Author. Surfer. Skier. Survivor. Norman Ollestad has done quite a lot in his life already. On February 19, 1979, he was 11-years-old, traveling from Santa Monica airport into Big Bear to retrieve a skiing trophy he had won the day before. Along for the ride were his father, his father's girlfriend, Sandra, and the pilot of the small, chartered Cessna.
About fifteen minutes into the flight, they were caught up in a blizzard and the plane crashed into Ontario Peak mountain and Norman's father and the pilot were instantly killed. Norman and Sandra survived, but she had a broken arm and a severe head injury. Cut off from radar, and in the middle of a near white-out, little Norman had to lead them down to safety with Sandra, sometimes, literally on his back. The dangerous trek down the steep mountain lasted 9 hours, and when it was over, Sandra too, was dead. Frostbitten and barely able to walk, Norman was the only survivor of the tragedy.
Thirty years later, Crazy for the Storm, the memoir Norman wrote about that day's fateful events, has been released and Amazon.com is already calling it one of the best books of the year. Starbucks has picked it as their book of the summer and it remained on the NY Times bestseller list for four weeks straight.
I recently began helping Norman webmaster his site and nurture his new, growing fan base. Having read Crazy for the Storm a few weeks ago, I was intensely moved by the bond he formed with his larger-than-life father, and how the lessons his dad taught him growing up, mostly based around skiing and surfing, ended up saving the boy's life that day from almost certain tragedy. It's heavy duty stuff, yet the story reads like an easy and engrossing beach read.
Eager to let Culties in on this amazing story of survival, I had the chance to email Norman some questions.
Dennis Widmyer: Tell us a little about the plane accident and what the day was like; how the events transpired leading up to your eventual rescue.
Norman Ollestad: A four-seater Cessna carrying my dad, his girlfriend Sandra, the pilot and I crashed just after sunrise. I was 11 years old. When I woke from the impact, our bodies were sprawled across an icy, 45-degree pitch. We were engulfed in a blizzard. It took me a while to find everyone. The pilot was severely damaged, clearly dead. My father was hunched over, and I could not wake him. Sandra was alive and scared. Many things happened, but after a few hours Sandra and I began our decent down the initial ice chute. We clawed into the ice, sliding down on our bellies. We did not have gloves or hats or anything with which to ax into the ice, except tree branches. Sandra was perched on my shoulders—I kept her from slipping. A fraction of the way down, she panicked and toppled over, tumbling down the slope to her death. Alone, I trekked for nine hours and 3,700 hundred vertical-feet, finally making it to Baldy Village where I found help.
Widmyer: The book, in a lot of ways, is a tribute to your father. How did your father’s upbringing lead to your eventual survival that fateful day on the mountain?
Ollestad: My father whisked me off on adventures practically from the day I was born. He helped me face fear and learn to trust my instincts. Backcountry skiing and surfing, those adventures, ingrained the mental and physical skills I used to survive the day we crashed in a blizzard. Most importantly, our bond and his devotion to me instilled the confidence I drew upon to take on the mountain and never give up. As I’ve grown older, his lessons have saved me over and over. Crazy for the Storm is a tribute to my dad.
Widmyer: Was your father’s body ever recovered?
Ollestad: Yes, the day after the crash, when the storm passed.
Widmyer: How did the impact of this tragedy lead to you becoming a writer?
Ollestad: Writing became the ultimate form of expression for me. Writing was the final piece of the healing process—which never really ends, but writing has helped me reach a higher stage in that process. My next book is about my transition into manhood, and how I became a writer because it allowed me to transform pain and grief, allowed me to give voice to my experiences, and therefore became the most satisfying way for me to live.
Widmyer: Before Crazy for the Storm, you penned a novel called Driftwood.
Ollestad: It was a warm up to write Crazy.
Widmyer: Was this your first novel?
Widmyer: Was it your intent to solely become a fiction writer at the time?
Ollestad: Writing is writing to me. Fiction or non-fiction it’s about cutting to the bone to express a human experience.
Widmyer: So what led to the eventual writing of Crazy for the Storm?
Ollestad: Becoming a father myself, sharing the same passions for surfing and skiing that my father shared with me, awakened the belief that the story of my relationship with my dad was worth writing down.
Widmyer: Talk about your writing technique a little. What time of the day do you prefer to write?
Ollestad: Usually in the morning. I like to do a little yoga, eat, go into my office – it’s a day of work.
Widmyer: Do you need a certain atmosphere in place before you can let the words flow?
Ollestad: I need a quiet place.
Widmyer: How many drafts did you do? How involved were your editors?
Ollestad: I did ten or so drafts before I had an editor look at it. I did a couple rewrites, then sold the book. Dan Halpern (publisher of Ecco) gave me some notes and three weeks later it was done. That’ll never happen again. I did a lot of work before Dan saw the book, so that’s why that went so smoothly.
Widmyer: Had you done any formal studying before becoming a writer?
Ollestad: I took some creative writing and script writing classes in college. Then I traveled for ten years and wrote little stories all the while, writing almost every day. I engaged with the world and kept my ears and eyes wide open.
Widmyer: If so, would you recommend it?
Ollestad: Yes—a writer learns by writing, living, reading, writing, writing and writing. The writing class is a great place to learn what gets through to people and what you need to work on. I’ve noticed that grad school writers tend to be very pessimistic and closed minded, a bad combination for writing.
Widmyer: How do you feel about writers’ workshops?
Ollestad: Good, like hockey camp is good for hockey players. It’s exercise, but it’s not what generates the material. It will help you shape material. You need life to draw from—workshops rarely give you much to draw from, but there are always exceptions.
Widmyer: We have a lot of writers on this site; what would your advice be to them?
Ollestad: Don’t be afraid. It’s okay for your stuff not to work. You have to try to discern what gets through to the reader and what doesn’t. Learn from the feedback, keep trying to express what you have in mind without getting discouraged by negative feedback. Keep trying to sharpen your skills and work and work and work, and one day the ideas and the words and the overall structure will begin to function as a whole—and you will find your voice.
Widmyer: Now that Crazy for the Storm is out and doing very well, how has your life changed?
Ollestad: It’s still just as difficult to write a good sentence. I have to work just as hard. So nothing, really.
Widmyer: Besides writing, how else do you like to spend your time?
Ollestad: Engaging in life. I like to surf and ski, especially with my son—there is nothing more satisfying.
Widmyer: What’s next for you?
Ollestad: Some articles for various magazines. Then starting on my next book in the fall. And a European book tour in the spring when Germany and Italy and others release the book in their respective languages—exciting.
Visit Norman's official site here!
You can also order Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival from Amazon here!
Norman is on tour right now in select cities. Check out dates here!