Bob Yehling on Surfing, Clay Marzo and Just Add Water

Long periods of silence — sometimes up to two hours — pervade Denver-based author Bob Yehling's interview tapes with world-champion surfer Clay Marzo. Marzo doesn't do a lot of talking. Marzo has Asperger's, a fact that made Just Add Water, Yehling's biography of the surfer, necessary and vital. But it didn't make the book any easier to write. Yehling has done a lot of biographies — and co-written a lot of autobiographies, both with author credit and without — but Just Add Water was without a doubt the hardest, he says. 

Yehling will read and sign copies of Just Add Water at 7 p.m. August 10 at the Tattered Cover in LoDo; he'll be introduced by Jesse Ogas of Firefly Autism, a Denver school for kids on the autism spectrum, who will talk about the challenges that his charges face. In advance of tonight's event, we caught up with Yehling to talk about Marzo, surfing and the biography biz.

Westword: How did you get to know Clay Marzo?

Bob Yehling: I live in Denver, but I'm from San Diego — I grew up surfing. It's my life, it's in my blood. I started following Clay about ten years ago when he won a contest called the NSSA Nationals. He won the open men’s division; that's the elite division. Usually open men's surfers are eighteen and over – Clay was fifteen, and he was the only person in history to win the finals with a perfect score. People were calling him the best surfer in the world. In 2007 he was diagnosed with Asperger's, and in 2008 a documentary came out by the same name, Just Add Water. I've been keeping tabs on him ever since.

What made you want to do the biography, given there was already a documentary?

I’d love to say the book was my idea, but it was not. One of my best friends happens to be Clay Marzo's manager. We were having dinner, and he asked me what I thought about Clay's story as a book idea. I was reluctant, because bios of surfers don’t do that well in the mainstream — once you get between the two coasts, it's like, who cares? But when he told me how open Clay's family would be about talking to me unreservedly about having an autistic kid in the house, then I got excited. And I’d never heard of a world-class athlete who was autistic before. 

It must have been an interesting research process.

I can tell you next year will be forty years for me as a pro journalist, and this is the hardest project I've ever worked on, in terms of interviewing and getting enough material. Clay just doesn’t talk much. I hung out with him in Maui, riding with him and hanging out with him every day. Normally when you’re working with someone like that you’re talking all day. Listening to the tapes with Clay, it's funny, because there’s like two-hour gaps. He just doesn’t talk. But his mother, Jill: She was absolutely the person who gave me the most background insight. It’s a broken family – the parents are divorced. This family told me their own perspective, and they held nothing back. There’s a lot of clashing in the book, which parents of autistic kids appreciate, because that’s really what it’s like.

What did you take away from that experience?

I used to be a college teacher, and what I learned from that is, you nurture a person’s gifts. You don’t get on them about their limitations. That’s especially true for people who are high-functioning autistic or Asperger's. The guy is brilliant if you can get there. We're driving around, he knows every little nook and cranny on the north shore of Maui — he’s talking about wind influences, wave influences, all this in-depth, oceanographic stuff, just an intense knowledge of surfing conditions. That was one of the funnest parts working on the book, is when he would get going on something like that – it was a great experience.

What are you working on now?

I have two books in progress right now: one is a memoir I'm working on with Brandon Cruz, the star of an early '70s sitcom called The Courtship of Eddie's Father; he was also the star of Bad News Bears, the first one. I'm also writing a biography of Marty Balin, one of the main initiators of the San Francisco Summer of Love; he founded Jefferson Airplane, and was also the hit-maker for Jefferson Starship. I've worked with him before.

That sort of an interesting niche to be in — the celebrity biography. How did you get into that?

I do a lot of collaborative writing with public figures like that. It kind of goes back to the beginning —  forty years next year since I was hired as a full-time sportswriter for a newspaper in San Diego. I was sixteen. They threw me right into the fire. I spent a lot of time with pro athletes, and I think that experience so young kind of broke down barriers of feeling starstruck; it taught me that I could talk to public figures, or that they would talk to me. Also did a lot of concert reviews, interviewing musicians. So sport and music writing is my love –  I've carried that through my entire career.

Sixteen is pretty young to be working as a newspaper reporter.

Well, first of all, it was 1976. Basically I was a sports editor of my high-school newspaper, and our printing and publishing was done at the Blade Tribune, which is the paper I got hired by. There were four high schools tapped into the Blade, and the editor, Steve Scholfield, was in tune with the young writers. I eventually met him, and I said I wanted to work for him. He said the question that would make any teenage kid wet their pants: Why should I hire you? I managed to spit out, because I’m good, and I think you’re going to make me better. I didn’t really believe it, but I got hired a week later. Steve mentored a lot of people who went on to very public careers. Actually, Kirk MacDonald, the former publisher of the Denver Post — he and I were on staff together working for Steve. He was a phenomenal mentor to all of us, and we’re still really good friends.

For more interview about tonight's program, go to the Tattered Cover website.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte