pro surfing and the Australians, and he taught me about the pre-shortboard and longboard era.”

It was a perfect moment to say thank you to two of my greatest mentors.

The speakers were outstanding — and, like I said, esteemed. Two of Donald and Diane Takayama’s daughters, Alana and Leilani, along with nephews Guy and Michael, spoke of their father’s and uncle’s endless compassion, devotion — and, when needed, toughness. One of his oldest friends, the renowned Paul Strauch, spoke of surfing together in Waikiki in the early 1950s, before the 11-year-old Takayama, already a fine board shaper, saved his money and flew to the U.S. to work for the late legend Dale Velzy (whose 2005 passing affected Donald deeply). Another iconic surfer, Linda Benson (multiple U.S. champion and the girl actually surfing in the Gidget movies), spoke with teary eyes about a 53-year friendship built on unconditional love. Part of the time, she looked up and spoke to the spirit she felt in the sky, knowing she and Donald would paddle out again, in another place. The great surfer-shaper Skip Frye added his stories, as did three current members of the Hawaiian Pro Designs Team.

Next up were two of Donald’s greatest ambassadors, the best Gen X longboarders in the world — three-time women’s world champion Cori Schumacher, and the remarkable eight-time U.S. Open champion Joel Tudor, who PT calls “the greatest longboarder of the modern era, without a doubt.” Cori’s fondest memory of Donald was not of him helping a champion, but of him making the typical 6 a.m. call and getting her to surf again during a troubled eight-year period of her life. Tudor returned to the scene of his first world tour win, the 1990 Life’s A Beach Surf Klassik — when he was 14 — and told a riveting tale about the “The University of Young and Takayama,” and how Donald and Nat Young molded a kid with ridiculous talent into a superstar. Now 36, Tudor continuously fought back tears while sharing an adolescence spent with any surfer’s Hall of Fame — Young, Takayama, David Nuuhiwa, Wayne Lynch … if you’re over 40, you get the picture.

Finally, the king took the podium. Nat Young, an Australian sports icon on the level of Michael Jordan, the world’s first shortboard champion and the greatest all-around surfer post-1950 (with a deserving nod to Kelly Slater), flew overnight from Australia and arrived as the ceremony began. He and Joslin regaled the audience in the origins of the “drop knee sake maneuver,” which had to do with they, Diane and Donald, Japan, a restaurant, nine bottles of fine sake, a video recorder and a karaoke machine. (If you knew Donald, you’re laughing right now, because you can imagine how it turned out.) Young, now 65, then looked down at the work of art to his right, a perfect Takayama-shaped wooden longboard, and said, “For my 60th, he sent me this board’s double. I have never surfed on it, nor will I ever surf on it. It is a Young family treasure.”

After that, a couple hundred people changed into wetsuits for the ceremonial paddle-out, while hundreds of others filled up the south railing of Oceanside Pier and shared in the final, flower-filled sendoff.

I’ll say what countless others are saying right now: Donald Takayama was a huge influence in my life. He was also one of those friends who made the world feel like a better place, just knowing he was in it. I first met him during the early 1980s, when I was editor of Breakout magazine and surf columnist for the old Blade-Tribune. I interviewed Donald during his shaping hours in his Cleveland St. Hawaiian Pro Designs factory. Which meant I showed up at midnight, and left at about 3 a.m.

Two things struck me, besides Donald’s crazy-like-a-fox aloha spirit personality: his love for what he did, and his commitment to every board he shaped. At the time, he combined longboard shaping with making surfboards for his hot-shot team, headed by 1984 Pipeline Masters champion Joey Buran, fellow Top-16 world tour pro David Barr, and fine national-level pro Anthony Mata, among others. (Standing with Anthony, my former Little League teammate, on the pier during the paddle out brought back those memories.) I realized I wasn’t just watching a man shape boards, but an artist practicing his craft — as Cori Schumacher put it, “a Gepetto in his studio.” As one who yearns to find the right words, and craft them to a fine polish, I absorbed Donald in action, whether surfing, shaping, or sending a hundred surfers into fits of laughter while making killer BBQ at Oceanside Longboard Club contests or his backyard with his Surfer’s Choice Teriyaki Sauce.

When I threw my flower into the ocean, I turned to see David Nuuhiwa, now 64, shaking hands with fans. Now, he and Nat Young carry the torch of a generation. Today, that torch burns a little less lightly.

Aloha, Donald. And many mahalos.

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