InterviewsThe Sexy Ugly Beautifuls 

-Words by Kim Feldmann, images by John McCarthy, Barry Tuck

While many of us manage to get away for a surf trip once or twice a year, there’re a smattering of individuals who can lay claim to a full-time life of surf adventure. But among them and their story-laden lives, only a handful (the likes of Jamie Brisick, Christian Beamish, and Al Mackinnon are a few of those worth mentioning) consider recording their experiences for posterity beyond social media posts, transforming their memories into literature – surf literature.

South African former pro- surfer John McCarthy is another member of this club of surfers-cum-writers, and his latest memoir, The Sexy Ugly Beautifuls, brings those who can’t afford (neither financially nor talent-wise) a life of constantly duck-diving different waters, to at least get a taste of it through his writing.

At age nine, John caught his first wave along Durban’s Golden Mile, South Africa; years later, he joined the WQS, kick-starting his career as a professional surfer. After retiring from the tour, John stepped into the world of surf journalism as the publisher of Zigzag surfing magazine (South Africa’s most popular surf pubication), then founding his own magazine, theBOMBsurf, and ultimately The Greener Surfer, an online portal and blog “dedicated to finding environmentally responsible solutions, while playing in the ocean.”

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

That surfing and words have been a fundamental part of his life can be taken for granted, so when asked about what made him start writing, the answer is as uncomplicated as his daily paddles:

“I love being creative – writing for me is a wonderful creative outlet.”

During his book launch tour in South Africa (that happened throughout December last year), we spoke to John about the journey behind his writing, his personal metamorphosis, and his view on surf literature.

How did the idea for the book come about?

In my early twenties, I travelled around the world competing on the ASP WQS, and I kept a poetry journal at the time. Years later I re-discovered the journal and reading the poems triggered so many memories, so I started writing out stories, one adventure at a time. About 15 years ago I thought “Hey, if I arrange them chronologically it could work as a book.”

No doubt writing a book is a very demanding task. How was the writing process for you and what were the biggest challenges?

Ha ha I know, it took me 15 years! I just kept chipping away at it in amongst my real jobs. The biggest challenge is ending it, surrendering it to print, because then you have to accept that it is finished, regardless of how much more perfect you could make it if you kept tinkering and tweaking a word here and a description there.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

I assume there were heaps of stories to tell. How did you choose what to write about and then pick the ones that would make it to the book?

Initially I wrote all the stories that I could remember and the result was a bloated manuscript of 150,000 words full of repetition in both content and description. Working with a team of 4 (I kid you not) editors I chopped this back to a much leaner and pacey 90,000 words. I ended up choosing the most entertaining and better written stories. Once the editors drew my attention to the weaknesses in the first draft it actually wasn’t that difficult to do.

What about the title?

The title is named after the people, waves and places I discovered in my travels.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Did you see your original idea for the book change in the process? How about any personal changes?

No, it came out more or less exactly the way I hoped it would. The thing about writing over such an extended period is that your writing style evolves over time. On a personal level I think you’ll see an evolution from a more youthful rock ‘n’ roll swagger in the first half to a more mindful, soulful, second half.

Apart from being a collection of surf adventures, how do you see the stories intertwining?

Each one is written as a stand-alone story, but they are arranged chronologically so you can jump backwards and forwards if that’s your preferred style of reading, or read it more as an autobiography, which it isn’t exactly.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Besides the waves and locations, what was something that these adventures injected in you as a person? And as a surfer?

I see adventure as food for the soul, so these experiences have played a big role in shaping who I am. Surfing for me has always been my true north. Having that focus has enabled me to have the most extraordinary series of adventures while looking for waves.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Have you got a ‘favourite’ story?

I don’t think I have a favourite story, but I really like how the book concludes, I feel the last chapter really distils who I am, where I am now and what role surfing has played in my life.

What is your opinion about surf literature? Do you think it can expand to non-surfing audiences? If so, how?

I think there is a huge opportunity in surf literature, especially moving more into fiction. With the internet destroying most of the world’s printed surfing magazines, the reflective long read is now a thing of the past. This book attempts to address that, but I think we could still go so much further with fiction. I like to think that surfers and non surfers alike will be able to read and enjoy this book. In fact, I’ve had some great feedback from several of my non surfing friends so maybe there is a start.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Any future projects or plans to write another book?

Yes I’ve already started on my next project. This one is going to be a work of fiction.

If you could leave us with one sentence of the book, which would it be?

“The wave was gone, having licked the beach clean in the time honoured way of all waves.”

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

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