Amazon Best of the Month, April 2008: Defining the life of legendary surf icon Miklos "Miki" Dora can be as elusive as the man himself. The self-proclaimed "King of Malibu" has been compared to trailblazers such as Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and Pablo Picasso for providing the archetype of the counterculture surfer. Yet he was also a convicted felon who rarely missed an opportunity to scam even his closest friends. All for a Few Perfect Waves meets this conflicted figure head on, as David Rensin provides a rare look at the famously guarded Dora through hundreds of interviews with those who knew him best. The result is a portrait of a life wedged between hyperbole and vulnerability. His beguiling personality charmed many, but few relationships and situations were ever deemed off-limits to a con. Happily, any judgments are left up to the reader, as Rensin's engaging narrative seeks only to explore the inner workings of a man who truly lived life on his own terms. --Dave Callanan An Exclusive Q&A with David Rensin, Author of All for a Few Perfect Waves When profiling an elusive figure like Miki Dora, the "why" is evident, but not the "how." How did you manage to gain unfettered access to Dora lore? Rensin:
To gain access to people, stories and material like letters, faxes, emails, photos, and interviews, I had to first gain everyone's trust - not an easy task when you consider that Miki spent his life mostly avoiding the press, complaining about it, telling his friends to not sell him about and not talk about him. And, when someone did break through and write about him, as I did for the August 1983 issue of California magazine - for a long time the only mainstream press story about Miki; the rest were in surf genre magazines, including interviews, and Dora's own stories about improbable international adventures - he was likely to threaten a lawsuit. (But never win.)
I started with Miki's father, who sent me to Harry Hodge, the administrator of Miki's estate. Harry is from Australia, and he was head of Quiksilver in Europe, so we met several times when he came through Los Angeles. It really came down to the human connection. We hit it off. He told me what he thought a biography of Miki would have to entail: not trashing Miki, not whitewashing him, not sensationalizing. And the book still had to be warts and all - otherwise it would be seen as dishonest. I told him I could do that. I wouldn't dance on Miki's grave, but I also had to be totally independent. I would not let anyone control the story. My loyalty would be to the story, whatever I found.
I also told him that I thought an oral history, with some narrative connective tissue, would work best because I could gather 360 degrees of opinion about and experiences with Miki. I thought that was the only fair way to go with someone who had such a multi-faceted personality, who compartmentalized so well. If I took a side, I'd get strong reaction against it from some quarter. Better to be non-judgmental about a character about whom everyone was very judgmental.
This helped really put people at ease, and allowed me to get the best and most honest material. No one felt they had to defend a point of view. And though it might run counter to the classic biography, I didn't want to figure out Miki, but to let his mystique remain.
Harry liked that and passed me back to Miki's father, Miklos Dora, Sr. We talked, I told him the same. I knew I had to be absolutely authentic with him and he was authentic in return. He had read the California magazine piece and thought it had captured Miki's character. He also told me I'd been "a little hard" on his son as well. I gave him some of my other books to read. He liked them and gave me the go-ahead.
Now came the hard part: finding people who knew Miki and convincing them to trust me to do a non-judgmental book that wouldn't focus on the easy "outlaw" aspects of his life that landed him in jail for a short while, nor treat him only as a faded old celebrity surfer from Malibu. The idea was to do a portrait of the man, and in so doing, explain the myth. Harry had told me that when discussing the book with Miki over twenty years of lunches and dinners, Miki said he wanted to be thought of as more than just a surfer. As a journalist who had spent some years surfing, but not a surf journalist, I felt I could give him that bigger tableau.
In the end, the tone of my interviews, the questions I asked, the passion I shared, and my willingness to listen instead of try to fit the story to preconceived ideas won out and people trusted me and word spread. I got over one million words of interviews from more than 300 people on five continents.
I guess it worked. How do you think the famously guarded Miki would react to this book? Rensin:
I was often asked how Miki would react to the book; would he even want it done? Miki had always emphasized how privacy was important. He supposedly hated the commercialization of surfing and his name. These were strong and authentic themes in his life. But they were not absolute. Did he hate being photographed? I've seen many, many snapshots of him. Did he hate surfboard companies and clothing companies? Not if they didn't try to rip him off. Yes, there was a general discontent and desire to be left alone at times--and he wanted empty waves--but his actions were often situational, not carved in stone.
I think that publicly Miki would say he didn't want a book, but privately he would want it. He had to be able to put it down, to always have plausible deniability. Part of what I had to do to gain access to interviews was prove that Miki in fact wanted a legacy. I could do that because I had the correspondence as evidence. He had talked with potential book collaborators and had done some interviews. He met with people who wanted to make movies of his life. It never worked out. Some people say he just gamed these suitors for money, and in some cases that is true. But not always. I think Miki never did his book/movie because had to live his life instead of write about it, and because he wanted too much to be in control. I respect that: the wanting to get it just how he wants it. It's his life after all. He didn't want anyone interpreting it. But he had difficulty trusting co-authors. I suppose he was simply waiting for the right person with the right point of view to come along, but as an experienced collaborator, I wonder how well he would have weathered the ups and downs inherent in that kind of working relationship. It's never easy.
In the end, Miki left the evidence of his life (letters, notebooks, etc.) that he could easily have trashed. He knew someone would inevitably do something. He called it the vultures picking at his bones.
Anyway, does it matter whether or not Miki would have wanted the book? I don't think so.
How would he have reacted? He'd have said I blew it, that I could have gotten the real story if only I'd taken the time. But he'd have carried the book everywhere, showed it around and, depending on the situation, would have said he hated it or loved it. That's Miki. How was Miki able to reconcile the fact that he played such a significant role in rise of 60's surf cinema? Considering that these films created the surfing population explosion that Miki loathed, it would seem that he made quite a complex bed for himself. Rensin:
I don't think Miki played that big a role in the rise of surf cinema. The irony is simply that at a time when he was most loudly decrying the exploitation of surfing because Gidget and other beach party films had crowded his beloved Malibu, he was also taking money to be a stunt rider and technical advisor. Maybe his ego couldn't let him stay away. Maybe it was the free lunch at the craft services table. Maybe it was his notion that he could subvert from the inside by acting weird as an extra in the background. Maybe he met some women he wanted. Maybe it was just fun, there was no surf, and he needed to do something that day. Later in life he realized that he had in some small way aided and abetted, but I don't think he wasted much time with regret. Miki has been compared to everyone from Jesus to James Dean. However, after reading All for a Few Perfect Waves, I found my own comparison: he was the Tyler Durden of surfing. Akin to the Fight Club character, surfers cannot always condone Dora's antics, but we quietly support his pursuit for point-break perfection. Do you agree? Rensin:
I agree. Miki, like Durden, was that sage of harsh reality who made his own way, and the hell with the rest of you. Like Durden he was not completely a loner, and was willing to bring along new initiates if they attracted him with their own inner search. Often while writing the book, I kept thinking about Fight Club
and how the rule never to talk about Fight Club was Miki's rule for himself. Many of Durden's aphorisms apply as well to Miki: "The things you own end up owning you." "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." And my favorite, "Fight club exists only when fight club begins and when it ends." Or, as Miki famously said: "When there's surf I'm totally committed. When there's none, it doesn't exist." How important was Dora's close and inflammatory relationship with Greg Noll? Rensin:
Dora's relationship with Greg Noll endured fifty choppy years and I think it was an anchor, a familiar place to return to. Noll just didn't take crap from Dora, yet he appreciated the rascal in him. Noll had it, too. They met as kids. They were of an era and mindset. Noll never wanted anything from Dora. When they made "Da Cat" boards, he endured the games Dora played. And he wasn't afraid - after Dora would pay him a visit at home - to ask to check his suitcase for the silverware. He knew what Dora was about, and he let him know he knew, but he never shunned him for it. They could appreciate each other and that love, if you want to call it that, grew over time. Also, Noll is physically imposing. You don't mess with Noll. Dora didn't. What is your favorite Dora story or experience? Rensin:
It's really tough to come up with a favorite Dora story or experience. Overall, I love his audacity, his willingness to go against the grain, to not be bound by the rules, to so cannily manipulate an innocent surf media to his advantage after they'd helped rip away his paradise of empty waves. He was always pulling stunts like wearing a see-though plastic mask, or letting his groupies chauffeur him around, or having what he called his "party kit" (everything from a glass with ice cubes to a tuxedo, so he could crash Beverly Hills doings with ease), to various little cons and pranks (baby chicks in the lifeguard tower). There are too many to go into here. But I guess if I had to chose, a favorite would be Miki being baptized in the Mormon church when he lived in New Zealand in 1975. He played on the eagerness of two young missionaries and led them on a merry chase. I'm sure he was authentically curious about their vision of the universe, but I think he was definitely tongue-in-cheek. And best of all, he went through with the immersion. Dora was living theater. The idea, the best approach now and then, was to sit back and enjoy the show.
From the Publisher
Advance Praise for ALL FOR A FEW PERFECT WAVES
"You can't beat the shape of real life. All For a Few Perfect Waves is a wrenching portrait, deft and deep."
- Cameron Crowe, screenwriter/director
“Miki took to his grave many stories that no one will ever know, but this book will also tell many and give new insight into his life. In the end only a select group knew the real person. I’m not sure I did – but almost.”
—Kelly Slater, best-known surfer in the world
"All for a Few Perfect Waves" is just a wonderful book. It captures with haunting resonance the surfing culture of California and Malibu at a time when there still were such notions as innocence and simple beauty. And in the mysterious, magnificent and mercurial rebel surfer Miki Dora, David Rensin has found the perfect subject. You may like Dora. You may hate him. But you will never ever tire of him through the very impressive shine of Rensin's reporting and writing.
–Buzz Bissinger, author of "Friday Night Lights"
"From the depths of hell to flying as high and as free as an eagle – and everything in between – All For a Few Perfect Waves left me laughing and crying at the same time.”
– Greg Noll, world-renowned big wave rider
"Great reportage. Dora was a figure of such enormity that even the lousiest surfer–Malibu 3rd point–invokes his name if not his spirit. In times like these it turns out not only is there an oral history of Miki Dora, there must be."
– Stephen Gaghan, surfer, screenwriter/director (Traffic, Syriana)
“For a half century and more, the history of surfing in Southern California has been shrouded in a myth wrapped in an enigma by the name of Miki Dora. Now, through biography and oral history, David Rensin has given us the facts. Yet even with the story so brilliantly told, Miki Dora remains even more mythic, more enigmatic, a bigger legend, than ever. A magnificent book.”
-- Kevin Starr, University of Southern California; California Librarian emeritus
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