Pulitzer winner William Finnegan ‘didn’t want to be stereotyped as a dumb surfer’

Speaking at the New York public library, the prize-winning writer of Barbarian Days talked about surfing, memory and memoir

William Finnegan had the story idea that would become his Pulitzer-winning memoir when he was forced to come up with suggestions on the spot to impress an editor. Though this inspiration came immediately, it then took him 20 years to finish that project, a book called Barbarian Days: A Surfing Memoir that won this years Pulitzer prize for biography or autobiography. Finnegan, a New Yorker staff writer since 1987, calls the book his coming out as a surfer, someone who found himself returning to the waves every time he wanted to turn away.

Speaking on Wednesday afternoon at the New York public librarys Books at Noon program, Finnegan discussed the challenge of memoir, the technical challenge of describing waves, and Barbarian Days as an attempt to make meaning out of a hobby he has long been reluctant to divulge. In a way, writing about it was trying to justify all this time spent doing it, he said. You write about a period where you felt useless and if you feel like you got it right, it doesnt feel like it was so useless.

Finnegan sold his first article to the New Yorker in the 1980s. It was a short piece on Nicaragua, but it put his foot in the door and someone told him that if he wanted to write longer pieces, he needed to propose them now. I came up with something in one minute, a profile of this guy I was surfing with, Finnegan said. He got the assignment, which took seven years (and many missed deadlines) to write before being published in 1992. That profile grew into Barbarian Days, a project that like the hobby itself he abandoned and returned to again and again.

The author grew up in Los Angeles and Hawaii and started surfing around age 10. Yet as a writer he was covering policy debates, international news, and stories about apartheid and didnt want to suddenly find my credibility undermined, stereotyped as a dumb surfer, he said. There was also this lack of urgency. I was writing about wars and big humanitarian causes, and then there was this hobby, and who cares? It was so easy to put it down.

William Finnegan described the life of an acquaintance as a middle-aged orgy. Photograph: Pulitzer Board/EPA

Even once committed to the project, the process of writing a memoir was very different from the political journalism he knew so well. Memoir is a very weird genre for a reporter because youre basically investigating your own memories, he said. Youre reporting out your past and then of course youre not the only interested party. This is private life that were talking about, and almost nothing was on the record.

So, interviewing old friends and frenemies became an exercise in what he calls the unreliability of memory and a constant discussion of whose memories should take precedence and what had really happened. Peoples reactions to being in the book were a constant surprise. Forced by his lawyer to fact-check, Finnegan very reluctantly told a woman that he had described her life as one long middle-aged orgy. The woman, now nearly in her 90s, was shocked that he would write that. She also thought it was great.

Some of the little that was on the record ended up framing the memoir. About a decade ago, Finnegan received a package of old letters from his best friend from middle and high school. It comprised hundreds of pages and dozens of letters from when he was 13 and 14, had just moved to Hawaii and was struggling with a new school, girls and general adventures in Honolulu. The letters were embarrassing because the writing was bad, according to Finnegan, but they had a vividness that brought him right back. It was this Proustian madeleine moment, he said. I bit into this and I could see the world and I knew that this was the beginning of the book, right here. Those letters form the backbone of the first chapter.

Barbarian Days is one of the few surfing books for a wider audience. His descriptions for the waves meaty, buttery, crumbly dont spring from his imagination, but are part of the surfers lexicon, where a sloppy wave is very different from a solid wave and very different from a crumbly one. Much of the writing in general-interest writing in surf magazines is filled with terrible cliches and terms that dont translate, according to Finnegan, and so he tried hard to explain the experience of reading the waves: Its pretentious, perhaps, to talk about the intellectual work of surfing, but thats what people are doing in the water, this very close study of all the variables of wind and tide and turns, the size of the swell and the type and all these inexpressible variables that go into predicting what the oceans going to do.

People have come to Finnegan to say that, really, Barbarian Days is not about surfing but about love or obsession or how to live. I love that but, actually, this is a book about surfing, he said. Its taken great pains to try to make it interesting for all the people who are not really interested in surfing. Its an attempt to account for this crazy thing sort of near the center of my life.

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