An interview with William Finnegan

Henry Ace Knight

Among the uninitiated, surfing seems to provoke one of two opposing reactions: something like saudade from those hip to civilization’s discontents, jonesing for a life less examined, and frothing scorn from the more comfortably cubicle-wed. Its culturally manufactured image is schizophrenic, slack-lining between dreadlocked bacchanalia and exalted communion with nature.

Barbarian Days, William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, shows us what the life aquatic is really about. Through the eyes of a lifelong surf acolyte, in prose as enviable as the adventure it chronicles, Finnegan’s readership circumnavigates the globe with him, from Santa Cruz to Oahu, Polynesia to Sumatra, Queensland to Cape Town, San Francisco to Long Island.

The notion of surfing as a pure zone of contact with nature is inextricable, Finnegan suggests, from the “steel thread of violence running through it.” “Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration,” he writes. “At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world . . . The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure.”

What about those gnar-seeking drones? By Finnegan’s account, they’re actually oceanographers, “and in the area of breaking waves all are engaged in advanced research.” “The close, painstaking study of a tiny patch of coast, every eddy and angle, even down to individual rocks, and in every combination of tide and wind and swell—a longitudinal study, through season after season—is the basic occupation of surfers at their local break,” Finnegan explains. “Getting a spot wired—truly understanding it—can take years. At very complex breaks, it’s a lifetime’s work, never completed. This is probably not what most people see, glancing seaward, noting surfers in the water, but it’s the first-order problem that we’re out there trying to solve: what are these waves doing, exactly, and what are they likely to do next? Before we can ride them, we have to read them.” Squint and you might see in this passage a procedural symmetry between surfing and reporting, breaks and beats. Finnegan would caution against any gratuitous comparisons.

The margins of the global surf scene seem a particularly unlikely sphere from whence to emerge a distinguished war reporter and nonfiction stylist. Finnegan was not your garden-variety surf bum. Barbarian Days braids the chase for world-class waves with personal intellectual history and social analysis. The book’s winking epigraph, from Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, reads: “He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of color landing on a page.” As Finnegan makes clear from the first page, these days are not only far from forgotten, but even as he lived them, he was caught up in building sentences. “Surfing was the ostensible, convenient, sometimes joyous, sometimes transcendent focus of our lives (my life) in those days,” he tells me. “But my journals from that trip, and from my youth generally, have very little about surfing in them. They’re full of the books I was reading, the stories I was writing, the confusions of love and friendship, the places and people we found ourselves among—what everything meant, how it felt, how to frame it in language and story and make it live on the page.”

“The weight of unmapped worlds, unborn language,” the chase for “a broad-beamed understanding of what is what,” eventually led Finnegan to Cape Town, where he worked as a teacher at a segregated all-black school during apartheid. His proximity to South Africa’s national school boycott movement was the impetus for his first book, Crossing the Line, named one of the ten best nonfiction books of 1986 by the New York Times Book Review. His other books include Dateline Saweto, which follows the lives of black South African reporters working for white editors under apartheid, A Complicated War, a portrait of the Mozambican Civil War, and Cold New World, a sobering study of American cyclical poverty and inequality.

A longtime fixture at The New Yorker, Finnegan has twice been the recipient of the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism and twice been a National Magazine Award finalist. The Overseas Press Club has recognized his reporting on Sudan’s civil war, the global sex trade, and Mexico’s drug war.

Finnegan was gracious enough to spend an afternoon answering my questions over email, after Skype failed us, the day before a surf trip to El Salvador no less.

—Henry Ace Knight

What’s more elusive: the pursuit of a frictionless method of long-distance communication or that of a perfect wave?

The frustrations are fundamentally different, if we’re talking about tech and old-fashioned wave-chasing.

With tech, we’re so often grappling within bad-faith corporate structures, which trumpet their devotion to our convenience and satisfaction at every turn, when we all know perfectly well that the central motivation of corporations is, by definition, profit. They exist to provide a service, yes, but the bewilderments that often accompany that service—the dead-ends where Microsoft suddenly appears, demanding a license number of some kind—are deflating, annoying, and leave me, at least, slightly paranoid about where I am and what I’m doing.

With wave-chasing, the teases and frustrations, the scary near-misses and bewildering failures, are regular occurrences, and you can end up railing at the ocean and weather gods, but that’s different. Contending with Nature leaves me, even on the worst days, with a much less sour taste in my mouth than contending with Google or Microsoft does. And I haven’t touched on the question here of perfection, I know, nor social media.

The reason I say old-fashioned wave-chasing, by the way, is that tech has changed that pursuit, too. Google Earth, etc. There is no perfect wave, nor, as far as I know, any perfect form of long-distance communication. Just sublime moments in each mode.

Can you say something about the challenge of describing the mechanics of waves and the technical rigors of surfing, especially to the uninitiated? You write of waves not so much “beggaring language” as “scrambling it,” and recall “clumsy efforts [by Twain and Jack London no less!] to render action that was too quick, complex, and foreign.”

I was writing for the general reader and didn’t want to lose people with descriptions of waves and surfing that might be opaque to them, and so I asked my wife, who has zero interest in surfing, to read drafts and flag anything she didn’t understand. She flagged a lot of stuff, and I went back and tried to simplify, to clarify, or in many cases to strip the jargon out of each line or passage. Often, I ended up using a proper surfing term, but carefully defining it, so that the reader would, with luck, remember what it meant next time it was used.

Some of my wife’s demands were unreasonable, I thought. “Channel”? Everybody knows what a channel is. That’s not even a surfing term. “I can’t picture it here.” O-o-o-o-kay, channel—an area of deeper water where no waves break. I didn’t want to include a glossary—that seemed lame—and I didn’t want to bore or insult readers who surf with a lot of dumbed-down descriptions and patronizing stop-the-action explanations. So I had to split the differences there.

But this was mostly in the early chapters. By the middle of the book, I hoped I had familiarized the general reader with enough of the language of surfing that I could simply tell a surf story at the pace and rhythm, and with the vocabulary, that feels natural to me. I also hoped that, for the reader who had been paying attention, there would be a certain satisfaction in being able now to follow a story told in previously opaque dialect, to stay oriented (not easy) and understand what exactly is at stake in any given scene.

You mention Twain and London—and there are many less-skilled examples—who are both great writers, but in those let’s-try-surfing passages you have first-person narrators who themselves don’t really understand what is happening in the water as they crash around, let alone have the technical vocabulary with which to describe it. They may be able to amuse and thrill, but they can’t carefully instruct, and then lead the reader to new vicarious understandings. Not that I belong in the same paragraph with those guys.

It seems like the nomadic surf life doubled for you as an excellent alternative writing education. Even as you were at times beset by self-doubt, you had plenty of time to read widely, to put your experience down on paper, to process and harvest earlier parts of your life for novelistic material, to explore the “unmapped world”—as you call it—and “develop a broad-beamed understanding of what is what.” Looking back on it, do you consider the trip in that light, as essential to your development as a writer rather than a digression from it? 

Absolutely. Maybe to my growing up, generally. Surfing was the ostensible, convenient, sometimes joyous, sometimes transcendent focus of our lives (my life) in those days. But my journals from that trip, and from my youth generally, have very little about surfing in them. They’re full of the books I was reading, the stories I was writing, the confusions of love and friendship, the places and people we found ourselves among—what everything meant, how it felt, how to frame it in language and story and make it live on the page. Books often seemed to overwhelm everything else. My journals from Morocco have some interesting bits of observation, and harrowing glimpses of my despair, but they are mainly ecstatic quotes from Naked Lunch and The Sheltering Sky.

How did your companionship with Bryan during the circumnavigation shape your sensibility as a writer? And how did you guys manage to continually replenish your supply of books along the way? Were you lugging around duffel bags stuffed with old paperbacks? 

Let me take the easy question first. No, we didn’t carry large numbers of books when we were backpacking—as in, say, the South Pacific, or Indonesia. In Australia, where we rented a bungalow and had a car, we could carry around more, plus that giant stack of old New Yorkers, which was a luxury. We shared books, exchanged books with people we met, found old paperbacks in hotels and guest houses and carried them off. There’s an example of a random, water-soaked paperback we both read because-it-was-there in Barbarian Days—it was a second-rate but nice and long biography of Hitler which we found in Suva, Fiji, had with us on Tavarua, and I think we both read twice (we did run low on books camping out there), and then I started seeing German words in Gothic script on the faces of approaching waves, and Bryan could see just what I meant, and even knew some of the words. We could also stock up in tourist-frequented places like Kuta Beach, Bali, on second-hand books that we would then carry off into the wilds of Java, Sumatra, etc., giving them away after reading them, in the constant quest to lighten loads. We weren’t always up on the latest releases, to say the least, but we usually had plenty to read.

He was and is a formidable interlocutor. We first met and bonded over shared enthusiasms—surfing, Melville, Kerouac, Joyce—and yet our tastes (our passionate predilections—in literature, music, you name it) were never all that similar, and they seemed to diverge over time. So we always had plenty to debate.

But I was in awe of Bryan from the start, and often deferred to his judgments, and felt like I struggled to define my own aesthetic in the broad shadow of his. In retrospect, that seems healthy but at the time it was hard. Also, living at such close quarters, it wasn’t always easy to disagree. We got better at it over time, I think, but as writers we just got more different.  The series of articles we supposedly wrote together for the Australian magazine Tracks weren’t really co-written because we could never agree on a sentence. He wrote some, which I lightly edited, and I wrote others, which he lightly edited. His, upon re-reading, were far funnier and more original. Mine were more conventional, but sharpened by our endless repartee.

People used to laugh at us—we could talk for hours, never get tired of the sound of our own voices. Always more details and nuances to hash out. “Ear-bashing,” the Aussies called it.

In the fifth chapter, you write: “We were wandering now through a world that would never be part of any correspondent’s beat. It was full of news, but all of it was oblique, mysterious, important only if you listened and watched and felt its weight.” How was this narrative sensitivity to communities that fall beyond the traditional purview of foreign correspondents useful when you later became one yourself? 

I later got to know traditional foreign correspondents but I’ve never quite been one myself. I’ve mostly reported for The New Yorker and have generally had the freedom, while working internationally, to skip stories that were too on-the-nose for my taste—you know, interview the prime minister and a bunch of her critics and interpreters and call it a piece. I’ve been able to wander off the path a bit and write about the indigenous Peruvian gold-miner and his girlfriend or the strange, prim newspaper editor in Somalia. I guess there’s a direct line from my surf-bum days among the overlooked poor-country characters we got to know and the subjects I look for as a political journalist. “Nobody wants to hear about all the Preterite,” Pynchon wrote. Except maybe they will, if you can make them interesting. I’d be a different type of reporter if I had gone to J School and learned the rules, no doubt.

Can you tell me a little bit about the informal interviews you did throughout your travels across Polynesia, Asia, and Africa? Were those helpful once you started reporting internationally to negotiating the problem of access?

I’ve always enjoyed getting people to talk, especially if they come from worlds much different from mine. I never thought of it as interviewing until I got interested in journalism, in my late twenties. In Polynesia, in the seventies, I was kind of infatuated with an idea of pre-industrial self-sufficiency, a romantic fantasy of communal wholeness that such all-around traditional expertise seemed to promise. So I loved getting fishermen, farmers, villagers to talk about how they did things, how they understood things. These were thoroughly Christianized places, so it wasn’t that I entertained fantasies of a pre-neurotic sexuality à la Margaret Mead or anything. I was just very curious about how people lived and got by outside the West, with little money but seemingly abundant health and happiness.

In some of the other places where I wandered in those years—in Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, different parts of Africa—that romantic fantasy was not in play. Often, people had recently suffered through enormous upheavals and tragedies, like the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965, or the apartheid forced removals that were still occurring all around us in South Africa, and I was terribly curious about peoples’ experiences and their understanding, particularly when nobody felt safe talking openly, but in those situations, you obviously have to be sensitive to the pain and fears of the people you’ve landed among.

Still, it always felt natural to me to draw people out, when I could, and come to some understanding of the places I visited through what people told me. Of course, sometimes people got furious at my questions and put me in my place, privilege and all. I was writing fiction in those days, but I now see that I was preparing for my next life, too, writing nonfiction.

Are you still writing fiction? And had your path not put you on a collision course with the national school boycott movement in Cape Town, do you think your ambitions as a writer would still have pivoted from fiction to long-form nonfiction?

I tried to write a short story recently, and tried to write a novella a few years back, and each time swerved into fact. I was too interested in what actually happened in postwar Greece in the case of the novella, and too interested in a couple of small-town murder cases in California in the case of the short story, to stick to the fictional narrative I had mapped out. The fiction felt flat, corny, arbitrary. The fact felt powerful and, of all things, literary.

So I feel pretty well banished from the kingdom of fiction, as a writer—although I still read more novels than anything else. I was just in Cape Town a couple of weeks ago, and saw an old friend there, who was probably the single strongest influence on my thinking when I lived in South Africa as a young man. She was as compelling as ever—just riveting to listen to—and I was grateful, once again, to have met her at a pivotal moment in my chaotic life. She was a leader of the school boycott you mention.

I actually find it impossible to picture where I would have gone, as a writer, after those years in Cape Town, if I had not met the people I met there. More novels? I guess. But I stumbled into something there that compelled me more, and sent me off in a different direction, though it was still writing, of course. And the years I had spent writing fiction, though they suddenly seemed terribly self-indulgent, never felt like a waste. I’d learned to write sentences, and how to make multiple narrative arcs overlap and support, structurally, a long-ass piece of writing, like a book. I don’t think I could have learned that as a junior in a newsroom. I also don’t think I had the talent to write really good fiction.

Was it Mandy you saw in Cape Town? 

Yep. And my daughter met her for the first time.

What happened to her after she was detained by the Special Branch?

She says it wasn’t so bad. A lot of interrogation, no violence, nothing to read but the Bible. She also says now that the road trip we took after her graduation changed her plans—that she had been scheduled to go underground, to drop into the ANC pipeline that then ran out of the country, into exile, usually into military training, the whole schmear, but she somehow missed the boat (mixed metaphor) by not being in Cape Town at the key moment. She told me this with a laugh, and said it was lucky for her, but it was a big surprise for me to hear. She was very, very discreet, despite our close friendship. She was a serious person. Still is. She’s now the director of a wonderful museum. Many of her old comrades have committed suicide, so disappointed were they at the outcome of the liberation struggle. She’s lucky she’s a Trotskyist, she says. Permanent revolution, no expectations of paradise. From every mountaintop reached, the view will be of more mountains.

Do you ever imagine, as you’re writing a piece for The New Yorker, whether it would pass the outback test?

Great question! I don’t. The test was too fearsome. Some of my first drafts might pass, if I really cut loose. But the published versions? Very unlikely to pass. My recent pieces would fail for being too prosaic. But the easiest way to fail, certainly, was pretentiousness, being unintentionally funny.

How do the challenges of memoir compare to those of political reportage and long-form narrative journalism for you?

The level of responsibility to the main characters in memoir is much, much higher. In most cases, certainly in mine, this was all private life, not on-the-record. So it’s a massive arrogation, to decide that these are your stories to tell, publicly—all these shared, intimate moments with friends and loved ones, most of them from long ago. Ugh. You have to think very hard about what to put in and what to leave out. I ended up leaving out a lot of the most amusing (but bruising, or somehow treacherous) stuff. These are real people. So are the characters in reported stories, of course, but they know they’re on the record.

Have many of the people in Barbarian Days read the book?

Some, yes. My mother saw only an early draft of the first couple of chapters. She was still sharp but not much longer, at that stage, for this world. She gave it the thumbs-down. She said, “Who cares what TV shows Dad worked on? I thought this was going to be about the adventures of two young guys.” My wife liked it—and she’s a tough reader. Bryan says he hasn’t read it yet, which I don’t believe, but that’s okay—as usual, but more than usual, I dread his verdict. One old friend complained bitterly that I hadn’t written more about his surfing on a certain day in 1971. One person who loomed large in my life, but not so large in the book, said she hated it. She also said that I had been too hard on Bryan. But when I asked her for details, she was vague. When I asked if she had read the book, she admitted that she had only skimmed it. Then she stormed out of the restaurant. Some key characters have said that I got key things right, which is gratifying. John Selya, with whom I’m supposed to go to El Salvador tomorrow, seems to get a lot of mileage out of his starring role in the last chapter. He’s never said what he thinks of the book, but he’ll take the waves, thank you, and whatever else comes. “YOU are a mere footnote,” he said to somebody yesterday, in New Jersey, where we were surfing. The other person had no idea what he was talking about. It’s a complicated hall of mirrors sometimes.

My daughter read it in galleys, over my objections, in two days at the age of thirteen. She has never said what she thinks of it.

Lots of people pop up unexpectedly. I gave a reading in Miami. A guy in the audience stood up when I was finished and said, simply, “I am Jose.” It was the kid from Ecuador whom I had last seen in east Java thirty-seven years before. I recognized him immediately. We went out to dinner and he confirmed some key details about our time together, which was nice, and then added some wonderful stuff that I had forgotten.

Has writing come to be as satisfying an occupation for you as braking once was?

I’m trying to write about braking now, so I’ll have to let you know what I decide. Braking was easier, in the sense that you showed up, worked your shift, and went home. And it had all those moments of big iron glory, and the intense (but infrequent, for me) satisfaction of doing the work right. But it was dangerous, of course, and learning how to do it well was more urgent and more fraught than anything in writing. The satisfactions in writing? They’re fleeting, I find, and they’re almost all in the having done it. Reporting is another story. It can be almost as good, when it goes well, as the railroad.

Several vivid passages about surfing in the book seem to invite parallels to writing. Waves, like language, are inevitably imperfect—the best of them only “begin to achieve that Platonic quality, embodying a model of what people want them to be.” Like serious books, if they are to be made sense of they demand intense study and critical attention. How do surfing and writing relate for you, and do you believe that you’re drawn to them for similar reasons? You’ve said that all surfers are in some sense oceanographers. Do you feel that analyzing the dizzying array of variables that affect a break made you a better observer, perhaps with a keener eye for detail in your writing/reporting?

As for surfing and writing—I have heard flowery contentions that every wave ridden is a “compressed life narrative” and think it’s easy to go too far comparing chasing waves to chasing stories, or composing a ride to composing a sentence. That said, the answer is yes, surfing any place decently requires a quality of attention that is pretty ferocious, and the ability to summon that sort of detailed and useful observation would seem to lead to a general sharpness of eye and sense, whether you’re studying a strange new political milieu or critically reading literature. And yet I haven’t noticed surfers in general being an especially noticing lot. Good surfers often have insights into given waves that are more original, more savvy than the average Joe’s, but they probably put in more time thinking about it than Joe does and they probably approach the subject at a higher, more dynamic level as well, simply because of their greater skill. That acuity can transfer, but doesn’t necessarily do so, to the world beyond the waves. You need to be deeply interested in things to think deeply about them, and surfers are known more for single-minded surf myopia than for having a broad range of interests. Of course, I say that with a thousand exceptions in mind, starting with Bryan, Selya, Peter Spacek, and some of the other guys I surf with these days.

As for reporting, I did have a longtime editor at The New Yorker, John Bennet, who used to reassure me when I was feeling like a journalistic fraud that, while I might not have worked my way up from the newsroom, I had in fact done a long and useful apprenticeship as a surf bum. “You spent your twenties wandering more or less blind into new places where you had to get the lay of the land, or the reef, quickly in order to find what you were looking for, and in the process put up with a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. You were looking for waves then. You’re looking for stories now. It’s the same—try to figure it all out fast, and then be in the right place at the right time, with your eyes wide open.” The analogy wasn’t perfect, but it used to cheer me up. “At least you didn’t spend your twenties in an office!” he’d say. I was really sad when John retired.

I was struck by how polylingual Barbarian Days is—from your rough-and-tumble early encounters with Hawaiian Pidgin in middle school, to learning Spanish so that you and Bryan would have a private language in Polynesia, to picking up some Bahasa for those bitter negotiations in Indonesia. Has Barbarian Days been translated into other languages yet? 

Yes, Barbarian Days has been translated into Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and German, with Japanese and Korean still in the works, I think—and, I HOPE, some version of Chinese (what would that be for the Taiwan market?). Language is, of course, a constant preoccupation when one travels. Bryan and I did not learn Spanish to use in the So Pac, though—we both spoke it already; he just suggested that we brush up on our español before we went to Polynesia, which I thought was absurd, but turned out to be a great idea.