American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Finnegan surfed G-Land, Tavarua and J-Bay way back in the 1970s. He spoke to Sarah Saunders about a defining youth.
“The water was clear, slightly turquoise, shallow. But there was room for me to pass over safely. And so I did, again and again, that first day” – William Finnegan, Barbarian Days.
That a book about surfing could win a Pulitzer Prize is surprising. But scratch below the surface of the 2016 winner, Barbarian Days, and it’s less so. Its author, William Finnegan, is the complete package.
Of his writing credentials there is no doubt. Finnegan has degrees in literature and writes for the highly regarded New Yorker magazine. Combined with the lived experience of teaching English in apartheid South Africa and reporting from conflict zones, he’s hard to beat.
Barbarian Days is Finnegan’s telling of a lifelong passion, of a surfing childhood that, in his 20s, morphed into a global search for a mythical wave.
His writing isn’t technical – it’s fastmoving and, at times, breathtaking.
Of empty waves peeling off the reef in Fiji, he writes: “This was it. Staring through the binoculars, I forgot to breathe for entire six-wave sets. This, by God, was it”. Then, on a crush formed in outback Australia: “Manja was tall, soft-voiced, warm-eyed, slim. She was earnestly political, but wore it lightly, in the diffident Aussie way”. And, in Java, hitching a boat to Grajagan, “Five minutes into our voyage in capsized in the surf in front of the village”.
Now, years later, at 63, Finnegan lives in Manhattan with his wife and teenage daughter. And he still surfs, proudly, on a short board.
Critics say this is the best book ever written on surfing. Are you a writer who surfs or a surfer who writes?
A writer who surfs. I make a living by writing and have done for a long time. And yet surfing has a kind of obsessive quality. It defines one’s time, certainly when one is young. I organised my life around surfing for much of my youth, and, when I finished my studies, set off on this trip based on the mid-60s movie Endless Summer. So in my twenties I spent nearly four years chasing waves through the South Pacific, Australia, South East Asia and Africa.
When I say I’m a writer who surfs, the surfing is pretty predominant. Even since those years, and upon becoming a professional writer, I usually contrive to live somewhere I can surf, or figure out where the waves are, or take a lot of surf trips. Or even go surfing from some of the places I report.
You admired James Joyce. What was it about the writings of Joyce that appealed to you?
As a teenager and a would-be writer it was easy to identify with his first novel Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man and the protagonist Stephen Dedalus. I was raised Irish Catholic in the US and the desire to become a writer and escape one’s origins - which in my case meant Los Angeles and in Dedalus’ case Ireland - was really strong. Beyond that, the writing was musical and powerful and original. It led on to what’s considered Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses which was a tremendous challenge to read. It’s a very complex book. As a kid it was a lot to take on and so I enjoyed the plunge into its depths. Now, later Joyce seems willfully obscurantist to me.
How did you retell those surfing years with such clarity?
This book took me 20 years to write. I got a lot of letters that I’d written over the years returned. I also kept quite extensive journals – full of head-scratching about stories I was working on, books I was reading and girls who were breaking my heart. Also a couple of friends even opened their journals to me - Bryan Di Salvatore, the guy I came to Australia with, and my first girlfriend Karen Davidson.
You write about camping on Tavarua (Fiji) in the 1970s, long before it became a resort. What was it like then and what has it become?
It was uninhabited. Just a lot of snakes and no potable water. So it wasn’t a great camping spot. We had to make arrangements with the fishermen who first took us out there to come back each week with more water and supplies. It was a tiny island. The waves were incredible. We never figured out that there was an outer reef that you needed a boat to get to that had a great wave, a more consistent wave called Cloudbreak. A few other surfers came by that season – Aussies on yachts and a couple of Americans. By the end of that surf season we reckoned nine surfers knew about the wave. It was very early days and we all, of course, had a solemn vow to keep it a secret. Five or six years later, I picked up a surf magazine and there it was on the cover. The reef rights were being leased and a resort being built. After years of pouting I decided I desperately wanted to surf it again and I became a regular paying customer.
You’ve been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1987 and a foreign correspondent. How was it different writing this book?
My other books have been much more journalistic, basically about other people’s problems. I’ve written books about South Africa and Mozambique and poverty in the United States. This book, being a memoir, was very different in tone and approach. I found it difficult to justify sticking with it. It seemed ridiculous writing about myself and my hobby when there were humanitarian crises going on in the world. The urgency of those things are selfevident, they make you want to get the story written. This was the opposite. So I put it down and picked it up many times.
What advice would you give someone writing a memoir?
It’s tricky. You’re giving yourself license to depict all these shared, unguarded moments with friends and loved ones. You have to think long and hard about what to put in and what to leave out. Then, of course, you have to pick out a story that’s going to grab readers.
Do you feel differently about surfing as you grow older?
I’m more appreciative of it. I took it for granted as a kid. I just did it until I was well into my adult years. And, I then tried to balance work and career with surfing. Moving to New York City in 1986 from San Francisco was a decisive break with living in places where the waves are good to living in a place where my work might thrive. Luckily, I found quite good waves around New York mainly in the wintertime.
Unfortunately as one gets older, one’s surfing steadily deteriorates. You’re worse every year. Horrible. It’s inexorable. One measure to combat this decline is to get on a long board – a bigger, more solid board that doesn’t turn well. I haven’t taken that yet.
William Finnegan’s book Barbarian Days (Corsair) is available at bookshops.
This article by Sarah Saunders originally appeared in the August/September 2016 edition of 50 something magazine.