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Matt Warshaw’s Zero Break is a Buffet of Surf Writing Modern and Ancient

Latest Update:
December 5, 2004

By Ben Marcus

The trickiest bit of writing in all of Matt Warshaw’s anthology was the title. What to call a collection of surf writing by authors inside and outside of the sport?

From the Shady Turf?
Square Pegs, Round Barrels?
Inside from the Outside?
Lines in the Sand?
Tidal Waves o’ Words?

Warshaw considered many titles but then decided on Zero Break, which he defined as “General expression for any rarely seen big-wave break located well offshore…” Warshaw took that definition from his own Encyclopedia of Surfing, and in fact this entire anthology is a side-effect of Warshaw’s previous project. The Encyclopedia of Surfing is a definitive half a million words which Warshaw researched for three years from his impressive library of everything on surfing. In that time Warshaw read just about every word ever written on surfing by man or beast, but he was only able to sprinkle small bits of everything into the Encyclopedia. He felt that all that great writing deserved more, and with publisher Harcourt he assembled the best surf writing by insiders and outsiders.

Zero Break goes as far back as the 18th Century for poems by Lord Byron and log excerpts from Captain Cook, and then forward to 21st Century work by Kem Nunn, New Yorker writer William Finnegan and Warshaw himself.

Within those 250 years of wind, swell and tide are excerpts from 36 writers, lyricists and cartoonists, divided equally into  seven chapters:

1. The Most Supreme Pleasure: Surfing Introduced.
2. Kahuna: Surfing Characters.
3. Out There: Big Waves, Long Journeys.
4. Surf City, Here We Come: Surf Culture.
5. Fish out of Water: The Landlocked Surfer
6. The Ninth Wave: Surf Noir
7. Voice of the Wave: Why We Surf

Excerpts are as short as a Lord Byron poem and one-page cartoons from Peter Spacek, Rick Griffin, Doonesbury, Peanuts and R. Crumb, and as long as magazine pieces by David Rensin, Cintra Wilson and William Finnegan and entire chapters from novels by Kem Nunn, Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe.

One service Zero Break provides is a sort of Whitman’s sampler of all the good surf writing out there. Between surfing, marriage and a career, most modern surfers don’t have the time to read entire books and other surfers just use them to roll joints. Zero Break gives chapter-long samples of longer books the busy surfer/reader might not have the chance to engulf. If you’re curious about Dog’s of Winter by Kem Nunn, Daniel Duane’s Caught Inside, James Houston’s A Native Son of the Golden West or Matt Warshaw’s own Mavericks: A History of Big-Wave Surfing,  Zero Break offers bite-sized nuggets and lets the reader decide if they want to charge the whole thing.

In between the short and the long are choice bits from surfing’s most celebrated writers, and total outsiders: Dave Parmenter’s The Land Duke Forgot article about surfing Alaska from SURFER Magazine, Cintra Wilson’s snidely hilarious appraisal of the pro surfing scene on the beaches of France and the Charlie Don’t Surf! scene from Apocalypse Now. There are the lyrics to New York’s A Lonely Town, and pieces by a couple of New Yorker Class writers, including Susan Orlean’s Surf Girls of Maui, which inspired the movie Blue Crush.

Zero Break is a steaming buffet of surf writing and there is a lot to digest, but he garnishes all that surf writing with generous helpings of surf photos and art, and each section and each piece is presented with intros by Warshaw his ownself.

Maybe Warshaw should have called his anthology Surfer’s Digest, because there is a lot to consume in those 360 pages, with big slices of all the great surf writing that goes back to the 18th Century.

What titles did you consider for the book before you decided on Zero Break?
Salty Dog Sam Goes Surfing and Other Stories, that was the title for months, named after the Crumb strip that's in the book. 

Nice. I remember that cartoon well from SURFER. And those subscription cartoons R Crumb did for them. So cool. Now The New Yorker is cool.

Then my very young editor, who only knew Crumb from his recent New Yorker strips, which are G-rated compared to his '70s stuff, finally got around to reading Salty Dog, and flipped out, saying we couldn't run the strip at all, much less name the book after it. Racist and offensive, she said.

Aw youth.

But the book was totally finished, and I’d been paid and everything. There was a two or three week standoff, ending with a conference call between me, my agent and the Harcourt CEO, who was really cool about the whole thing. Strip stayed in the book, but Crumb got a special little intro explaining who he is and his reputation (didn’t have to do one for Schultz or Griffin or Trudeau, but anyway)…

He should need no introduction…

Plus I had to come up with a new name for the book. Nothing was sounding good until my Dad suggested Zero Break. It ties in somehow with those big smoking waves on the horizon. Plus it has a “Z.”

Z worked for Datsun. Any stories you couldn't get the rights to?
William Finnegan’sPlaying Doc's Games from The New Yorker, cause it's going in Finnegan’s own book, which was a big bummer. Also the Spicoli chapters from Fast Times, cause Crowe’s never allowed anything from FT to be anthologized, in fact he's never even allowed a 2nd printing of the book, from what I understand.

A first printing of Fast Times is extremely valuable now. Like $300 on Ebay. Gnarly!

Righteous bucks!

What was your criteria for inclusion in the anthology?

Partly I tried to spread things out as much as I could across the decades, and tried to get a mix of serious and humorous, but mostly it was just whatever struck me as the best writing.

No Derek Hynd? And I guess you aren’t familiar with my stuff, again.


How long did it take from start to finish?
About a year, but I did other things during that time. Piece of cake after The Encyclopedia.

You should still be in hospital from The Encyclopedia. What were the major headaches for Zero Break?

Getting permissions, as usual. Some were incredibly easy. I got in touch with Crumb’s manager really early in the project and explained what I was doing, and how much I wanted Salty Dog in the book, and that I didn't have much of a budget, but I wanted to at least see if maybe I could afford to get Crumb’s piece in there. He got back a few days later and said Crumb liked the idea of being in the book, and wondered if $100 would be too much. I offered $300, we settled on $200.

On the other hand, I had to deal with dickwad permissions people at publishing houses, like the guy at Houghton-Mifflin, who insisted that I pay $2,000 for the rights to use an excerpt from Eugene Burdick’s Ninth Wave, which was a total rip-off. But it’s kind of an indispensable piece for Zero Break, as there wasn’t much being written about surfing in the ‘50s, so...

How many of the authors did you actually talk to?

About 10.

How were Lord Byron’s people to deal with?

Public domain, bro.

How many other stories were public domain?

Jack London, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, I think that’s about it.

What is your personal favorite?

Cintra Wilson’s Jesus Christ, Personal Friend of Surfing.

She’s a sassy lass.

And Pump House Gang.

How many copies did they print?

I think 15,000.

What’s next for Matt Warshaw? Marriage? Children?

Well tonight, Dan Duane, Thomas Farber, Allston James and I are doing a reading/signing at Clean Well-Lighted  Place for Books.

What are you going to read tonight?

Homie don’t read.

And then?

Just finished Surf Movie Tonite! Surf Movie Poster Art, 1954-2004, for Chronicle Books. Should be out in  Spring ’06.



Ben In LA (Montana)
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