William Finnegan (New York, 1952) discovered surfing in the heyday of the 60’s counterculture and travelled all over the world in search of an endless summer. Over the years, he became one of the most acclaimed journalists in the United States, writing mind-blowing features on wars, drug trafficking and racial conflicts on both sides of the American border.
He has recently won the Pulitzer Prize with “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” an autobiography rooted in youthful rebellion, exotic waves and the never-ending trips he did before finding a job as staff writer at The New Yorker.
We had the chance to talk to the famous author after the presentation of his book in Barcelona to discover how surfing has shaped his vision of the society and why this sport has become the best escape from the work routine every time there is a good swell (somewhere).
You are a well-known political journalist who has travelled all over the world covering international conflicts. When did you decide to change the scope and write your own biography?
It was a decision I made a long time ago, but took me twenty years to accomplish. So, I was working on the book on and off between journalistic projects. I would take a break, try to work on the book, get really sick of myself and also feel there were more important stories out there, like humanitarian crisis, the kind of things I normally write about, which demand to be written. And the feeling I was neglecting serious work to do this self-indulgent story about my hobby, that would overcome me and then I’d go back up to work and work and work. And then I’d take a break and focus on the book.
At first you were reluctant to admit “your secret life as a surfer”…
I had an assignment for The Yew Yorker in 1985 to write a profile of a surfer (“Playing Doc’s Games”) and I took seven years to write that article because… well, for many reasons, but a big one was because I was establishing myself as a political journalist.
I had moved to New York and I was writing a lot of political columns, so I was engaged in policy debates and I began to think: “Do I really want to come out of the closet and let people know that I am a surfer?” Because surfers have a terrible image problem and they are seen as anti-intellectual and uninformed. That is why I was very reluctant. But then that piece was finally published and nobody said anything. It wasn’t a problem. So, I didn’t really worry about it in connection with the book, but in connection with that big article.
What was the real challenge with this personal book? Sometimes the memories we have are not as accurate as we thought…
Memories are famously unreliable. They’d put people in a room, show them something and twenty minutes later all of them would remember something different. This is well known, but still a big shock when it is your favorite memories. The stories you told over and over are polished and always change, so when you go back to check them as a reporter, there are no facts.
That is the weirdness of a memoir for a reporter and also the delicacy of taking your private life and putting it in a book. I asked permission for many things that I thought would be problematical and sometimes people would surprise me saying: “Fine! Go ahead.” Other things I thought were perfectly reputable episodes, but they would say no. Maybe they told their kids a different story, who knows.
“Barbarian Days” is a personal and geographical journey based on your passion for surfing. Let’s start in California in the late 60’s. What do you think surfing brought to the counterculture?
Surfing was always a little bit countercultural. Just by its nature, it’s so kind of anti-productive. It’s like a protest against work. And that was always there, even in ancient Hawaii where it started. When the missionaries came to Hawaii, the first thing they said was: “Oh, how terrible, there is surfing. These are savages. We must stamp out surfing.” That has always been there and was true when I was little, but my parents didn’t oppose me surfing. I started catching waves in the mid 60’s, ready before the counterculture became very popular.
And when it came, in the late 60’s, it intersected powerfully with surfing. There was a design change in surfboards from what are now called longboards. Also surfers, in a very large measure, tried to avoid the draft to not go to Vietnam. In Hawaii, California and Australia there was this kind of revolution, including how you surfed. Shortboard was a whole different thing, a different objective.
Did you feel close to that movement when the so-called shortboard revolution was happening?
I was in the student anti-war movement and also an eager shortboarder. I was at a good age to change because I was about 14 or 15, I was a pretty good longboarder and noserider, everything. I had all the basic skills, but I was young enough to just make the change. You know, in a few days, suddenly a shortboard felt completely natural to me. So, I was lucky.
Then you moved to Hawaii and experienced another side of America, mainly in high school. What did you learn in those days living in Honolulu?
I went to a very tough school. You had a lot of gangs, all composed along ethnic lines and very few white kids. I mean, there was a white kid gang, but I didn’t know about them. I was just getting in fights constantly with everybody and I didn’t know what was going on. So, it was my first experience of real racial tension in America.
I grew up in a very white suburb of Los Angeles and Honolulu was life as it was lived outside the bubble. Hawaii had social problems and economic problems, and I was right in the middle of that world. But the main thing for me was the surf. We lived near a spot called Cliffs; I surfed everyday in the morning and in the afternoon. I became friends with some surfers out there, especially these brothers, the Kaulukukuis. They kept their boards in my house and had a big influence on me.
In the mid 70’s you went on a long trip through Asia and Australia. Do you think you were running away from the usual social responsibilities of adulthood?
Definitely. However, I wouldn’t even have conceived it that way exactly and I would not have agreed at all. What I was really running from was having to decide what next, after I’d finished college and graduate school. And now it was time to become a professional writer, but I was terrified of rejection. I didn’t want to do that. Maybe become a professor or an academic. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to do it. So, you are quite right, adulthood I was running from. And I managed to avoid it for many years.
From your point of view, what were the main differences between the 60’s and the 70’s? Some people say the “dream” was over and everyone came down to earth again after Altamont…
There was this period and it hit different people at different times. I was still very much under the spell of the counterculture and hallucinogens in the early 70’s. That is after Altamont. I was living on Maui in 1971, working on a bookstore and I started to really hate hippies because they were such bad bookstore customers. They were uninterested in literature, history, science, philosophy, anything. They just wanted to know how to grow some dope.
I was already turning anti-hippie then, but at the same time I looked like a hippie to anybody else. And the 70’s became a completely different thing: The war ended, Nixon was driven from office, the civil rights movement curdled and sort of went bad with the Black Panthers, there was the oil embargo and long lines at gas stations. America just didn’t look like a place I wanted to be and that is when I left on that big, big trip.
Then you arrived to Cape Town (South Africa) and worked as an English teacher in a segregated school. What do you remember about that profound experience?
On a surf trip around the world you have to go to South Africa like in “The Endless Summer”. But that job really changed my life because I admired some of my colleagues and some students who were activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. They were so impressive, so serious, so smart, so committed and the pressure was very intense. There were a lot of people hurt and killed in the community where I worked and a lot of my colleagues were arrested.
That made a huge impression on me. I just thought: “This is what’s important.” You know, power, politics, issues of justice. Then I lost interest in the kind of literary fiction I had been writing. But I didn’t write about South Africa right away. I wrote about other things because I was too close to it. Eventually, I came back to the US, then I got some distance and thought: “South Africa is what I really care about, it is what I know.” And so I started writing about that thing.
In the 80’s you came back to New York and started writing about “serious subjects” for The New Yorker. Did you find the balance between your desire for surfing and the working routine?
Right now I would say no because I just missed three hurricane swells back to back in New York while I was working in Venezuela. Since this book came out, I have been very out of balance. I have a couple of times been lucky, like when I went to Bali for a book festival and locked into this incredible swell, double overhead, triple overhead. Just three of us taking off on the sets. It was insane and I would borrow a board, just like some guy’s board.
But there have been periods when things were in balance. In the 90’s I started going to Madeira and I had a sort of system. My wife would come for a week and when there were no waves, I would do my work. When there were waves, I would surf. But that was before my daughter was born. Once you have a kid it is more difficult because you can’t go away for the whole winter. Even though, I usually just drop the work, surf around New York and work at night.
Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and you have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Do you think pop culture; rock n’ roll and surfing are finally getting the recognition they deserve?
I am not sure that my prize is connected to his prize. They had the ceremony six months after the announcement and I didn’t know who was on the committee. I just was happy to get the prize. But at this dinner, a number of people came up to me and said: “I was on the board that chose your book.” Some of them were famous writers, journalists and academics, but nobody had anything to do with surfing. They all just said: “I got really into your book. I really loved it.” We didn’t discuss surfing at all.
My wife said: “They are giving you this award for a body of work.” They were really enthusiastic about the book, like a reading experience. So, that made me feel great and I didn’t feel like surfing was controversial at all.
Words by David Moreu
Photos courtesy of Libros del Asteroide (www.librosdelasteroide.com)