By Matt Skenazy
“The first thing I hear when I wake up is ‘I wanna make waffles.’ At least five days a week I make my little girls buttermilk waffles. I try and hold out, ‘Can’t we snuggle first?’ But it’s ‘No. I wanna make waffles.’”
We’re in his kitchen and 40-year-old novelist and UCSC alum Daniel Duane is acting out his morning, gesturing wildly with his hands. It’s a rainy San Francisco day and we’re drinking strong coffee and talking shop: how he got his start, different ways to approach a novel and his recent trip to Lima, Peru to review the best restaurants for Bon Appetit magazine.
Duane’s house is on a very San Francisco-style street: tall, thin, beautifully colored buildings, narrow street and a small café at the bottom of the hill that serves coffee and muffins. Outside his kitchen window are lush green hills saturated with weeks of rain, and his neighbor’s bamboo lining the fence. Two dirty wine glasses sit on the counter; no doubt Duane and his wife, who is a writer for the New York Times Magazine were doing a little research for the wine blog he writes for ChowHound.com.
I remember all of this because as he was walking up the ladder to his recently remodeled loft-office, he yelled down, “Look up at that hillside and describe what you see, then you’ll have a way to set the scene at the beginning of your article.”
But that’s Duane, always on the lookout for an angle, seeing life through the eyes of a writer. Being a free-lancer and a novelist who can’t rely on the monthly paychecks that a typical job ensures, he has to. He has to be able to adapt his interests and abilities into words on the page.
“To be a writer like I am, you have to want to live on the edge,” Duane told me. “I have to reinvent myself every day. It takes ferocious commitment.”
After the marginal success of his first book “Lighting Out: A Vision Of California and the Mountains” in 1994, Duane broke into the novel writing scene with his second book, “Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast,” a Walden-like account of surfing north of Santa Cruz. Duane wrote the book while working on his Ph.D. in literature at UC Santa Cruz.
On a typical morning during his writing of Caught Inside, he would be up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the dawn session up the coast, surfing as the sun came up over the hills, and be back in town in time to TA a class.
Duane’s mentor, Thomas Farber, who is a senior lecturer in English at UC Berkeley, told him to learn about the natural world — the biology and geology of the environment that he was in so his book would be more about the surroundings than about the surfing.
After teaching, he would go to the Science Library to research the marine activity and the flora and fauna he had seen that morning; an otter cracking open a crab, the tide rising through the lagoon, the flowers on the sides of the trail.
“It was sort of this back-and-forth experience between reading about the wildlife biology in the science stacks and then paddling out and getting to see the very behavior that I had just read about,” Duane said. “It was this constant feedback of learning about the world that I was in.”
Duane recorded all of these mornings in journals and eventually wove them into a novel. In doing so, he joined Melville and Thoreau in a long-standing American literary tradition: memoirs about closely observed time spent in the natural world. And, not surprisingly, Duane lists Melville and Thoreau along with Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac as his biggest influences (although he’s embarrassed about listing Kerouac. He thinks it’s “so obvious” to be a male writer in America that is influenced by Kerouac).
Despite having traveled to remote corners of the world to write for magazines (he’s had jaunts to the Galapagos Islands, Fiji, Peru, Hawaii, Tonga, Mexico, and an excursion to a “mid-Atlantic speck of a jungle island,” as he describes it), Duane says he enjoyed writing Caught Inside while living in sleepy Santa Cruz the most. The book chronicles a year of Duane surfing the semi-secret spots north of Santa Cruz, watching himself change along with the weather, the water and the waves around him.
“A lot of stars were in alignment in that experience in my life,” Duane recalled. “For five years I hardly missed a swell, I hardly missed a day of a swell, I hardly missed the right wind and tide moment on a day of a swell. I was so on it.”
Duane lived in a house by the Yacht Harbor and spent hours at Java Junction, immersing himself in the Santa Cruz lifestyle.
“I would wake up at 2 a.m. and I could tell by the sound of the impacts whether a swell was coming. ‘BOOM. BOOM.’” Duane uses his entire body (at 6’2 he is taller than average for a surfer), and his pale blue eyes light up behind his thin-rimmed glasses. “I could beat the crowds and I was writing a book about surfing, so [surfing all the time] felt completely justified. I didn’t feel like a slacker. I felt like I was on it, like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing in life.”
Farber, who lived down the street from Duane when he was growing up, coached him through the writing process during his first couple of books, showing him how to craft sentences and hear the rhythm of prose. Eventually Farber even got Duane in touch with his agent.
“You don’t have to tell him something twice — he just absorbs it,” Farber said. “I deal with young writers all the time at Cal, but with Dan it had nothing to do with school. He was a young person who was eager, desperate, to do something well, and that is rare.”
Doing things well. That is something Duane tends to do with apparent ease and grace. And doing something well, whether it is cooking, surfing, rock climbing, boar hunting or carpentry, translates into writing well.
Matt Warshaw, the editor of Surfer magazine from 1985 to 1990 and author of “The Encyclopedia of Surfing and Maverick’s: The Story of Big Wave Surfing,” has been one of Duane’s best friends for the last decade. They live a few blocks from each other in San Francisco, go on excursions to Baja whenever they can and meet weekly for coffee.
“Dan has a strange dual writing personality,” Warshaw said. “He’s good at the outdoor stuff, but he also writes very well about food and wine and fine dining.”
As a surfer, a writer, and a student, I was desperate to find out how Duane got to be where he is today. He travels the world writing about whatever he feels inclined to write about — how cool is that? Only recently he has written articles on Ultimate Fighting, how to start a wine collection and the first rock climbing expedition through the Grand Canyon.
“Put your eyes on the prize and don’t let go,” Duane told me, chuckling. “Go full blast.”
Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer magazine from 1990 to 1999, sent Duane on trips to Iceland and the North Shore of Oahu with professional surfers for articles. Hawk had a little more insight.
“You could tell that he had been working the whole time,” Hawk said. “It’s tempting for surfers to think that they can write the story when they get back home. They think, ‘What the hell, the photos tell the whole story anyway,’ so they bro it up with the locals and surf the whole time. But if you’re gonna do a travel story you have to have a writer’s eye while you’re there: looking, smelling, listening.”
Duane made the jump from surf magazines to larger, better-paying magazines shortly after his stint writing for Surfer. Duane’s portfolio includes Outside, Men’s Journal, GQ, Surfer’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, and Bon Appetit.
“If you find someone like Dan,” Hawk said, “you squeeze all you can out of him till he hits the big time, because you know it’s gonna happen soon.”
Duane has a great gig, a dream job some might call it. But, despite how much he loves his job now, magazine writing wasn’t even his dream originally.
“I didn’t even want to be a magazine writer traveling all over the world,” Duane said. “It wasn’t something I tried to pursue — it just sort of fell into my lap. Don’t get me wrong — I worked really hard — but I would have been perfectly content writing bestselling novels for the rest of my life.”
A week later we’re on the sand dunes of Ocean Beach in San Francisco, the wind is blowing offshore slightly and it’s sunny and warm for the first time in weeks. The swell is huge and a couple of guys are out with jet skis, towing each other into waves that are three times their size.
“This place is like my pub,” Duane says, shielding his eyes from the sun reflecting off the water, the traffic from the Great Highway rumbling behind us. “I know most of the guys out here, and we just come and hang out.” We stare out to sea as one of the surfers pulls into a huge barrel, gets destroyed by the lip and flounders on the inside. “I think you have to be a bit older to appreciate Ocean Beach.”
So Duane’s a bit older, no longer living quite the Kerouacian lifestyle, and he travels less and spends more time with his daughters and his wife. Saturdays are spent at the San Francisco farmers market and weekdays involve researching and pitching stories — unless the swell is up. There are some trips, such as an expedition into a remote region of the Chinese wilderness, that Duane turns down because he doesn’t want to be away from his little girls for too long. But he still travels when the time is right. In the spring he will visit Germany and then the Yucatán Peninsula.
On the way down Highway 1, as fields awash with yellow flowers and hawks diving for their prey whipped past me on the side of the road, I remembered something that Warshaw and Hawk both mentioned: that Duane is a writer first and a surfer (along with rock climber, traveler, hunter and carpenter) second. That’s why he is able to adapt his writing so easily. Where, I thought to myself, does he find the time to make all those waffles?