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.
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