Many music fans know Chris Gorman as the drummer from the band Belly. Still others know him as the professional photographer he’s been since Belly split up nearly twenty years ago. And I know him as the T.A. of my college video class who I used to interview when he was in the band Belly. But now, with the release of Indi Surfs (hardcover), Gorman has a new role: children’s book author and illustrator. I spoke to him about the inspirations for this book, both personal and artistic, and what it was like writing a children’s book about your own kid.
I always like to start with the basics. So, what is Indi Surfs about?
It’s a fairly simple story about a little girl and a day of surfing. In many ways, it’s pretty mechanical: paddle out, dive under waves, catch some waves, fall a lot, keep trying. There are some tried and true kids books themes, I picked the “keep trying, hard work pays off” theme. It’s a lie but don’t tell the kids.
What was the inspiration for this book?
Like all parents, I want to brainwash my kids into being clones of me. It’s the old alligator parent thing: If they look or act like me, I won’t eat them. It always backfires, but we have to try. No matter how many times I play Dark Side Of The Moon she still switches the station until she finds Taylor Swift. But as I was in brainwashing mode, I figured if my kids think surfing is cool, they will want to try it, and then I can surf more and not feel guilty. Children’s books are a great place to start training you kids, you can trick them into eating green eggs, make them fear a life on an island with monsters, or even get them to stop destroying their favorite tree through books, so why not make them like surfing? But I really couldn’t find a good book about surfing out there, so I decided to try to make one.
Also, our house was wrecked by hurricane Sandy — we live very close to the beach — so while we were displaced, I needed a creative distraction while we were living out of boxes and rebuilding our house. Doing a project that was 100% computer based was very appealing and practical at the time, and it gave me something fun to do with my daughter.
How hard was it for you to write something for kids?
I started with the illustrations, and waited for the writing after I had gotten about fifteen good pages. I had some fairly iconic images I wanted to pay homage to, so getting the book started was pretty easy. There are tons of surf artists who I love. Rick Griffen is a biggie; I own a few of his posters. Shepard Fairey is another poster artist I collect. John Severson’s image of Gregg Knoll… Dropping Indi into this world kind of started as a goofy exercise, but it really got under my skin.
I also had a lot of help from my kids and my wife and a group of friends who I used as sounding boards once the writing started. Quickly I realized that I didn’t have a knack for complicated sub plots, and I felt like there was something poetic and almost meditative to the simple act of taking the reader from the beach to the barrel. That’s a surfing word for riding inside or the wave or in the tube.
Ah, gotcha. Do you have any funny stories about things you had in earlier versions of the book that you didn’t realize weren’t kid friendly?
The wipe out pages aren’t really kid friendly. One agent I met with said “I can’t sell this thing. This is an unsupervised kid, being placed in a dangerous situation with no safety gear.” So I guess to some the whole thing is probably not kid friendly. I tried making the wipe outs a little more abstract or more mellow, but they didn’t look cool, so I stuck with my original images. I guess I figure its fiction, there are no man-eating monsters, talking animals, dragons, aliens, or runaway trains, so to some there isn’t that cue that tells you “This is all a dream,” which may be an essential element to some publishers, but I don’t think too many people will see this as a factual account of good parenting.
The book’s main character is your daughter, Indi. When you first started shopping the book around, looking for publishers, did you turn any down because they wanted to change the name to something more common, like Jennifer Surfs or Sally Surfs?
I mainly got rejections, so there wasn’t really that conflict. I think most people think that though it’s an unusual name, it does have a nice beachy quality or exotic sort of vibe.
Given that you make your living as a photographer, why did you decide to do illustrations for this book, instead of photographs?
Since college, I’ve always made block prints. When my photo work became my job and the shots I did for a living became very commercial, the block print work became the thing I thought of as my “art.” Somewhere along the way my photography, my block-print work, and the computer all got interconnected. For about six years I owned a surf shop with a group of friends back in Rhode Island. I started designing all the t-shirts and skate decks, which evolved into the look Indi Surfs has. It starts with photographs I take and then incorporates line drawing and lastly computer doodling and manipulation.
You kind of touched on this already, but when it came time to do these drawings, what influenced the style? And I don’t just mean what other artists are an influence on your drawing style, but were you going for a specific feel, like did you want to go for a kind of art?
I think that I had about thirty years worth of surf magazines, surf culture posters, and surf brand t-shirts rattling in my head when I started doing images like these a few years ago. With this series, I really started to refine it. Building a series really forces you to get into a consistent approach and feel, allows you to hone that look. But as I mentioned Rick Griffen, Shepard Fairey, Raymond Pettibone, John Severson, and Frank Kozik are all big influences on this book. I think I wanted every page to look like the poster for a concert at the Fillmore, a punk rock show, or a surf movie.
So how close does Indi in the book resemble your daughter?
I started with images I took of Indi in my studio, so it looks exactly like her when she was five. She loved the whole project, though there were some pages where I realized I needed a better angle or pose at six in the morning before school, and I made her put on her “surfer outfit,” which was really a beat up old frilly t-shirt and a pair of shorts she hated and made her stand on the dining room table. After me shouting at here, “NO, NO, PUT YOU HANDS LIKE THIS AND YOUR FEET LIKE THIS” a bunch of times, I think she was glad when it was over. Now that the book is coming out she will say stuff like, “Tabitha is really good at drawing dogs…but it’s not like she has a book about her or anything….” Or she might start a sentence with “…now that I’m famous I think….” So I don’t think she’s annoyed yet.
But while the book is one thing, selling it is a different animal. I’m not planning to turn her into a product or a franchise. That hasn’t been suggested, so it hasn’t been an issue, but I also don’t plan to turn her into Twitter fodder or Facebook YouTube channel type thing. If the book really takes off I guess we will have to deal with the Gone Girl effect. But for now its still something we think is fun.
What about the writing, what were your big influences there?
Maybe Harold And The Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson or anything by Virginia Lee Burton. Story telling that is really utilitarian.
Also, since you’re not a writer by trade, did you ever consider hiring someone else to write it? Like maybe a professional freelance writer you’ve known since college?
I did have a lot of help. But maybe for the next one you have your people talk to my people?
Actually one children’s rep said “We gotta get this book to Jack Johnson.” To which I said, “The musician?” “He did the music for the Curious George movie, and he surfs, he will know what to do with this.” “Okay, I guess. How do we get him a copy?” “You’re a surfer, you can give it to him…”
Needless to say, Jack is not involved with this book, and neither is that rep….
So, does Indi actually surf?
I think this will be the big breakthrough year for her and surfing. She boogie boards and swims like a fish, but so far no actual surfing. I have really beat water safety into her brain, and she has taken swim lessons for a few years and can swim very well now. This past winter she has learned stuff I can’t even attempt. Surfing can be scary and a big wipeout can ruin it for a little kid if they don’t feel totally comfortable in the ocean, so I’ve taken it slow with my little dudes.
How good is the surfing in Long Beach, New York, where you live?
It is really good. Its not Bali, but for the north east we get tons of great days and have a really good set up for the Atlantic, that also means that every thirty or so years — and that number is getting smaller and smaller — we will get slammed by a really motherfucker of a hurricane. But that’s what you get when you are dumb enough to buy a house on a goddam barrier island. I mean it’s called a barrier for Christ’s sake.
Now, besides Indi, you also have a son named Toll. How piss is Toll that he’s not the one surfing? Or is your plan to write a second book about him? Toll Skates, perhaps? Or is he just happy that there are tons of roads in the tri-state area named after him?
I do want to make a book about him. He has some really crazy interests for a five year old, so it wont be a stretch to finding a great story theme for him….
Probably won’t be about tri state roads though.
If you write a book about Toll next, does this also mean you’ll have to write a book about your wife? Like maybe Camille Surfs, Skates, Bikes, Runs, Walks, And Does Lots Of Other Things Because She’s The Best, I Love You Honey?
That sounds like a great idea. Do you know any professional freelance writers who would like to listen to her tell you about all the things that she is the best at?
No. Absolutely not.
Now, I would be delinquent in my rock critic duties if I didn’t ask you about music, given that you were in Belly. Why, after the band broke up, did you not start a new one or join some other band? Were there offers for the latter?
There were a few offers to join others. I did a few years of try-outs and sit-ins and jam sessions and recording sessions, but nothing really worked for me. Forming a band is a magical thing when it works. It’s very hard to create the right circumstances and it really requires huge doses of insecurity, fear, desperation, rejection, isolation, with massive creative output and total trust. The more world experience you have, the harder it is to build that dynamic. The fact that we [Belly] were post college age and had all done some stuff made it pretty weird that we were able to get into that zone and keep it for a few years.
Most bands I tried out for wanted me to replace someone they kicked out or just slip into an existing role. But my skills were fairly marginal as a technician — my strength was in working well with a creative group making something new — so I wasn’t gonna be the guy who reads charts or gets it in one take. But I also didn’t want to get in a van with a bunch of kids and sleep on floors again.
Given that all the members of Belly are still around, what are the odds you guys would ever get back together?
I can only speak for myself but if that were a possibility I would get back in the van and sleep on floors again.
Have you given any thoughts to writing an illustrated biography of the band called, wait for it…Belly Rocks?
Finally, I usually end my author interviews by asking which of their other books their fans should read next. But since Indi Surfs is your first book, I’ll ask this instead: If some kid really liked Indi Surfs, what book would you recommend their parent get them next and why?
I’m a big fan of Peter Brown’s books, and also Jon Klassen. They both have unique and beautiful style and somewhat subversive text. I also like Cormac McCarthy, I think Blood Meridian or The Road or his pretty pony books all make for good bedtime stories….
Thanks. Child services will be in touch shortly.