‘Barbarian Days’ author and New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan coming to Winter Words in Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: William Finnegan at Winter Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, March 20, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
Early in his surfing memoir “Barbarian Days,” William Finnegan refers to the surf bum as a “brother of the ski bum.”
The New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner is in Aspen this week for something of a bum-hood summit, taking the Paepcke Auditorium stage Tuesday to discuss his work with longtime local ski instructor and stand-up paddleboarding pioneer Charlie MacArthur at the Winter Words author series.
“My book is about the tension between this obsessive pastime that can swallow your life and is completely socially useless and unjustifiable, and this other impulse to make a living and to be a useful part of society,” Finnegan said last week in a phone interview from New York.
Finnegan’s long-form stories for the magazine, where he has been a staff writer since 1987, send him around the U.S. and abroad. Though lately he’s mostly stayed away from war zones, his work looks broadly at power, conflict and questions of justice.
His recent stories in the New Yorker include a profile of federal terrorism prosecutor Zainab Ahmad last year and a searing portrait of the national crisis in Venezuela in 2016, along with shorter pieces for the New Yorker website on immigration, gun control and politics (and, of course, President Donald Trump). In recent months, he’s been at work on a New York-based story that has kept him close to home.
To put it bluntly, Finnegan writes about serious stuff. So it was something of a surprise to readers when, in 1992, he published the instant classic two-part story “Playing Doc’s Games” about surfing with Doc Renneker in San Francisco and, in part, about his lifelong obsession with the sport. Which has never been considered serious stuff, of course, except by serious surfers.
Finnegan refers to writing that story as “coming out of the closet as a surfer.”
“I was involved in policy debates and criminal justice and I was editorializing about it,” he said. “So I thought, since the stereotype of surfers is not necessarily the best-informed people around, I could see other policy wonks saying, ‘Oh, wait. You’re just a dumb surfer. We don’t have to listen to you.’”
That didn’t happen.
He chipped away at his surfing memoir for more than two decades, in between reports on humanitarian crises and geopolitics, and books about South African apartheid and American poverty.
“These subjects were important with a capital ‘I,’ where the urgency of the topic made you want to get the word out quickly,” Finnegan said. “Surfing is the opposite. It was like, ‘Really, can I justify spending months and years on a book about my hobby?’ It seemed so lightweight and lame. I’d get embarrassed about doing it.”
Ironically, when it was published in 2015, “Barbarian Days” became Finnegan’s best-selling and most-acclaimed book. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for biography and to find a general readership far beyond the niche of hardcore surfers. That’s largely because it’s not a chest-thumping memoir of rad surf days — though the books is filled with mouthwatering descriptions of waves and rides in a multitude of paradises — but instead a clear-eyed portrait of the interior life of someone following a passion, a portrait of friendships, a coming-of-age story and a work of history.
“Barbarian Days” earnestly delves deeply into the psychological and spiritual complexities of the surfer’s life, along with the struggle — familiar to any ski bum with off-mountain personal and professional ambitions — between this outdoor passion and his hopes for a life as a writer. Finnegan grew up in southern California in the 1950s and ’60s, before his father — a television director — moved the family to Hawaii, where the author’s surfing obsession truly took hold and where the narrative begins. The book follows Finnegan as he chases waves to far-flung corners of the world, through his days as an ascetic surf bum and a freelance writer, up to through his current life in New York.
As he was writing “Barbarian Days,” Finnegan recalled, he often went on tangents writing detailed portraits of surfers he met along the way. His editor, Finnegan said, had to rein him in and remind him to keep it focused on himself as the main character.
“In journalism, for the most part, you’re writing about other people’s problem,” he said. “I had to consciously allow myself to put myself front-and-center in a story.”
But his years of deep reporting — routinely spending months or years perfecting a single story —prepared Finnegan to interrogate his own life in “Barbarian Days.” He can be unsparing of himself, for example, writing honestly about the selfish pursuits of the surfing life, racial tension on the water and white privilege in Third World surf sport. And the narrative benefits from the journalistic rigor Finnegan brings to the memoir form — he dug up letters he sent as a kid in Hawaii to paint a truthful portrait of himself at the time, along with journals from his older years, and he interviewed what he calls “friends and frenemies” from surf spots around the world to corroborate or correct his memories.
“Memoir is a really weird genre, because you’re reporting on your own past,” he said. “There’s what you remember and then there’s what happened and there’s often a gap between the two.”
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