The Dazzling Blue #16: Barbarian Days with William Finnegan


William Finnegan portrait

 I’ve been a giant fan of William Finnegan’s work since I first encountered “Playing Doc’s Games,” his two-part epic surf feature in The New Yorker in 1992. In fact I regarded it as The World’s Finest Piece of Surf Writing for over 20 years. That title now goes to Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, Finnegan’s memoir, published in July 2015 by Penguin. It’s a fantastic book, awash in surf scenes so vivid you almost need a towel to dry off. Bill, as his friends call him, is a regular foot. He likes big, meaty waves. He’s been a New Yorker staff writer since 1987. The following interview took place over email, though if we had it our way it would have involved a surf, a meal, and a couple of Maker’s Marks.

In Barbarian Days you call surfing a “disabling enchantment.” I think I know what you mean here, but I'd love for you to elaborate on this.

There may be a way to surf that’s not obsessive. I’ve been doing it for 50 years, though, and I’ve never met a serious surfer who wasn’t obsessive. Some people get over it, obviously, and quit surfing, or just stop caring that much. And the definition of “serious” is certainly up for grabs. Still, I’m pretty sure I know it when I see it. It’s when somebody has put in the years and years of doing virtually nothing else that it takes to get even reasonably good—usually tender, formative years. And once you’ve put in that time, really joined the tribe—however skeptical you may be of the tribe—it means you’ve come to know a form of enchantment that’s really not available in many other walks of life, other sports, other pastimes. So it’s hard to leave behind. But it’s also, often, hard to live with. It’s tremendously limiting. You don’t, for a start, want to live anywhere far from good waves, which rules out about 95% of the planet. You continue to take exorbitant amounts of time away from work, family, and other grown-up commitments. I think it’s actually quite difficult to make a success of many parts of one’s life if you keep surfing. Not impossible, clearly—all kinds of people manage it. But many others don’t. And no matter how disciplined you are, you’ll always struggle with the siren call of a good swell. Tie me to the mast! I gotta work!

We've known each other for several years. I remember talking to you as you were writing the book and you saying how challenging it was. What specifically was most challenging about getting the story down?

I make my living writing about politics, very broadly defined. So most of my stories and books have a built-in topicality—even, in some cases, urgency. I’m interested in conflict and injustice, and I think stories about poverty, war, apartheid, corruption, and suffering pretty much justify their own existence; they make the work of reporting and writing feel eminently worth doing. With surfing as a subject, not so much. I love it, obviously, and even love writing about it, but I found it a challenge to justify to myself spending a great deal of time describing something so fundamentally socially useless. For that reason I had to take a lot of breaks, alternating work on the book with my work at The New Yorker. It helped that the book is actually about many things besides surfing—my family, friends, some of the odd corners of the world where surfing has taken me, my slow (very slow) development as a writer and citizen. Memoir is inherently an enormous self-indulgence, but reporting out my own past, trying to understand what happened and why, trying to get things right, totally engaged me, ultimately, and helped me overcome the journalistic embarrassment of focusing so much on myself.

What was the most fun part to write?

Remembering great waves, great sessions, great rides, certain moments with friends. Eulogizing Australia, and the Honolulu of my youth. Writing about my daughter.

 William Finnegan surfing

Reflecting back on your surf travels, is there a period that stands out as being the apex?

Probably Tavarua, Fiji, 1978. My friend Bryan and I camped on an island that was then uninhabited, and we surfed a long, fast, shallow left that was the best wave either of us had ever seen. A few other guys joined us, paddling in off yachts, but on most days it was just the two of us. I was on my backhand, but the wave taught me how to stay with a rifling barrel going left, and I got some of the most memorable rides of my life. There was no fresh water on the island, so local fishermen came back, by arrangement, each week with supplies. Today the island has a resort on it, and the wave, known as Restaurants, is world-famous.

You've spent a lot of years chasing waves. Any regrets?

We apparently sailed right past the Mentawais in 1979. That’s an island group west of Sumatra that has probably the highest concentration of great waves in one small area anywhere. I don’t think anybody had surfed the Mentawais at that stage. I wish we had figured it out. Instead, we steamed on to Nias, which turned out to have a magnificent wave itself. No complaints, then, but some slight twinges of regret when I see the crowded lineups in the Mentawais today. It’s apparently chock-a-block with charter boats and surf resorts now. If you’re referring to larger, less parochial regrets about my years spent chasing waves—not really. I could certainly have been better to girlfriends, less selfish, but for that I would need to have been a different person—less surf-obsessed, less self-obsessed—and so my guilt about that probably doesn’t qualify as regret. Maybe I could write more books if I didn’t spend so much time chasing waves, but that’s a tradeoff I’ll take.

William Finnegan surfing 

Does your love of surfing fuel or distract you from your writing?

It distracts. When I abandon my desk to go surfing, I tell myself (and my editors) that I’ll be sorting out creative problems in the water. That’s almost always wishful thinking. Even worse is when I fail to write because I’ve fallen into the bottomless pit of watching surf videos on my computer.

It's heartening to see how well Barbarian Days is doing. Are you surprised?

Yes! Astonished. 

What are you working on now?

A profile of Jorge Ramos, the Univision news anchor. Univision is the largest Spanish-language TV network in the U.S. and Ramos has been the news anchor there since 1986. He’s widely admired, even loved, among Latinos. He recently got a lot of attention when Donald Trump threw him out of a press conference in Iowa (I was sitting next to him when that happened), but most of The New Yorker’s readers, I think it’s fair to say, still don’t know who he is. The conventional wisdom these days is that you can’t win the White House without a healthy percentage of Latino votes, and Ramos is rightly regarded as a crucial conduit to millions of Latino voters. So he would be a person of interest even if he wasn’t a particularly interesting person. I find him fascinating, though. He’s much more than a news reader. He’s a hard-charging reporter, a prolific author, a Mexican immigrant, and a passionate defender of the undocumented—always wrestling with the ethics of combining advocacy and journalism.


Barbarian Days book cover

Buy Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life here