I grew up near the Devon coast and was a hardy, adventuring child, but I was never that confident a swimmer. Even now I’m patently aware when I’m out of my depth. My experience of waves – the fear of being pounded by one, the delight of catching one – comes from bodyboarding, not surfing. Bellyboarding really, messing about in the shallows on tourist beaches, riding in on whitewater alongside pre-schoolers. But I’ve been surfing on snow for more than half my life, and it’s my love of that pursuit that inspired and informed the writing of my surfer girl, Robyn.
When I started working on The Sea Between Us I wanted to make sure the swell sections were, well, swell, so I appointed a Surf Consultant, which sounds highfaluting but really means that every so often I met up with a surfer friend of mine and over a sundowner we talked about the sea. He reeled off the names of tides as if quoting poetry, and talked about the scent of surf wax as though it was the finest perfume. I understood his passion for I’d felt it all on a snowboard. In my late twenties I spent two winters in a French ski town, working as a cook, and then a shop assistant, scraping together enough euros to spend my days playing in the snow. I’ve flown weightless through misted powder fields, swiping invisible turns, fear chasing elation, knowing that if I fall I’ll lose the pack. I’ve ridden razor-edged corduroy, my board skimming implausibly edge to edge, the sun still barely cresting the peaks. I’ve been the first to fly off a just-built kicker, an airborne guinea pig testing its shape, a blaze of exhibitionism that briefly gave me wings but ended in a face-full of white stuff. I’ve chipped my coccyx, and bitten blood from my tongue. Ten years after coming off a rail I still have a patch on my knee that I can’t really feel. The smacks are vital. Without their threat there can be no sublimity.
For my novel I took snowboarding and made it surf. And just as I write, Robyn paints. The Sea Between Us is a tale of girl meets boy on the Cornish coast, but it’s also a paean to pleasure-giving pursuits. It’s a love story – full of the things I love. I was living in the mountains when I started writing, and by the season’s end I had a new sense of purpose – I’d picked my line, and I’m still riding it. The connection runs deeper still. I think certain extreme sports have more in common with the writing process than their pretty much opposing exteriors suggest. Whether snowboarding or surfing, it’s about the pursuit of sensation, a desire for physical truth. It’s exerting and abandoning control in precisely the same moment, riding at the edge of your ability, pushing your luck, white water – metaphorical and literal – nipping at your heels. There are, of course, degrees. Just as we can have sedate days in the mountains or in the swell, some days are for gliding through writing, without leaving oneself cleaved in two. But that’s not why anyone gets in the game in the first place. A writer’s thrills also come from the pursuit of truth, nailing the expression of feeling, sifting through language; the incomparable satisfaction of managing to say exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it makes the struggle to get there endurable, even something to relish. On the mountain or in the water it’s easy to feel at the mercy of the elements – the wind’s not blowing right, the waves aren’t there, the snow’s no good – and even when conditions are fine it can still feel like a tussle, a series of knocks, trips, dead ends. And so it is for writing too. Sometimes it just doesn’t flow.
As writers our desire is to fail better. Work hard, honing our craft. Accumulate experience, sparking imagination. I keep my first ever snowboard propped against the wall in my writing hut – it’s the one I’ve taken the most spills on, and its presence reminds me that the things worth having are rarely achieved easily. The spirit of progression is right at the heart of the sideways sports – we get knocked down, and we get up again. The surfer paddles back out. My husband wears a snow-brand t-shirt emblazoned with ‘stomp that trick or die trying,’ insouciant hyperbole, but not dissimilar to that which fuels a sentence-wrangling writer when they’re in the zone. With either one, hit your stride and you feel like you’re flying. You’ve slipped your skin. You’re somewhere else, someone else, entirely. You know then that’s it’s neither work nor play; it’s life itself, and you never want it to end.