A conversation with Stuart Holmes Coleman, part II

11 minute read

(this is a continuation of our conversation with Stuart Holmes Coleman, author of Eddie Aikau: Hawaiian Hero, Fierce Heart, and Eddie Would Go. You can find part I here.)

You’re a passionate surfer. Which came first, your love of surfing or your desire to write this book? Would it have been possible to write this book without being a surfer?

Surfing came first. Ironically the two loves of my life are writing and surfing, and yet I never thought about writing about surfing! It just didn’t seem a literary topic to write about. But then there was the renaissance of long-boarding in the early 1990s and the birth of Surfer’s Journal, and some literary books started to come out about surfing, William Finnegan’s piece in the New Yorker, and later his book Barbarian Days, and I realized I could write about the think I loved the most.

There are some amazing literary novels surfing books. I love Kem Nunn, who has written some stunning books related to surfing, like The Dogs of Winter. I’m curious, are there other writers, surfing or otherwise, that you learn from or admire?

There’s a younger writer I came in touch with, Jamal Yogis. I did a book tour with Shaun Tomson, who wrote Bustin’ Down the Door, which was an amazing experience because he was my idol growing up. He was associated with Surfrider, and I’m on a book tour with him?! That was a high point of my writing life. And we came across Jamal who had written Salt Water Buddha, and we hit it off. He is a Zen Buddhist and many in my family were, and so even though we were different, we shared the spiritual component of surfing. I love his books, The Fear Project and Salt Water Buddha. Matt Warshaw’s books about the history of the sport were very formative for me. Outside of surfing, Jon Krakauer — I was very influenced by Into Thin Air, what he did for mountain climbing I wanted to do for surfing. Miraculously there hadn’t been anything written about big wave surfing at that point, so off I went.

You are the Hawaii Manager for the Surfrider Foundation. Tell us a bit about Surfrider, and how you balance that work with your writing? What’s your schedule like these days?

The Surfrider Foundation is an environmental non-profit whose mission is to further the protection and enjoyment of the worlds oceans, waves and beaches. What I love about it is that it’s Protection and Enjoyment. We cover water quality, responsible coastal development, plastics pollution, those are our main areas — it’s not just for surfers — it’s for anyone who loves the ocean and wants to protect it. We have 5 chapters in Hawaii and 80 more across the country.

I had volunteered for about 8 years. We realized we were too big not to have a formal team in Hawaii, so we lobbied and raised money and created the team here. It’s in its 6th year in Hawaii and going really well. The challenge is to integrate my writing with Surfrider. I’m trying to write about the ocean and make time to sustain my creativity and work on books that may or may not have to do with Surfrider issues directly. It’s a calling, but it’s a tough balance.

Wallace J. Nichols in his book Blue Mind talks as a neuroscientist about the healing powers of the ocean. I’d have probably had a nervous breakdown by now if I didn’t surf (laughs).

Eddie Would Go is your first book. How did writing Eddie Would Go change you? What did you take away from it?

They say, “Be careful that your first work is not a success”. In my case, it started with publishers being interested, but then they thought there wasn’t a big enough audience, so I ended up self-publishing. It ended up working — I traveled all around Hawaii and both coasts of the mainland. Through sheer persistence, it’s become a successful book and a perennial best seller. That was hard, and I learned a lot about being self-sufficient from that. But it’s hard to follow up something like that, especially because the subject matter was so fascinating and legendary.

For me, there was something very Christ-like about Eddie, he was 32 when he died, he sacrificed his life to save his friends, and disappeared at sea. It creates that special kind of respect and devotion; which makes it hard to when you think about what to do next.

The Hawaiian culture is generally very open and welcoming — the spirit of aloha — you can see it in the way the Aikau family took people into their homes and lives — but it can be a challenge for outsiders to penetrate in a true way. As a haole_, you’ve written about some of Hawaii’s most treasured cultural figures. How did you gain the trust required to write your books?_

People kind of warned me, “you’re writing about the most intense and respected local family on the island”, I was thinking this could end up like a bad episode of Survivor, where I get kicked off the island (laughs). I think they saw in just my sheer hard work, and where I ending up leaving my job as a teacher and my salary, and that my heart was in the right place, they saw that I was committed to write about him in a realistic way. I wasn’t going to do the idealistic, romantic picture of this person, I wrote about him warts and all, but even with some of his struggles, he was a very extraordinary person. I think they saw that and it helped. People might start off hesitant, but when they saw my passion, they really opened up. I’ll be forever grateful to those who shared their stories, many of them really intense. So many of these stories ended up in tears. Nainoa Thompson (the captain of the Hokulea) and I both had tears in our eyes by the end of our conversation. I tried to track him down for about 6 months, and he finally shows up on my doorstep and says “OK, let’s do this”. Very intense experience.

The first big review that came out in the Star Advertiser, the first review and it’s on the cover of the newspaper, it was one of the most fearful days of my life reading that review. The first sentence is, “Only a mainland haole could have written this book. “

I’m like, “What does that mean?”.

Their point was that he was a such a mythic figure, that nobody who grew up with him could write about him accurately, so it took someone from outside the culture to really do the job with justice. Where ever I would go, I had elders looking at me like who is this kid…I’m at the Eddie (a surfing competition held in Eddie’s honor), this big Hawaiian brother comes up to me — “you write that book on Eddie Aikau?”, I said, yeah…. bracing myself…. He said, “Before you wrote that book you waz just a haole from the mainland, now you one local haole”, and gives me a big hug, one of the best moments of my life.

Drinking was a huge part of life for the people in Eddie Would Go, for better and worse. If this book was a cocktail, what would it be, and why?

The Aikau’s were most famous for a drink called Swipe. The actual recipe is secret, but it’s made with fermented pineapple juice, rum, vodka, and the secret ingredients that they said they’d kill me if I shared. Even 6’6’ big wave surfer Peter Cole, said, “It was really sweet, and they’d serve it in a frozen pineapple core. They’d put in barrels to ferment for a week. I’d drink it, it was sweet, but after the first drink my lips would be numb. Then after my second drink, my face would go numb. After the third drink, I just remember waking up in the graveyard, passed out on the grass with all the other bodies. They called it the Haole Slayer.”

One of my favorite scenes in the book is set in the graveyard.

Brownie was a hot-shot skier who thought well of himself, and that wasn’t the Hawaiian way. Brownie passed out after too much of the Swipe, he woke up in the bone house with a skull on his chest and his eyes pasted shut with poi, and he woke up screaming like a baby boy… One of the rules was to make sure you never passed out at the Aikaus’ — they loved a good practical joke. But the family doesn’t drink much any more and so they don’t make it much.

Well, if the recipe is secret, it should at least go into the archives; it should be preserved for history, if not for consumption.

Speaking of history; I was intrigued by your mention of the four spiral bound notebooks full of notes you wrote for Eddie. Tell us about your research process?

I record each conversation by hand in the notebooks. It was about 3 hours of transcribing for every hour of conversation. I wanted to get every word right. The notebooks are really a kind of oral history, there’s so much in them that aren’t in the book. I’m trying to figure out what to do with them. There’s numerous interviews with Nainoa Thompson, a huge figure in Hawaiian culture, and many others. There’s so many special moments in those interviews that would be wonderful to preserve, perhaps in a museum somewhere.

Speaking of special — The Eddie surfing competition, held in Eddie’s honor only held when the waves reach 20’ or more at Waimea Bay, and so is held infrequently. Earlier this year, the Eddie was held, and Eddie’s brother Clyde competed. I expect you were there: can you share some thoughts or experiences about that?

The Aikau family lives in a Chinese graveyard they maintain for free rent. When they were poor that was the only place they could live. We met at the graveyard at 3:30AM to drive up in a caravan to Waimea Bay. It was just an intense experience to pull in with the family, and you know that Clyde, who is 66 years old! is going to paddle out into these giant 30’ waves. You can hear them rumbling in the distance, but it’s still too dark to see them. Even at 4:30 in the morning there’s thousands of people walking down the street. It’s like this ghoulish parade, and to see the first light of dawn on these massive waves is just incredible. The most intense experience is when Clyde, before he paddles out, he stops by and just says I love you guys and thank you for being here, everyone’s just like ‘Dear God just let him make it and don’t get hurt’, I think everybody on the beach was thinking that. In fact he did get hurt, he dislocated his shoulder, and yet he still went back out in his second heat against guys who were a third of his age!

Clyde Aikau on the wave

I think he was the true winner that day, there was so much respect and everyone was so impressed that he would paddle out. It reminded you what his brother Eddie was about.