Q&A: Gonzo Reporter Chas Smith

The bad-boy, globe-trotting Oregon-native takes on the sordid, drug-addled surf industry in "Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell"—a book that's so controversial, lawyers had screaming matches. He reads at Powell's on Nov. 25

By Ally Bordas November 20, 2013

Foul-mouthed and notoriously outspoken Oregon-native Chas ‘Charlie’ Smith is a globetrotting, gonzo journalist with a predilection for fashion, surfing, whiskey, and danger. He was the first to ride the waves of Yemen, he has run from gun-wielding pirates in Somalia, and he did a brief stint as a prisoner of Hezbollah, and then lived to write about it, and many other international conflicts and topics, for the likes of GQ, the New York Times Magazine, Blackbook, and Vice.

Now he’s releasing his first book, Welcome To Paradise, Now Go To Hell: A True Story of Violence, Corruption, and the Soul of Surfing, a sordid, staccato, first-person tell all about the legendary surf bastion, Oahu’s North Shore. Already optioned for a movie, the book is destined to be controversial and piss off an ocean of people.

Welcome To Paradis dives into Hawaii’s history, from Captain James Cooks’ decimation of Hawaiian culture in the 18th century (laying the groundwork for native antipathy towards foreigners and mainland “kooks”—that is, California kids in their skinny jeans) to the recent surf history of the aggressive North Shore, a place ruled by thugs, drugs, and respect. Smith writes with a profanity-soaked, narcissistic, yet funny voice, holding nothing back as he chips away the romantic polish of the surf industry, investigates the nefarious role of corporations, addresses his “beef” with famous surfer Mick Fanning, candidly interviews ‘Fast’ Eddie Rothman about dominating the island with his fists, and reveals the surf world’s party scene, which has led to the downfall of many a legend. 

Waiting for Smith in the lobby of Hotel Monaco, I must admit I didn’t expect a man of his reputation to be on time, given the early hour. But he stepped into the lobby at 7:45 a.m. on the dot, decked out in the bad boy uniform of sunglasses, loose-laced leather combat boots, an array of tattoos, and blonde hair perfectly swept back. As we walked to Stumptown, and he met my questions with a smile and questions of his own, I realized his countenance was totally counter to what one might expect from his writing and speaking style. 

“Coos Bay is a piece of shit,” he says of his hometown. “Anyone who tells you otherwise has just never been. I got the hell out the second I turned 18.” It's this type of bluntness that comes across to his readers as ‘asshole-esque.’ And he loves it. In fact, he has made his living on writing like an asshole.

Chas Smith Reading
Nov. 25 at 7:30pm

On the Town: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Chas Smith: I never intended on being a writer. I have a Master’s degree in linguistics (from Biola University)—god knows why but I do. Mainly because after being an undergrad, I taught fifth grade for a year and that was terrible. So I went back to school because I didn’t know what the hell else to do with my life.

Then how exactly did you become such a sought after surf journalist?
Purely accidental and by sheer luck. The first story I ever wrote was from my time spent surfing in Yemen for Australia’s Surfing Life magazine. It was right after 9/11, and it was cutting-edge.

I saw my article in print and quit writing then and there. I was a horrible writer.

Wait a second, you quit writing? Curious to hear how this all adds up…
My first ever attempt at “journalism” was complete shit. The problem was, I was trying too hard to sound like a journalist and took my voice right out of it. It wasn’t until I continued going on trips with other freelance surf writers that I found my voice and gave it another try.

What kind of ‘voice’ was that?
That of a complete asshole, obviously! I realized people just wanted something sarcastic, funny, and yet had a point. On one trip to the Middle East, my buddy kept getting his drafts sent back from a magazine he was writing an article for, so I took a stab at it and they loved it! Much to everyone else’s dismay.

Here is a reader’s online comment from one of your posts: “your work is narcissistic (that means self-centered) and boring (that means lame). I don’t know if they taught you those words at Harvard or in Syria.” Hilarious! Yet quite common for a lot of your articles.
I get off when people criticize me. Or want to kill me. I don't care when people say nice things, but I love when they say hideous things. I made someone type into their computer about how narcissistic I am. I win. 

You do realize you are about the most non-asshole person that I have met. 
Wow, thanks for blowing my cover.

And now this book deal, which you are convinced is going to get you slapped. Why ‘slapped,’ exactly?
Slapping has to be one of the most degrading things that can happen to a man. And believe me, once you get slapped around a few times by a meaty Hawaiian surf dude, you get the lights punched out of you, too. Slapping is the least of my concerns.  

Why do you think you’ll get slapped?
Oh, I know I am going to get slapped. The surf world has no idea what’s about to hit them, because I call everyone out, from the corporate brands to the thugs. It is only a matter of time before these guys catch up to me, either in Hawaii or in Cali. And I’ve had enough time to process it so I’m ready.

I would think there’d be some hesitations behind your book’s upcoming release then.
At one point, I wasn’t even sure this book was going to get printed. The risk HarperCollins is taking on me is humbling, and I appreciate their support. Lawyers got involved, and my publisher was fighting me on some points I made in the book because, again, this book is highly, highly controversial in breaking down the barriers in the surf world. It leaves no room for people to hide. 

What is in the book that so alarmed your publisher that lawyers got involved?
Honestly, there were screaming matches going down in that meeting—my lawyers and publishers defending my story and those opposed wanting to take out large chunks due to the fact that the feathers were already ruffled to the point of chaos. My story is true and the people named in the book are not fictionalized and neither are their stories. But the fact is that because the North Shore is legendary, a lot of people are too afraid to speak up, because there are no laws and no one to defend them. The police get paid off in more ways than just money, and long familial blood lines are the enforcers there, feared and revered.

What happens next?
I am in full-on book mode now. I want to write a behind the scenes book on war reporting, like looking at it from the journalist’s perspective. Then maybe back to surfing.

Hopefully you don’t get beaten up too badly by the Hawaiians.  Or anyone else who might get worked up over your book.
There will be blood. But you gotta just keep playing the angels and finding stories in the unconventional places, and the world will be your oyster.

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