Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in New Zealand, raised on the Central Coast of NSW, and was schooled in a few different places but most important for me was Newcastle University.
At the age of 12 I wanted to be a jet pilot, mostly because I wanted to impress dad. At 18 I wanted to be a rugby player. At 30 I was confused, and didn’t know what I wanted, only that I didn’t want to be who I was.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at 18 that you do not have now?
That heartbreak was such a terrible thing.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
Initially it was dad’s trove of paperback thrillers, horror novels and sci-fi epics that got me reading, later on it was Dirt Music and Catch-22 that started me thinking about being a writer. And then my wife got me believing that I could do it.
I don’t think they are obsolete. I love reading books. I love the form, the length and complexity. I wrote a book because I felt I understood how it would work, whereas with a blog I would have no idea.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Man In A Grey Suit deals with the lead up to, and the results of, a shark attack that I was involved in. (I was the unwilling participant). It’s about surfing, and recovery from trauma, and is also a love story.
(BBGuru: publisher’s blurb – Glenn Orgias was surfing at Bondi Beach at twilight when he was attacked by a shark – a ‘man in a grey suit’, as surfers call them. When it let him go, he thought his life was over. As the blood washed over his board, he looked to the shore 80 metres away – 80 metres to paddle with one hand, and a few minutes of strength, and a shark to avoid. All he could think about was his wife, Lisa, who was five months pregnant.
But this is more than a story of a shark attack – it’s Glenn’s life as a surfer, his battle with anger and anxiety growing up, the love story of his meeting and marrying Lisa, his recovery from the attack, the birth of his beautiful daughter, and finally his determination to get back into surfing despite everything he’d been through.
‘Sometimes we all wonder if we could cope with the worst that life could throw at us. Glenn Orgias has been there, and has come through. His strength of character lies not in what he lost, but in what he’s always had.’ Malcolm Knox
‘A very honest and tough book … He frankly and fiercely taps into Australians’ deepest fear.’ Robert Drewe)
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
Ah, well that would be a big call, to say that it might be able to do that, but if it could then I’d like it to be a story that would help people suffering through depression, anxiety, grief or trauma.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
My parents. They gave me all that they could, and everything that I needed. I hope I can do this for my children.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d like to run the City to Surf race in under an hour. I’d like to have a novel published. I want to spend more time with family.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I’m not sure, except to say; writing is hard, but so is everything that’s worthwhile.
Glenn, thank you for playing.
It was too late for surfing, really. But it was beautiful in the water, I remember that. It was dusk, the clouds were purple over the buildings at Bondi, and there is no better place than the ocean to watch the sun set. Light faded and the water turned to ink. It was eerie and magical and quiet, with only the wind and water moving. Sand churned up to the surface after big waves. The chop and spray from the onshore wind slapped my face. I remember that.
The waves were big, wonky and kind of ugly. But it was the best it had been in weeks, and there were thirty other surfers out and paddling onto the junky sets and hassling for the inside position. I don’t remember how many waves I caught, maybe three. I can’t remember if they were good waves. I would usually remember that, but general anaesthetic has blunted my memory of that time. I would usually remember what turns I did, whether I fell off, what I could have done better, why can the other guy do it, and why the hell can’t I?
I caught a wave and paddled back out. I was just inside the crowd when I ducked a small wave and it left white water boiling around me. A lump of swell came from the north, rearing as it approached the sand bank. I changed direction and paddled.
I didn’t see it.
It came from behind, and below.
My left arm was shoulder-deep in the ocean. I was pulled backwards by something. In that first instant, I thought another surfer had grabbed me and was trying to stop me catching my wave. I wrenched my arm away. Something massive, much more powerful than me, pulled me under. It shook me with an impersonal aggression.
Before I had a chance to see what it was, before I could really understand what was going on, it was gone. I came up and pulled myself onto my board. I remember the blood – red blood washing over my white board. My arm was in the water, it didn’t hurt, and I had a last moment when I was still me.
I pulled my left arm out of the dark water and it all became real. My arm was ripped apart. It looked as though it had been pushed through a circular saw. I was meat. Not good meat. Sinuous meat with yellow bits and bone shards and grey mush: I didn’t know so many different-coloured things would be in there. There was a bone jutting out, the skin hanging open, a spiral wound from elbow to wrist. I had gone from whole to empty and it was irreversible.
My hand is off.
Hanging by an inch of skin, my hand was almost amputated.
The shore was 80 metres away. I thought about my wife, Lisa.
I’ll never see her again.
She was four months pregnant with our first child.
I looked to shore.
I had everything to live for.
I screamed, and I tried to scream what I had realised, and that scream came out in such a rush, and so much from the gut, that I can hear it now and it doesn’t make any sense to me.
Day Minus 6500
I grew up near the water – in Terrigal, on the Central Coast of New South Wales. It was my dad who taught me how to swim in the ocean, how to duck under breaking waves and swim out deep, and he was the first one to put me on a surfboard. He got me dreaming. When I was a kid I’d pester him to drive me to the beach, and my parents would load up the Toyota with kids, towels, flippers, every manner of boogie board, and my thick blue foam surfboard that was 5 feet long and had a single black rubber fin. I caught my first real wave on that foamie while wearing navy speedos.
When I caught that first unbroken wave and angled across its face, the board racing and moving easily under my feet, I realised that surfing was about speed and weight. The thrill was in the power of the wave breaking, the quickness of the moments flashing by, the shape of the wave, so close and forming its sections, the changing colour of the ocean, the sound, and no second chances, and no time to think.
Dad taught me the basics of surfing, and then Luke showed me what it was to be a surfer. I met Luke on my first day of high school. He had a tan running from his fingers to an inch below his short-sleeved shirt, where it had been halted by a wetsuit. He sat next to me at the first rollcall. I put my head down and waited for the teacher to call my name.
That started everyone laughing. I cringed. From under my eyebrows I saw Luke grin and make a what-can-you-do gesture with his hands, and he whispered, ‘That was fucked, mate.’
At recess, a conversation started in a circle that I stood on the edge of – the surfers talking about surfing.
‘It was 6 foot,’ said one kid.
They always said 6 foot, because 6 foot meant it was big and good, and if it wasn’t 6 foot it was shit.
‘What’s the biggest you’ve surfed?’ they asked Luke.
He shrugged. ‘About 8.’
Everyone was satisfied with this. I nodded sagely. When the discussion broke up, Luke turned to me.
‘You surf on the weekend?’ he asked.
The surf had been small.
‘6 foot,’ I said.
‘6 foot?’ He looked amused.
I stuck my chin out.
While Luke was immediately popular at school, I polarised crowds into friends and enemies. Luke was tanned (massive points), modest and confident, and I wasn’t. I was competitive, small and self-aggrandising. I got punched and put in headlocks a lot.
Luke was the best surfer at school – he could do carving turns and spin his board 360 degrees. I was one of the least impressive surfers. But Luke and I were the only ones who lived near Shelly Beach, and so we often surfed together. And when I’d see Luke catch waves I’d scowl at the horizon and will myself to be as good as him. He was at ease in the ocean, while I found it switched moods on me quickly, alternating between serene and treacherous. Sometimes I felt at peace out there, and then in the next moment the ocean trampled me without even noticing I was there. It had a sense of humour, but also a ferocity. There were times when my surfing flowed and I got it right, and those were moments that I lived for. But the ocean could also be a prick of a place. Rough chop. Howling onshore winds. Murky shadows. Weed wrapping around my legrope, rips, set after set of white water, paddling until my arms burned and my spirit faded. Sometimes I wondered why I surfed. Then Luke would do an aerial in front of me and the frustration of it twisted in my chest. He became my best friend, but I envied him too.
Surfing with Luke, I came to know the words ‘out there!’
They haunted me. They were code for: ‘Paddle. Paddle! ‘
The panic moment was cresting a small wave and seeing a monster behind it.
To me it meant: ‘Get moving. Now!’
Scramble time. Scramble for the hills.
The pack of surfers would flip onto their stomachs, and some were fast enough to crest the wave and go over the back of it, but I was left to paddle towards a wall of ocean, its lip feathering. I raced the wave to the point where its lip would spear into flat ocean and I tried to get under the lip before it broke. I was tempted to let my board go, to push it across the drawing sea and dive below the turbulence. Tempted, but I wouldn’t. Letting go was gutless. I’d get shouted out of the water. Getting hammered was better. When the lip landed, I attempted to duck dive. It was only a pantomime, and under the loud rumble of the wave I was a clown attempting to hold a board to his chest. The board would explode away. I’d somersault backwards, and flail until the sea let go and I could come up in the sun, retrieve my board, and spit one word:
Having been washed inshore, I’d then paddle back out, infuriated. Luke would say, ‘Mate, you got pounded.’
‘Why didn’t you duck dive?’
‘That was not a duck dive.’
‘What was it?’
‘I dunno, but it was fucken funny.’
After I learnt to duck dive and to do turns, I realised that the frustration of surfing was part of its appeal. Learning to surf was the culmination of a lot of hard work, and pivotal moments of breakthrough were intensely satisfying. I learnt a lot about surfing from Luke. Not about how to surf, but about having confidence in the water. He was the first real friend I ever had. He was a quiet kid, but we used to laugh and laugh. And push each other. That’s just being mates. He shouted me on to bigger waves: ‘Yew. Fucken go!’
And I’d paddle for the bigger ones, because he’d go if it was him. And if I got pounded it wouldn’t feel as bad as pulling back from the lip because I didn’t have the guts. I never wanted to admit to fear, and, truthfully, I felt like a better surfer than I was when he was watching. The shouts of his encouragement were pearls that I kept secretly. Damn, I wanted to be a good surfer so badly. I kept that secret, too.
Sometimes I wondered if it was my friendship with Luke that led to me surfing or if surfing had led to our friendship. I wasn’t sure, but it was a question that stayed with me. Either way, Luke was my best friend for a long time, until things went to shit.
My life came to revolve around surfing at the Point near Bateau Bay with Luke – chaining up my bike at the top of the cliff, unstrapping my board, running down the hill in my wetsuit, across the sand, onto the rock platform. I knew which rocks would be slippery and which ones were sharp with barnacles and limpets. I knew the rocks to wait on, the ones to hop across quickly, and the ones to clamber up to watch the swell steam in and crash. There was a flat rock where I’d put on my legrope. There was a last rock before the land turned into ocean; I’d seen people get washed off there by waist-high water that dragged them backwards, their legs in the air, their boards banging on the rocks. I’d wait while the waves surged over the Point, with the white water swamping my legs. When the surge subsided, I bolted, my legrope in hand, then made skittering steps across the last rock’s slippery surface and leapt into the sea, into its heaving foam. I’d sit up with the cliffs of the national park behind me and below them a line of sand running north in an arc before the spinifex.
Here: watch the swell come. Watch it rise and gather. It slows as it feels the rock floor beneath and morphs from a thick lump into a steep wall. The good waves develop a bowl-shaped peak. I paddle to the middle of the peak, and spin to face the shore, and feel the wave lift me up its face, and when it is about to pitch, I stand. A sharp drop; the front of the surfboard hanging in midair, my arms above my head, my legs straight. That moment of weightlessness when the back end might slide out, and the fins lose their bite, and the board spins out beneath me, and the lip of the wave drills me into sea. But the board lands flat on the wave face and the fins hold, my knees bend, and I lean over my right shoulder into a turn. Hearing the wave breaking, seeing the wall rise, my back foot pushing on the tail of the board and spraying out a fan of water is the best feeling in surfing for me.
I remember the Point on windless, empty afternoons, when I stayed out late until street lamps came on and stars appeared, and the waves looked as black as tar and the only difference between the sky and sea was the rippling of the water. I sat at the Point in those dusky moments, my board barely moving, the sea a sheet of glass, white water racing neon to the beach. Those were moments when my mind was perfectly quiet.
Then: catching a wave and arriving on the shore, unstrapping my legrope, wading through the shallows, my arms burning, my legs heavy, my back tight; feeling warm water running out of my wetsuit, exhausted; trudging up the sand, exhausted; stripping my wetsuit off, exhausted. Sitting on the bench with Luke in his backyard and pulling on my sneakers.
‘Shit. I have to ride home.’
‘Pfft. That would suck.’
Then: riding my bike home on winter nights in tracksuit pants, the surfboard behind me, on a rack, like a sail. Up the last hill and into a warm shower and spaghetti bolognaise and an instant, deep, untroubled sleep.
That was my youth.
When I turned sixteen in February 1991, my family went on holiday to Bali. Luke came too. A guy called Jawbone, a friend of ours, an older local surfer, had given us the rundown on Bali. Jawbone directed us to a bar in Kuta. He told us the code.
‘This is it, right: all the hotels over there have pools; if a chick asks you to go for a swim in the pool, that means you’re in.’
Luke and I snuck out late and found that bar, and had no problems ordering Bintang beers. The dance floor was heaving. I was young enough to dance without inhibition, and I started dancing with an Australian woman who was much older than me and totally blind. We retired to the bar for a drink and had a conversation that I cannot remember – apart from her asking me if I wanted to go for a swim in her pool.
‘That’d be good,’ I said.
She heard a song that she liked and ran back to the dance floor. I told Luke, ‘Some chick just asked me to go for a swim.’
‘Mate, you’re in!’
We drank more Bintang. ‘December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)’ played. We lapped the bar at an increasing pace until the room spun and the night raced away. And then, later, I sat watching the dance floor, having lost Luke to some dark recess until he showed up again.
‘Mate, where’s that chick?’
‘Over there,’ I said.
‘The one that’s getting onto that bloke?’
‘Doesn’t look like you’ll be going for a swim then.’
I don’t remember leaving the bar. I remember heading through the streets of Kuta with the Balinese awake in the early morning, squatting on the dusty roads smoking and watching us stumble along.
Luke and I wanted to surf at Uluwatu, a legendary left-hand break on the south-west of the Bukit Peninsula, which faces into uninterrupted swell travelling north from Antarctic storms. We walked through the jungle to the edge of a cliff, and below was the Indian Ocean. There were only a few surfers in the water; many others were watching from the cliff. The waves looked big. Luke said they were 10 foot. I said 12. It didn’t matter. The numbers were only a measure of fear. I said a big number, because when the waves reared up they sounded like jet planes and I knew they were just the biggest fucking waves I’d ever considered surfing. Tim, my fourteen-yearold brother, was with us. I felt that a yawning gap had opened up between my sixteen-year-old semi-adulthood and his fourteen-yearold innocence; I had a vision of him under those big white-water rolls and I told him that he’d have to wait on the cliff.
Luke and I descended the cliff into a cave. The waves washed against the rocks. We didn’t speak. We paddled around the waves as they thumped down. Out deep was a diagonal line of surfers waiting on a shifty peak. I sat well outside that crowd, watching, while Luke paddled closer in. Waves shot past me, their lips pitching into the ocean, and I had to scramble over them, hoping each time there wasn’t a bigger one behind.
Luke caught a wave. I made half-hearted attempts at waves and got frustrated. I was tentative, I knew it. I was trying to get through it, that tentative uselessness, but it was building and not abating, and it became self-perpetuating. I paddled for waves with lips that barrelled towards me, and pulled back at the last minute when the wall steepened and I saw the shimmer of reef below the surface. I cursed and slapped the water.
Go, you fucken dog.
An inside wave came, well above my head. The first of an arriving set. I paddled hard and caught it. The drop was steep. I stood up with my front foot too far back. I shuffled my foot forward, but lost all speed. I turned up the face of the wave and then turned again just under the lip, trying to stay in front of it, but it hit me in the middle. I smacked against the flat ocean and the air leaving my chest made a sharp sound in its escape.
I sank and was lifted and thrown over the falls with the wave and its spearing lip. When I started fighting the turbulence, I realised I was breathless, and the absence of my breath gripped my throat. The wave dragged me and held me under.
When I came up, I whooped air. The light on the water was blinding. I took a breath before a huge wave crashed in front of me and I dove below its white water. My legrope tugged hard and snapped.
I came up in the wash, my board halfway between me and the cliff. Everything looked huge – the waves, the distance to shore – and my board was just a flip of white in the sea. I felt I was being ripped towards the rocks. I swam. I didn’t want to be swimming. I raced a wave that I knew was coming. I stopped to look up and find my board, and I wasn’t any closer, because it was moving as fast as I was, or I wasn’t moving at all. I thought to yell for help, but the shame of it stopped me. I swam hard.
I sensed a wave behind me. Luke was on it. I waved frantically.
‘My board!’ I yelled.
Luke cruised past, cutting back, staying with the wave, and further on he kicked off the wave and paddled over to my board. He towed it out into deeper water, away from the waves. I swam to him.
‘Thanks,’ I panted.
‘You alright, mate?’
I lay on my board, letting my forehead rest on the deck. It didn’t seem so bad now that I was on the board. But I didn’t want to paddle out again. Not with those waves beyond any power I’d been in before, with me floating, without my legrope. And I didn’t want to have to tell Luke that I wasn’t good enough to go out there again.
‘Let’s go in,’ he said.
We paddled in and waded back through the cave. My legrope had broken at the swivel. We trudged up the cliff and didn’t say much. Tim was waiting, as bored as shit, and hot, and he didn’t say much either. I showed him my busted legrope and we watched sets of waves roll in and surfers weaving across their blue faces, and it just looked so easy from up there.
When the adrenaline died down, I was disappointed. I had lost, had been humiliated. Beaten by the waves, and the surfers, and the guys on the cliff, and by timidness, and by Luke. And I was angry.
On the flight home from Bali, we sat in bulkhead seats right up close to a wall onto which movies were projected. I had already seen the movies, but watched them again because they were only inches from my face. I closed my eyes to get away from the kaleidoscopic pixels, and I thought that I was lucky to have a mate like Luke. I admired him. He’d stick by me.
He never made a big deal about that day at Uluwatu. We hadn’t surfed there again, and he hadn’t complained about that. We’d surfed at Kuta Reef, and we’d got some good waves. I wondered if I could have helped him at Uluwatu had the situations been reversed. I would have done anything for him, but there was nothing to do for him. He didn’t need me, I guess. That thought stuck in my craw. I couldn’t shake it, and it started off a sentence in my head that droned, and I hated what it said, but a part of me agreed with it:
You’ve got to be better than him at something.
They served chicken on the plane. It tasted like fish. By the time we got home I was sick. The chicken-fish came back out tasting like ash. Over the toilet bowl, with my eyes closed, fluorescent pixels and rolling credits danced against my eyelids.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.