Surf Europe Meets | ‘Barbarian Days’ Pulitzer-Winning Author William Finnegan

The New Yorker staff writer and Barbarian Days author on the building of sentences, the virtues of barbarianism, and the lure of the WSL webcast

It’s an unlikely story. Serious and highly regarded reporter writes a memoir that details not the horrors of war nor the vicissitudes of political journalism, but the arcane minutiae of a parallel life spent surfing. Somehow he manages to make it intelligible and interesting to a general readership. Even more improbably, he does so without losing credibility among other surfers. The book wins a Pulitzer Prize — the first, and surely the last, to be won by a piece of surf writing — and is included on then-President Barack Obama’s summer reading list.

But then the story William Finnegan had to tell wasn’t a particularly likely one either, even if the full extent of its unlikeliness has been lost on most non-surfing readers. Perhaps surfing double-overhead Honolua whilst off one’s tits on acid was par for the course among sunburnt pagans in the 1970s, but probably not. And stumbling across the island of Tavarua certainly wasn’t, turquoise-tinted glasses notwithstanding. In his mid ‘20s, Finnegan became one of the very first surfers to ride the wave later named Restaurants. He and his friend Bryan Di Salvatore — who in another unlikely coincidence would end up, like Finnegan, on the staff of The New Yorker — had it to themselves for weeks.

It was the scoop of the century, although it wasn’t until six years later that, despite their best efforts, and much to their annoyance, it hit the front pages, Tavarua splashed across the cover of Surfer’s December ’84 edition. Since then, Finnegan has added to his role of secret keeper that of secret sharer. Apart from his classic 1992 New Yorker piece “Playing Doc’s Games”, and the award-winning Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, he has largely avoided writing about surfing. Instead he has reported on apartheid in South Africa, war in Mozambique and Sudan, drug trafficking in Mexico, human trafficking in Moldova, poverty and cultural conflict in the United States. If President Trump had a reading list, Finnegan would not be on it.

Which brings us nicely round to the subject of barbarians, and the many contradictions entailed by that word and its variants. In the closing paragraphs of The Malay Archipelago, his 19th century account of scientific discovery in Indonesia and thereabouts, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace concluded that the West could claim no “real or important superiority over the better class of savages”. “Compared with our wondrous progress in physical science and its practical applications,” he wrote, “our system of government, of administering justice, of national education, and our whole social and moral organisation, remains in a state of barbarism.” Finnegan — who has conducted research of his own in the Malay Archipelago, and for whom the critique of our social and moral organisation has long been a central concern — has characterised surfing as “a track that led away from citizenship, in the ancient sense of the word, toward a scratched out frontier where we would live as latter-day barbarians.” And what was it Morrissey said on the matter, in The Smiths’ superbly titled “Barbarism Begins at Home”? “Unruly boys who will not grow up must be taken in hand.” 

Finnegan grew up eventually, but only after a fashion. Indeed, Barbarian Days is in large part a chronicle of his struggle to square the unruliness of youth with the responsibilities of adulthood and citizenship.

He was recently in Europe and San Sebastián, where he collected a literary prize awarded by Basque Country booksellers, and later spoke at the city’s aquarium at the invitation of the council. After the talk, I found him in a dimly lit aquarium corridor as he contemplated a particularly venomous scorpionfish. He gave me an email address and some learned advice about the dangers of tropical sea creatures. Worried that he might be tiring of long-winded interviews about his most recent book, I foolishly attempted to steer things in the direction of puerility, sending him a list of brief and desultory questions. I was duly taken in hand. “These questions, not to put too fine a point on it, are shite,” came his reply. He kindly invited me to send him some more, resulting in the following exchange.

William Finnegan, right, receives the Premio Euskadi de Plata in San Sebastián, alongside Basque author and fellow recipient Juan Luis Zabala. Photo: Diario Vasco / Unanue


BW: I understand you’ve had feedback from non-surfers who loved Barbarian Days but thought surfing sounded like such hard work that they were put off ever trying it. You were thrilled! Have you received much feedback of the other sort, from people who’ve taken up surfing as a consequence of reading the book?


WF: Blessedly, no, not a one. I have been accused by friends of promoting surfing, but I plead not guilty — at least with respect to people who’ve actually read the book.


You’ve said elsewhere that surfing is supremely useless, and does nothing to improve character. What about reading, or indeed writing, literary memoirs about surfing? I wonder if the building of sentences, to quote from the book’s epigraph, isn’t just a more civilised or cerebral form of uselessness.


It’s a fair question, a fair comparison. But I think surfing comes out far ahead in the social uselessness department. It does some practitioners some good — it can make you happy, make you fit, perhaps open up your world. If you’re very good, your surfing can give real pleasure to others. I guess I’d even take back some of my snarky dismissal of its potential for character-building, since it does reward self-reliance, doggedness, daring, and other good and admirable qualities. That said, plenty of jerks surf. But the building of sentences, which is to say the production of literature, while it may seem like a wank to the unlettered or the very cynical, is serious work. And when it goes well it creates something that can give pleasure and meaning to large numbers of people over the long haul. It’s communication, not masturbation, at least when it goes well. I like some books far more than I do most people. The world would be bleak and unlivable without good books. Which is not to say that mine are any good, just that it’s worth trying to write them. Even a surf memoir can be fun and worthwhile, in theory.


Was part of you slightly frustrated that it was your writing on surfing, and not your writing on more serious matters, that won a Pulitzer Prize? Or have you enjoyed the irony that, in terms of Pulitzers, at any rate, society has celebrated you above all for your barbarianism?


See previous answer. Yes, I enjoy the irony of winning a big journalism prize, after decades of hard reporting, for writing something about my hobby. And thank you for using that hardworking coinage, barbarianism. I kept hearing in France just now that the French word “barbares” has more violent connotations than what I intended, even that it’s associated with Nazism. Arggh. But I think that in English it’s the adjective “barbaric” that we associate with the worst sort of human violence (though not in that epigraph you mention, of course — more in polemic and in journalism).


“It’s communication, not masturbation, at least when it goes well. I like some books far more than I do most people.”



You mention rather casually, at the end of the San Francisco chapter, that Doc hated “Playing Doc’s Games” when it first came out. He’s such an imposing figure… I almost felt he became the embodiment of the barbarian impulse, or of an aspect of your own personality — the demon on your shoulder whispering, or more likely shouting, into your ear, telling you to go deeper, to go bigger, finally just to go surfing. The book seems partly to be about how you became reconciled with your inner barbarian, but have you been reconciled with Doc personally?


That’s interesting to hear that the news that Mark hated my piece read as casual. It was anything but. I actually wrote quite a bit more about his displeasure, even quoting from a long, angry, eloquent letter he wrote me, and arguing with him where I thought he had it wrong, while conceding other points — but that material was all cut, on the advice of my editor. She said it wasn’t nearly as fascinating as I thought it was. Mark and I did seem to be reconciled, more or less, for some years, although we never again surfed together, and I haven’t heard from him since the book came out in the U.S. two years ago. I warned him it was coming, and told him I had made a lot of changes in the San Francisco section, which still features him, of course, but has quite a different emphasis than the old magazine profile had. I also cut some bits that I knew had particularly stung or annoyed him. Still, the thrust of the story is the same, and the depiction of his place, as I came to understand it, in the little community of Ocean Beach surfing that I knew in the 80’s, is the same. And that’s basically what he didn’t like, I think, and so, if he bothered to read the book, he probably still wouldn’t like it. But your description of him as the demon on my shoulder, representing a hardcore part of myself, is terrific. Spot-on.


How much do you talk through that sort of thing with the people you write about, both before and after publication? Writing about friends, as you did in Barbarian Days, must be particularly difficult in that regard. Did its publication disgruntle anybody?


I went over quite a lot of the book with the people involved, since this was nearly all private life, all off-the-record, so to speak, and the unilateral decision to write about it is therefore always, or at least often, ethically dubious. In the end, I made the decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, of course, but with considerable input from friends and frenemies and only after some complicated negotiations. There was also a ton of fact-checking to do, and the frequent discovery that my favorite little stories about the good old days were either fact-challenged or just plain wrong. Other people, for some damn reason, kept remembering things differently. There is one person that I know of who was disgruntled by her depiction. I wish I had gone over the passages about her with her before publication.  I don’t think she would have changed my mind about anything, but at least we could have talked it through before the book came out. With magazine work, I should add, I rarely have such conversations, since I’m not usually writing about friends, and I make sure it’s understood that things are on the record when I’m reporting. That was even true when I profiled Mark. The New Yorker has a great fact-checking department, and I rely (too heavily) on them to catch my mistakes.


There was a point on your travels where you lost interest in writing fiction and decided to focus on journalism instead. Was that simply a realisation of where your strengths and interests lay as a writer, or was there a conscious element of wanting to reengage with society, almost as a way of offsetting the self-indulgence of surfing?


It was more the self-indulgence of writing dense, avant-garde novels that I needed to offset. (I kept surfing!) And yes, it was also a matter of realizing where my strengths and interests as a writer lay. My goals as a writer, my ambitions, were already shifting hard in the direction of more transparency, less ornamentation, but teaching high school in a black township in apartheid South Africa was so politically intense that it gave me a new focus — on power, social control, poverty, racism, revolution, conflict. I didn’t lose my interest in literature but gained a much stronger interest in history. I returned to the US keen to write non-fiction about the history then being made in southern Africa and elsewhere.


“…my favorite little stories about the good old days were either fact-challenged or just plain wrong. Other people, for some damn reason, kept remembering things differently.”


You cultivate this duality of barbarian and citizen, surfer and journalist. And yet there are several fairly close parallels between your particular approach to surfing, with its emphasis on investing time at a given spot and really getting to know it, and the kind of journalism you practise, which often involves embedding yourself in a particular group for months or years. You put yourself in harm’s way — far more so than most surfers and journalists — to get the wave or the story. There’s also a very good chance of getting skunked — of the wave or story not existing, or of you simply not finding it, even after extensive research. Is there much substance to these surface similarities?


I think you’ve pretty well nailed it. It sounds like you’ve read some of my stuff, including, possibly, Cold New World, which was the fruit of many years of embedding myself with kids and families, some in situations that could get sketchy. Resemblances to my surfing life do seem not incidental.


Much of your journalism has focussed on race relations, and early in your career you reported from South Africa during apartheid, not long after J.M. Coetzee wrote Waiting for the Barbarians — just one example of a writer subverting that word’s sometimes racist connotations. Since you’ve used a word in your title that’s so politically charged, it seems fair to ask whether surfing has informed your politics in any way.


I think not. But you remind me of the reaction that an old friend in Cape Town had when I told her the title of the book. She was the hero of my first published book, Crossing the Line, about teaching in South Africa — a fierce, funny, soulful teen-age activist then, now a world-weary, well-read militant running a small museum. She said, “I just hope we’re not the barbarians.” You aren’t, I told her. I am. Good, she said, because that’s how it was and how it still is.


“Some barbarians are excellent at sharing — better than capitalists, certainly.”


The ruthless, unregulated competition over resources — in this case waves — is another way in which surfers often resemble barbarians. Several times in the book you mention your distress at this side of surfing. Do you think there’s any way of bringing about a more civilised line-up, or is the line-up an inherently barbaric place?


Now you’re using “barbaric” in the bad sense, as in vicious, winner-take-all. No, I don’t think there’s much hope of bringing about a more civilized lineup — which isn’t to say that all lineups are vicious. Some are quite pleasant, in my experience. But they tend to involve some degree of competition, of a pretty primitive type, and that’s what I can’t imagine changing. The unpleasant lineups aren’t likely to get better — although I have seen places where the worst old reprobates lost their edge and retired from the fray, and the next generation was mellower. But that has seemed like strictly local luck. It can also go the other way. I do use “barbarian” to mean unregulated (to use your word) but not necessarily ruthless, not at all. There can be a lot of fellowship in barbarianism, in being outsiders with a shared reverence for waves, and for all that chasing waves entails. Some barbarians are excellent at sharing — better than capitalists, certainly.


Clearly you’re against surfing’s growth. You’ve also talked about surfing’s mediocrity as a dramatic spectacle. And yet I think I’ve heard you say somewhere that you’re capable of watching the WSL webcast for hours on end. Do you think these contradictions are possible to resolve, or is the love/hate relationship with surfing-as-sport just another of the contradictions intrinsic to the surfer’s lot?


This, too, seems spot-on — a contradiction intrinsic to the (serious) surfer’s lot, yes. I meant that surfing is mediocre as drama for non-surfers. The lulls alone are too much for an ordinary audience. But I can watch a WSL webcast for hours, yes, when the surf is pumping, and you probably can too, because we’re used to lulls, and are ever-hopeful that something amazing may soon happen. I don’t love or hate the WSL — those terms are too strong. I love great surfing, which the WSL can sometimes cause to happen, and then let me see it in real-time on my computer, and I hate bad crowds and the commercialism that’s helped create them — but the WSL is slightly, just slightly, off to the side of that.


Does the sporting and competitive aspect of pro surfing capture your imagination at all, or is the spectacle of good surfing on good waves the only thing that keeps you watching a contest, and the question of winners and losers nothing but a footnote?


I don’t find the scoring of rides all that fascinating or fair, but I’m sometimes keen to see who wins, sure, and I’m rooting for my fave. I like it to be clear-cut, though, not a close judges’ call. Think of the Slater-Fanning final at big clean Cloudbreak a few years back — they both surfed great, but Slater was clearly in a different league, even possibly peaking as a surfer, thinking and reacting and drawing lines on a level extremely rare even for him. It was a contest, but it was also some of the most astonishing surfing I’ve seen. Mainly, though, yeah, I just watch in hopes of seeing some good surfing. I even enjoy the lulls.


“Slater was clearly in a different league, even possibly peaking as a surfer, thinking and reacting and drawing lines on a level extremely rare even for him”



Top of page: William Finnegan at G-Land, 1979. Photo: Mike Cordesius



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