Everything’s Fine Until It’s Not

William Finnegan reflects on his Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir, Barbarian Days.

william finnegan
Idris Solomon

William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is not your typical surfing book. Sure, there are iconic locations in Hawaii and California and the South Pacific. Sure, there is the quest for the perfect wave. But Finnegan’s concerns are less elegiac than existential, which leads him to consider surfing through a complex and nuanced lens. What he knows is that the ocean is capricious. It can yield or it can take away. In that, it is not unlike the terrain he explores in his journalism—Finnegan is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the spectacular Cold New World, among other books—which balances reportage and observation with a tensile grace.

Early in Barbarian Days, you write, “The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world.” That sense of suspension reverberates throughout the book.
I was trying to nail the specific duality of being in the ocean as a kid—the comfort, the fear. But it’s true: big parts of my life have oscillated between blithe engagement and brief patches of intense vulnerability. That goes for my work as a reporter and my life in the water. Everything’s fine until it’s not. I feel less ambient dread as an adult, though. You learn to recognize situations that might go south, and you know for a fact that the natural world doesn’t care what happens to you.

At one point, you acknowledge, “Recalling all this, I’m struck by how much violence defined my childhood.” You’re describing the ocean but also schoolyard fights. How much did you know when you started? How much did you come to recognize through the act of writing?
What you knew when is often, at least for me, impossible to tease out. I plan to write about something, then I research as I write, and maybe I remember something new, or my memories or ideas turn out to be wrong. So you’re formulating as you go, seeing new things, hoping to get stuff right. The process is dense, and the parts aren’t color coded. But the break in tone you note—“Recalling all this”—was unusual. I wanted the narrative tight and tactile, the recollection-in-tranquility aspect understood but not emphasized. That line came near the end of a chapter, when a reflection on different kinds of violence felt like a throughline ready to be brought out. It wasn’t as spontaneous as it sounds, of course. That phrasing is a rhetorical device. But it did reflect how this theme, this vein of connection, had emerged unexpectedly, through the writing.

Barbarian Days isn’t your only work of autobiographical nonfiction; your first book, Crossing the Line, addresses apartheid through your experience teaching in South Africa. Is there a link between these books?
They’re very different. Crossing the Line had a didactic purpose. I wanted to introduce American readers to the complexity of the South African struggle at that moment. At the beginning, I know nothing. Then I get a crash course, and the reader is learning with me throughout. Ultimately, the South Africans carry the story, I hope. Barbarian Days is straight memoir, with no agenda except to recall what I did and why, and who I did it with.

What’s the relationship between journalism and memoir? Both are narratively driven, but in memoir you turn the reportorial eye on yourself.
Memoir is a weird genre for a journalist. This is private life. Nothing was on the record. And yet you arrogate to yourself the right to reveal publicly all these private moments with friends and loved ones? It’s an ethical minefield. Then there’s the folly of trying to report out your own past, in which nothing happened as you remember it. And the self-absorption, the self-importance. It took me decades to finish Barbarian Days partly because I was ashamed to keep returning the spotlight to myself. So I would put it away for a year or two, get back to some real work.

Let’s close with more from the book: “Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.” That’s an existential state.
I was trying to put my finger on the perilous truth of the matter. It’s a total cliché to say surfing is addictive, but even on good days, you’re jonesing. It kills some people and stunts or harms the lives and families of many others. I think I’ve managed it, more or less, although I’m sure some old girlfriends would disagree. But you’re right, it’s an existential state, living on the ocean’s schedule, and a lot of young people enter it without understanding the trade-offs.•

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