Cole Louison—a staff member at GQ magazine and contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker book blog, and other periodicals—has a light reportorial touch, a sense of the absurd and a sincere, affable persona. His interviews with luminaries such as Ozzy Osbourne, the magician Ricky Jay, and musician Ted Nugent are often comic gems.
Now the author has turned his attention to the skateboarding world—a milieu that suffers no shortage of absurd, and absurdly talented, characters. His new book The Impossible functions as both a history of the sport and a portrait of two skaters: the shamanic Rodney Mullen (arguably the most influential skateboarder alive) and Ryan Sheckler a talented, commercially savvy, young pro who (to paraphrase Edith Wharton) many dread and yet are drawn to.
The Impossible offers intimate glimpses of top pros as they reflect on the art and craft of skateboarding. Through Louison’s eyes we see a once small subculture, now thoroughly colonized by mainstream media, public relations personnel, and other non-skate actors. Indeed, selections of the book are as much about Louison’s attempt to grapple with the bureaucracy that now surrounds the skaters as it is about the skaters themselves. That Louison is able to successfully convey the excitement of skateboarding to the layman without offending the connoisseur is a testament to his well-researched grasp of a sometimes opaque subject. Also worthy of mention are the keenly observed details Louison strews throughout The Impossible. For example, Sheckler’s “trails of sweat” give his diamond earrings an “incessant flash.”
We recently spoke with Louison about The Impossible and the state of contemporary skateboarding.
Q: Were your colleagues supportive of your decision to write a book about skateboarding?
Cole Louison: Everyone who knew about the project was really supportive. There are some skate geeks and surfers here, so maybe that explains it. But it was a surprise, because I didn’t think too many people would care about two professional skateboarders’ biographies, let alone recent archaeological findings in South Finland or 19th century roller skating patent-holders, or second-wave truck and bearing technologies, or the laserflip pioneers who rose from vert’s ashes in the early 1990s. Yet GQ is excerpting the book, our deputy editor grilled me about it this morning, and last week I ran into Lily Kwong in the elevator. She interned at GQ like two years ago and now works at Vogue, I think. She wanted to know all about it. Everyone seems on board. It’s pretty cool.
Q: In the book you spend quite a bit of time with the mystical and enigmatic Rodney Mullen. What’s he like in person? How did you meet?
CL: We first met in the spring of 2008. I was in LA for a story on David Wallace’s ghost office and was up in Claremont that morning and met Rod near the airport that night. He was interested in the story, so we kind of hit it off.
Rodney’s a night owl, so later on most of our conversations took place pretty late. At first this was hard, because he would get progressively more caffeinated and energized as I’d be winding down, but it worked out and in the end those conversations were the best thing about the whole project. Rodney knows every last thing about the past three decades of skateboarding, which alone is invaluable, but what’s much, much more is he is the exception to that rule about top athletes being blind and mute to their gifts (a rule Sheckler maybe illustrates). He’s passionately, thoroughgoingly articulate. Rod can explain how his board and hard, physical body need to move for something like a switch nollie laserflip, which is impossible, and he can also help an outsider understand the internal gyroscopic knots he’s had to mentally untie, and why it took him 20 years to take Ronnie Creager’s invention one giant leap further.
Q: The other protagonist in The Impossible is Ryan Sheckler, the polarizing and mediagenic professional skateboarder. What attracted you to his story?
CL: Mostly what attracted everyone else to him. There’s a Tony Hawk quote from an early Sheckler clip where he says, “Ryan was hard not to notice.” That was my experience. I’d been watching Rodney’s stuff for years and one day found the site for Almost Skateboards, a company he runs with Daewon Song. You could watch a video part for each rider, including Ryan, who was then in seventh grade. Almost is small a team made up of the greatest geniuses in the sport, and Ryan was ten years younger than their next-youngest pro. Yet even in that context, he stood out. And not just him, but his skating. That opening manual, where he goes 100 yards and down three separate flights of stairs and stays on his back two wheels the whole fucking time—if you know skating, you know you’re seeing a new world. And that’s the first thing he does in a progressively more impressive five-minute part. Before we even considered doing a book, I printed out that famous still from the final shot in the video—where he skates off a second-story balcony—and tacked it up over my desk. People would stop and stare at it and ask if that was real (the photo’s rather scary). Then sometimes they’d notice Ryan, since he looks so young and gracefully beautiful and happy, like a puppy with his head out the window.
Q: Why, in your view, is Ryan Sheckler such a controversial figure? Other skaters, such as Paul Rodriguez, have mainstream sponsors. But something about Sheckler irks some members of the skateboard community.
CL: He’s controversial because of his success. And that’s a good point about sponsorship, but it’s also important to note that Sheckler pissed people off long before he was on MTV and getting endorsements from places who’d never before touched a skater.
Long before he was riding around topless in that Axe commercial, Ryan pissed people off because he was always so much better at skating than they were. And it’s not because he was ever a bad winner. It’s one of those hard inevitabilities that come with the dark gift of great talent. Like, what pro’s not going to be upset getting beat by a 13-year-old? And beat in a way that lets you know that, no matter how much you put in or give up, you’ll never be as good as this person? What skater is going to be happy to lose to a seven-year-old? That’s when Ryan won his first contest and when people started giving him shit. Whose parents are going to be happy about that? What teammates really want a mom on tour? None of that’s anyone’s fault, but while everyone gets to weigh in on it, Ryan’s the only one who has to deal with it, deal with the fact that someone would take time to loop and score a video of you getting badly hurt, and that 150,000 people would watch that video. That this has been part of his life since first grade and that he’s a good guy, I think says a lot about Ryan’s heart and mind.
Regarding the backlash to his TV show, that all really just followed suit, because once again Ryan did something and was unapologetically successful at it. He was good. He had talent on-camera like he had talent on his skateboard and talent working with fans and sponsors and photographers and videographers. He could carry a show that he’d soon be producing. And like Tony Hawk in 1995, he didn’t back down when big press first came calling. It just seemed to me like another challenge, and Ryan worked just as hard with as much success. Of course if it was a failure, no one would have cared, but it was big-TV-ratings successful; plus, the whole time he was in this new kind of spotlight, he’d never been more brilliant on a skateboard. I think that really P.O.’d a lot of people.
Q: One of the challenges of writing about skateboarding is its technical vocabulary. You can’t replace the word “ollie” with “jump” lest you sound lame. Yet terms such as a “Nollie 360 Flip Nose Manual Nollie Kickflip Out” can have such a cacophonic effect on sentences. How did you meet this challenge?
CL: Yes. Like the sport it describes, skate language can be exclusive and esoteric to the point of code. Photo captions in Thrasher best exemplify this, where they’ll have the skater’s last or just first name followed by “Halfcab Nosehook ½ Impossible to Casper ½ Impossible Out” or something. I tried to explain then build on each term so that by the end a reader could follow captions like those.
But I also tried to explain the origins of words like “ollie” or “impossible” or even “skate.” And some of that was easy, like, calling Alan Gelfand to ask how he got his nickname, but some of that was harder, because skateboarding terms often come from surfing and ice-skating terms, and their common well is maritime diction, and most of those were first recorded by fisherman. It all goes back a while.
Q: What’s your favorite skateboard trick?
CL: There’s the club-and-scalpel combination of Lizard King’s kickflip, or just how he moves like a string of thawing splatballs, or the way he’ll clip his back wheels on the last step of a long stair set and stay on the board even though his skeleton is trying to fly apart. Or Chris Haslam’s imaginarily difficult switch frontside flip backfoot bigspin. There’s anything PJ Ladd does on a ledge, or the way he’ll catch the board with his feet and then like adjust it back and forth with just his feet. There’s Dennis Busenitz flapping down those wet San Francisco hills so fast you think he’s on skis. There’s anything Antwuan Dixon does through the air. This is about a fourth of my original list but you get the idea.
And of course that’s all in a 3 × 5 YouTube window on a computer screen. A good thing about this project was seeing the pros skate, as in standing there on the Dew Tour course or in the freezing Almost warehouse in the middle of the night and really seeing them do it. Feeling the rumble and smelling the plywood and sweat and scabs. Or seeing Rodney ride a ramp with no stance in a Demi Plie. Or seeing P-Rod move coolly through the air with that springing posture and then land like a knife into a wall.
Q: Have any pros come from your hometown of Rochester, New York?
CL: No. Creatively, Rochester has given the world Phil Hoffman and a ’90s band you never heard of called I think Hard Rain. The blues player Son House lived there for a while, and Cab Calloway was born there. So far, that’s about it. Our own suburb actually banned skateboarding.
Q: Who was the one skater you would have loved to include in the book but just could not reach?
CL: Probably James Joseph Carlin III, who showed up one day and could do everything the top pros could do, plus one other thing. Another rotation or flip, or the same thing, except off the nose or with his heel or inward or with a revert that he switches his stance inside of—and all on flat ground so he gets no extra boost or drop or time. His stuff is technically summa while wildly creative. It’s generally impossible on a near-Rodney level. I showed his Missing part to my cousin who helped research the book and skates a lot, and he was like, “I’ve never seen anyone do that. Or that. Or that that way. Or that inside of that . . .” Jimmy also seems like a goofball ass-clown weirdo and a guy I’d really like to meet, even though he wouldn’t email me back. I think we’d hit it off.
Q: Any fun facts you would like me to include in your bio?
CL: Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe just talk about the book, if there’s a part you liked or something? While I’ve worked at some impressive-seeming places, I’m not a very exciting person. Maybe one good aside is that where I grew up has more rainy days than Seattle… I’m also pitcher for the GQ softball team.