Skateboarding is more than a pastime for Bret Anthony Johnston; it’s his passion. Amid the demands of directing Harvard’s creative-writing program, this former professional skateboarder finds time to write articles about skateboarding, to evangelize about skateboarding on National Public Radio, and, of course, to skateboard several times a week.
It’s 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. Johnston, who is also the author of the acclaimed short-story collection Corpus Christi, has just given a presentation at the Southern Festival of Books. He climbs the stairs to join me on a balcony overlooking a skate facility. Below us is a crowded landscape of ramps, rails, graffiti, and corporate signage. Johnston strides to the edge of the balcony and places both hands on the railing. Behind him, a lone parent sits in front of a laptop. At once appraising and adoring, Johnston gazes down at the wooden bowl, where a single skateboarder rides back and forth.
Q: You’ve said previously that the beauty of skateboarding has moved you to tears. On what specific occasions?
Bret Anthony Johnston: The first time I remember it happening, I had stayed up late one night and then, on CNN of all places, they showed Tony Hawk doing the first 900. And I knew how long he had been going after it, how long skateboarding had been going after it, and all of a sudden I started crying.
And I teared up a little during Bob Burnquist’s run from the X Games in 2001. It’s a thing of beauty. He comes so close to slamming so badly so many times. He does a kickflip indy to fakie and he grabs the wrong side of the board. He just throws it under himself and then, a few walls later, he does a kickflip ollie blunt, then a switch rock and roll, then a switch backside lipslide revert. It was all so flawless, but the exact opposite of flawless, because it was so sketchy. I almost have the run memorized.
And then when Jake Brown slammed I started crying. Probably the only one who didn’t cry was Jake, because he’s something of a beast. And then, when Danny slammed at this year’s X Games, tears came into my eyes.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about your own skateboarding career?
BAJ: Like pretty much everyone, I started off on the street. Corpus, where I grew up, is really flat. It’s on the coast, and most of the people down there are surfers, and I’ve always hated surfing. We’d skate whatever was available. If there was a drained pool, we’d skate it. If the roots of a tree had buckled the sidewalk so that it formed a bank, we’d skate there until the cops came. Handrails, ramps, parking curbs behind an elementary school—whatever there was, we skated. My buddies and I would take road trips to skate parks in Houston, Dallas, and Austin as often as we could. We’d use all of our money for gas and live off of peanut butter we’d pilfered from our parents’ kitchen cabinets.
Then an indoor skate park opened in town, a warehouse full of ramps. This was in the late ‘80s, early ’90s. I did well in contests and I got sponsored. And then I went on this tour. I guess maybe I turned pro for 30 seconds. We were going to go to Europe, but then I broke all my metatarsals on this Sal flip to fakie in South Carolina and the board sponsor that I was skating for wanted me to stick it out, just stay on the tour and sign autographs at the rest of the demos on our way back to California. He wanted me to stay on not because he thought I was skating so well or because I had such a thing as "fans"— which would have been flattering—but because I was the only one who was halfway responsible. I was the one who made sure we got to demos on time, that we didn’t run out of gas or get arrested. Everybody else on the team was off getting high and drinking.
Q: You were getting high on the English language, weren’t you?
BAJ: Exactly, I was getting high on the English language. No, I was the den mother. So my sponsor knew that if I left the team, if I went home because I have this broken foot, then the tour is going to dissolve. Which it did. Which resulted in a huge falling-out between me and my sponsor, and I got really kind of soured on skateboarding. That’s when I went back to school.
Q: What was the most poignant phase in your skateboarding career?
BAJ: Ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two. That was when I was skating better than I had ever skated and was at a place in my so-called career where I had the skills and the confidence to be able to ride different things in a satisfying way. We would go up to Houston and skate Vagabond, a famous drained pool. I think about specific contest runs that I did, or tricks I can’t do anymore, and it kind of breaks my heart.
Q: So there is a little bit of pining?
BAJ: Not a little.
Q: How has skateboarding influenced your writing?
BAJ: The two have always complemented each other. There are so few things that seem as difficult to me. The biggest link between skateboarding and writing is the discipline. Like here. (Gestures to the park below.) This kid is trying this trick and he hasn’t made it and he’s going to keep trying. It’s like when we go to work on a sentence. You have to log the hours, take the hits, suffer the pain and discouragement, then come back at it.
You’re going to have to jumble this around and make it sound smart.
Q: Don’t worry. I’m a professional.
BAJ: That’s good. What was I saying? Oh, right. Skateboarding instills a confidence that I don’t see in people who haven’t skated. I see people giving up on things and I think, “Why are you giving up?” I still can’t do frontside ollie blunts! I want to do them so badly. One out of every five sessions, I will get fixated on trying frontside ollie blunts. So far, nothing has come of it. I have been chasing that feeling for 10 years. If you’ve stuck with skating, even for just a few years, you develop a maniacal tenacity toward what can loosely be called “goals.”
Q: “The poison is in the wound,” to quote Lolita.
BAJ: You can always count on a skateboarder for a fancy prose style. Skateboarders also look at the world differently, the same way writers look at the world differently. Writers have to notice things that civilians aren’t noticing, and it’s the same thing with skaters. And I really do think there is a marriage to be made there—at least in this person. I am a better writer the more I skate. And I am a better skater the more I write. I want to be the first one on the ramp and the last one off.
I think you do it as long as it resonates with you. I still lose myself. I really do think skateboarding is good for the mind and good for the soul. It’s boundless, you know, and what does belief or faith do but ask us to forget our physical form? To focus on essence. And what are you doing skateboarding except literally forgetting your body. You really are in some ways trying to be liberated from your physical form. And it kind of ripples across every aspect of what we’re talking about. You forget about everything else. If I go too long without skating, I’m not a good person to be around.
Q: Does writing satisfy you as much as skateboarding?
BAJ: Absolutely, but I do long for that certain indescribable feeling that certain tricks will give you. I’ll wake up in the morning and the first thing on my mind will be: I wish I could do an Indy gay twist.
Q: It seems like, even though skateboarding has waxed and waned in popularity, you’ve rarely wavered in your commitment to it. Why is that?
BAJ: It’s the same as if you were trying to be a poet, or trying to be a fiction writer, or trying to be a painter—if you can do anything else, do it. Your life is literally going to be easier if you choose a different path. But if you have to do it, then just accept who you are. Don’t conform to what grown-up life is supposed to be. Find a way to put food on the table and keep the lights on, then use the rest of each day doing what you love.
Q: How do you feel about skateboarding entering the mainstream now? Do you feel ambivalent about it? Do you feel vindicated?
BAJ: It has been a kind of vindication. Skateboarding has had a bad reputation, a reputation for being anarchistic and destructive. Skaters have been stereotyped as addicts and alcoholics and thugs. But, in truth, most of the people I skated with—if they had the choice between getting wasted or going to bed so they could skate the next day—they would go to bed. You can’t skate as well or as long after you’ve partied all night. A few skaters have done drugs and others have made some devastatingly bad decisions, but judging the whole by the few is neither helpful nor ethical.
But there’s also a deep sense of ambivalence, you’re right. Skateboarding never really courted mainstream acceptance. We were happy to be left alone, happy to thrive on the fringe. There was and is something wholly satisfying about appropriating a piece of the architectural landscape—curbs, handrails, transitioned fountains, swimming pools, etc.—and using it in a heretofore unimagined way. In some ways, the culture came to skateboarding—a fact that is not unrelated to capitalism—and not the other way around. Corporate America saw that there was money to be made. So, no, I’m not surprised that skateboarding has entered the mainstream culture now, nor am I surprised that so many skaters—creative and disciplined kids—have forged interesting and productive lives for themselves.
Q: In general, people who found success in skateboarding found it in other fields. Jason Lee. Mark Gonzales. Rob and Big.
BAJ: The list is significant and fascinating. Ed Templeton is doing his art and photography. Ocean Howell is an architect. It’s not coincidental that so many skaters, a breed of people who trained and conditioned themselves to view their surroundings through different lenses, have gone on to work in visual arts.
There are so many skaters, not even professional skaters, just people able to ride a skateboard with some facility, who have gone on to be artists, mathematicians, poets, rare-book dealers, surgeons. When I’ve done these pieces on skateboarding for NPR and the New York Times Magazine, I get letters back saying, “I still skate and now I’m a high-school teacher,” or “I’m a poet and this is my book.” I’m starting to trade a lot of books with writers who have this history of skateboarding. All of these folks have chosen from day one to live lives that diverged from expectation. I feel pride and fraternity, but not surprise.