For the last few years, Maya Gabeira has been working on something very different from her normal gig. She’s been writing books.
You know Gabeira, of course, as the two-time Guinness World Record holder for big wave surfing and seven-time World Surf League Big Wave Award winner. She’s been tackling large surf for years now, battling not only the waves themselves but the detractors that inherently shout from the sidelines when a woman dips her toe into a place that’s traditionally been a testosterone pit.
But through it all, from her childhood to present day, Maya has simply put her head down, done the work, and accomplished exactly what she decided she wanted to accomplish. And her books — two children’s stories and a young-adult memoir — have reflected that resilience.
Her first picture book, Maya and the Beast, releases in hardcover and e-book editions on August 2. Next year, in the spring of 2023, her young-adult memoir hits shelves. Then, in the fall of 2023, her second picture book will be available. A three-book contract is an impressive feat for an established writer, let alone someone who, by her own admission, hadn’t thought about being a writer until a good title for a book hit her while she was on a walk.
“It happened right there,” she told me over the phone on a July morning. “I never thought about it before… I was hiking with my dogs every day around Nazaré, and the title just came to me. I thought, ‘oh my god, that would be so much fun.’”
And so, in the same fashion that’s dictated the way she moves through the rest of her life, she put her head down and did it. The first of the books, Maya and the Beast, follows a young, asthmatic girl who dreams of surfing big waves.
“Maya and the Beast is a fairy tale of big waves and even bigger courage, inspired by her personal story of resilience, defying expectations of women in sports, and daring to achieve the impossible,” a release from the publisher, Abrams Books, explained. “Beautifully illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki, Maya and the Beast is an empowering reminder that every fear can be conquered. While everyone in her town is scared of ‘the Beast,’ the giant wave heard all around the world, young Maya finds it comforting. If only she could tame it, then everyone would see the beauty it has to offer.”
Gabeira did have a contact who was interested in co-writing a biography, but she knew that if she were to write a book, she wanted to write something for younger readers. Her sister is a child psychologist and her father, a Brazilian politician and journalist, has authored 14 books. She drew from them, along with her nephew, to get inspiration for her work.
Children’s stories may seem simple but can be a tough thing to write. Big ideas need to be written in simple, understandable ways, and the moral needs to be clear – no easy task.
“How can you share such big emotions with kids?” she said. “How can you make it relatable to them in a way they can understand? That was definitely a challenge. But the whole team — my editor, my agent, my dad, my sister, my nephew — I draw from everyone a little bit.”
Ramona Kaulitzki, the artist behind Maya and the Beast, has also illustrated books like Sisters First, Badger’s Perfect Garden, Wonderful You, and more. After seeing her work, Gabeira knew that she wanted to collaborate with her.
“I had a big number of options, and Ramona was my top pick,” Gabeira said. “When she accepted, it was wonderful.”
Luckily, her sudden desire to write coincided with a strange time in human history that afforded her enough freedom to throw her full concentration into it.
“During the pandemic when I had time, I thought about a few things that I wanted to accomplish,” she explained. But when she found out how long the publishers hoped her memoir would be, she was understandably a little nervous.
“I had never written before, at least to that extent,” she laughed. “They said 60 or 70,000 words, and I was like, ‘oh my god.’ But luckily enough I had booked a trip to the Mentawais with my photographer for two months.”
She went to work. “We had quarantine to do, so I was stuck in a hotel room for five days,” she continued. “All I did was write. I wrote like 50,000 words in five days. That’s how I did my young adult. I don’t think I could have done it any other way. Thinking back on it, that was the perfect way to force me to do something that was not all that natural to me. Otherwise I would have been surfing, then I would have been training, then I would have been tired. When else in life could I really stop everything to be able to focus on something at that level? It was needed.”
Writing has been described as “staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead,” but for Gabeira, that wasn’t the case.
“I think, think, think, think until my head explodes. Then I sit down and get it all out as fast as I can,” she explained. “That’s how my writing goes. I don’t sit and stare at a blank page. I get it out. It was a pretty chaotic thing that happened. Papers were flying around, a lot of hikes and thinking, a lot of little papers with notes… I had no idea what I was doing. Then of course, my amazing editor helped me in the end to tie it up. I love the way it came out.”
When it came to the young-adult memoir, it got tough at times. Memoir writing requires a certain self examination that can certainly be difficult.
“To think about memories; to relive and relive memories from the ages of 13 to 24, it’s hard,” she said. “You try to go back to those moments and remember how it felt. It was an interesting process. It was very hard to look back at some of those things. At the same time, I’m quite grateful. I feel more grateful than anything else that I’ve had all those experiences. They’re all part of who I am, so it’s nice to make peace with some things and go back to that time and to see how it feels now.”
When I asked her if there was a common thread in the three books, she laughed. “That’s hard,” she said. “They’re all so different. But I just hope that a lot of people can relate. I hope people can see themselves there and see the ways that I was able to overcome. I hope people can take away a message of resilience — to keep on going — while at the same time being grateful. I think a lot of parts of my stories are about that.”
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