Thailand Footprint: People, Things, Literature, Music and Henry Miller too. Forget Yourself Here

Today’s maiden interview at Thailand Footprint is with Malcolm Gault-Williams. He is the father of three grown sons, a husband living up in Baan Noen Soong, Pleui Nong Bua Lamphu, Thailand, an ex- radio disk jockey, a surfer for more than 45 years while growing up around Santa Barbra, CA, a writer and author of LEGENDARY SURFERS – Three Volumes and growing. You can learn more about Malcolm living in the Thai countryside from his Blog, “THE ISAAN: My Life in a Thai-Lao Village.” at  http://the-isaan.blogspot.com .

This interview initially had a working title of, “The Most Interesting Facebook Friend I have Never Met …Yet”. After spending thirty minutes with Malcolm on a Skype video call today, I knew I had to change the title. Not because my opinion had changed. Far from it. It’s just that the new title fits Malcolm and his story so much better.

Living in Santa Cruz, CA as I had have done for all or parts of the past 20 years, I know that surfing is a soulful past time. And Malcolm Gault-Williams, not surprisingly, comes across as a very soulful man. The type of soul Henry Miller tells us is out there, if we look for them. Malcolm has been going in his own direction since he first took to the waves in the mid-1960s and is still going his own way, in an Isaan village near the Laos border in 2013.

Malcolm with his three sons
Malcolm Gault-Williams, three times proud …

TF: Malcolm, I want to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. This is my first conducted interview for Thailand Footprint so you are being very gracious.  You are the perfect first guest because you have left a lot of foot prints in the sand.

I’ve never been an investigative reporter, Malcolm but since you have authored books on surfing, and your email contains the words “legendary surfer”, I am going to guess you were pretty good and knew other great surfers. When did you start surfing, how old were you and what memories do you have of that first year in the water on a board?

MGW: Kevin, you are too kind. I am far from being a “legendary surfer.” I just write about them. I have been writing since 1963. I began writing about surfing’s heroes, history and culture, when I was in the midst of a career change. I asked myself: given my abilities and interests, if I had 6 months to live and had to make some money somehow, what would I do?

Well, I knew I could write OK and I loved to surf, plus I’ve always had an interest in history, so writing about legendary surfers seemed like a no-brainer.

And that’s the way it’s been. Of course, I’ve had to have “day jobs” along the way, but I’ve always worked toward who I wanted to be when the chips were down.

I was 18 when I got interested in surfing. My first board was a Weber Performer.

Malcolm Big Wave

Six-foot tall Malcolm Gault-Williams and big wave at a spot between Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties

TF: When did you first begin writing about surfing history. Who or what inspired it? How many books have you written since? Have you written or do you plan to write a book on anything other than surfing?

MGW:  I began research on surf history in 1993 and throughout the 1990s had several notable articles published in surfing’s best magazines. I finally self-published my first volume in 2005, after a decade as a contributor to the online community. Some people have, as a result, dubbed me “the most plagiarized surf writer of all time.”

I was inspired to write about the history of surfing due to the work of surfer and writer Gary Lynch whom I later worked with on the definitive history of Tom Blake. I was also inspired by Steve Pezman,  a former editor of “Surfer” magazine and the genesis behind “The Surfers Journal.”

I have written three volumes on surf history, in chronological order, and will continue working to present day, until my time comes.

Other publications include articles about East Timor and West Papua, and a history book on the student protests during the Vietnam War in Santa Barbara entitled “Don’t Bank on Amerika.”

TF: Most parents, if they are lucky, give their children roots and wings. Most expats that end up living in Thailand have the necessary wings to get here, but not necessarily the roots. Tell me about your roots, your family?

MGW: My foster father is a retired Methodist minister and he was the one who got me into reading, doing well in school, and constantly try to improve my thinking and my actions. These lessons kind of set the tone for my own nuclear family.

I’m fortunate that I have never really had a problem with my (three) sons. My first wife nurtured them well and I give her a lot of credit for how they turned out. Of course, I’ll take some credit, too. I think that if you are true to yourself and treat your kids as your true embodiment, everything’s gonna go good.

I came to Thailand via my third wife Thiphawan, who is Thai-Lao and absolutely the sweetest person I have ever known. We initially met via the Internet and have been together now for 13 years.

Malcolm and family
Malcolm with Thiphawan and family pictures

TF: I have heard stories that you were a bit of an activist in your college days at UC Santa Barbara. And yet now you are the proud father of a California State Assemblyman. What similarities, if any, do you see between activism, which you participated in during the turbulent 60s and present day politics in California.

MGW: During what Americans call “The Vietnam War,” the United States grew very polarized. You had to pick sides. I chose to be counter-cultural and active. In later years I was active in the anti-nuclear movement and much later than that, served on a couple of governmental boards.

My oldest of three sons, Dohassen Gault-Williams (aka Das Williams) grew up with politics part of his daily life. When he grew older, he volunteered in a county supervisorial campaign and saw that a good candidate can lose by as much as one vote (in that campaign it was four votes). That spurred him on to more political involvement and to where he is, today. He serves as the California Assemblyman for the 37th District, which comprises principally Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.His progressive position on issues is excellent. He likes his work and it comes naturally to him. You can imagine how proud I am. I just wish there were more people like him in governments all over the world.

Das Williams and Dad

California Assemblyman Das Williams with Dad after a day of weaving waves

TF: Tell me more about those three Volumes of Surf History. What are their names. How far back did you go and what is the most surprising or interesting thing you learned in your research on the history of surfing? What’s the current volume you are working on? How long did a typical volume take from start to finish?

MGW: With non-fiction, I usually write chronologically.

Volume 1 of LEGENDARY SURFERS  (http://files.legendarysurfers.com/surf/legends/ls00_vol1.html ) covers 2500 B.C. to 1910 A.D.

Volume 2 of LEGENDARY SURFERS (http://files.legendarysurfers.com/blog/2007/12/discount-thru-dec-7.html ) takes it from 1910 to 1930.

Volume 3 of LEGENDARY SURFERS            (http://www.legendarysurfers.com/2013/01/ls-v3-1930s-contents.html ) is all about the 1930s.

I am currently working on Volume 4 and that will cover the 1940s. It’s hard to guesstimate how long a volume takes to write because when I get down to putting it all together, it’s really just a matter of pulling in what I’ve already written and having it make sense as a whole. I’d say a year per volume.

I build my writings on the history of surfing around the quotes of the people who lived it. Not afraid to include excerpts from other surf-writers, my work is heavily footnoted not only for the reader, but for future historians. My stuff is not for the coffee table. I write for surfers who want to know the details of the heritage we are blessed to be part of.

The most interesting thing I’ve learned in all of this is that we really do not know how old surfing is and that it is probably much older than we imagine.

TF: You mentioned being plagiarized a lot.  Discuss the pros and cons of publishing in a digital age. Are your books available in print and E-books or only one format? Is plagiarism always a bad thing? Is there any benefit, like there often is in the music business?

MGW: Plagiarism isn’t a big thing for me, really. I write to be read. If I’m not credited, lao boa die. It would be nice to be credited, but my ego’s not so big that I would go hunting down the people who copy my work and not attribute it. My time is much more valuable to me than to waste it on something like that.

I self-publish paperback books and ebooklets. I haven’t put together an ebook, yet, but plan to, soon. What’s held me back is the lack of control when things go viral. I had a friend once, who asked for one of my books in digitized format, that she could use in her classroom. So, I made it for her and then discovered that almost 100 of her students also downloaded the file and I didn’t get a baht or cent out of it. I felt a bit burned by that.

Nowadays, you can distribute digitized works that have a unique identifier with a unique password, so if you’re careful, it’s much easier to protect your work than it used to be.

Malcolm Gault-Williams is on a mission to record oral histories as told to him by as many of our great surf elders as possible, in scholarly fashion, before they are lost forever.” Steve Pezman, Publisher Surfer Magazine 1971-1991, Editor, The Surfer’s Journal

TF: Contrast your life now with how it used to be, living in a California surf town and talk about your own blog at  http://the-isaan.blogspot.com . What do you like best about Thailand? What do you miss most about California?

MGW: Well, I used to be a surfer/writer and now I’m a country boy/writer; very different realities. I miss the ocean and wave weaving and I also miss my sons and parents. Not much I can do about the salt-water thing, but with family, I do my best to stay connected via the Internet. I particularly like Skype video calls

Malcolm Gault-Williams and his first grandchild on Skype video call.

Malcolm on Skype with Grandchild

Yes, I’m having fun with my blog, “THE ISAAN: My Life in a Thai-Lao Village.” I’ve always written biographical vignettes, but this is the first time I’ve ever put personal stuff up for everyone to see. Similar to my surf writings, I like to write about the details of everyday life. They are SO interesting to me because my daily life is so new to me. It’s like the title of one of my posts: “Learning a New Way.”

Malcolm Gault-Williams with monks, upcountry, in back of pick-up

Malcolm learning a new way (or not) to travel in Thailand

TF: Malcolm, can you talk about the benefits of writing, for you.  I started this blog with an idea that came from Henry Miller about how  best to engage the world:

Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
― Henry Miller

Do you agree with the Henry Miller quote and how would you sum up your own philosophy of living?

MGW: Well, I agree with most of that quote by Henry Miller, except for the very last part. Anybody can write, but not everyone can craft and in order to be a good craftsman, you have to put yourself into it. It has to be part of you in some way. If you “forget yourself,” as I understand the quote, you are not adding that special ingredient that makes your writing unique.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m 64 and have been writing in one form or another for the past 50 years. It’s just something that I’m driven to do. I don’t know why, really, except that the more I did, the better I got and now I really appreciate the skill I’ve developed. I’m not a very creative or entertaining writer, but I can put a story together that makes sense to the reader by the time they’re done reading it. Not everyone can do that.

TF: Who are some of your favorite authors? What authors influenced you growing up? What authors do you read now? What percentage of your time is spent reading on the internet as opposed to real books or even e-books?

MGW: Growing up, I was most influenced by the writings of Jack London, Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas – in that order. Later, I was very much influenced by the writings of Jack Kerouac, Baba Ram Dass, Mao Zedong, Carlos Casteneda, and James Willard Schultz (Apikuni).

My most favorite writer is David Cornwell (John Le Carre). In recent years, I have enjoyed the Vincent Calvino series by Christopher G. Moore and the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr.

I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t read much, these days, nor do I watch TV. Last year, I think I only read three books. With the exception of “Carthage Must Be Destroyed,” which I read in America on my son’s ipad, I haven’t read anything thus far this year, although I am working my way through “A New History of Southeast Asia.”

I write several hours each day, but am in a phase right now where I’m not reading for fun or pleasure. When I do, it’s most always on paper.

TF: I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank-you again for being the first Footprint Maker to be interviewed on Thailand Footprint. One final question: can we meet face to face some time in the future – either in the Big City where I live or up in the countryside where you live?

MGW: Thank-you, Kevin. Of course.

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legendary sufrers

For a complete list of writings and interviews by Malcolm Gault-Williams and more about Legendary Surfers, click the banner above.

One Response to “Each One his Own Direction, Each One his Own Way / kon-lá tít kon-lá taang / คนละทิศคนละทาง: Malcolm Gault-Williams interview …”

  1. doctorkdog

    I was privileged to live with Malcolm on a small farm during a formative time in our lives in the early 70’s. He is one of the most interesting men in my world.

    Reply

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