William Finnegan's Barbarian Days

[William Finnegan, Tavarua, Fiji, 2002 / Credit: Ken Seino]

I catch the subway from Brooklyn to uptown Manhattan to reach William Finnegan’s apartment on a summer morning. It’s our first time meeting, and we immediately speak surf tongue about New Jersey and its mysto jetties while he makes me a cup of coffee. He’s articulate in talking about waves just as he is in writing about them, giving small pauses to make sure he’s remembering his experience accurately — it’s not the showboating speak I’m accustomed to in surf shops and line ups, it’s analytical, precise.

To the general public, Finnegan is an international political long form journalist forThe New Yorker. He’s written books with titles like Cold New World, a study of families and youth cultures in the United States, and A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, which delves into the intricacies of the apartheid and its effect on Mozambique. To well read surfers everywhere, Finnegan is the author of Playing Doc’s Games, a New Yorker profile of Mark Renneker, an eccentric physician and big wave surfer, and the small Ocean Beach community surrounding him.

Finnegan’s recently released memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, has caught the attention of both parties as a singular admixture of memoir, reporting, political criticism, and wave riding. Narrating the drama of the messy personal experiences (or fantasies) of surfing waves for the general public is treacherous terrain and, more often than not, slips into the corny and nostalgic. But Finnegan’s described ambiance of his experience on a wave or otherwise is alluring, while simultaneously scholarly, controlled, and restrained. Fully, Barbarian Days is a highbrow report from the vanities and weaknesses we all have as surfers (and humans).

This interview was conducted in person in July, 2015 at Finnegan’s home office.

Chelsea Burcz: There’s some complexity in the contradiction of Hawaiian spirit, which you touch upon in the opening chapters of your book. You can encounter people like Paul Strauch in the water, warm and welcoming, and then gang violence on the land and in the schools.

William Finnegan: You hear a lot of stories about tough crowds in the water in Hawaii, and I’ve surfed various islands and I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem in the water in Hawaii. I know things happen, fights happen, plenty of guys are intimidating — they surf really well, they’re tough, but that’s certainly true in California and other places. I just can’t remember any time where I got in a fight in the water in Hawaii, which is kind of amazing considering it’s reputation. This includes places like the west side of Oahu, which I love, which has a really tough reputation. I don’t mean that it’s not crowded and the crowds aren’t difficult, and that’s been true, it’s more true now at some of the spots I surfed as a kid, but a spot like Honolua Bay on Maui, which I write about, I lived there in 1971 and was dedicated to the spot and it was insanely crowded. When it was good it was a complete dog fight. I never saw anybody fight, I didn’t even see people screaming at each other, but it was so competitive, it was so aggro to get that wave when it was really good. It was peak experience. There were guys who were surfing there a lot and really knew what they were doing and got lots of great waves. And then there were those of us trying to climb up the pecking order; I was 18 or 19 and I absolutely loved it. But it was crowded.

But Hawaii on land, out of the water, has a lot of rural poverty, and I am writing at the beginning of this book about going to middle school in Honolua, where I knew nobody and I was a little haole from the mainland. It was very racialized and, by my standards, really tough. I had come from this white-bread kind of suburb in California. I think those kind of racial tensions and the violence in the schools and on the streets, among kids especially, continues.

My sister lives in Hawaii and I visit her every year and spend time there. Her daughter just graduated from high school there and I don’t so much see it as the continued kind of bullying in the schools or on the streets that I remembered. But there was an excerpt from the book from the first chapter that was published in TheNew Yorker in June. I got a lot of reader mail and there were columns in the papers in Hawaii saying, “Somebody’s talking about this problem!” And people were reaching out saying, “I’m so glad you wrote about this, I experienced this, and this is going on in the schools and nobody talks about it.” I had thought that this was probably ancient history and everybody is enlightened now, but from this reader response I got a different impression. And really, even in the famous surf regions of Hawaii, like the North Shore, there’s a lot of poverty, rural poverty, and drug abuse and low level crime and that’s rarely talked about but it’s a factor in life there.

[The Finnegans, Ventura, 1966 / Credit: Courtesy of William Finnegan]

[Author, Queens, Waikiki, 1967 / Credit: Courtesy of William Finnegan]

“Aloha” is a real thing, Hawaiian culture, whatever that means at this point in the 21st century after traditional Hawaiian culture was extirpated in the 19th century, still exists and is quite welcoming (in theory) to outsiders and places a lot of emphasis on family. People call it ‘ohana,’ but then there’s the edges of that family and its enemies. It’s not the gentlest culture around, it never was. I know plenty of people who had a hard time in Hawaii, have been punched out and all the rest, perhaps I’ve just been lucky. But I also have the experience of having lived there when I was young, not being thrown by somebody speaking heavy Pidgin for instance, it’s usually fairly comprehensible to me and I know some of the local references and landmarks. But the fear factor with the people, not with the surf, is usually overdrawn, I think.

CB: Where did a memoir about surfing stem from, especially after a long career in political writing?

WF: It took me about 25 years to write, so it wasn’t last week’s idea. It has a kind of tortured genesis, this book. It began when I was living in San Francisco, writing my first published book and freelancing for magazines. I sold a short piece to The New Yorker, it was the first thing I sold them. Someone in the editor’s office there said this would be a good time to propose a longer piece but I didn’t really have any ideas. So I looked around me and thought, “What can I write about?” I looked at this guy I was surfing with at the time and thought, he’s a New Yorker profile subject — he’s charismatic, a doctor and big wave surfer, Mark Renneker. I proposed that without much forethought and got the assignment. I had the first chance to write about surfing and a big break; I was sort of paralyzed and that piece took seven years to write. I did a lot of other stuff, I wrote and published three books during those seven years, moved to New York, joined the staff of The New Yorker and was writing pieces for the magazine, so it’s not like I sat paralyzed for seven years and did nothing. But I just didn’t know how to write about surfing for non-surfers, for a general readership. I also began to worry about coming out of the closet as a surfer, I was writing a lot about politics and writing a lot of opinion columns, and I didn’t want people to say ‘Oh, what a dumb surfer, we don’t need to listen to you!’ Surfers have that image, but that didn’t happen, that was a non-issue. And I was also worried that Mark, the main character, wasn’t going to like the piece because it also profiled the little community we were in and very few people surfed Ocean Beach in those days, this is the mid-eighties, and once I started reporting it, I realized he was quite unpopular in some quarters in that community. Some people were aggressive about that. I felt like I needed to include that aspect however subtly and that he wasn’t going to like it, so it was another reason why I dithered and dithered. It finally ran in two parts in 1992, and indeed, Mark hated it. It was a long piece and it got a pretty good reaction and so it was proposed that I turn it into a book, which I didn’t want to do. But I found myself saying, if I were going to write a book about surfing, it wouldn’t be about San Francisco, it wouldn’t be about this guy; I’ve surfed more interesting places, I’ve surfed with a lot of other people I’d rather write about. To which my publisher replied, great, write that book!

So I sort of backed into it; this was back in the early nineties, and I didn’t get down to it for a long time, there were other things that always seemed more important. I mainly write about these hard-edged subjects: war, economics, race, organized crime, a lot of international stories. Those always seemed to take precedence; the urgent, humanitarian crises that there’s some great conflict, some great political story that seemed far more important than surfing. Even when I got down to it, it was hard to stick to, especially in the memoir form. If it had been a more journalistic like the piece about San Francisco it felt a little more like this is my work, but when it’s first person looking into oneself and into uncomfortable memories and subjects, it’s easy to find reasons to not do it and cover some breaking story.

CB: Had you written in a memoir style before?

WF: Nothing like this, I had to curb journalistic impulses all the way along. I wanted to start writing about somebody I knew in Indonesia and really go into detail about it because it was interesting, and then I’d realize this book’s not about every person I met, I need to stick closer to my story. The San Francisco chapter was actually the most difficult to write, although it was already written; I had to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until it was something that belonged in this book, something that wasn’t so journalistic. That took many, many drafts, it actually took years. And it’s still too magazine-y for my taste, but maybe it’s a nice break from me-me-me and suddenly we are really looking at these other guys having it out in the water in big waves in a dramatic, almost melodramatic, situation.

It’s also the story of my becoming a writer, or becoming the type of writer I am. I used to write fiction, I wrote three novels and that’s in there. Surfing is what I did but what I cared about much more about was my writing. I was traveling and chasing waves, but the journals are not full of waves, they’re full of agonizing about the novel I’m working on. Eventually I went through this experience in South Africa where I basically turned into a political journalist. That process is a bit dramatized I think, I’m trying to show when I became a sort of proto-journalist, and I started to interview people wherever I went for no particular reason.

[Courtesy of William Finnegan]

CB: Did you ever think you would write about surfing as a subject in your professional career? You mention writing for Tracks in the book.

WF: Not really. I did those little pieces for Tracks in Australia when I was young but it seemed sub-literary and not what I was planning to do seriously at all. There was a point of realization that after a very intense fifty year surfing life, full of really complicated people and places (which is to say waves), that it really did make a lens to look at my life and the life of a writer or a person trying to be a productive member of society and have a family and all that tension. At some point I realized this book is worth writing, not that I didn’t have to keep taking breaks to do magazine pieces to make a living, but I also had to move away from the feeling of embarrassment, the feeling of foolishness of all the self-absorption.

But it’s funny you asked whether I ever planned to write about surfing because there was a point in my life, and I mention this in the book, when I went through this road to Damascus experience in Capetown, South Africa, where I spent a year teaching in a black high school during the battle days of apartheid. That’s when I became only interested in politics and only interested in journalism. I wanted to do something more connected to what was happening in the world, in this case really grotesque oppression.

There was a young student activist I became friends with and I took around the country with her and I found myself asking her what I should do, or what I could do that would be helpful. We were hitchhiking and she was doing clandestine political work. They couldn’t use the phone because it was tapped and they couldn’t use the mail so she had to do face to face work around the country. I wasn’t allowed into the meetings she was having, but I was just happy to travel with her. We landed up on a beach in Transkei, it’s a section of coast on the east coast of South Africa. There was surf so we rented boards and I took her out and pushed her into waves. We were talking about what I could do to contribute to the anti-apartheid struggle and I was saying I don’t want to write for Americans about South Africa because there’s no point, they won’t do anything, it will just entertain them and I don’t want to entertain them with stories of other people’s suffering, it’s not useful. I said something like, ‘I feel like the only thing I can write about is surfing!’ and we laughed because surfing seemed like such a silly thing to write about. She said, ‘I think you should go back to the US and think about what you can do and do it, and I don’t know what that is but I don’t think it’s only surfing. And I say that as one surfer to another.’ She had only been surfing for maybe an hour, we had a good laugh.

CB: You’re slightly dismissive of the Tracks pieces but it must have been one of your first published pieces, if not first widely read pieces?

WF: Yes, maybe. You’re probably right. I was also doing some other travel writing along that trip. My savings ran out after six months so I was doing a lot of little jobs, including travel writing, and I wrote pieces for a magazine for the US military that to this day I’ve never seen, called Off Duty, it just had the address of an editor in Hong Kong and I got paid pretty well. A little money went a long way in southeast Asia in those days, at least the way I was living. I was told I had a huge audience, so I thought Off Duty was my big debut (to this day I still have never seen a copy of Off Duty).

The Tracks pieces were co-written with my friend Bryan DiSalvatore — although they weren’t. We couldn’t cooperate, it was shocking to both of us, certainly to me. We were both really good friends, and both writers, surfers, and he ended up as a staff writer at The New Yorker, but in those days we were just surf bums and we loved the same books and writers mostly and yet when would we sit down to write these pieces together for Tracks, we just fought like cats and dogs. He would accuse me to aspiring to mediocrity and I would say things like, ‘you’re being juvenile it’s all so over the top’ — so we ended up doing a series of pieces where some of them were his and they were just dialed down to the point where I could put my name on them, but they were really his, and some were mine, with a light edit from him. It was him trying to make it a little less boring and then putting his name on them. So we did four pieces and they are all co-signed.

[Path to the water, Kulamanu house, 1966 / Credit: Courtesy of William Finnegan]

CB: I was just thinking about The New Yorker versus Tracks, that timeline is interesting.

WF: Yeah, that’s a long walk. Well, Tracks in those days, I thought, was really good. No, it wasn’t The New Yorker but we were really pleasantly surprised. We’d never heard of it or seen it until we ended up in Australia, this is the late seventies and it was on newsprint, it was a tabloid. It wasn’t one of these glossy industry mouthpieces like US surf magazines, it actually had editorial independence, it was really rude and witty and very aggro. We loved that, we couldn’t believe it, you know? It was a surf magazine, but more like a newspaper that was really popular, it was like the main Aussie youth magazine. It was like Rolling Stone in its heyday in this country, huge stacks at the newsstands every two weeks. Non-surfers, everybody, it was a surf magazine but it had all the pop cultural listings and stuff and people ate it up. So we wrote rude articles, the first article we wrote under our real names, which was lucky because we were working under fake names because we didn’t have work visas, so when people got mad that we were making fun of Australian surfers in our first article — “These fuckin’ yanks, these septic tanks!” or seppos as they called them — they didn’t know it was us. Somebody had actually asked me if I had read it, it was a guy I worked with, a British surfer. We kept really quiet, we never told people that we wrote it. Then we got these outrageous letters to the editor. Tracks, the last time I saw it, is now a glossy industry mouthpiece that’s just mediocre. It was good at the time, I thought.

CB: Every time I started reading your description of another wave and whatever hairy incident you were in, my stomach still dropped because I could connect with personal experiences. But it felt totally different every time.

WF: I looked really hard at the descriptions of sessions or even individual rides just thinking, ok what can come out? This story, I know it will grab another surfer but really, especially in the Madeira section, there’s a lot of different scenes in the water, probably more so than any other area of the book.

I kind of got into bigger waves in middle age somehow. When I finally got a proper Brewer gun, I was probably 40. I tried to surf bigger waves on whatever board I had but in Madeira there were plenty of days when the 8’0 Brewer gun was absolutely inadequate, more like a 9’6 or 10’ type day — but I surfed that board a lot and took my equipment more seriously. The surf was so good and so serious that it was a kind of a bit of a rebirth for me, I felt after moving to New York in ‘86 that my surfing life was tailing off, it was just vacations and I wasn’t surfing much locally and I was out of shape and I thought, oh well, I’m busy with work. And then I started going to Madeira and it really got my attention. There marked a series a things including complete discouragement, sessions that were so intimidating or experiences that were so terrifying I really questioned whether I should keep surfing and what I was doing out there. So I felt like I had to keep each of those experiences in.

I’ve never had a two wave hold down, I live in fear of a two wave hold down. I was in Southern Baja and went for a surf and there was a very, very long period small swell, 16 seconds and that’s actually not that long there, they have 18 or 20. And a three foot point break at 16 seconds is just majestic, it’s incredible what the interval does. Besides just making the waves bigger it makes them so much cleaner and more stately. The two wave hold down in long interval surf is a whole different thing obviously. That good day last week at Long Beach the interval felt 3 or 4 seconds, it couldn’t have been that quick but the waves felt like they were right on top of each other. If you got caught inside on a set, you could duck dive the whole set, at least that’s what it felt like. It’s not true but that’s what it felt like.

I had a bad hold down in Jersey, not a two wave hold down, just a bad one. I didn’t get a good breath and then I couldn’t find the bottom to push off and it was very unpleasant. I was shaken up. But a full blown two wave hold down is, I think, my worst nightmare. The thought is always, am I going to make it to the surface before the next one comes? And in every case the answer has always been yes, but the thought is there that if I don’t, this is it. Again, I have to emphasize I am not a big wave surfer. I know a bunch of big wave surfers and they are a completely different breed. They just don’t seem to have that flight or fight instinct that the rest of us have, where the rest of us flee at a certain point. They paddle towards these things where everybody else is paddling away, including me.

CB: You talk about McTavish surfing at Rincon in 1968 in the book, that experience must have been mind-blowing.

WF: I was 15, there might have been some rumors out there about shortboards, but none of us had ever seen one. There were rumors about George Greenough but I had never heard about McTavish. Nat Young was surfing a kind of revolutionary board, but I think that board was 9’4, it’s not a shortboard but it was different, he was turning it differently, it wasn’t about noseriding. Change was in the air but nobody knew, certainly nobody I knew, had any idea what was coming. It was a big day at Rincon, it was late in the afternoon, it was really good, really crowded, probably 8ft plus, glassy. I was actually on the road in the cove just resting and some guy took off way up at Second Point, or we call it Indicator, on a giant wave. There was this myth that you could make it from Indicator to the cove, it was a half a mile or some outrageous distance, but I’d never seen anybody do it. But here was this guy really going for it, really trying. He was going so fast and even from long way away; something weird going on. Thinking about it later, it reminded me when Mark Twain or Jack London tried to describe surfing in the 19th century when they saw it in Hawaii and they couldn’t really do it, they didn’t have the language, they didn’t have the eye, they couldn’t understand what they were seeing and their descriptions are all wrong. Mark Twain says, “I fell off and my board struck the shore three quarters of a second later.” He’s exaggerating, but he’s way out in Waikiki, so that’s not how it happened. He doesn’t know what happened exactly. It was sort of like that watching McTavish on his board. It was a deep V-bottom, we’d never seen something like that before and we didn’t know what it was. All we knew was that he would lean into a turn and it was like the film skipped, he’d be ten yards ahead, you were still looking where he was and he has accelerated like you’ve never seen a board accelerate. Way beyond anything you’ve ever seen. He’s just flashing, top to bottom, top to bottom on this giant wall. And he makes it, all the way through it. and he gets to first point where the crowds are scrambling to get out of his way and he just flashes through it like it’s just another section and he rips his way all the way to the cove.

Surfing has very few moments like this, its not a spectator sport, it was kind of a colassium moment. He surfs all the way to the cove and straightens off to the beach. I was actually one the people who ran down the beach, thinking, “What did we just see!?” And he jumps out of the water and he’s this little stocky, muscly, short guy with his short thing, it didn’t even look like a surfboard — what is that!? With his giant V-bottom and he is trotting by, “G’day!” He trots back to Second Point and we had no idea what it meant, but within six months we were all on shortboards of primitive kinds. It was the early wave of shortboards. We didn’t know his name, I then saw it in the magazines — oh, that’s Bob McTavish!

Guys saved up for these beautiful new longboards and now they wouldn’t even go to the beach with it because it was embarrassing. It’s these 9’6 Steve Bigler models and so they’re throwing them off a cliff to try and say they were stolen and collect on their parents’ homeowners’ insurance enough to buy a shortboard.

[Author, Rincon, 1967 / Credit: Courtesy of William Finnegan]

CB: Are you still in touch with Doc?

WF: Yes, we’re still in touch. He’s still charging big waves, not so much Mavericks. After I left San Francisco, Mavericks burst on the scene. We never heard of it, we couldn’t believe what was there. I went to college in Santa Cruz so I thought I knew that coast, every inch. We thought it was impossible — you cannot hide a big wave on that coast. Well, there it was and he got into it. But he says he rarely surfs it now because of the crowds. He surfs up north more, and Ocean Beach of course. Still lives at Ocean Beach and seems to be going strong. I guess we’ve buried the hatchet.

CB: You talk about your relationships, your friendships specifically, and you start with the In Crowd and it develops and ends with Peter Spacek, why incorporate these characters into your story?

WF: Surfing is the source of these vivid friendships. They form around surfing to a large extent. So much of surfing is learning a spot, reading the wave, figuring out how that spot works, becoming a local, or however you want to put it. But it is lots and lots of work, including intellectual work, to understand a spot through all its many changes and different conditions. Most of those in my life, the process of getting to know a place and surfing a place, I’ve done with someone else, a significant other that you chase waves with. It can be quite complicated because they’ve all been male friendships in my case and I wanted to write about those as much as I did about surfing because they were inseparable.

CB: Do you see yourself writing about surfing after this book?

WF: No. I could be wrong. Just now with the book coming out I feel like Mr. Beach and Mr. Surf and I’m getting all these questions about surfing and things like, “Give us your top ten surf spots!” No. That kind of stuff, but I think I’ll probably go back to politics.

[Author, Cloudbreak, Fiji, 2005 / Credit: Scott Winer]

CB: What would be different if a young person took the type of wave searching trip you described in the book today?

WF: I got my letters back from Bryan from when I was in Jeffreys Bay in 1980 and 1981 and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I would write things like, “It was 8ft today and hard off shore and there were only four of us out. Surfed for six hours and my legs were shaking after every ride.” And on and on and on. I remember that I love Jeffreys but to read only four guys — I wrote something like that there will be more guys on the weekend, like 15. And there was nothing there, there wasn’t a single house on the point, there was barely a grocery store. It was just a little fishing village, nobody lived there. I had no notion that it would be a bustling beach town. I just took it for granted, I’m very grateful now.

There are so many islands in the Pacific and so many reefs without islands. Cloudbreak doesn’t have an island. You just need a reef that’s angled the right way and all you need is a boat. We camped on Tavarua and surfed it for weeks and weeks and we didn’t know about Cloudbreak, which was only a mile or so away. You couldn’t tell from where we were that it was out there, and maybe we weren’t very observant. What would be different now would be that you couldn’t get so lost or out of touch now as we were in the pre-email, pre-cell phone era, where you would go months at a time from any word from home. I could’ve telephoned but that cost money and I didn’t have any money and so I very rarely used the phone, a couple times a year maybe. But I wrote a lot of letters and we would get letters. Every town, even a smallish town, would have General Delivery. It would be your name and care of but there were long patches of no contact. I mean I learned that my grandmother died two months after she died. I was just out of contact in southeast Asia. That would be different.

People now are blogging and taking pictures, we took very few photos. We were just in the places and felt lost to the world which was not always a good feeling, it sounds kind of romantic but it’s often fighting off despair, what am I doing? It’s never when you’re getting good waves, it’s all the other times when you aren’t getting good waves. You just wonder what you’re doing with your life, people back in the US, they’re getting along with careers and families, and here I am expiring of malaria in Sumatra, where did I go wrong? There was a lot of that. There might a little less of that if you could email your friends and they were interested in what you were doing or you at least knew what they were doing. But it’s certainly there to be done, and there’s those odd jobs to support yourself if you don’t have money, which I didn’t, they will still be there, they still need bartenders and school teachers.


[Grajagan, Java, 1979 / Credit: Mark Cordesius]

CB: You mention letters, is that how you got a lot of the material for the earlier sections of the book? You have so many distinct descriptions of waves and places and things you were doing, did you keep some kind of a journal?

WF: I kept voluminous journals, but not that much about surfing because I never planned on writing about surfing. I might just mention it’s double over head today but with no detail. In letters to friends or family I would go into detail. I got the most incredible wave today and I would tell them all about it, but not in my journals. A lot of the letters I couldn’t get back and my letters were better than my journals, so it was kind of devastating, but I was really lucky in other cases. Bryan kept my letters from a lot of places. My best friend from childhood and high school handed me this big stack of letters, I had not expected him to keep them. In 1966-67 I wrote to him at least once a week, religiously, and lots of surf stories. I was having all these adventures in Hawaii and there they were, and that was the raw material research for that first chapter. I quote from them, it’s quite embarrassing some of them but this was how I talked at the time or this is how I felt at the time. I also look at descriptions of rides and think, was that exaggerated? Was this bullshit? Did I really get tubed that good? I kind of half remember it but am I remembering my fantasy or did it actually happen? I know this part about a rip dragging me out for a half mile to sea is all exaggeration and bullshit. But what about the barrel? Was it the best barrel I ever had at that time? Probably.

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