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So What Do You Do, David Rensin?
Longtime LA author dishes on the pleasures and pitfalls of co-writing- June 15, 2007
David Rensin's twelfth book, All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki "Da Cat" Dora (HarperEnt 2008), takes his readers on a four-year journey in search of the life of the late, mid-century surfer king of Malibu.
Along with show business legend Bernie Brillstein, Rensin has also co-written It's All Lies and That's the Truth: and 49 More Lessons from Fifty Years of Trying to Make a Living in Hollywood (Gotham 2004) and Where Did I Go Right?: You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead (LittleBrown, 1999), Brillstein's best-selling memoir. Rensin is the creator and co-author of the cult hit The Bob Book, a hilarious and groundbreaking sociology of men named "Bob."
Rensin is also a long-time contributing editor for Playboy, for which he's done more than a hundred interviews with celebrities including Jerry Seinfeld, Marty Scorsese, Chris Rock, Sean Penn, and Julia Roberts. He has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Esquire, TV Guide, and US, among others
Name: David Rensin
Hometown: Born in Manhattan; Los Angeles since 1964.
Education: BA in Political Science
Family: "Fortunately -- a wonderful wife and 17 and a half-year-old son."
Favorite TV show: Friday Night Lights
Last book read: Wanderer by Sterling Hayden.
Guilty pleasure: "Stealing chocolate from my mother's nightstand."
What is your average media day like?
Read the LA Times over breakfast. Check the Web. Think about commenting in various comment sections; decide not to. Read the New Yorker, Business Week, the Economist at random. Watch the midday news. Check the Web. Watch Brian Williams while thinking about Katie Couric's suddenly bad makeup. Listen to KPCC or KCRW in the car.
How do you carve out time to write?
Not a problem. I actually start early, and work until I get interrupted or fall asleep. When there's work, I'm relentless; when there's none, I noodle. I don't get writer's block.
Describe your writing "area" -- any rules for yourself? Schedule you try to adhere to? Special pens, paper, pets? Strange routines we would delight in hearing?
I have a nice office at home. I can't write with a pencil anymore and still hope to read what I scribbled. The dog wanders in at odd times to assure me that someone still loves me. I get a great view out the sliding glass door to the green and forested back yard. My one writing extravagance is a 21" pivoting monitor, which I put in the vertical position so I can see more on the screen. I keep a notebook of everything I talk about on the phone that I need to remember, as well as occasional revelations about the meaning of life. Of course, written in pencil, I can't decipher anything later.
How did you decide what to write about?
Sometimes it's just so obvious; a passion, an interview that screams to be done; someone who needs a book collaborator and has a handful of cash -- okay, not cash, but a topic or a life that really interests me, that I think will open new areas of experience and knowledge. I also like to constantly do different types of books so I don't repeat myself. After an opening run of collaborations with big time comedians, I did a Hollywood mogul, a war hero, a musician, then my own book, The Mailroom (Ballantine 2004) -- an oral history covering 65 years of what it's like to start at the bottom in a talent agency mailroom, dreaming of making it to the top. And my upcoming book, All for a Few Perfect Waves, is about the once and forever charming, charismatic, enigmatic late surfer king of Malibu, Miki "da Cat" Dora. It's an oral bio that took four years.
More than I thought I could do. I surfed in the mid '60s and early '70s, so I knew the subject. Still, I read all the surfing books I could get my hands on, watched DVDs, read everything about Dora, including piles of his letters and faxes, his articles, his travelogues. I then interviewed over 300 people; traveled to his beach haunts in southern France and on the African cape, and called everywhere else in the world where people ride waves. I drove the length of California, Googled incessantly, and tried to make sense of it all. Thank goodness I didn't have to transcribe all the 300+ tapes! (Oops! There goes the advance.)
What about collaboration -- hardest thing about co-writing?
The hardest thing is trying to convince people/readers/reviewers/pundits without protesting too much that it's not ghostwriting but co-writing. Collaborating. I don't invent their stories and go off and write on my own. The subject doesn't get to phone it in. It's hard work, we're in it together, and there's lots of blood and guts on the floor (in a positive sense) to sift through. But that's what I get for insisting that the book's subject tell me everything, so that I can pick what I think works -- all of this subject to argument and their final judgement, of course. The best thing about collaboration is the chance to go deep into a subject, to find nuances you don't have room for in a magazine profile. Also, the "subject" always discovers that they don't have to be so afraid of talking about what they were initially concerned about, that once the words are in their mouth instead of rattling around in their heads, it isn't so terrible and they see how it all fits together. The trick is to walk a fine line between obvious glad-handing and obvious trash talk. The reader has to believe you're being honest, so self-effacement is good.
And you've worked with show biz folk -- harder than we might think? Or easier?
No problem, once you create the proper atmosphere and earn trust. With older "show folk," it's like sitting at the Passover table listening to a wonderful story. With comedians, I remember that they told all the jokes, even if they didn't. Garry Shandling used to compliment something I'd written and ask who'd thought of it: him or I. He did, of course. And even if he didn't, he still did -- and he always made my humor much better. The big thing to remember: listen, listen, listen. Your subjects always ask follow-up questions based on what they said, not your next written question.
Ever tempted by fiction?
Always. Every time I think there's nothing else out there to write about that is worth a damn (which means that the longer I'm at this, the less it's about doing anything to get established and more about doing something that might matter to the world or me), I think maybe it's time for fiction. Maybe it's a last resort because I have to keep writing. I have some stories. If I live long enough to draw down on my retirement savings, I'll give it a shot.
What are you working on now or next?
Between 2000 and 2003 I did three books overlapping each other. Then I spent four years on All for a Few Perfect Waves. Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of writing "in the seventh year he rested." Now I'm hard at work on my next book. It answers the question: What really happened to the high school student voted most likely to succeed? And more. To start, I'm looking for people who graduated in 1967. I'm also putting together a chapbook of stories about the transformative effects of doing good works of any sort. How did the decision to leap from positive thinking to positive doing change your life? I've also been working with a well-known lawyer on a book about his analysis of the shortcomings of the justice system. We'll get it done if he ever gets out of the courtroom. I'm waiting to see if a potential celebrity collaboration is in the offing -- someone I really want to work with. And I'm always looking for young writers who want to graduate into books and might want to take a crack at some of my long-lingering ideas and help make them a reality -- for a piece of the action.
Who's the biggest influence on your work?
Oral histories: Jean Stein and George Plimpton's Edie. Studs Terkel. Whoever I read last who has a real voice. My brother-in-words Bill Zehme. My wife.
If you weren't a writer, what would you do?
Iron shirts, vacuum rugs, pull weeds, eat, read -- all things that lead to immediate gratification. But that still leaves many hours. So I guess I'd write. To be perfectly frank, I'm a writer by accident, a guy who wanted to meet women and go to rock shows for free in college, way back in the late '60s. One thing leads to another. About seven years into it, I realized I better take it seriously. That paid off in pieces for many major mags, a contributing editorship to Playboy since 1981, hundreds of interviews, and twelve books. Or, as I like to put on my high school reunion questionaire when it asks, "What is your greatest achievement?" "Never had a job."
As a follow-up, what would you love to do?
Keep traveling the world with my wife. Pass along my knowledge and experience. And I'd like to retire -- so I can write.
Work's over, kitchen's clean, the kid is occupied -- how do you kick back? Music, book, DVD -- what's your relaxation preference? (And please don't tell me you go for a nice five-mile run.)
I do a nice five miles -- maybe more -- on my rear-end satiating my addiction to mindless television viewing, while also checking emails, snacking on fresh fruit, and playing games on my Treo. No wonder I sometimes feel I'm out of the loop and need to get out and meet more LA writers! Then my wife and I wander off, and leave the rest to your imagination.
[Kate Coe is the co-editor of FishbowlLA.]
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